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The Freetown Bridge Part 2

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Derek unrolled the maps again; it wouldn’t hurt to have one more look. The brittle parchment of the world map curled at the edges, although he did his best to smooth it flat, resting a stone on each corner. Then he placed the smaller more detailed maps around the edges as he had done five or six times before and weighed them with more pebbles. Finally he opened the rough schematics he had been given just over a month ago, a crude drawing of the road to Freetown with a tell tale doodle in the corner, a tiny outline of the construction they were now calling the Freetown Bridge.

This time he was going to see the clue, the key to this whole thing. Carefully, he examined every inch of every document. Then, he walked around the table, and examined it all again upside down. Still, he couldn’t see it. He kicked the table leg and walked out of the room.

He cursed. Who had died and left him in charge of this mess? Wincing, he remembered exactly the great man who it had been. Then he sighed and sat down on a log. It was a far cry from home certainly, but in his heart he knew he would not want to be anywhere else.

The barn was in the middle of nowhere, a farm house nearly 2 miles away was the nearest building, and he could barely see that across the rolling landscape. Behind him, a thick pine forest raked up the hill side, giving way to the mountains that lead to the Frisian borders. The air was nearly silent.

He couldn’t imagine why anyone would have built a barn here in the first place; it wasn’t arable land, and nothing had grazed this grass for quite sometime by the look of it; there wasn’t even a particularly reliable track. From the smell of the place it was possible that the previous owners had been llama herders, but it could have been goats or cloth storage for all Derek knew. This much, however, was obvious: it was perfectly positioned for his purposes. He had been here since early the previous evening, and he had seen no one at all. At one stage he had wondered if he was in the right place, before he had realised that he was just doubting for the sake of it.

He looked up at the sky, at the grey clouds that formed a seamless blanket over the sun. It was difficult to know what time it was on days like these, away from the temple bells and the Mage’s Library with its peculiar time keeping devices. He guessed it must be late afternoon by now, although it did not seem to be turning towards dusk yet. By his calculations, the others should start arriving soon and then time would start to tumble away once again. He might have time for one more look at the maps. Sufficiently calm again, he wondered back inside the barn.

Iona convulsed, wretched and vomited again, then she wiped her mouth with a scrap of cloth and stood up. Purposefully, she straightened her tunic and doublet; she tightened her belt and rearranged her collar. Dipping her hand inside her leather tunic, she produced a shard of mirrored glass and checked her hair and face. Then she stepped out from behind the rhododendron bush and walked back to Gerard.
“Are you feeling better?” he said, timidly. She just looked at him, eyes heavy with contempt.
“If you tell anyone about that, I’ll kill you,” she said without looking away and Gerard had no doubt that she meant it. “We need to move now, it’s going to start getting dark soon and I want to be there before it does.” With that, she turned and began to stalk off down the track, leaving Gerard yet again scuttling behind her.

He would be glad of a rest he thought, when they finally reached the meeting place. It was not in him usually to walk so far or so fast. Years of scholarship had left him underdeveloped and flabby. He could not help feeling anxious about the coming few weeks in that respect, even if he did survive the horrors that lay before them, what of the blisters and the aching and the hunger that were pretty much his sole memories of the only other battle he had ever been to? He also doubted that he would hear a civil word spoken to him for the whole of his time there.

He had come to expect little but terse brevity from the kind of people who spent their lives chasing one war after another. It seemed to him to be a sort of chicken and egg conundrum. Were they brusque because they spent their whole life in a state of flux or was it their boorish manners that drove them to find this the only life style acceptable to them?

Sometimes he wanted to go home and leave them all to die, but something in his heart prevented him from doing this. They were not after all bad people, for all their rudeness their intentions were always of the highest order. He also suspected much to his own personal shame, that he actually quite liked them. Although looking up the hill to see Iona balanced on an outcrop, arms folded, tapping her foot impatiently, he couldn’t for all the tea in Kchon work out why.

He stilled his contemplation, gathered the last of his energy, hitched up his robe and began to run.

When they reached the barn, they were greeted warmly by Derek, although Gerard was wheezing too much to say anything and went straight inside to sit down.
Derek embraced Iona affectionately.
“You were sick again weren’t you?” he said, a mocking twinkle in his eyes. Iona looked at him for a moment reprovingly, and then softened. It was a waste of time to try and cultivate an aura of sudden violence with Derek, he knew her far too well.
“You know I can’t handle magical transport. It does it to me every time,” she said at last. “See what I do for you?” They both chuckled and breathed out.
“Have you looked at the maps?” asked Derek after a minute or so of companionable silence.
“No, not yet. I haven’t had a chance. It took me nearly a week to find that great big drip in there,” she said bitterly, waving to the barn.
“He is a very important drip,” said Derek soothingly, “We do need him.” Iona looked at him through narrowed eyes, she wanted to hope he was wrong but she knew in her heart that he wasn’t.
“I would have been more use here,” she insisted, trying to look stern but Derek just smiled.
“It couldn’t be helped; there was no one else around. I know you hate Gerard, but I didn’t think you hated him that much. I only got here last night anyway,” he paused and continued before Iona could speak her next question.
“I was with my family, on the farm. We had a family dinner and I cleaned out the pigs.” Iona chuckled as Derek had intended, he knew how much she detested farm work, but he did not laugh with her. A shade of melancholy had crossed Derek’s twinkling green eyes and Iona put a gentle hand on his shoulder.

It was that deeply painful sense that it was the last time you were going to do something or see someone. Instantaneously, Iona felt the same wave of melancholy running over her, but she managed to push it away. When Derek looked up, his eyes sparkling again, and said
“So, do you want a drink?” They went into the barn.
Gerard had flaked out on harsh straw mat in the corner, his pigeon chest rising and falling rhythmically. Derek produced a stoppered stoneware bottle from his pack and sat down on a hay bale; Iona sat opposite him and watched as he let it settle slightly
“I remember this bottle,” she said, smiling. “It’s not the same stuff is it? That must have been nearly as old as me from the smell of it. How the stopper stayed in I’ll never know.”
“Same bottle, different stuff,” said Derek gingerly removing the plug from his teeth. A pungent aroma that might once have contained a hint of fruit filled the air. “Same still.”
He took a deep swig from the bottle, swallowed hard and handed it to Iona. “My brother found it in the hay barn in the top field and got it working again,” he continued to explain, “It’s not had quite the same time to mature obviously, but I think it’s a lot smoother.” Iona swallowed and then nodded, passing the bottle back again.
“S’okay, by the smell of it, it should have the same effect,” she said, and then burped loudly, “If I sober up properly before next week I shall be very disappointed.” Derek snorted with amusement, and took another gulp.
“Exactly,” he said. “And there’s always the other bottle.”

Crouching behind a pine tree, Saran could see the back of the guard hut clearly. In the panic of first arriving, she had thought that she had come down on the wrong side of the border. On further investigation, it seemed that she was on the right side of the border, but she had arrived about 100 yards from an army outpost. Right now, the hut appeared deserted, but she was sure this would not last for long and she was right.

As she shifted her weight from knee to knee, she saw a flash of red and then a man came around the corner of the hut, carrying a black iron halberd in both hands. The man was about six foot and dark and he was wearing a tabard that marked him out clearly as a Red Army Guard. From this distance, she could see the rank stripes on his shoulders, but she couldn’t make out enough detail to tell whether he was a corporal or a sergeant. Chances are, if he was a sergeant then there would be upwards of 10 men stationed on that outpost, and they were probably all patrolling the woods right now. With breathless poise, she stood up straight and turned around. If she could find the southern tree line, then she was safe. Stepping as lightly as she could, she picked her way between trees and bushes, towards the pale light that seemed to be filtering in from the south. Her heart pounded in her chest and the blood rushed into her ears. She never heard the guard as he stepped out behind her. The first she knew about it was the rough hand that clamped over her mouth, and the sinewy arm that snaked around her waist. Then he lifted her clear off the ground, leaving her kicking futilely in the air.
“Priestess of the Chalice are we?” he sneered into her ear, his rancid breath sticking to her neck. “You’re a long way from home.” Saran thrashed about in his arms, and tried to bite his hand but she couldn’t get purchase with her teeth. “Wonder what the sergeant will say about you?” he continued, as Saran squirmed and wriggled like a freshly caught fish, “shall we find out?”

He began to walk back towards the outpost hut, not even remotely hampered by Saran’s slight form. Several times she lashed out at him with her feet, trying to kick his knees or groin, but she failed and all he did was laugh derisively at her, spraying her ears with more of his foul stench.

After a minute or so of struggling, she gave up and went limp. She would have to wait until he put her down and it was pointless wasting her energy now. The guard took this as apparent resignation to capture and leered unpleasantly again that the sergeant would be very pleased to see her. He carried her all the way back to the outpost, and into through a side door. The inside of the hut was sparse and utilitarian, stone floor and walls, a table and some chairs and a row of straw mattresses. The room stunk of sweat and rotting flesh, Saran guessed that there was no bath house in the outpost.

The guard carried her through what were obviously the living quarters into another room beyond. Like the living quarters, it had stone walls and floor. It was partitioned in to two sections by a row of iron bars that stretched from floor to ceiling, and one side was clearly a gaol cell. Heavy, rusted manacles hung from the walls, and there was a pile of sacking flung in the corner. In the other half of the room, was a desk, with a chair either side and at the desk sat the dark man she had seen earlier.
“What do we have here Warrington?” said the sergeant looking up from his paperwork, his voice and eyes were both calculating and cruel. Saran felt him stand to attention before he spoke.
“Priestess of the Chalice, sir,” he said triumphantly.
“Well put her down, corporal,” said the sergeant, “let’s see what she has to say for herself.”

Saran felt herself being lowered to the ground, and then her feet made contact with the stone and she was standing again under her own power. Immediately, she dropped to her knees, and the corporal lunged to stop her, but the sergeant waved him off. Interfering with a priestess of the Chalice whilst she was in prayer was widely recognised as a very foolhardy thing to do even for a Red Army Guard.

Saran reached inside her vestment, and clutched her tiny pendant. Her heart still racing, she prayed fast to the Goddess and then focused all her thoughts on to her physical form. The muttering of her prayer became the muttering of a spell, and then even as the guards watched her, hunched over and rocking on her knees, she disappeared.

Safely in the realm of her Goddess, Saran fled like a fox in the hunt. She could scarcely hear the cursing and yelling of the corporal and his sergeant as they dashed about trying to find their prisoner.

She ran towards the pale light, no longer worried about making a sound. She could not be seen or heard or even touched in the material plane for now. This was expediency itself, but she had hoped not to have to squander her magic on the journey, not entirely aware of what she was going to be facing when she arrived.

Iona was wet with dew when she awoke the next morning, on the grass outside the barn. Derek was nowhere to be seen. Gerard strolled out of the barn looking bright eyed and alert much to her disgust. He handed her a tankard of what appeared to be fresh water and a chunk of journey bread so solid that Iona could have bounced it off the floor.
“Where’s Derek?” she managed. She looked up at the smug face of the wizard towering above her and tried to avoid attempting to bite the journey bread.
“He went down to the road to meet the provisioners. The cart should be here before lunch provided there has been no hitch. He said to tell you that they’re on the table if you want a look, and that you would know what that means.”
“Thank you,” murmured Iona, still not sure she was actually awake, maybe she was dreaming.
“I’m going for a walk,” said Gerard haughtily, “There are supposed to be rare orchids in those wood.” Iona could only groan in response to this. He stopped and turned and looked at her with a superior sneer, “You do know that you were howling at the moon last night, don’t you?” Iona just looked at him, groaned and then passed out again.

Tollie wiped the blade of his knife on the guard’s shirt front. The guard wasn’t going to have much use for it now anyway. The guard’s suddenly unemployed horse, now tethered to a nearby tree, beat its hoof on the tree roots impatiently and shook its mane. Sylas rifled through the contents of the dead man’s belt pouch and grunted at his findings.
“Typical, bloody typical, these soldiers never have anything interesting on them. Just papers and potions, not even any money,” he grumbled, picking through the mess of papers, looking for identity documents and filling his pouch with the potion vials.
“I’ll have to wear this uniform, it’s far too big for you,” said Tollie, unbuckling the dead man’s belt. Sylas didn’t look up,
“No bloody wonder you made me wait for a biggun,” he muttered as he sniffed the contents of a small red bottle and pocketed it.
“Looks like we’re in luck though,” continued Tollie, panting from the strain of bodily handling a man probably three stone heavier than himself. “He’s got his cuffs and rope with him.”
He held them up, two rough leather cuffs with rusty iron buckles and heavy loops attached to a long length of thick rope. The design was ingenious in that when the cuffs were secured on to the rope and the rope was pulled, they became tighter and even harder to escape from. It was standard issue kit for any Red Army patrol guard who might make a capture and then have to walk a hostage more than a few yards. The cuffs were invariably made with iron buckles because of the extra pain this caused to elves. Sylas looked up this time, but didn’t say anything; he just scowled at the grubby cuffs and went back to the documentation, clearly he and Tollie had different definitions of the phrase “we’re in luck”.

A few minutes of concerted effort and Tollie was dressed in the tabard and gauntlets of a Red Army Patrol guard, Sylas was strapped into the cuffs and tied on to the back of the horse and the unfortunate guard had been booted until he rolled to the bottom of a nearby valley. Another two minutes, and ‘Private Marcus Duvall, 21st Scouting Division’ was back on his mount and heading for Freetown with a prisoner in tow.

On the outskirts of Freetown, as the sun was setting, Private Marcus Duvall 21st Scouting Division tethered his horse to a great oak and released his prisoner.
“Next time, we murder a little one,” complained Sylas, rubbing his wrists. “Then you can walk miles behind a farting horse.”
“Whinge, whinge, whinge,” retorted Tollie, adjusting his trousers. “Ouch,” he said, and staggered backwards as a pebble hit him on the forehead. Sylas beamed vindictively and made a move towards the towering oak they had stopped beside. Sylas was not much different from a human size squirrel, Tollie considered as he watched him shin up the giant trunk. He even had a worrying tendency to find valuable things and then bury them.
He was not at the top of the tree long; in fact he shimmied down even faster than he had gone up.
“We need to get closer,” he said abruptly, his face devoid of expression.
“Couldn’t you see anything?” said Tollie, preparing to mount his horse again.
“Oh, I could see all right,” said Sylas, still emotionless and clearly distracted trying to strap himself back into the cuffs. “That’s why we have to get closer.”

Freemonte left the tavern, tucking the key carefully under both his doublet and vest. This was the last town on the Dwarven side of the border with Aberddu, and the last place they could sell the horses before they became a burden. They would be no good once they reached the meeting place, and they would only become a drain on supplies. It meant the remaining 20 miles of the journey would have to be done on foot but the weather was beautiful and it would give him a few hours alone with his wife.

He could still scarcely believe that such an incredible creature had consented to marry him. Her crystal blue eyes and soft golden curls were everything he had ever dreamed of. She was fiercely passionate and quick witted, easily a match for him intellectually. And above all that, she was clearly besotted with him, although he couldn’t understand why.

She was the only daughter of the De Beaujolais’, an Old Albion family of standing, brought up among the great and the good in the best circles of Albion society. Her father, like Freemonte, was a former Captain of the Queen’s Guard, and highly thought of among military and aristocratic circles alike.

As a young soldier, Freemonte had idolised Captain Jacque De Beaujolais for his skill as a swordsman and tactician and had aspired to his example. It still shocked him that this great man was now his father in law. Freemonte’s shock at his open acceptance into the De Beaujolais family was compounded by two things, the first being that he was nearly twice as old as Josephine. In fact he remembered her as a tiny girl of 3 or 4 visiting the parade grounds in a little Albion Blue shift dress and a white cardigan, standing next to Staff Sergeant Ruddock, gazing up at him with fear and wonder in her eyes.

The second was that unlike Captain Jacque, Freemonte had not retired from the service; he had been dismissed for alleged insubordination. There were few men of rank in the Guard, and in fact the rest of Albion, that were still prepared to freely associate with him for fear of what it may do to their social standing. It seemed Captain Jacque was not so squeamish; he was a man of strong character who preferred to make his own judgements about men. This only led Freemonte to respect him even more making it very hard for him to address him as anything other than Captain De Beaujolais or Sir.
For her part, it seemed that ever since she was a little girl, Josephine had adored all the guardsmen and in particular, Freemonte had been shocked to learn, him. When she had come to Aberddu just after her sixteenth birthday, she had headed like many for the Adventurers Guild, only to find it populated by among many others a number of former Queen’s Guard.
A kind woman with long black hair, whose name she could not remember, had introduced her to the dashing Captain Freemonte, even though the introduction was unnecessary. He had taken her hand, kissed it and bowed deeply and she had been enchanted.

The paradise that Freemonte presently found himself in might well be short lived he realised. They had been married less than a month, barely back from their honey moon tour of their relatives in Albion, when a messenger had arrived with a note that had lead them here.

Josephine was waiting in the town square, leaning against the horse trough. She smiled when she saw William, and her smile made his stomach flip. She did not move, but remained leaning on the trough, letting him walk towards her, her grin spreading wider and wider. When he was only about a foot from her, she pulled her hands from behind her back and flicked her fingers, spraying murky trough water across William’s face and shirt. Then she darted off towards the town gate.
“Gotcha,” she yelled playfully over her shoulder, chuckling as she ran, the sun glinting from her hair. Freemonte stood there for a moment, unsure how to react and then he turned on his heels and raced after her. Although he caught up with her quickly, she dodged and feinted, eluding his grip. They were both starting to become short of breath, mostly because they were laughing so much, completely unaware of the audience of bored townsfolk that they were attracting.

The chase took them all the way to the Norgate and out in the road, where Josephine stumbled, and Freemonte took his chance. Lunging forward he swept her up in his arms, and met no resistance. He stood for minute with her in his arms, her arms around his neck. They were silent, catching their breath. First to recover, Freemonte looked into Josephine’s endless sparkling eyes and smiled.
“I love you and whatever happens I always will,” he said softly, and Josephine’s smile faded slightly. Suddenly, her eyes were heavy and flat as though her spirit had somehow been stilled. Carefully, he put her back on her feet and she turned to him, her eyes searching his face.
“Do you mean that,” she said emphatically, “Do you really mean that?” She sounded almost panicked. He took her hands and squeezed them, unsure what else to do, clearly his young wife was terrified.
“Yes, of course I do,” he said.
“I love you too,” she said intensely, her brow creased and her feature tight, “and whatever becomes of us, you must remember that, please. I love you more than life itself.” Freemonte looked on the earnest young face, and had no words. He just enfolded her in his arms, and felt her whole body droop against him. Her head in the crease of his armpit, Josephine squeezed another tear from her eye.