Night time always carried strange and ominous peace with it – no wonder, for, in a place like the New Camp had been in the last time, silence carried threat in it, along with looming suspicion of dark (-er than normally) deals being arranged and dangerous deeds planned out in the long shadow of the cave. The only things to punctuate the silence usually were the characteristic sound coming from the magic ore mound; the steps of Cronos, the keeper of ore, who was rumoured to have been granted the ability to stay awake by Adanos himself; and the soothing coos of a flock of pigeons who had simply appeared at the settlement one fine day and had since claimed the holes in the wall of the cave along with the roofs of a few huts as their rightful place of living.
Lares let the parchment roll up, and stretched; his back creaked pitifully in the process. Another evening spent, leant over the table and examining reports, reports, reports and more reports. The scouts and hunters appeared to have secretly agreed on a specific time when they all came in carrying the damned scraps of paper with them to leave their leader buried under a pile of scribbles that had to be sorted into urgent and not so urgent before he wrote everything down on a single sheet in order to provide Lee with information about things in the Colony that would, otherwise, escape his notice. In addition, the autumn was knocking at the gate already, the warm, sunny weather changing gradually into a rainy, muddy mess, and soon even the last ray of sunshine was going to disappear behind dark clouds bringing storms, downpours and snow. By Lares’ standards, the previous winter had been bearable, at least more so than the winters on the mainland – ones that sent a shiver of dread down his spine whenever the rogue recalled them. Maybe, just maybe this island was not as bad as it had appeared to be when a couple of guards led him onto the docks in Khorinis.
A year after the arrangements were made and the new order set in place, Orik and most other mercenaries had accepted the fact that the part of the camp they considered a thorn in their oh-so-delicate eye was run by the same person the aforementioned man in particular had put a ridiculous amount of energy and effort in to persuade their leader he was not to be trusted. Now even the ever-grumbling, most dissatisfied mercenary among their ranks could find no valid reason to complain about the rogues.
Save for the regular: “They seem to pick a fight with just about everybody!”
The “everybody” in question being a mercenary who pranced into the rogues’ side of the cave, bearing ridiculous demands and accusations of items stolen that had merely been misplaced, and did so even after Lares himself pointed out – multiple times, too – that no thief would ever steal from people in their own place of living.
This unwritten rule, however, appeared to work only as far as the inner gate – for the items the Rice Lord and his thugs found missing (rings, necklaces, insignificant artefacts their former owners now slaving away on the fields had seen more importance in than just their weight in silver and gold) landed on a shelf or in the chest in the leader’s hut, sometimes by the dozen.
As for the brawl part... yes, okay, Lares admitted there was an issue with some of the boys attempting to polish each other’s nose on occasion (Butch in particular had taken up the position of the unofficial “show newcomers just how bad it is here” committee without informing those higher up in their peculiar food chain beforehand), however most of the arguments among the rogues were settled by them punching each other in the face a couple of times before heading to Silas’ tavern to have a drink to a new, better friendship until the next quarrel, in the dark hall filled with vapour of moonshine and smoke from swampweed reefers the brothers of the Sect delivered to their doorstep in surprisingly large quantities.
Not that anyone minded. For most, the blissful unawareness towards the world surrounding them was better than constantly being reminded of how unjust said world had been to them. Beliar’s cock!* All one had to do was walk to the other side of the lake – and the Barrier would remind him soon enough – and Lares was not sure he or anybody else around here would want to witness the consequences with his own eyes.
And still, despite all the small differences and quarrels among them, Lares was proud to say that, over the last year, the rogues had become more of a team – and as such they had certainly given a whole lot of headache to the Ore Barons. So much, that, among the inhabitants of the Old Camp, they had earned the most honourable title of “pests” – and more than half of the means used to unlock this historical achievement were ones neither Lee not the Water mages approved of. Despite that, the General kept his word, as promised leaving them full freedom in exchange for peace and order in the camp. Of course, there was the issue (which Orik still picked up at any chance he had) with the group that had taken off into direction unknown to anyone but themselves and had recently been sighted near the troll canyon. However, as far as he, Lares, was concerned, they were no longer a problem of his or the New Camp’s in general.
Let Gomez’s guards figure out what to do with them if they dare come too close to the Old Camp or their ore. Far as the leader of the rogues knew, Cipher still held some sort of contact up with them – if only to get his hands on stuff that was otherwise scarce in the camp and even the Colony. A born merchant always on a lookout for the best deal for him, a man with his resources and contacts could have easily put the royal suppliers to shame had he not been kicked into the Valley of Mines after a shady transaction gone south.
Short moment for a break and memories – and Lares reached for the next scrap of paper, cursing himself and whatever god had been at works at the moment he took up a duty which kept one from much needed, well-deserved sleep while everybody else slumbered. Lee might have had moved on from his ‘’me and them’’ stage a long time ago, but it had not made the leader of the New Camp less inclined to receive his favourite reading material at the arranged time.
Snappers fended off from the gate (“Why would anyone want to eat those is beyond me, but I don’t really care; I’ll just take Lee’s word for it.”);
One of the fishermen shacks disappeared into the lake between them and the Orc part of the valley (“Wonder if those guys can swim? I hope I am not the one to learn the answer to that question in person.”);
More bloodflies, half as aggressive and fast as they were during the summer (“Does that mean they’re only going to suck, like, half of your blood out or something? I reckon I could still crawl back to the camp if they did. Well... somewhat, at least.”);
New loonies from the Swamp Camp replacing their colleagues to spread the swampweed and a word or two of their god (“As though we do not have enough problems with those guys.”);
A strange light in the area – Cronos said it was most likely a will-of-the-wisp from the Old Mine that was attracted by the magic ore piled up in the centre of the cave (“Beliar’s cock! Just the thing we needed to achieve full happiness – a sentient ball lightning.”).
Nothing new or anything they did not know already, Lares sighed as he reached for the quill to add even more lines on the already long list in front of him. If this went on, he might as well save himself the effort (not to mention paper and ink, both of which did not exactly grow on trees around here) and tell the General to just re-read the scroll from before.
Sound of flapping wings, followed by restless cooing of the birds settled on the roof of his hut forced Lares to shift his attention for a moment. Some of the rogues would have done nothing more gladly than chase the feathered bastards off – provided, of course, if the pigeons gave in to intimidation instead of flying a circle around the lake and returning to their home. As for Lares: he liked their presence; it was a thing he had become used to during the years he rose from a mere boy nobody knew, to a famed entity nobody was sure actually existed and was made of flesh and bone rather than ether and legends. Many days and nights spent, hiding in some dusty attic with no other company than overly inquisitive birds who soon granted the stranger full right to be among them. Nobody could blame the birds (who had most likely descended from perfectly good house pets, food source and carrier pigeons kept at the castle before the Barrier) for wanting to be here, in the cave, as they flocked to the place that held a greater promise of food supply and safety than the canyon or the mountains did.
Just like people. Take the newcomers, for example, who had arrived earlier today and sought to join the rogues – to which Lares answered by sending them on their merry way again, this time equipped with tasks the sole purpose of which were the determine whether or not the newcomers were going to be of any use at the camp. Accompanied, of course, by an advice to hurry up, lest they wanted to end up in the Free Mine.
All of them, as soon as they made a step over the threshold of his home, spoke the same:
‘’Better than serving the ore barons. Better than being bossed around.’’
Blah, blah, blah.
Small fish, all of them. A lot of them did not manage to finish the tasks and landed either in the mine or on the rice terraces. Which one? That solely depended on whether Okyl’s or the Rice Lord’s (“Does this guy even have a regular name, or did his parents consult a soothsayer and decide to call their kid Rice Lord in advance to save him the effort of thinking?”) men were faster to rally the newcomer for their cause.
Rustle outside the door – not expected, but not exactly able to catch Lares off-guard as well – made the rogue lift his head. The hand which had been, until a moment ago, holding the quill, now reached under the table and rested on the sword at his side.
The only person Lares could imagine coming to his hut at such ungodly hour was Lee – and the General made too much noise for him to go unnoticed in the dead of the night.
- I apologize, - a voice interrupted the otherwise silent night before one of the new guys lifted the curtain hanging in the door and entered the hut, -but the matter is urgent.
- In! - Ignoring the fact he had already shamelessly let himself in before an invitation from the master of the house, Lares gestured impatiently at the visitor. Last thing he wanted right now was more work, yet the rogue saw no other way than to succumb to his fate. – What might be so urgent you need to come barging in here in the middle of the night?
- I apologize again, but...- the newcomer appeared tense; far too tense for him to be merely worried about standing in this house for a second time today. There was something about his movements – stiff, unnatural movements, none of the feline-like grace the stranger had carried himself with in the morning – that made Lares’ fingers lock around the grip of his sword. – Gomez sends his regards!
In past, his reflexes had already saved Lares’ life – and multiple times so – and this he was thankful for right now, as the sharp end of an axe collided with the back of his chair. The chair’s owner himself dived to the side just a second before it would have otherwise made an acquaintance with his head.
The visitor turned and attempted to strike again, only for the blow to be taken by the sword the rogue had drawn as soon as he was standing firmly on both legs. The sound of iron on steel cut the silence of the night.
Together, the opponents fell through the curtain, the spy tripping over the threshold and falling onto his back, while Lares went with the laws of inertia and landed on top of him. With both men having dropped their weapons during the fall, the sword was now dangerously close to the assassin.
The plan to snatch the weapon was cut short, and the newcomer howled curses instead, as his arm took a blow, then another, against the hard ground. The birds who resided on the roof of the hut and the wall next to it took off, fearful, leaving everything in a cloud of dust and feathers as people in the camp began awaking to the distinct sound of a skirmish.
Where the other blade had come from, Lares had no idea, both at that time as well as later. The bastard must have hidden it away just in case the initial plan failed. All he knew was that there was suddenly burning sensation – and no time for contemplations, as the instincts of self-preservation had already kicked in, and the assassin howled again as his healthy hand collided with the rock floor, dropping the knife.
As for the following events, there was little that Lares could recall once it was over and he was lying on top of a bloody, gurgling to-be corpse that was choking on own blood. His breath was heavy, the warm blood of his opponent was soaking into his clothes fast, and sickening presence of iron filled his mouth with disgusting, thick, stuffy feeling rather than taste. White clouds of steam rose towards the cold night sky, the precious elixir of somebody else’s life cooling down and thickening on the ground.
Something warm, wet and sticky run down his face and dimmed sight as though a red curtain.
To the far, far left, somebody retched.
Somebody else cursed.
Whole lot of cursing from everywhere in the camp, as more and more people became aware of the events that had taken place merely moments ago.
Then, familiar hands took hold of Lares’ shoulders and pulled him off the opponent.
Though his heart still beat with enough force to believe it was going to break its way through his chest, Lares had at least calmed down enough to take a seat on his bed, instead of trying to put a dent into the floor by pacing back and forth ever since he had been brought back inside. When Lee entered the hut, the thief’s eyes were forged to the chair which now sported a brand new, rather impressive crack where the woodcutter’s axe originally meant for his head had landed.
Lee cleared his throat before speaking – and at that moment the mercenary was glad Lares had no weapon on him or within reach, as, when he turned to look at the intruder, the rogue's facial expression did not forebode anything good. Particularly since half of it now disappeared behind a thick crust of blood. Too much strain on his body and soul alike, the General concluded. Anyone appeared an enemy at the first moment – even people well-known and only wishing good to come to him.
- I thought you might want to know, - Lee placed a bowl of water and a bottle that looked suspiciously similar to those Silas used for moonshine, on the aforementioned infamous piece of furniture, and took a seat next to the rogue (who was, in the meantime, eyeing the two items with visible suspicion), - that the boys caught one of his pals leaving the camp right after the little shit tried to kill you. Torlof and Cord are questioning him right now, but, from what he’s said so far, Gomez seems to have thought he could have solved a few problems at once if he sent some people in here to do the dirty job.
- They’re guards, then? - Heart climbed up the throat just at the thought alone.
- Luckily, no. Just small fish. Diggers who want to serve their way to the top quickly. People who wouldn’t be of importance in case of failure. And, of course, no way to prove it but their own word. If I were you, I’d cut down on that petty quarrel your men have with the Old Camp. We cannot afford a war within the Barrier. Let me have a look!
- Let me have a look at that, - the mercenary repeated, taking him by the chin (“Wow, such caring touch.” – “I can pull you by the ear, if you’d like that better.” – “... I’m good.”), and forced Lares to turn his head. Over his time of service in the Myrtanian army, Lee had seen – and been voluntarily forced to tend to all kinds of similar wounds, which right now made him the most experienced person in the room – and most likely in the whole camp. – Look at that, - the General whistled silently and was rewarded with a glare. – Lady Luck has been on your side. A bit to the right – and you could have lost the eye.
Water, mixed with rice schnapps (or, judging from how much it burned once applied, it was most likely the other way around) did a good job removing the crust of blood already hardened on the skin, the smell of iron filling air. Lares had to admit: the mercenary knew his way around such business, as Lee pressed a cloth drenched in the alcoholic beverage to the wound, simultaneously disregarding any complaints – or attempts to pull free that the thief made – leaving him no other choice than to clench teeth and wait, putting up with his fate like a man:
- Beliar’s cock! Least you could do is warning me!
- Sorry, I thought it was common knowledge that booze on living flesh makes the flesh suffer.
- Haw, haw, adding an insult to the injury. Ouch! – Lares exclaimed when more of the liquid fire run right into the wound. – Okay, okay, I am shutting up.
- Yes, you better do that, unless schnapps with blood is your preferred drink.
- I am being mocked by the head of the New Camp! One of us has definitely sunk low enough now, but I can’t figure out whether it’s me or you.
Lee muttered something unintelligible, but, from the looks of it, he had a fairly strong opinion on the identity of the one who had.
A short eternity (and more grumbles on both sides) later, Lares was finally permitted to have a couple of gulps of the healing potion he had dug up in the chest (one of the strong ones that were exclusively a thing for the mages and a few chosen ones, and actually had a drop of magic to them rather than just herbs working as painkillers and energizers). Watching the flesh mend in front of his eyes, Lee made a mental note to look into how the thief had gotten his hands on the precious concoction. Later. In a week or two. Maybe a month.
Meanwhile, the aforementioned thief had put away the half empty bottle and was feeling the red, swollen area with his fingers.
- This is going to hurt like hell in the morning, - he finally concluded.
- And then it will itch.
- Are you gloating, General?
- Just don’t sleep with your face in the bedding, and you’ll be fine, - Lee ignored the last part.
- And it’ll leave a scar. I hope Gomez is happy, now that my good looks are ruined.
- In your case, it’ll be an improvement. Will go nicely with the ones on your back.
The rogue snorted, amused about the (rather dry and made at his expense – but in a situation like this, he could not afford to be picky) joke, and leant against the wall, sighing. Heart had finally slowed down, taking the morbid excitement along with it, yet Lares, despite his best attempts, found himself unable to get rid of the shiver. Fault at this were a few realizations that had just dawned on him:
One, he had almost lost his life tonight;
Two, as much as he hated to admit, the Ore Barons’ hands did reach into the whole of the Colony;
And three (and he hated to admit this even more than number two), Lee had been right – recent past had just as much right to come back to haunt him as any other point in his life did.
In the meantime, Lee had followed his example and reclined against the wall as well, thus providing Lares with a convenient headrest. The air was stuffy with the smell of iron and moonshine, a light steam still rose from the bowl of what had been hot water when the mercenary had set it on the chair, and above the heads the pigeons had returned, cooing as they settled for the night once again.
Peace and silence. And not a hint to tell of tonight’s events but the crack in the chair and a dark spot on the ground outside which somebody had already covered in sand.
When he returned to the New Camp, wearing yet another victory on his sleeve, and learned of the recent events, Orik was clearly impressed. Unfortunately, the way the events had unfolded merely proved to him that, once again, the rogues had bad news written all over them. After all, at least according to him, Lares only had himself to blame: had there not been raids on convoys so often; had the rogues not been taking, in great excess, what clearly belonged to the Old Camp, over the past year, the Ore Barons would have never come to the idea of sending assassins over to his doorstep.
Having preferred to take up the humble role of a spectator from the very beginning of the ordeal, all that was left for Lee was to admire just how many things the leader of the rogues was able to let slide at the moment. in any other case, the General would have had to interrupt the quarrel before things got unnecessary violent (“Are you sure they took you for a theft, not a bar brawl with consequences?”), as Orik just so happened to be one of the two people in the Valley of Mines who could easily bring Lares to a state of incandescent anger in a matter of minutes. There was just something about the way he viewed the world and the people around him, not to forget the condescending scowls he graced a lot of the rogues – and Lares in particular – with, when they walked past. From all Lee had seen over the time Lares had spent in the New Camp, he concluded that some people simply could not be in the same room for long without wanting to tear the other a new one.
Even more so if one of the aforementioned people had not yet forgotten (and most likely did not even try, to begin with) that one particular insult that had been thrown at him by the mercenary.
Finally, Orik went on his daily routine with a feeling of accomplishment as the last word was, this time at least, behind him. Lares, on his turn, felt a lot less inspired and, truth to be told, wished he had had the healthy sense to come up with an urgent business that had to be tended to, and excused himself before the leader of the New Camp called out to him. Alas, now he was standing in the middle of the room and staring at Lee, and the mercenary was sure his right eye would have twitched, had it not been for the swollen, reddened skin and pained flesh.
- If looks could kill, - Lee smirked. – You are getting progressively more unbearable every time there’s something wrong with you.
- You what? - Lares had obviously not heard or did not pay attention to that remark, for there were more important things for him to worry about at the moment.
- I want you to pick a bodyguard or a few from among your people, - Lee repeated, in his trademark monotonous voice the General used when he wanted to hear no objections (not that Lares had ever been bothered by it before, but the hope was the last to die, even if the case was as hopeless as this one). – A few you trust most. I want them to be stationed at your door at all times.
- You want? You want? - Lares spat, anger lighting up in his eyes. – I thought we had an agreement! And now you make demands?
- When Gomez and his entourage find out that their plan failed – and they will find out it failed – do you really think they will stop at that? “Beliar’s cock! It failed! Guess we shouldn’t bother anymore!” No, they’ll try again. And gods alone know what they might come up with next time. I don’t want to have to go looking for a new right-hand man, especially if I have to go looking for one among your guys. One time was more than enough.
- As though you spent such long time on it, instead of grabbing the first bloke getting on your nerves. I manage just fine without babysitters, - the rogue turned his back on him and began pacing about in the cave.
- And I want to sleep at ease, not turn about worrying whether there’s some footwipe of the Ore Barons’ creeping around in the shadows, ready to slit your throat.
- Get a sleeping potion from the mages or ask the sect loonies for help then, - Lares snorted. – On second thought, maybe just the mages. Might join the sleeping bloke otherwise.
- I know that, as a thief, you’d mostly rely on yourself, but here...- ignoring the last part, Lee attempted to seek words that would persuade the rogue, yet none he found would have worked as well as the simple, naked truth did. Besides, saying things were different within the Barrier would mean telling blatant lies. – Look, through my whole life in service to the crown I have seen people perish in battles and petty quarrels. Acquaintances, friends, even family members. I just one to know that you are safe, that’s all.
- Safety is a luxury for a thief.
- Not if I can help it.
- That sounded like a threat.
- Not a threat, - from the change in the thief’s voice, Lee knew he was very close to reaching his goal, and Lares would give up soon, should he play the last hand just right. – An ultimatum. Get yourself bodyguards before the week is out, or you’ll find a mercenary at your door the morning after. If that happens, no newcomer will be able to make a step through said door any longer.
Just the mere promise of having one of those guys in his close proximity all day every day felt like toothache to Lares; Lee could tell it from his face as it gained an expression of sheer terror (particularly after the General had oh-so-innocently suggested Orik as one of the possible candidates for the honourable post) right before the rogue turned his back on him. Not just due to personal preferences, for a mercenary right outside the door was guaranteed to mess with Lares’ business – whatever that business might be at the give moment, and Lee did not feel inclined to find those details out today or any other day in general.
- Should they also follow me around like murderous ducklings?
Still with his back to the mercenary, Lares missed the chance to see the grin – that of a satisfied tomcat that its owner had accidentally locked up in the pantry overnight – spread on Lee’s face as he knew the battle had been won.