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The Freetown Bridge Part 3

== PART THREE ==

The world was full of cold and confusion when Iona woke again. The barn was buzzing with noise of busy people. Behind her, she recognised the voice the stout Quartermaster, cussing and muttering, and possibly banging something with a mallet.

To one side, she could hear Gerard’s sing song nasal tone, deep in conversation with another scholarly voice and on the other side, the guttural grunting of some kind of large greenskin and the squeak of a goblin. People where starting to arrive, it must be getting later. She sat up, her head pounding and looked across the dim room. She had been lying on a large pile of empty sacks and someone had thrown a blanket at her by the look of it.

Derek was standing by the map table that was now surrounded by faces, familiar and unfamiliar to Iona. They were bantering loudly in a way that suggested that most of them had only just arrived. Concentrating to focus her eyes, she could make out the tall slender figure of Jacob, the militia man, hovering just back from the group, gazing at the map silently trying not to intrude into the world. The tartar woman, who Iona knew was from Clan Dragon but whose given name she had not yet bothered to learn, was standing to one side of Derek leaning forward over the map poking it ferociously with a finger.

Derek appeared to be paying attention to her largely because he couldn’t help it. She recognised the back of Tobin’s leather jerkin, with his ornamented battle axe strapped across it, next to him were a podgy priest of some light alliance god, probably Law, and Grizzal the shaman. The remaining two at the table were Tirion and Taryn, earth elf twins whose magical talents it was best not enquire about. She couldn’t see the faces she was looking for.

She was considering lying down again, when a colossal stone grey hand hovered into her view clutching what appeared to be a very small tankard.
“Wa’er?” said a rumbling voice, and Iona turned to her head to see Errg’s knees standing next to her. Popular rumour claimed Errg was a stone golem, although it had also be put around that he may just have been a very very overgrown troll.

It was largely irrelevant, whatever he technically was the fact remained that he was nearly 14 feet high, and almost 5 feet across and he could with a small effort crush a human skull with his hands. It would have been terrifying, had it not been for the fact that Errg had the wit and intellect of a slightly stunned harvest mouse and therefore only tended to kill the things his friends told him to. In this respect, it definitely paid to be one of Errg’s friends.
“Wanna hand up?” he boomed, proffering his other giant knobbly hand.
“S’alright thanks,” slurred Iona, eyeing it suspiciously and pushing herself to standing.
“You sleep well?” he said, craning his neck to look at the top of Iona’s head
“’’s thanks,” yawned Iona stretching. Errg continued,
“Derek said to move you, cos you was in da way,” he paused, and resumed talking with almost glacial speed, “I fort da sacks would be da most comfy place.” He looked at Iona with the kind of expression that she had last seen on a puppy who had just learnt to fetch, and she had to fight hard the temptation to try and pat him on his immense lichenous head. It was then that Derek caught sight of her and called across the room.
“You were snoring you know,”
“Shut your face,” she retorted, taking the tankard of water from Errg finally
“Come and look at this map.”

A while later, Derek assembled everyone present in a circle to talk through the missions ahead.
“It seems to be some kind of arch like structure, built of predominately of Frisian grey sandstone, with we think a large gem of some kind in the apex,” explained Grizzal, handing around a sketched picture a stone arch construction. “They’re calling it the Freetown Bridge.”
“You know what they’re saying, don’t you,” interrupted Iona, a sardonic smirk on her face “They’re claiming it’s a monument to peace.” There was a flutter of derisive laughter around the circle, “that’s exactly what I said,” she added before allowing Grizzal to continue again.
“It’s built over a waterfall on the River Taen, to the immediate west of Freetown. From what we can tell, it certainly doesn’t function as a foot bridge.” Grizzal stopped speaking abruptly and sat back down on a hay bale. Straight away, a hum of whispers spread around the room. Derek’s voice cut through the buzz.
“Thanks Grizzal. What do the mages have to report?” This time, Gerard stepped forward, hands clasped across his belly, a note clutched in his hand. His whole face seemed to clench somehow upwards.
“It would seem that this apex gemstone is of some importance,” he began in a nasal drone, fiddling with his notes. “We’ve done some research and we think they maybe trying to create some kind of power source or storage place, although we can’t say what kind of power for definite but it’s fairly safe to assume that if it’s Frisian it’s not going to be friendly,” he chuckled dryly at his own joke and looked a little disappointed that not even the other mages had joined in. “We can’t tell for certain, because we can not access the required texts,” as he said this he looked pointedly at Pyrs the podgy Law cleric, “but we fear it may be demonology.” This announcement also failed to have the desired effect, as absolutely no one in the circle appeared to be at all shocked by this. “If we are forced to destroy it, it must be done before it is activated or else there could be dire consequences and it is likely that will have to destroy the gem to deactivate any power it has,”

He had started tapping his knuckles gently against the palm of the other hand, his usual habit whilst lecturing at the Mages Library, and a sure sign to all the adventurers that he was about to start pontificating about the nature of magical power storage or something equally as tedious. Swiftly, Derek stood up and said diplomatically,
“Thank you Gerard, very informative.” His eyes scanned the crowd, there was one other report he wanted before opening the forum up to general discussion. He was about to say that they would have to wait for the resistance intelligence when his eyes fell on two faces that had not been there at the start of the meeting. He smiled as he saw them and they both beamed back.
“And now, the resistance report,” he said with an intense look that caused the whole gathering to turn and follow his gaze. “Welcome, Mr and Mrs Freemonte.” The room filled with whoops and cheers of congratulations, and somewhat abashed, Freemonte and Josephine stepped into the centre of the circle.

Iona looked up for the first time since the start of the meeting, smiled and blew a kiss to Josephine, who winked at her and then began to speak.
“Intelligence is sketchy,” she said, beginning to pace slowly around the circle, “We know already most of what I have been told. However, there is more,” this brought a new kind of hush. She had a presence and command of an audience that belied her years and for the first time tonight all eyes were on a speaker and all ears were open. “It seems that they have been taking slaves, from the border towns of the Elven and Middle kingdoms, whole families, in some cases whole communities snatched in the night by use of gas and binding, and thrown into carts.

The carts have been traced as far as the forests to the West of Freetown, but no further and we currently can’t say where these slaves are being held or what they are being used for, although it seems likely that they are being used to build the bridge.” The mention of Elven slaves, probably including children, had caused a visible rise in tension amongst the gathering; blood was clearly running very high. Derek stepped forward again as Josephine and Freemonte returned to their place in the circle and said
“So, these are the facts as we know them now we need to make plans.” Like a shot, Iona had joined him in the centre of the circle knowing well that only the first speaker would have their opinion heard by all in what was about to become a blustering free for all.
“This changes everything,” she said resolutely, casting her eyes about so that they made contact with as many people as possible. “If there are captives, then we have to free them, before we pull down the Bridge.” That was all she wanted to say, knowing that would be enough to ensure that a mission of mercy would indeed be sent to the slaves. Then she stepped back as four or five people spoke at once and the circle became a torrent of impassioned voices. She sat down on a hay bale next to Derek and sighed. It would likely be midnight before the argument ended, and the outcome would be extremely simple: rescue the slaves and destroy the Freetown Bridge, probably in that order.

The night sky was dense blue, small wisps of indigo cloud cut across the stars. The air was still, and this far from the barn the night was silent, save the odd hoot and response of the hawk owls in the woods. Josephine and Iona sat on a fallen trunk, staring down the valley.
“You look very happy Josephine,” said Iona at last.
“Yes,” said Josephine, with a wistful but contented smile. “I am, but for how long?” Iona reached out and took her friend’s hand and squeezed it. She recognised that heart wrenching dread.
“Don’t think like that Josephine, when I think of the Summer of Fire and all that happened, I am so glad that I never stopped before to count the cost.” It was Josephine’s turn to squeeze Iona’s hand.
Iona rarely spoke of the actual loss of her husband, even though she referred freely to herself as the Widow Pringle. She carried on speaking, her pride refusing to let her voice become aggrieved, even in front of one of her closest friends. “If I had lived those days wondering if one of us was going to die I would have no memories to hold on to now and almost certainly no daughter. There was a chance we would both come out of it alive; all we could do was hold on to that hope.” She felt a cold drop fall on to her hand, and turned to Josephine to see that her young companion was crying.
“Oh, Iona, I wish I could feel like that. I wish,” she stopped mid sentence and collapsed onto Iona’s warm breast. Iona enclosed her in her arms, and held her as her whole body shuddered with waves of fear and pre empted grief. Time passed and they sat in silence. Josephine calmed and wilted into Iona’s supportive grasp, it was all Iona could do for her; she could speak no words of comfort. She had felt how Josephine felt now and she knew that there were no words that could make it better.
In the unmoving night, they sat for what may have been nearly an hour. Then suddenly, there was an unexpected rush of wind and a woman fell from out of nowhere and landed at Iona’s feet.
In a trice, Iona had pushed Josephine to one side and pinned the woman to the floor. Pausing for a moment, knees on her shoulders, knife at her neck, Iona actually looked at the woman’s muddy blood spatter face. With exhausted eyes, the woman looked up at her, too weak and tired to protest.
“Saran,” said Iona, leaning back in surprise, and nearly loosing balance. “What in the pit are you doing?” she exclaimed, lifting the dagger from her throat. Saran look up at her imploringly, and then passed out. Iona turned to look behind her for Josephine, who was struggling to her feet, and strapping on her weapons belt. Together, they scooped up Saran’s frail worn out body and carried her back to the barn.
The arrival of the priestess brought the meeting to an abrupt stop. She was gathered up by the other light alliance followers, revived, blessed and cleaned up by the healers and then fed.

Now it was creeping towards dawn and the room had been filled with the heavy breath of sleep for several hours. Dark shapes in every shadow tossed and turned in their restless slumber, fighting the adrenaline that coursed through their veins and the muted light that began to push the night away.
Wrapped in a blanket, Saran was sitting next to Derek on a hay bale, pawing over a map of the border territory, yawning. Once they had worked out exactly where she had been, she began to tell Derek exactly what she had seen on the journey to the meeting barn. As the sun rose her story ended and she looked at Derek with bloodshot, watering eyes.

Her pale face seemed to be sleeping already, before she flopped forward, and Derek caught her slumbering form. Softly he laid her down on the bale and pulled the blanket over her. Then, he walked out into the early morning haze, his head fizzing with thought. One thing was clear, whatever it was that the Frisians were up to, they were determined that no one was going to see it.

Sylas clenched his knees hard, remaining seated through sheer determination alone. Tollie spurred the horse onwards, willing the poor creature to travel even faster. Behind him, he could hear the pounding footfalls of the Red Army Guards. They were showing no sign of abating, and to his horror, the sound of horse hooves were approaching at pace. It was easy to catch up with a horse laden with two unskilled riders particularly if the horse was Frisian and the riders weren’t. Tollie suddenly realised how ridiculous that thought had been, he was fairly certain that whatever the Frisians could and did do they almost certainly could not brainwash their horses.
“Cut the rope,” he shouted over his shoulder to Sylas, thrusting his dagger behind him, aware that his words had probably been swallowed by the wind. “Cut the rope,” he shouted again, louder this time. Something must have reached Sylas, or he had come to the same conclusion by himself, because Tollie could feel pressure on the dagger as Sylas struggled to sever the strong cord. Then abruptly, the pressure was realised and the rope fell limp.

Sylas snatched the knife from Tollie’s grip and there was a cutting noise. The length of rope dropped to the ground with a slap, and soon it was far behind them. The hilt of the dagger was jabbed unceremoniously at Tollie’s back a couple of times until he reached back and took it. Then there was a rummaging, squeaking sound, a clank and a dull thump as the chuffs also hit the floor, and Sylas clung hard to his waist.
The Frisian riders were still giving chase, and by the sound of it were catching them up. Tollie’s heart was racing but behind him Sylas seemed to be fairly calm. He leaned forward slightly, and whispered into Tollie’s grimy ear
“Remember Paravel?” Tollie grinned and started to veer left towards a small coppice of horse chestnut trees. The Frisian riders swerved to follow him. Searching the thicket he spotted the perfect tree and headed towards it. Behind him, he felt Sylas wiry body tense as he readied himself sliding his feet up on to the saddle. In a flash, he had sprung to his feet grabbed the low branch they had been heading for and hauled himself off Tollie’s horse. Feeling the unexpected lightening of its load, the horse sped up carrying Tollie away into the woods. Sylas scrambled up so that he was standing on the overhanging bow.

The Frisian captain sniggered; his quarry really had no skill. He had seen every step of their plan clearly. The scrawny one was trying to climb a tree, so that he could jump down onto another horse, push the rider to the ground and make a quick get away. The conceit of the man to think that he, with his pathetic runty physique, could unseat an officer of the Red Army.
He snorted derisively again and signalled to the men behind him that he was going to split off and follow the rider whilst they dealt with the runt up the tree. He galloped on giving the overhang a wide berth, although he smacked the end with his bastard sword so that the branch wobbled dangerously as he passed. Sylas was not taken by surprise and retained balance while the effect of the blow dampened and stopped.
However, he was being slowly surrounded by the remaining riders. Three of them circled the bottom of the tree on their mounts, swords drawn, teeth bared in sneering predatory grins, like three tigers closing in on a single mouse. There was no way Sylas could leap out of that tree now and survive.
After a minute or so they stopped circling and dismounted, shouting taunts up at him in their thick guttural common. Coolly, Sylas walked along his branch to the main trunk of the tree and began to clamber further up it. Looking down, he smirked with satisfaction as he saw his ploy had the desired effect.

Impatient for the capture, one of the guards had sheathed his sword and began to climb the tree. As much as they liked to mock his tiny lean frame, the guards should have known that it had certain advantages. Heavily muscled men trained for warfare and laden with weaponry find it much harder to climb trees that flighty little street rats like Sylas.
Soon, after a pitiable display of sliding and grunting, one of his comrades sheathed his sword and stepped forward to give him a boost up. In the mean time, Sylas had stopped only a few feet from his original bow, and was sitting comfortably on another large branch looking down the road in the direction that Tollie had ridden.

The guard captain spotted the abandoned horse and slowed his own mount to a walk. He couldn’t have got very far on foot. He paused for a moment under a tree. Eagle eyed, he searched the woodland for any sign of movement, but was unrewarded. He couldn’t even see any tracks. He slid from his own mount, and bent to inspect the ground around the abandoned horse. The mud was very soft here, and there were fresh prints of a large pair of feet heading up the road, although they didn’t seem to be running which puzzled him. He stood up for a second and felt something hard and damp contact with the back of his head. He stumbled forward and a quiet voice said
“Welcome to Paravel.” Then there was a sharp searing pain in his throat and darkness.

Tollie took the reigns of the horse he was already sitting on, brushed some leaves from his hair and sniggered. No one ever thought to look up another tree, once they had seen Sylas up the first one. Casually, he trotted over to the other horse which was docilely munching some grass and grabbed its reigns. Working them both into a canter, he headed back towards Sylas.

Sylas let out an audible chuckle as the tree climbing guard slipped again and landed heavily on his colleague’s foot. The third guard then sheathed his sword and made to help as well. It was perfect. He didn’t have to wait long before the sound of hooves could be heard and the guards turned to look, their lapse in concentration resulting in an undignified and comedic heap. It was too perfect, even in Paravel it hadn’t worked this well.

Leaping to their feet and attention, desperately hoping that their commanding officer had returned victorious not quite in time to see their abysmal display of agility, they watched astonished as Tollie galloped into view. Leading a riderless horse that was easily recognisable as the chestnut mare that belonged to the Frisian captain, he rode towards the tree. Then he paused for a second as his partner fell from the tree straight into the horse’s saddle and in a split second they were both gone. The three guards looked at each other askance and got back on their horses. Captain Velenten had better be alive, or else they were going to have some explaining to do and none of them were sure how they were going to manage that.