Prisoner’s Journey

Prisoner\'s Journey chapter 3

1.

The path had turned to mud. The smaller roads were not much maintained after their initial creation outside the most traveled areas and just a few days of bad weather made traveling an exhausting and soggy affair. This time at least Estan had studied the maps when they had been available, and they mostly knew where they were going. Jacobin was drudging steadily on: he had gotten much more used to physical hardship during the war and in his earlier life working in the farms. Estan not so much, but at this point he should have already had accepted the conditions of outdoor life, but it was not so. Filling his lungs with fresh air made his chest touch the cold and wet front of his long tunic and that always sent a message of utter discomfort all over his body. People might have asked him why he chose to travel if he really hated it that much. Then, however, the people asking would have failed to realize that staying in any one place wasn much better either.

The village they were going to was close. Estan didn remember its name but then again he really wasn sure if the place had been big enough to warrant one. It had been marked on the maps so there should have been something written there – how can you even put something on a map if a place doesn have a name? – but Estans tired and confused thoughts were going in circles as he occupied his mind with meaningless details to make the journey go along a bit faster. After a while they started to see lights. They had arrived.

Walking to the inn and ordering food was the first thing to do. The seats close to the hearth were empty. Estan and Jacobin took the opportunity to dry their clothes and shoes. They ate in silence.

After a while one of the customers from a table across the room started to approach them. His movements were slow and timid, his manner polite. The man turned out to be a local farmer. His age was hard to determine, as the demands of peasant life turned most people old in body and spirit rather quickly. He started to tell what was on his mind.

Something had been destroying his crops. It could have been an animal, could have been something else. He was leaning heavily on the latter, morphing his fears into a beast deserving all his anxieties and worries about his livelihood. The matter had to be investigated and stopped. He had money and could pay.

Apparently, the farmer had caught a sense of who Estan was. He didn purposely try to look like a mage and he didn carry the markings of his church or temple, but you didn have to scrutinize for too long to figure his inclination out. Jacobin didn necessarily look like a soldier either, but it wasn hard to imagine him in a uniform and that image held. Traveling together made them noticeable to people who knew where to look.

Not much negotiation was needed. They were hurting for money and even though neither of them liked to take unnecessary risks, they often had to take whatever kind of work was available and suitable for their talents. Being smart and cautious usually carries a long way. The farmer was very likely blowing his expectations of the problem out of proportions and nothing strong and sinister was antagonizing him. It was true that all manner of creatures could live and lived in the woods and uncharted areas, but they were so close to human settlement that Estan wasn taking that possibility seriously. The farmer told them that he believed the lair for the would-be beast to be a nearby abandoned settlement. The meal had strengthened Estan and Jacobin and it wasn that late yet, despite the darkness. They decided to see the place once their clothes were dry. Estan didn believe the settlement to have anything to do with the matter but going there would please their employer. Jacobin agreed.

It wasn raining so hard anymore. The pathways on the forest floor were in much better shape, the terrain was harder, and the striking rain could not hit the ground with such force when there were trees in the way. The air was clear, and it felt good to breathe it in. They could have traveled faster but it was better to be careful where you stepped.

The former settlement was in a sad state. A few crooked and rickety houses, probably not much better looking when they were new, stood in a small open area cleared from the trees. There was a well with a rotten rope and broken lid next to it. Estan and Jacobin stood in the open area between a house and a barn. It was unclear why this place was abandoned while still being so close to the village. Jacobin and Estan started to look around.

There suddenly was fast movement on the right side of Estan. He instinctively lifted his hands up and tried to step away from whatever was coming towards him. Something hit his arm.

Jacobin had been more aware of his surroundings, and he had reacted better. He saw two men coming from the barn, one preparing to strike him with a spear, another coming right behind him, holding some other weapon. Jacobin sidestepped the thrust of the spear, simultaneously pulling his dagger from his belt, stepped in and stabbed his assailant while holding him with his other hand. Estan realized that he was under an attack too: he had been cut in his arm and another man was trying to stab him again with a long knife. Panicking, Estan reached in and without any incantation, ritual or attempt at a spell he thrust as much power as he could towards his opponent. There was a loud cracking sound and the man fell.

The third man was discouraged, and he hesitated. Jacobin stepped towards him and kicked the man into his chest. The man dropped his weapon as all the air left his lungs. Jacobin kicked him in the ground once more, twice, three times. Who were they and why were they here?

Coughing and spitting, the man talked. They were from the village and were with the man who had hired them. They were after the spellbook and other valuables that the mage could have. There was nothing harming the crops. Jacobin looked at the man silently and before the man could plead any more, he stabbed him in his chest. A muffled cry came out and the man struggled, but there was nothing he could do. Soon he was still, and the blood pooled on the muddy ground.

It turned out that Estan wasn hurt badly. The spear had mostly hit the cloth and only nicked Estans upper arm. The man he had fought against was dead. They didn check to see what exactly had killed him.

”What do you want to do now? ” Estan asked. Sudden and uncontrolled use of the power had made him nauseous, and his head was spinning. He sat on the stairs leading to the front door of a dilapidated house.

”Going back is a bad idea. These men were husbands, sons and brothers: the villagers will turn against us once they realize what we have done. ”, said Jacobin. He looked at the body of the man who he had stabbed. ”Peasants play meek but if they see a chance, they take it. A lot of them fought in the war, this is nothing new to them ” Jacobin continued while spreading his arms, indicating the situation they had been in. He sighed. ”We have to continue and sleep outdoors tonight. This is not the ideal situation, but we got lucky, and we have to be grateful for that. Its possible the villagers will try to have their revenge. We have to get some distance between them and us. Lets look at that wound of yours. ”, Jacobin said. They cleaned it and applied salve, Estan took some medicine, realizing how little there was left. They drank water, got up and started walking.

As they went Jacobin thought about what had happened. On one hand they had been stupid and gullible, but they had done jobs like this – what this incident was supposed to be – before without a problem. Being constantly vigilant was hard: they hadn thought about how over here even they could be seen as decent prey despite their worn clothes and dirty hands. Jacobin himself knew how poor mages could be too and how cheap of a price their magical items could actually fetch. He realized that this wasn necessarily common information and that had been their predicament today.

After walking for longer into the evening than they normally would, Estan and Jacobin settled for the night. They would have wanted to have a fire but decided against it. Being hidden was now a bigger worry for them than anything else. Exhausted, they fell asleep.

It was light when they woke up. Jacobin rose to sit, hearing some noise left of him, as he turned to look, he saw a group of men in armor walking towards them. One of them was wearing the insignia of the Church of the Sun. Arrogance and confidence shone from this mans face. Jacobin woke up Estan, who looked at him, then looked at the way Jacobin was pointing and realized what had happened, despite being groggy from just waking up. There was nowhere to go. They stood up.

Estan and Jacobin had been walking in shackles for at least a week. They could not believe how small the possibility for the chain of events unfolding unto them now had been. Apparently, the tax collectors for the Church of the Sun had arrived at the village just as they had left and once hearing of the farmers version of what had happened to their fellow village members, the envoy had sent a few soldiers and a church paladin after them. The kings taxmen would have very likely just executed them right there and then, but the church jumped on any and every situation to further its standing and image in the eyes of the common people. Carrying a couple of murderers in chains wherever they went was more than perfect to show how much the church cared and did for its frightened flock. Estan pondered how he still ended up serving the Church even though he had left the convent a long time ago. His wrists were chafed, and his feet hurt, but they were still given somewhat reasonable rations.

After walking several more days and the envoy visiting a few more tiny villages, the mission of the tax collector was complete, and they headed back to civilization. The city of Oefel was nothing compared to the capitals of the western realms but after several weeks of periphery it felt like walking to a beehive. The stench of the river going through Oefel was present everywhere as it had been forced to take the role of the citys sewer system. Not a few beggars sat back against the stone walls of two- or three-story buildings. Most of them had found the last solace of drink and opium. The envoy split on a street corner, where the tax collector went to his offices and the men of the church continued to the church headquarters. The church paladin was walking just ahead of chained Estan and Jacobin, so there would be no question of who was deserving the honor of the capture of dangerous fugitives. A few soldiers were walking ahead of him.

Turning another corner, a soldier in the front kicked a beggar who had been too slow to get out of his way. The beggar yelped in pain loudly and tried to skitter towards safety. Estan could hear the paladin inhale sharply and he saw the man straighten up even more if such a thing would have been possible. ”Private, you are in the service of the Church, and you will act like it! Even these poor unfortunate souls are children of the Sun! You have earned yourself two weeks of latrine duty in the barracks! ”, barked the paladin. He had gotten into the face of the misbehaving private, and he had assumed the full role of an easily irritable sergeant. The other soldiers of the envoy had trouble masking their glee. Turning to the beggar the paladin had reached into his pocket and grabbed a few copper coins, which he forced to the beggars hand. ”The Sun blesses you my dear man! Don let this unfortunate event mar your faith in the church! Go get a warm meal and take care of yourself! ”, the paladin loudly went on, slapping the beggar on the back. The beggar clearly had no conception of what was going on, his eyes clouded by many years worth of drink, just trembling in fear of more strikes to come, their source as unknown to him as the soldiers kick had been in the first place.

Estan closed his eyes in exasperation. Regular soldiers and officers were arrogant and cruel, but the office of paladins had attracted a very specific type of person. Many of them had some capability and usually some aptitude and skill in magic – which most likely was the reason he and Jacobin were found so fast from the forest in the first place – but they also were boiling to the prim with righteousness and self-celebration. As paladins they had the perfect opportunity to combine the manliness of the warrior caste with the piety of the Sun, which seemed to be the main prize of the post for a lot of them. The likes of this man were drunk from themselves, every day of their lives barely believing the fact that the world could have been so fortunate to have been graced by their existence. Having a bit of competence fueled the fire of their sense of importance further still. The paladin surely was congratulating himself for his good deed and was mentally adding another notch to his sleeve, but Estan knew that the instant they would leave the beggar would be robbed of his sudden endowment and probably receive a few more kicks in the process.

The headquarters for the church of the Sun were a complex of several buildings. It included barracks, small offices for the clergy and for the scribes, a chapel on the corner and a jail that was used by both the church and the bailiff. The position of the church of the Sun varied greatly from realm to realm, sometimes resembling more of a grappling match than alliance and diplomacy. Estan was sure that the establishment of the paladin system hadn exactly made the cooperation of church and state any easier. Having armed forces residing in your realm where their primary loyalty wasn to the king but to some other institution, holy and celestial as that institution may have been, was uncomfortable to the royalty at best. The idea had been too attractive to the church and the forces were still so small that many rulers had let them be. For the time being, at least.

Estan and Jacobin were led to the third floor, escorted by the paladin. They waited a while in the hallway as the paladin knocked on a door and stood in attention, waiting for permission to enter. A yell from inside indicated admittance. Jacobin and Estan were ordered to stand in the middle of the room side by side, facing a large window and a desk. The rays of light coming from the window revealed dust floating in the air. The sun was going to set soon.

Behind the table sat a priest in his late forties or early fifties, fairly corpulent, cheeks red and veiny, face a little bloated from drink. Jacobin recognized the wonderful odor of coffee drifting from a steaming porcelain cup on the table. He had smelled it before only from the tent of general Malkov when he had been performing his morning duties in the various military camps during the war. Jacobin wondered how the priest could have access to such luxuries. After listening to the brief report from the paladin without lifting his face from his papers, the priest pointed to Jacobin with his quill.

”Name and place of origin? ”, he commanded Jacobin, still without looking. ”Jacobin from Arkansia, sir. ” he answered. ”Occupation? ”, the priest continued.

”I was a soldier, sir. ”

”Where did you fight? ”

”In the eastern front, sir ”

”Under whom? ”

”Under general Malkov in the first battalion, sir ”

The paladin let out a loud sneer. The priest finally lifted his head and looked Jacobin into his eyes. You
e not lying, are you son? ” he asked. ”No, sir. ”, Jacobin answered. ”I was there when our blessed king perished and the esteemed general lost his fingers. ”, he continued. ”Which fingers? ”, asked the priest, not quite believing what Jacobin was telling him. ”His ring finger and a half of his pinkie from his left hand, sir ”, said Jacobin. The priest nodded slightly, probably not realizing that he had done so. ”So, you must have been in the battle of Tremen also, then? That unit consisted of the best men in the whole regiment. There are talks about erecting a statue for its memory in the capitals central garden. Few are honored like that. ” the priest said. ”First I hear about it, sir. ” Jacobin answered.

The priest was silent for a while, seemingly remembering those days. Then he turned his attention to Estan. ”And you? Name, origin, occupation? ”, he asked. ”Estan from Arkansia, sir. I was a monk in the church of the Sun. I studied and finished the first part of my examinations under priest Baltosik. ”, Estan answered. This time the priests eyes bulged.

”The priest Baltosik? You better stop this lying, nobody is going to believe things like that! ” he exclaimed, meaning to continue, but then he suddenly stopped and mumbled more to himself than anybody else: ”Although he did leave for the countryside, years ago already. Something about calming his nerves… ” The priest had his gaze back in the papers, staying silent for a moment or two, then he shook his head a bit and started to fill out forms. Absent-mindedly he gestured for the paladin to take the prisoners away. The man sprang into action and led Jacobin and Estan in a sergeantly fashion out of the office and down the stairs to the basement level into a jail cell. Once the door was locked behind them Estan and Jacobin were finally alone. There was hay on the floor and a small, barred window on the upper part of the wall let in sunlight from the busy street. They sat down, a little weary but not desperate about their situation. ”I think that they are going to move us to someplace else at some point, once they give us our sentences. Theyll probably put us into hard labor. ” Jacobin said, eyeing the window and the door at the end of the hallway where they had been brought into the basement level. ”Its probably best to not waste any time. When they bring us food and if there are only one or two guards, we should be able to overpower them, youll influence their minds with magic, and Ill take them out. The door outside is just there, I don want to waste this opportunity. ” The walls of the cell were in bad shape and Jacobin pried on a broken tile at the bottom part of the wall, managing to procure a big chunk that would be useful in walloping somebodys head with. Jacobin showed this treasure to Estan with a sly smile, but then the hallway door started to open, and Jacobin hid the broken tile piece into the hay. A whole bunch of people came in, several guards and the same paladin who stopped in front of Jacobins and Estans cell. The paladin looked irritated and Jacobin and Estan were taken with him again. Up the stairs and back the same way to the priests office where they had just been and this time, they didn have to wait for permission to get in. The priest sat on his chair there, arms folded and looked straight at his prisoners, now attentive and not bored by the routine paperwork.

”Leave us. ” the priest said to the paladin, whos head jerked back a bit from surprise and whose irritation seemed to change to confusion. It took a second for him to obey and once the door had been shut and they had been left in the office without any guards, the priest crossed his fingers on top of his stomach and leaned back in his chair, his eyes first tracing Estan and then Jacobin. They both looked back in anticipation and puzzlement, wondering which way things were now going. Then the priest stood up and walked to the window, looking outside. ”As a representative of the church, many affairs of this city fall under my jurisdiction. Public order, as you have noticed, has become one of them. ” he said. ”However, not all wrongdoers are as clearly and straightforwardly taken care of. Our good mayor isn always following the sacred teachings in the fullness he should: sometimes he is led astray by the baser inclinations of his character. ” the priest said. He pointed to a distinctive and luxurious building, easily noticeable from the masses of other buildings near the city square. The office had an excellent view.

”Recently he has started collecting valuable items of artistic or magical nature, arriving here from great distances. He has an exhibition on the second floor of his gaudy mansion, in the room with the balcony. He likes to show these items off to any he wishes to impress and is quite proud of the collection, to the point of smugness. Many of these items have clearly been in the possession of the church, or at least they should be. ” the priest said. He turned to face Estan and Jacobin. ”Such behavior is not becoming of a pious servant of the state. ”, the priest continued with an assertive voice, the time of it slightly rising from barely hidden contempt. He walked to a cabinet in the corner of the room, took a ring of keys from his belt, looked for the right one, found it and opened the cabinet. He fiddled with something for a while, then he turned around holding two magical artifacts, one in each hand. Looking at Jacobin and Estan he closed his eyes and mumbled the incantations. Waves of hot and cold went through both of them, their vision became blurry and ears rang, then it was back to normal in an instant. Estan didn like this at all. He knew that they had been cursed.

”Heres a chance to redeem yourself. ”, the priest said while he was putting away the artifacts. ”The prized possession of the mayor is a silver statuette of two swans, necks intertwining. Bring it to me by tomorrow and Ill grant you your freedom again. Should you choose to run away or do other foolish things, the curses will burst both of you in flames by tomorrow night. ” he continued. ”Guard! ”, the priest yelled. There were instantly steps heard from the next room and the door opened, guard standing in attention in the doorway. The priest filled out a form and gave it to the guard. ”Release these two and return to them their possessions. Let them out from the back. Go. ” he said, sitting back into his chair. Estan and Jacobin were hurriedly escorted from the room.

Back on the first floor they were led to a storage room. After the guard and the clerk held a brief conversation which neither Jacobin nor Estan could hear, their belongings were returned. Then they were just as quickly marched through a few corridors to a small door leading outside and were practically pushed into the busy street, with the said door slamming shut behind them. Jacobin and Estan just stood there with their hands full for a while, just looking at each other and then at their surroundings. These developments had changed their near futures radically.

First things first. They ran behind a street corner, placed their back bags to the ground and checked their contents. They raised their hands to the air out of childlike joy: the secret pockets they had sown into their bags still contained their money, only the nickels that had been stored in their wallets were gone. Everything else seemed to be there too. Ravenously hungry, they located a tavern nearby. They ordered a big meat pie and two large mugs of ale, cool from the cellar, something they normally wouldn have indulged in because of their limited means. They split the pie and gorged themselves, barely chewing the handfuls of food they shoved to their mouths. Once full, they felt calm and collected. Nursing what was left of their beers, they could assess their situation.

”I think that priest fellow greatly misunderstood our competence. ” said Jacobin. ”I did serve under general Malkov and I did fight in the eastern front, this is true, but my previous battalion got merged with Malkovs one because of the heavy losses they had taken. I didn go through any of the training you would have been normally required to go through to get there. I was as green as they come. ” Jacobin took a sip from his beer. ”Besides, all that talk of being the best unit is just boasting. There is so much luck involved in fighting and soldiers choose to ignore it so they can feel better about themselves. Drilling and experience raise your chances in surviving, sure, but only up to a point. And that point often isn very high. ”

Estan was munching on the last pieces of the pie, examining the plates and the table for crumbles he had missed. ”I feel the same way. Baltosik had made great strides in bringing more know-how of magical practices into the church in his youth, but he had picked up some bad habits along the way. Id say it was opium, could have been something else, hard to say. The rumor was that he had been moved to our county because he was starting to become an embarrassment in the capital. They couldn just let him go just like that. He was Baltosik, after all. ” Estan frowned, remembering the irritation. ”More often than not his lectures were canceled. When he did show up, you could barely hear anything from his mumbling, and he was constantly drinking water. If somebody asked something he got so confused that anything worthwhile he could have said was now lost forever. ” Estan took a more comfortable position in his chair. ”I don think he even read our answers in the final examination. Everybody passed. ” Estan sighed and said ”Come to think of it, its very possible that these curses of ours were products of his methods as well. I know you
e going to ask, but this is not something I can do anything about. With time and experimentation, I maybe could at least try something but as things stand now, well… We should go look at the mayors house. ” Estan started to collect his things and leave. Jacobin followed his example. ”Do you think that he is even going to keep his promise? ” Jacobin said as they walked into the street, not as busy as it had been a moment ago. ”We don have much choice. That bastard just saw a cheap chance to harass one of his opponents. If we get caught and spill the beans the truth is not exactly believable. And even if it is to somebody – the mayor, for example: maybe this isn the first time the priest does something like this – its not going to help our case at all. Gallows wait for us either way. ” Estan answered. As they walked towards the mayors house, the city had almost completely quieted down. Horses slept in a stable they passed by. The only noise was coming from the direction of the entertainment district, as some of the citys many inhabitants wanted to change their silent night into something livelier.

The house was not big enough to be called a mansion, but it definitely was much bigger and nicer than anything else nearby. There was a small garden leading to the front gate, guarded by two men who were leaning against the wall and chatting to each other. The balcony was on the left side of the building, its doors mostly consisting of glass. They did not look very sturdy. Jacobin and Estan walked around the house several times, staying out of the guards sights. They realized that there was no reason to overcomplicate things: they had the bare minimum of information available, and it was already past midnight. Waiting for a few hours would not change anything and making up any more of an intricate scheme just wasn feasible. Bold action was needed. Estan and Jacobin went through the plan and split.

Jacobin went to the side of the building with the balcony, walking to a little nook in the corner of an opposite building. In his back bag he had rope and a metallic hook he used for climbing. He tied the hook to the end of the rope, double checking that the knot was tight enough. He had lifted his scarf over his mouth. Now he just had to wait for the commotion Estan was going to cause.

Estan had walked back to stables they had passed by earlier. He went to a dark alleyway to lean against a wall while still seeing the horses. He was pleased that this part of the city was so calm and quiet: to more restless and alert horses his spell might not work, and it was much easier for him to focus. Estan closed his eyes and started to concentrate.

First the doors for the horses stalls had to be opened. Initially Estan had thought about doing this by hand, but the horses might have woken up and been alerted by his presence, so it wasn worth it. Silently the doors crept ajar as the spell started to function. Then, in an orderly line, eight horses started to walk out of the stable, the mayors house as their destination. Once it was a straight line to the front door of it, Estan agitated the minds of the animals into a frenzy. The relaxed trot swiftly changed to a full speed gallop. Come what may, they would get inside that house, even if they would have to crash themselves again and again against the windows, walls and doors. This was their purpose.

The guards could not do much to counter this dedication. First, they stopped talking and looked towards the sound of the galloping, then dived away desperately to save their lives. The door didn fare much better either: the first poor beast hurt itself quite badly when the thick oaken door cracked into three big pieces, the hinges and screws blasting off at breakneck speeds. The other seven animals went to every place they could. The hallways, stairs and rooms were full of rampaging, berserk horses, kicking, foaming and screaming. The commotion could not have been greater. Everybody had woken up and went to see the spectacle.

This was Jacobins cue. He waited for a few seconds after the racket started, then ran under the balcony. He readied his rope and hook, threw it, got the hook stuck on the edge of the balcony on the first try, tugged on it forcefully to make sure it would support his weight and started climbing. He reached the balcony in a few seconds, jumped into it and broke the window parts of the door with the pommel of his dagger, reached in and opened the lock. It really was as the priest had said: the room had been dedicated as an art display, with various items sitting on red pillows on shelves and pedestals. Several paintings were hanging on the walls. Jacobin had been very worried that the statuette would be under lock and key, maybe even protected by some sort of spells, but no, there it just was, in the middle of it all. Apparently, the mayoral attention had been mostly focused on the aesthetic needs of the display instead of the safety of his collection. Happy of this gross oversight, he grabbed the statuette and put it carefully into his bag, making sure it was placed in the middle of all the soft clothes he had, hoping they would function as cushions for their ticket to freedom. Wanting to take full advantage of the opportunity, Jacobin grabbed an expensive-looking jeweled necklace too and intended to take much more, but suddenly he heard a door open behind him and somebody gasping.

It was one of the many servants of the house, a young woman, standing in the doorway, eyes like saucers. Without thinking, only a notion of the terror of being caught flashing through his being, Jacobin hit her with his whole weight behind the strike. Her body hit the floor with a loud thump, no scream managing to escape from her lips, this all happening too fast for her to keep up. Jacobin feverishly gathered all his things, put on his back bag while running to the balcony and went so fast down the rope that he might as well had jumped from the edge. Sprinting to the dark alleyways he did not look back. There were many faces in the windows around him and undoubtedly at least some saw him, but Jacobin was going to be long gone before the great chaos of this spectacle had died down. He could still hear the screaming and neighing of the horses coming from the mayoral household.

Jacobin went far away from the scene, then slowed down and started to head back to the tavern where they had been earlier, this being the place he and Estan had agreed to rendezvous. He took a long way around and once he arrived the sun had already started to rise. Estan sat on a bench nearby, it being too early for the place to be open. Jacobin sat next to him, clothes wet and damp from sweat, feeling the coldness of a sleepless night invading his body. Without saying anything, he slid his bag from his back to the ground while sitting, opening it enough that Estan could see the prize who glanced at it sideways. They drank water from their canteens and waited for the day to start and places of business to open. Little by little there was movement and life to be detected on the street, as the common folk and high-born alike started to tend to their matters. It was time to go to the church headquarters.

Estan and Jacobin were unsure how they would get to meet the man who had sent them to this mission. There had been no discussion or instruction on how they would get back in to meet him and they were afraid that this was never part of the priests plan, as they just were sent to the mayoral house to cause trouble and damage, the statuette being a pretense and excuse. Another possibility was that they would just be thrown straight back to jail, left there long enough for the curses to end them. Maybe none of the guards or clerks would let them in at all. But there was nothing more Estan and Jacobin could do, they felt: it was time to submit to their destiny, whatever it was going to be. A guard stood at the back door they had been pushed out of, even though it had been unmanned yesterday. Estan and Jacobin approached him, wished him good morning and told him that they had been running errands for the priest. The man had evidently received his orders. They were let in and led back to the offices. After the same ritual for entering, they stood in the same place they had been standing yesterday. This time the priest had not buried himself in his clerical work but was eagerly and attentively looking at their every move. Jacobin opened his bag, took a while taking the statuette out as it had burrowed itself to the bottom of the bag, then placed it on the table.

The priest looked like a particularly satisfied frog, his bloated cheeks barely covering a victorious smile. He savored the moment for a second or two, then walked to the same cabinet he had taken the artifacts out yesterday and took a small book from it. Turning and facing Jacobin and Estan he mumbled a spell and cold shivers went through the pair yet again. The priest sat back down and took two forms out of a drawer, filled them and put them to the table side by side. ”Never say that the church has not taken care of you. The coming and going of people from this city is controlled, these passports will allow you to leave, and they are only good for today. Should you fail to leave you will be suspended by your necks and buried in the mass grave with the other convicts, as was your original destination. Guard! ” the priest said, yelling the last word. Just like yesterday and just as fast, Jacobin and Estan found themselves outside the building, this time at the front gates though. After walking two blocks they had to face another small episode: the church paladin that had caught them in the beginning saw them on the street and immediately pushed Estan against the wall, another hand on his weapon. After a lot of shouting and Jacobin again and again showing the passport, he had gotten to the paladin and the situation started to calm down. The paladin looked at the paper from all the possible angles and against the sunlight, clearly trying his best to figure out what could be wrong with the signature or the seal. Then he did the same with Estans passport, compared them to each other and got more and more silent as his task proved its futility. In the end he had to give the passports back and let Jacobin and Estan go. When they hastily walked away and looked back over their shoulders, the paladin was still standing there, looking at them.

There were several shops near the gate where Jacobin and Estan bought some cheap bread and cheese. After the short line came to an end they showed their passports to the guard on the gate and were let out. It seemed like a good idea to have some distance between themselves and the gate before they could have their late breakfast, so they walked the two or three kilometers on the main road and then found a nice clearing next to the road. They sat on the grass and took the food out. Estan ate greedily.

But Jacobin didn feel hungry. He kept thinking about the maid he had struck back in the mayors house. Her head had hit the floor hard, and Jacobin didn understand what had happened to his cool nerves he had prized as one of the best features of his character. He might as well have hit her in the stomach and not hurt her as bad or better yet not have done anything to her at all: there was such commotion in the house because of the horses so what would it have mattered if she had screamed her lungs out about a thief? Now she might be dead or dying, possibly hurt so bad that she would never recover from it, unable to work and support herself. Jacobin understood that she could just as easily have been trampled by the horses if she had happened to be downstairs and there might have been a dozen other servants who faced that end, but Jacobin had not seen that happen and could more easily rationalize such casualties as regrettable but unavoidable, results of an course of action he had been forced to take to save his own and his best friends lives. There was a hypocrisy in this line of thinking, but it allowed him to compartmentalize what they had done, push it into some remote part of his mind and live with it. What he had done to this specific woman was too immediate and too easily recognized as bad misjudgement from his part. It was a failure, his own and nobody elses. Jacobin knew many young girls who had gone to serve in noble manors from his hometown. He thought about the war and what his battalion had done in towns and villages just like that. What he had done.

Jacobin looked into the horizon, his eyes unfocused, his piece of bread untouched. ”Whats the point of our traveling? I know that neither of us was expecting to find some promised land but there was at least a notion of freedom, making a better choice out of all the bad ones, but not much has changed as I see it. ” Jacobin sighed. Estan didn say anything, just kept eating. A cool breeze from the west brought relief to the hot day they were going to face.

Jacobin took a bite out of his bread.

2.

The frontier town Estan and Jacobin had arrived was surprisingly big. Usually, these kinds of places took a while to grow but the need for quality timber had apparently been high and a great number of peasants had suddenly been moved to such a far-away place. The thick, tall and seemingly endless coniferous forest was something they hadn experienced back where they were born. There was constant activity on the sawmill next to the river, from early morning to late at night and the river itself was carrying as much ready-to-use product as it could. Most of the food was delivered to the town through the same river, as if there would have not been a moment to waste on anything else but felling trees. Jacobin and Estan couldn deny that it was nice to be in such a lively place for a change and decided to stay for a while. There most likely was something they could do to increase their finances, probably several things, and the idea of plentiful supplies once it was time to move again was a prize worthy to strive for. Nobody took much notice of them as there were people coming and going all the time and lodgings were readily available for new working people. Jacobin had always enjoyed working with his hands and he admired the skills of all good craftsmen. Learning from these woodcutters and sawmill workers held an appeal for him. He knew that he would grow frustrated at some point with how inefficiently – and unsafely – parts of the job would be arranged and how the work would be much more hectic than it needed to be, but for a time one could stand on his hands if that was required. They found a cheap room to rent next to the town bakery – actually there were three of them – and in the mornings they woke up to the delicious smell of fresh bread and in the evenings the air was filled with the earthy scent of sawdust coming from the sawmill. Jacobin and Estan found this quite pleasant.

After settling down they went to look for jobs and encountered an unexpected hubbub in the inns, taverns and offices they visited. In the towns greedy quest for more and more wood the logging area had expanded further into the deep forest and suddenly collided into a settlement nobody had known even existed. The startled officials immediately inquired who these people were and anxiously wondered with which of the surrounding realms they were possibly causing an incident with and what would happen to their lucrative schemes of timber, but the answer surprised everybody who heard it, Jacobin and Estan included. The people living there were elves.

There was an existential puzzle in this. Everybody knew that there were elves, possibly just as many as there were people or even more, but so few chose to be in any contact with humans that basically nothing was known about them. Only a couple merchant lines had some access to the goods they provided, usually products and items that were much coveted, but apparently these business dealings included no fraternization or pleasantries. Price was negotiated and that was that. Needless prying and conversation would meet a stone wall and a threat of these valuable merchants disappearing back to where they came from, seemingly into the thin air. Men of trade stayed awake in their beds thinking themselves silly about how they would get elven clients and an access to their riches, scholars recognized an highly developed and sophisticated culture that they would have died for an chance to study in detail, the church of the Sun had no idea where to place elves in the official prophecies so they chose to ignore them as embarrassingly inconvenient, regular folk treated them as myths and legends and kings and generals in unison were sweating about an invisible enemy and rival waiting for them, ready to crash their ambitions and plans. And yet, despite being very real and something that people apparently had lived right next to since the beginning of time, no real contact was ever made no matter how much the different realms of men were expanding. People were quarreling with each other, and some select few made coin with somebody outside of this. Elves were a ghost that was constantly near but never really present. That had been that. Until now.

Sitting in a full tavern and finishing their meal Estan and Jacobin relaxed after their busy day. Estan had immediately gotten a job in the infirmary since anybody with skill in magic was highly sought after in all matters of healing. Estan was a far cry from a doctor – although so were many other actual doctors, the level of professionalism varied greatly – but he could do several tasks quite well, like concoct ointments and salves from the right kinds of herbs and the forest looked promising. Tomorrow he would start in earnest and today he had just visited the infirmary, and like he had thought it was full of workers injured by the accidents at the sawmill but also fighting men who had participated in the skirmishes with the elven village. Talking small talk with an officer who had his arm in a sling they had learned quite a lot, since the young fellow was boisterous and excited about the unexpected action he had – in his own mind – been fortunate enough to take part in. The elves were poorly armed and unorganized, not used to conflict and had taken severe losses. More assaults would be arranged, the next one a big one, and it was estimated that this would very likely be enough to break through and finish the job. Apparently, the pain in the officers arm wasn very great or maybe it just didn register all the way into his brain, as he was trying to gesture with both of his arms to accompany his fast talking, being so thrilled of this boring frontier position turning into something more eventful. The man would have probably talked his ears off, so Estan escaped the situation by mentioning the needs of the other patients. He had wished the officer fast recovery and joined Jacobin who had been waiting for him outside.

Now, sitting in the tavern, the steady murmur of the other customers filling the background, Jacobin rested his elbows on the table, looking somewhere to the other side of the room. He wasn sure how to present what was forming in his mind, but he had to start somehow. ”I think Im going to try to join that next assault the officer was talking about. ” Jacobin said. Estan had been zoning out, his head leaning against the chair. His face made the combined expression of frowning and lifting his right eyebrow without actually doing either of those things and he stared at his friend. Jacobin felt the pressure to continue. ”Id just really like to… see them. ” he managed to articulate. ”Thats quite a lot of risk for witnessing a bunch of dead elves. ” Estan commented. He was irritated by these steady few months threatening to slip away and irritated about his friends occasional high minded or romantic whims. They were cut from the same cloth through and through, but funnily enough Jacobin was the one who had been facing hardships straight from the cradle yet still harbored in his core esthetic and sentimental tendencies, drinking his fill from the colors of the sunset or the vastness of sea, a craving that usually had been obstructed by the lack of basic needs or the back breaking labor pushed onto him by his superiors. Estan had been living a relatively easy life, especially compared to the others of his class, but he was practical and cynical to the point of being cold and seemingly indifferent. Despite this there was warmth in him and an unwavering loyalty, the basis of their strong bond, but his attitude towards the world did not bend itself for journeys without down-to-earth motivations. At instances like this their communication wasn as smooth as it usually was. ”There are no soldiers here and these brats leading them have no experience: Ill weasel myself out of the front lines and escape if things get too hairy, its fine. I know the tricks. Theres going to be payment after I get back, Ill just have to be present and thats easy money right there. This is good. ” Jacobin rationalized, trying to sell his idea. Estan knew that Jacobin was the first one to choose some other form of employment instead of fighting if there were options on the table, but he didn point this out. ”Wait, you said that when ”I ” get back, not ”we ”. Are you going alone? ” Estan said. ”Well, you
e not exactly comfortable marching around with a pike in your hand. Ive got better chances if I go by myself. ” Jacobin said sheepishly. Estan looked to the floor and contemplated. ”Fine. ” he sighed after a while. ”Well go ask around about that tomorrow. ”

The practicalities didn take long. Sign here, go get your equipment from the warehouse, visit the priest for a blessing – Jacobin quietly jumped over this part – and the fighting party will leave on Monday. Estan gave the rest of the medicine to Jacobin. Watching these makeshift soldiers leave Estan wasn exactly gloomy but there still was a medium sized rock of anxiety in his stomach. It had been them together against the world for a long time now and facing all that alone, even if it was just for a short while, didn feel good. This prospect wasn far-fetched, though: loss was a part of everybodys life, a long staying guest for many, so Estan had many times thought what it would be like to travel just by himself. For now, he could just wait. Estan left for his shift at the infirmary.

Marching with his new comrades in arms Jacobin had a lot of time to reflect and the familiar setting prompted him to do so. Many were very eager, motivated by the knowledge of past successes and having an upper hand over the elven village. Sense of adventure was one thing and the thirst for gold another, but the overwhelming sensation here was pride: pride of human superiority, pride of being among the first to bring this obvious fact for all the world to see, pride of being recognized as a collective of worthy adversaries. Jacobin suspected that his doubts about being part of this ”us ” was the reason for him having trouble fitting into groups. From what he had seen, the triumphs of ”us ” did very little to benefit his own life or the lives of his fellow soldiers, people who took the biggest risk in fighting. The parades, songs, banners and the medals of the military were meant to be the celebration of courage and martial spirit, items concentrated with this otherworldly essence of our self-worth and excellence, all justified by the loyalty to the sovereign, but to Jacobins eyes they had no value. On one hand, he saw the military as a vehicle for men who only lived to satisfy their egos and on the other, he saw men who used the first type to pursue their own gain. Often these two characters combine into the same people. Then the whole package was tied together by the beautiful bow of ”us ”: we were all indebted to the sovereign, the sovereign was looking after us like a loving father, the areas we conquered were a common triumph and the losses we suffered just made our bond stronger than ever before. After all the high-minded talk and superficial glitter Jacobin just saw the reality of him having been forced to leave his home and risk his life in a battle, he would not benefit from in any way halfway across the world, suffering disease, filth and the extremes of the elements from both ends of the spectrum along the way. He could not understand for his life how such an obvious bum deal could be accepted by so many of his comrades so easily and even eagerly. Jacobin had once had the opportunity of seeing in their beloved sovereign in the flesh: they had all stood in formation for the imperial inspection before being led to the battle by the ruler himself, and before them had appeared a condescending runt, a being of the same ilk that Jacobin had thrown out of many taverns when working as security in such places. He could not have imagined a less inspiring figure. Everybody else, however, was supposedly enamored: after the inspection there were a lot of words of admiration exchanged between the soldiers, even many of the old veterans melted into compliments. At the time Jacobin had just rolled his eyes and shaken his head, but after the initial battles he had wanted to puke. The enemys cannons had been loaded with horrific ammunition, two iron balls tied together by a chain that spun like a saw blade in the air when fired. Jacobin had seen one single shot cut through four men and split a horse in two. The scrawny ruler had just been empowered by this carnage and had ridden headfirst into the enemy lines intoxicated by bloodthirst. His underlings now saw him as a real hero, a man of no equal, but Jacobin realized that a man like this would never be satisfied. More campaigns were to come. ”If you want to cheer on your oppressor, rejoice in what he is doing to you, go ahead ” he had thought with resentment when the long trek home had finally started. ”But I am done. ” And yet here he was, marching again like nothing had happened in between. He was starting to doubt his decision, but a chance like this to see elves at all would probably never come again. Jacobin was sure that whatever he was going to witness would break his heart, the only open question being in what way. It felt like going to a funeral, preparing himself to bury another aspect of the world he had always hoped would exist. What would be left after this would be the reality. Jacobin sighed and he felt like he had been doing that all his life.

Estan was out looking for dinner after work. The days had been busy and long and managing his new responsibilities had been demanding. Sick and severely injured patients looked at him as a savior in their desperate hour of need, expecting a lot more from him than he in reality could provide, and it felt dreadful to break the bad news. He had demonstrated his skill in managing fresh open wounds and compound fractures, saving people from the future at the churchs poor house, but basically anything beyond that was out of his control. Many eyes had opened in hope and heartfelt prayers had been sent to the Sun but after the limits of his expertise had been discovered the apathy of the infirmary came back doubly as oppressive. The end of his shifts had not meant the end of the work, for he had to go look for healing herbs in the forest and for some strains he had to walk quite far away. Estan was happy that he could provide himself some light with magic since scouring the forest bed for similar looking plants in the darkening evenings would have been practically impossible. Another helpful matter was that he had gotten the permission to use some of his time at work for processing these medicines and he could order one of the nurses to help him. He had arranged an examination on who could follow his directions best using worthless plant matter as mock medicine and one quiet and stern looking middle-aged nurse had fared quite well. She wasn much for small talk and at first Estan had felt a little awkward bossing her around, but maybe it was better that the people around him just concentrated on their tasks, for the infirmary was a somber and serious place. Then Estan started to think that maybe it was the class distinction at work here: he had always been near the bottom rung and after he had started traveling, he had basically been a vagrant in most peoples eyes, nobody to bow to or respect, unless the person who he conversed with recognized him as a mage and viewed anybody with ability in magic as someone to fear. Estan perceived a lot of social conventions as bothersome, obstacles in the way of getting things done and the endless rituals of the church had deepened his impatience. He found himself too hungry to ponder more and was grateful for reaching the appetizing smells emanating from the kitchen of the tavern.

The presentation of the nourishment provided didn reach the same high levels as the delicious aroma had promised and the cook seemed to be of a very cranky sort, but the event of a warm meal had reached religious proportions for Estan anyway, so these kinds of things didn matter much. He was capturing the last remains of the stew with a piece of bread when he noticed an unusual sight sitting at the corner table. A mage, an independent one, slouched over his table dressed in extravagant clothing and donning plenty of expensive looking accessories. Not every magically skilled person was associated or worked with the church, no matter how much the church wished it to be so. Especially the really talented ones very eagerly chose to go their own way and saw little reason to be shackled down by any organization: the world was their oyster and they treated it as such. It looked quite comical for such a prestigious character to be in a mundane place like this in the midst of the regular folk and this particular one seemed to be the quintessence of defeat and depression, his arms folded and head leaning against the table, accompanied by a big mug of beer. Estan realized what was bothering him with this picture: there must be a gentlemens club for all of the esteemed people even in this peripheral town and for some reason this man chose not to go there and here nobody was reacting to the mages presence in any way. It seemed that his unusual existence had been accepted a long while ago. Estan couldn even imagine anybody of higher stature using a place of business meant for the commoners without a cadre of personal servants and guards while the humble patrons would be bending over backwards to serve them, afraid of what might happen if their offerings didn meet the standards. But here he was, sitting there just like anybody else. Estans curiosity got the better of him and he decided to try to strike a conversation and investigate.

”You
e a sad sight to see, sire. ” Estan started with a pleasant and confident tone. He had debated with himself how much he should toady but decided against it altogether: if he didn immediately treat the man in an equal manner there would be no basis for a conversation. The mage looked up, a bit confused at who was talking to him since no servant or waiter would talk to him like that and there was nobody else who would approach him in a place like this. There was a short moment where the mage assessed Estan and it could have been awkward if Estan wouldn have been so at ease with the situation. He seemed to figure out what Estan was by profession so that explained his interest towards him.

”Who wouldn be in a town like this? ” the man answered. Estan had been judged as someone worthy to talk to, though the man was most likely just lonely enough to welcome people he normally would not associate with. Estan pointed to the opposite side of the table and the mage mage nodded slightly. ”You are apparently with the church? ” he asked. ”I was, sire, I was. Now Im with myself and by the looks of it you have been a lot more successful than me. Why so down in the dumps then? I couldn help myself but to come and ask that. ” The defeatism returned to the mans expression twice as strong now that he had been reminded of his situation and Estan noticed a hefty amount of bitterness mixed in there too. ”Successful! What a venomous word! ” the mage scoffed. He gestured to a waiter to bring more to drink and Estan was a bit surprised to see a mug in front of him too: apparently his herb searching would have to wait for tomorrow.

”I was working in the court for the king himself in an nation close to us, the name of it I won disclose for obvious reasons: I had my own laboratory, an office, land and servants, even a concubine from the royal harem as an mark of His Majestys gratitude and kindness. and now Im here. ” The mage took a big gulp from his mug, Estan sipped a little from his for the sake of keeping company. ”Did the king become cross with you, sire? If so, what for? ” Estan was now sure that he would hear anything and everything whether he said anything during the whole time or not, but he wanted to be polite and present in the moment. The mage looked proudly at Estan. ”I had manufactured automatons, a great deal of them, soulless clay men to work the fields and do a lot of what the peasants do. What I offered was freedom from peasant rebellions, workers who would not complain and who could easily double the production of the farmland! They needed no food themselves and could be put into storage when the winter comes, it was a dream come true! I explained my project to His Majesty, showed him the prototypes and the production process, went through the materials needed and what they would cost and where to get them: His Majesty listened quietly, which isn a sign of anything by itself since he is always like that and then he left. A day later soldiers came to imprison me, and they broke my machines, burned my notes, everything! Weakened by lack of food and sleep Im brought in front of the judge and sentenced into exile to this forsaken place. ” Tiredly the mage massaged the bridge of his nose with his thumb and middle finger. ”Im imprisoned here and can leave the town. The nobles don want me to associate with them and I don know whether thats part of the punishment or if they do it of their own accord. This lousy watering hole is the only place to be. ” He was now leaning his forehead against the table. ”Your freedom, my friend, seems like a success to me. ” Estan was wondering if the mages situation really was like the man seemed to perceive it. It was hard to imagine that it would be difficult for this mage to disappear and regain his coveted freedom: high skill in magic brought so many options to the table that imprisoning anyone with them often seemed like a joke. For this reason, powerful mages were a notoriously disloyal bunch, they often could come and go as they pleased and with promises of amazing magical artifacts, weapons and spells alike they were always coveted by the rich and powerful. Many had been worried that the truly powerful wizards and sorcerers would unify and create a powerful political entity that would destabilize everything, but not much had ever come from it: it was much more convenient and easier to latch onto somebody royal and live the good life. Estan suddenly started to feel his mood sour. In his mind a true talent in magic was the best possible lot to pull from the cosmic wheel, not even the kings had it so easy. Despite that, here was one, wallowing in self-pity and basically in tears from his tough luck in life, biding his time to slither back into the good royal graces. ”Greed is his prison! ” Estan thought angrily. Out loud he said other kinds of things. ”Why do you think he punished you? How did he react to your previous services? ” The mage turned his head sideways on the table, his gaze not really focusing anywhere. ”Nothing like this and nothing but praise. The seer stone he accepted, also all the curses I manufactured for him, then the… ” the mage cut himself short, probably realizing he shouldn babble about everything. ”No, nothing like this. I thought he was a man of vision, an extraordinary ruler. Maybe I misjudged him. ” Estan thought about this. ”Maybe he still is? A shrewd ruler, I mean. What should he do with the peasants your invention would replace? Do you think they would just take this loss laying down, without fighting back or escaping under somebody else and strengthening some of the kings opponents? Where would he get the conscripts if there would be no need for the peasants? What about all the other tasks men can do, since often, if you pardon me saying, sir, many magical golems and contraptions can only do one? ” Estan had perked up in his seat, political and societal speculation always excited him. ”And what about the other nobles? Maybe they would perceive your research as an attempt of the king to undermine their importance somehow and the king exiled you and destroyed your work in order to erase those doubts? What would he want automatons for anyway if everything in society is based on fiefdom, slavery and controlling the peasants? Why would he try to change the system that had made him so rich and powerful in the first place? ” The mage had not been looking at Estan and had deliberately aimed his interest at the contents of his mug. ”Well, yes, Im sure that somebody like you has a complete understanding of the affairs of the state. ” Estan felt his ears redden. He talked these kinds of things endlessly with Jacobin who had a great sense of politics and understood the motivations of men on a deep level, a feature that paradoxically clashed with Jacobins romantic tendencies, and now Estan had forgotten how rare that attribute really was in his fellow human beings. The mage had instantly judged him as a lesser person and a childish fool since he wasn an achieved wizard and anything he said was automatically disregarded, no matter how well thought out his words would be. Only proper thing to do was to remind him of his place and underline what the pecking order was and had always been. The annoyance in Estan was amplified by the fact that men like these could be in the center of everything because of their talent given by luck and they still could have no notion of how the world worked and have little faculties to work it out. He mumbled something unclear, and the conversation continued with the mage going on in circles complaining about his woeful disposition, saying the same things again and again.

Estan thought how much better off he would have been if he just had gone to look for those herbs.

Jacobin and the fighting men had arrived at the scene. It was just like he had thought. There were not going to be any formations or tactics to speak of, the officers were too inexperienced and the thought of victory was too certain in the minds of all men to even consider anything more complicated than just going there and finishing the job. There was a clearing where previous fighting had happened and some corpses were laying around here and there. At the end of the clearing there was more forest, and a haphazardly built barricade could be seen, made from whatever pieces of wood that had been available. A few roofs of buildings could be seen behind it. The whole village could have been deserted from the looks of it. Men were yelled at to stand in some sort of coherent formation, but it all resembled the start of a foot race: at the command ”Go! ” all would sprint for the finish line. Jacobins plan of staying behind could not have been easier to accomplish. He was reminded of a violent ball game many young men liked to play back home.

And so, it started. A half-mad war cry roared from the ranks of men as they scurried across the already trampled field. Jacobin could have gone to sit on a rock to watch it all and nobody would have cared, but he still wanted to see the village. He walked at an unhurried pace, alert so he would not be caught off guard by an unexpected counterattack from the elven side. Not much seemed to be happening though: a few arrows were shot from behind the barricade but way too late and way too few to cause any serious damage. Some melee could be seen when the attackers were breaching the barricade, flailing arms and the flickering of steel in the sunlight, but that was quickly over and the men rushed over the obstacle. Jacobin, reaching the blockade significantly later than the others, practically walked in, stepping over a few dead from both sides.

The village was poor, no doubt about it. The buildings were mostly simple shacks, a few sturdier constructions located deeper in the forest. It felt absurd that this place could inhabit something as mythical and mysterious as the elves. ”Why would they live like this? ” Jacobin thought. Were they outcasts for some reason? Maybe they were not really elves but some offshoot clan of elven heritage? Or maybe there just had been a mistake, but if so, it was a bizarre mistake to make. Jacobin could hear the skirmish continue somewhere ahead of him and now he had truly been separated from the main group. He decided it would be safe to investigate the village more thoroughly. Jacobin picked at random one of the somewhat better-looking buildings and went inside.

He had left his pike outside and pulled his long dagger out just to be sure. There was nothing he had not seen a thousand times in a thousand other completely identical villages all across the continent, as poor and dirty as always. Then he realized that the wooden floor he was standing on must have a cellar underneath. It took him a while to locate the hatch. The sounds of fighting outside had become very dim and walking down the cellar stairs it had become almost completely silent.

A conspicuous old carpet was covering some large objects between a few barrels in the corner of the room and Jacobin was pretty sure of what was going on. His weapon in hand he pulled the rug away and underneath four figures sat hugging their knees, frightfully looking at him. Jacobin stepped back ready to act, but nothing was threatening him. Two children, a frail teenage boy and a young woman had been huddling together: their clothes were on the same level of poverty as anything else in this drab hellhole, but their faces! It wasn like they were inhuman or alien in any way, or that their features were special or at least uncommon, but in contrast to everything else it was almost like a blank spot of purity where nothing filthy, boorish and mundane had ever laid its fingers upon. They transcended beyond the regular idea of beauty, almost glowing in some weird way, not with actual light but something else. To Jacobin it seemed like he was looking at what humans should be and he and everybody he had ever known were a crude mock imitation of what had once been. The fact that these faces were contorted in terror and fright, a fright of him, brought a bad taste to Jacobins mouth. He glanced at the top of the stairs, took a few steps to peek inside the room to see if anybody else had come in the house. Nothing could be heard in the tense atmosphere and Jacobin forced his prisoners upstairs, barking and shoving when words made no effect and the young elves submitted. He could now hear the battle still being fought in the same previous direction when he peeked through the front door, just twisting his neck without turning his body or weapon away from the situation at hand. There was only one door but opposite to it a window without glass was covered by a wooden pad. Jacobin gestured and shouted at the young woman to open it and she understood what she was supposed to do, even though she was scared witless. Then, to their confusion, Jacobin sheathed his dagger and pointed out of the window, making waving motions towards it with both of his hands, shouting ”Go! Run! Go! ” They didn understand what was going at first, but then the teenage boy and the woman climbed out of the window, tried to pick up the children leaning in from the windowsill but were too short to reach them, so Jacobin lifted the children for them himself. Then they ran into the woods without looking back. Jacobin walked out of the door, picked up his pike from where had left it and sat on a big rock next to the house. He felt more depressed and rotten than he had in ages.

The reunion of the friends was warm. Estan was waiting for the war band to return so he could start nursing the wounded fighters and was very glad to see Jacobin carrying one end of a stretcher rather than laying down on one. They couldn talk until the evening since Estan was busy with the job and Jacobin would need to go collect his pay and return the borrowed equipment. Like he had thought, no one had noticed that he had not participated in the fighting at all and it was the easiest money he had made for a long time. After Estan got off they bought from one of the bakeries the bread the baker hadn been able to sell during the day at discount price and got some pastries too. In their rented room both of them just talked and talked, like they had been going through a drought and now they had finally arrived at an oasis. Jacobin told what had happened on this exploit.

”You know that those elves probably got caught anyway? And even if they didn , there are wolves and starvation waiting from them in the woods and I doubt that there is another settlement they could try to reach. ” Estan said. Jacobin didn answer anything. They had taken no prisoners and every elf had been massacred in a bloodied frenzy. It seems that nobody else had caught the same sense of awe that Jacobin had experienced. ”I wonder why they were so poor? It just makes me think that they were outcasts for some reason. ” Estan continued. They had both gorged themselves and were half sitting, half laying down on their bunks. Estan had his arms crossed under his head. He frowned. ”I don know whats going on with the elves and I don think that anybody does, so we can only speculate, but I wonder if people are just projecting some notion of divinity and godliness onto them? I mean that we assume them to be everywhere and wonder why they won attack but for all we know they could just visit us from some unknown continent or travel long distances magically if they can do such a thing and they have no need to conquer us for some reason? We assume them to be some different species so they must think differently than us but if they are willing to cast their own out like that to live in crippling poverty, that really sounds like something that we humans would do. All the animals fight and hunt, even house cats play with their prey, so having some other sentient being on the same or higher intellectual level as us, be benevolent and harmonious doesn sound believable to me. ” Jacobin sighted and took a more comfortable position on his bunk. They were silent for a little while. Jacobin pretty much knew what Estan meant but didn want to argue about it: that he had just been emotional when he had caught his prisoners and in reality, there had not been much special about them to begin with. ”It just… seems promising to me that they would be fundamentally different from us humans. That elven village could have existed for a number of reasons, it doesn necessarily need to be sinister. ” Jacobin made an ugly face. ”Unlike the end of it. ” He felt that he needed to pour his heart out. ”I just can take that life in general is just this, no matter who inhabits the world! ” Jacobin said in a tired tone. ”Yeah, well. ” Estan answered. ”Maybe the benevolent part of the elves actually is when they wipe us all out. ” A short laugh came from Jacobin, he had turned to his side on his bed. ”I wish. ” he mumbled to this dark joke. Estan blew out the candles and they went to sleep.

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