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Aleksander knocked three times into the hard dark wood door, waiting for Valcus to respond. He put his ear next to it, heard loud footsteps and took a step back. The door was unlocked and the hinges creaked a sharp creak as it slowly opened, a pair of emerald green eyes peaked from behind. After a few seconds of silence, the face turned into a frown.
‘Get in, you bloody morons! What are you waiting for?’ Valcus’s hoarse voice echoed through the forest behind.
The two got in quickly, shutting and locking it behind them. Valcus had always been like that. A man with a pride as thick as the Gates of Peril and unrelenting as the iron it was built from. He invariably presented a sober demeanour to all of his subordinates. Tall and green eyed, rather funereal looking when wearing his gold rimmed monocle. All of his suits were tailored to always have a special pocket for it, on the right part of his chest, though to Aleksander it always seemed to be way too close to his armpit. Valcus was in his mid forties now, but he had the same imposing speech and stature as when he was shouting at the front lines when recklessly charging into battle.
‘What the ****, Aleks? If Bras hadn’t thought of bringing you back home, you would’ve been dead meat.’
‘Look, I’m sorry, I-’
‘I don’t care about you or your dumb excuses. It would’ve been too costly for you to die, considering how much money and time a-a-a-and patience I’ve spent on you.’
Neither Bras nor Aleksander opened their mouths to retort as it would have been useless. Valcus was considered one of, if not the most aggressive and brutal High Commander of his time. A good strategist, he had won many skirmishes which allowed him to be promoted as High Commander in the first place. The people knew of his ruthlessness, but soon they came to realize it was a double edged sword, used both on their enemies and the populace alike.
‘Good thing you weren’t carrying your sword, as you’re supposed to. Kid, I swear, often you do well, but when you blunder you do so miserably.’ Valcus looked at the ground, shook his head with a long sigh. ‘You’re lucky that you actually managed to do your job though. Bring me that head at the Table.’
The Blue Table was the name of the place where the High Commander would gather with his Known Soldiers. There were only six out of the original eight left. The past few months had proven difficult due to the lack of food and bounties claimed. Living close to the bottom corner of Arolia, making two or three day long trips back and forth to Viondril just to see if there were any new doable bounties was not cost efficient. The men were forced to take matters into their own hands and become what they had fought years ago: bandits. The first one to commit a crime was one of the remaining Known Soldiers, Mary. She was one of the younger members of the group, being twenty, with Aleksander being twenty three and Bras about twenty seven, making him the second oldest, the youngest being Badger, at nineteen.
I’ll save my comrades… my friends, somehow. ‘Rules are made to be broken,’ isn’t that what Aleksander would say? ‘Always be a good ally’ was Mantel’s motto. Tonight, I’ll do what it takes. She sneaked out of bed, put on her boots, took her sheath and sword and went out the opened window. She looked back at Martin sleeping, blew a kiss and started walking slowly away from the base. Mary knew she’d find some lost adventurers near there, or a camp of bandits. Nobody would suspect her, with how cunning she was. When she reached the forest she broke out into a sprint, not caring about any ghost stories that were rumoured to be true. The only things she could hear were the banging of her heartbeat at her ears and the muffled sound of her feet against the cold dirt. Except for her sword, she had taken something that she had gotten as a gift when she was asked to get married, called a ‘clock.’ It would show what the exact hour was, without needing to look at the stars or sun. ‘Quite a darned clever thing,’ is what her father had told her. Now, it was two in the morning, and she remembered a time when she would wake up and improve her swordplay with someone Valcus had employed. She never saw his face, but he was a big man, resembled Brasol in every way possible, except for the fact that he would never talk. She was ten at the time, the age where all girls had to pick between training for war and being housewives. There was no picking for boys. She didn’t know much about Nourthin when her parents moved there, but she lived better than she had before, except for the safety provided by the thick walls surrounding the city she grew up in.
After an hour of running, she stopped and caught her breath. It was a mistake to not bring water, she was telling herself, but she wasn’t thirsty. Mary could run four kilometres without stopping in her twenty kilogram armour without breaking a sweat. Now, she was approaching some sort of camp, as she saw a small glint of fire between the tree branches. She started climbing the tree near her that seemed to be the tallest and began grabbing and putting her feet up onto branches that got thinner until she managed to find a good spot from where she could see the fire. It was about a quarter of a kilometre away now. She looked at her blade and told herself the words she always had before a battle. For life.
Aleksander looked at Mary and waved, making her somehow suddenly aware of the things happening around her. She smiled back and tilted her head slightly. He pulled out his seat next to her right, Bras to her left.
‘I see you’re alive and well,’ she whispered in his ear as he stood down.
‘I understand that Valcus has been soiling himself for the last two days.’
‘Yes, he has. You’re fortunate enough you didn’t have to endure his ramblings and snide remarks.’
‘I think my –so called- luck ran out when I decided to almost die,’ Aleksander said.
Now everyone was staring either at Valcus, Aleksander or at the middle of the table, waiting for someone to speak up, but no one content with hearing what they already knew. There were no ‘try again another time’’s from Valcus.
‘As we all know,’ the old man began, rubbing his eyes with his palms covering his face, ‘the success of Aleks here –even though it was by a hair’s breadth- is not without bad consequences, or rather, filled with good news.’ Everyone looked at him, confused. ‘Can one of you tell me why small, although numerous, creatures managed to manifest themselves into immense beings –of course, compared to a human- with substantial strength? When I was young, I wasn’t taught to fight against the Ogres in Zalutti’s books! I thought that the name Slithers hailed from their size and ability to slither like silent snakes, not use oversized weapons and throw trees. Something ought to have happened in order to evolve these monsters one way or the other, and we must find and drive this force out.’ As he spoke, his monocle fell and bumped against his chest. He stopped, put it in his pocket.
‘But surely we can’t do anything about it,’ Harth –one of the Known Soldiers- said, gaining everyone’s attention.
‘Absolutely. We are but a few small people in a small room, saying big things that big ears will never hear… unless,’ Valcus trailed off, started looking down, furrowing his eyebrows but at the same time smiling out of the corner of his mouth. He let out a small ‘huh,’ straightened back up, put on his monocle and with a tight-lipped grin said ‘We have to do some digging.’