Walk Through Fire - A Blood and Tears Novella

He escaped a life of responsibility. Now on the run for his life, responsibility has found him again.



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Walk Through Fire - A Blood and Tears Prequel Novella


Jonrell escaped from his previous life, leaving behind an unhappy existence of privilege and responsibility. Two years later, as a captain in the mercenary Hell Patrol, responsibility has found him again, whether building relationships in the chow line or saving lives on the battlefield.

After completing their most recent contract, the Hell Patrol is looking forward to a long-deserved rest. But when a former employer conspires against them, many are thrust into new roles, including Jonrell.

While on the run for their lives, Jonrell's skills are put to the test as he reins in the clashing personalities of the surviving Hell Patrol members.



Prologue

Stepping off the ship and walking down the cluttered streets of Mudhole Bay had felt like entering a new world. Jonrell and his best friend, Cassus, tried to acclimate themselves to the rough way people behaved and the broken speech patterns of the grime-covered town. Yet, even after a change of clothes, they could not shake the mark of being outsiders.

Stares from the locals followed them wherever they looked for work.

Jonrell noticed Cassus nervously eyeing the passersby, his thick black hair bouncing with each swing of his head. “Wishing you would have stayed behind?” he asked.

“The thought had crossed my mind.” A fight broke out in the middle of the street and they skirted around the altercation. “High Mage Amcaro always told us the world was much different outside of Cadonia. I just never realized how different.”

“It’s not too late to turn back, you know?”

“Are you going back?”

Jonrell shook his head. “Not while my father lives.”

“Then neither am I.”

Jonrell pointed at a tavern up the street. “Come on. Let’s get a drink.”

They stumbled into The Orchid, assuming from the name it was a relatively reserved place. Within minutes after sitting at the bar, Jonrell learned that the worst of the worst frequented the bar—many taking issue with new arrivals.

Three men approached them and Jonrell knew there would be trouble. He tried to smooth things over by offering them drinks. But the men wanted more than a drink.

Jonrell looked them over and knew a fight could not be avoided. He jumped from his seat and went for the biggest man first, rocking his head back with a punch to the jaw. Cassus kicked another in the groin. The third got a shot in on Cassus, sending him to the ground. Jonrell took out the knee of the first man and then subdued the third with a boot to the gut.

Cassus rubbed his jaw as Jonrell helped him to his feet. He pushed back his long auburn hair, feeling pretty good about himself and proud of Cassus for taking some initiative. But any reprieve Jonrell hoped they had earned was dashed by the heavy sounds of thudding boots against the raised wooden floor.

Five men headed their way and four held drawn swords. The fifth was huge, older, and carried himself with a hardness that Jonrell had never seen before. The man needed no sword to be taken seriously. Right away Jonrell knew him as the leader of the group. Expecting more trouble, Cassus drew his own sword and took a step back. The others stopped and readied themselves.

Jonrell stood his ground, unmoving, as the leader raised a hand, signaling his men to stand down.

“Why haven’t you drawn your sword as well?” asked the big man.

“You have the look of a man who’s interested in talking, not killing.” Jonrell noticed the attire of the five standing before him matched the three who groaned on the floor. Blood red.

The big man grinned wide and nodded. “Why don’t you tell your friend to put away his weapon so we can talk?”

“Only after your men do the same,” said Cassus over Jonrell’s shoulder.

The leader shrugged and gave the command to his men. Even with weapons put away, the tension lingered in the air. Jonrell and the leader stared unwavering into each other’s eyes, neither willing to break away first. The man smiled again as if Jonrell had passed some test. He extended his hand. “My name is Ronav. You took out three of my men.”

Jonrell hesitated then extended his own. “We weren’t looking for a fight, but they wouldn’t leave well enough alone.”

Ronav laughed. “I bet they didn’t. Few of my men would.”

Jonrell didn’t know what to say to that.

“New to Slum Isle then?”

Jonrell nodded. “Looking for work. We thought we’d try Mudhole Bay first.”

“Then you’re in luck,” said Ronav, grinning wider. “I’ve got a proposition for you two.”



Chapter 1

…Two years later.

Jonrell, like any other soldier, hated to wait. As a captain in the mercenary Hell Patrol, he filled the time between assignments by drilling his men and pitching in where needed. Even in an encampment of thousands, time seemed to slow as soldiers crept into their routines.

Messengers rode out days ago with terms to offer the other side. When the riders returned, Jonrell expected his next set of orders. He knew he should be thankful for the break since at any moment, everything could change, but the sitting around made him restless. He rose to his feet, stretching the stiffness from his limbs.

“You’re leaving now? I’m just about to start up a game of dice.”

“Then you should be happy I’m leaving. That’s one less person to take your money.”

Raker scowled and spat. He wiped the tobacco juices from his mouth with the back of his hand. “I was ready to give you some company but after that, I’ve changed my mind.”

“When have you ever passed up a chance to cheat someone out of their pay?”

Raker shook his head. “Go on and get out of here. The last thing I need is your sour mood affecting my luck.”

Jonrell left the army’s encampment in the hot afternoon and within minutes headed into the ruins of an ancient city, its name long forgotten. Another victim of the great earthquake, he thought.

Battered walls crumbled as weeds pushed through the cracks and mortar. Gaping holes in the earth had split some buildings in two, while trees sprouted through the collapsed roofs of others. Coming across several dry wells Jonrell imagined the citizens of the land suffering through the aftermath of such a disaster, betrayed by the man sworn to protect them.

He shook his head thinking about what it must have been like during those dark times that still lingered even now. “The worst trials of our lives will be what define us. A man must not forget himself or his ideals, lest he become a husk of who he once was.”

Another of High Mage Amcaro’s words of wisdom Jonrell learned long ago. Why did Aurnon the Second turn his back on his people? He should have embraced them.

Jonrell brooded. He weaved between the broken buildings and cluttered alleys of a distant past, wondering if the lost souls of the ancient civilization questioned their decisions as he so often did.

Am I an empty husk of the man I once was?

Hours passed as the evening’s red sky turned a leaden gray. A warm breeze danced across the windswept city, brushing aside his long auburn hair.

I better head back to camp before dinner is gone.

He rounded the corner of a building when a high-pitched squeal followed by a slur of deep-throated curses stopped him. His hand went to the sword at his waist. Drawing the blade, he ran around the half-standing walls on his right to the sounds of debris falling and coarse yelling. He darted into a narrow alley.

Limbs flailed in a cloud of dust and a heap of wood. A soldier from Effren’s army, the Hell Patrol’s employer, climbed to his feet, howling a string of curses. Blood and spit sprayed from him as he searched around his feet. He pushed aside a plank that fell apart in his hands and snatched up a dirk. Jonrell edged through the mouth of the alley. He took in his surroundings and searched for what could have let out the screech.

“Where are you? I know you’re still here,” said the man.

“Cord, what’s going on?” whispered Jonrell when he was within a few feet of the man.

The man wheeled around with his blade. Jonrell caught his arm and pushed him backward. “One Above, what’s gotten into you?”

Cord staggered back, looking dumbfounded to see Jonrell. “Sorry.” He shook his head. “I thought you were that little devil.”

Jonrell cocked his head. “What?”

“Shhh,” said Cord, holding up his free hand, wild eyes darting around the alley.

A hint of movement caught Jonrell’s eye as a small figure hidden in shadow crept from a window opening. It dropped to the ground without a sound. Slowly, it inched away from the two men.

Cord whipped his head around at the movement, and ran toward the figure, dagger in hand. The blade missed as he slashed furiously at the shadows. Off balance, Cord fell into a wall, toppling several blocks and sending another storm of dust into the air.

The form tried to slip around Cord with another high-pitched screech as the soldier’s flailing limbs knocked it to the ground. A grin crawled across the soldier’s face as he eyed his prey, blade ready.

Now bathed in the light of a rising moon, Jonrell clearly saw the soldier’s opponent, and with several quick steps barreled into Cord as the man tried to rise.

“What in the name of the One Above is wrong with you? She’s just a child!” Jonrell took the girl by an arm as he regained his footing and backed away.

Cord scrambled to his feet, eyes narrowed with a determined focus. “Get away from her, Jonrell. That ain’t just some innocent little girl. She’s been scrounging around camp and stealing from me for over a week. When I caught her earlier, she bit me. Then I chased after her and she pushed a door on me and pelted me with rocks. The girl needs to be taught a lesson.”

The girl let out a yelp and backed into a wall. Her path of escape had been cut off and Jonrell saw the fear in her eyes. “Back off. She’s just a kid.”

“That ain’t no kid. Look at that red hair. They say that kind is touched by the One Below.”

“That’s an old crone’s tale. I’m not going to let you kill her.”

“Don’t worry, I promise she’ll live through what I plan to do.” He grinned. “But I guarantee she ain’t gonna have any fight left in her afterward.”

Cord lurched toward the girl, but Jonrell blocked his path. He stared into the soldier’s eyes and raised his sword.

Cord came to a halt, beady eyes widening. “You best get out of my way. I’m set on this,” he said starting forward again.

Jonrell held firm his position.

“One Above. Get out of my way!”

“Go back to camp and cool off,” said Jonrell in an even tone. “You don’t want to die tonight.”

Cord eyed the little girl. Jonrell felt her cling to his leg. Cord met Jonrell’s eyes and muttered a curse. “You and your commander ain’t gonna be in charge of us forever, you know.”

“I know.”

Cord started toward the alley’s mouth. “I’ll be seeing you around.”

“I’ll be waiting.”

Cord swore again as he rounded the corner.

Jonrell allowed himself a small sigh of relief. The last thing he wanted was to kill one of Effren’s men in a dark alley with no witnesses to back him up. He knew Ronav, his commander, would support him. However, the rest of Effren’s army, especially General Ahned, would want blood in return.

He looked down, surprised to see two thin arms still clinging tightly to his leg. He frowned at the little girl. Lice crawled through her wild red hair. Her stomach distended from her body. Grime covered the pale skin of her arms and legs. She wore a potato sack as clothing. The girl reminded him of the young sister he left behind. Jonrell felt a tug in his chest. He cleared his throat.

The sound startled the girl and she quickly unwrapped her arms and jumped back. She eyed his right hand which still held his sword. He spoke quietly, using the common tongue of Thurum. “I’m going to put this away now.” Moving with care, he sheathed the weapon and took a knee to speak with her eye to eye. “I promise I’m not going to hurt you.”

“I know, sir,” said the girl in a soft voice.

“You do?”

The girl nodded and quickly averted her gaze. “You saved me, sir.”

He smiled. “Fair enough.” He removed his gauntlet and extended a hand, not sure what else to do. “My name is Jonrell.”

The girl looked at his hand with trepidation. She inched forward and reached out with her own. “Yanasi, sir.”

She took her hand away, seemingly ashamed just for speaking. “How old are you, Yanasi?”

“Eight, sir.”

She’s so small. “Where are your parents? Maybe I can get you back to them.”

Immediately tears ran down her face, streaking paths through the dirt. “My mother died,” she sniffed. “My father left me here on the way back from burying her. I begged him not to, but he said I was old enough to take care of myself.” She sobbed harder. “But I’m not. I only wanted to get something to eat and drink. I didn’t want to steal, but I was so hungry!”

One Above, she’s starving to death.

Jonrell reached out to her with open arms and she flinched back between sobs, shying away from his touch. He snatched up her frail frame anyway and embraced her gently. The fight left her. She rested a head on his shoulder and cried harder as her arms tightened around his neck. He started back down the alley and through the ruins, carrying her in one arm.

She’s as light as a babe.

“Where are you taking me?” she asked through her tears.

“To see that you’re cared for. First, something to eat and drink. Afterward we can get you cleaned up and find you some clothes.”

She squeezed his neck again. “Thank you, sir,” she said, voice barely a whisper.

Jonrell blinked away the wetness forming in the corners of his eyes.

Must have been all the dust that was kicked up earlier.



Chapter 2

Krytien sat inside a small wooden hut in a village on the northern tip of Mytarcis. His master, Philik, a man older than dirt whose mind had been honed by age, sat across from him. Krytien had never been able to figure out why Philik had insisted on mentoring him after their chance meeting in a local market a year earlier, but the old man wouldn’t take no for an answer then, just as it seemed he wouldn’t now.

“Estul Island? But Master, I’m not ready for that.”

The old man shook his bald head. “Your understanding of the arts has increased at a pace I’ve never seen before. You still lack discipline though and I feel confident that High Mage Amcaro will succeed in helping you where I have failed.”

“You haven’t failed, Master. I just prefer to practice sorcery off of feel rather than wasting my time on silly exercises.”

Philik’s eyes narrowed. “Those exercises are not silly. I thought I proved that by controlling your mishap today.”

Krytien lowered his head. “I didn’t mean any disrespect, Master. It’s just . . . for me to improve as rapidly as you say I have, then I must be doing something right. I just need more practice.”

Philik sighed. “You do need more practice, but you need to learn the old ways and concentrate on structure first before attempting anything so risky again. Do you realize that no one has progressed in becoming a black robed mage as quickly as you have? You could be a High Mage one day if you learn to apply yourself. Perhaps one of the best, ever! I’ll write you a letter of recommendation tomorrow to take to Estul Island. There, you will learn from the greatest mage alive. Despite your reservations, I know it’s what you want. Am I right?”

“Yes, but the money. . . .”
“. . . .will be waved once Amcaro reads my letter. Now, it’s late. Go home and get some rest.”

* * *

Krytien woke with a start. He rubbed his eyes.

Twenty-five years ago and that dream still haunts me.

He sat up and shook away the lingering images. His former master never wrote the letter and he never saw Estul Island. Philik died in his sleep that night and Krytien went off to seek his fortunes elsewhere, eventually joining the Hell Patrol.

“No use worrying about it now,” he muttered while rising to his feet. “Plenty enough to worry about today.”

* * *

An hour past dawn, Krytien slipped into the dark tent as his commander snored. He wrinkled his nose at the smell of alcohol-infused sweat. The mage exposed a chubby hand from his black robe. A blue light formed in his palm, brightening slowly until the tent dimly glowed. The snoring broke off and Krytien watched his commander attempt to shield his vision as he peered through cracked eyelids. Red eyes glared for a moment, then the man rolled over, turning his back to the mage.

The room brightened and Krytien added a bit of heat to the man’s backside with his other hand. The groggy figure slipped his hand under his pillow, doing his best to conceal a dirk next to his head. Ronav turned and flung the blade across the space.

Krytien casually stepped aside and the dirk embedded itself in a nearby post. The man fell to his back with a loud exhale of breath as if the effort had drained him.

With Ronav awake, Krytien dimmed the light in his hand and lit a lantern.

“One Above. Can’t this wait until morning?”

“It is morning,” said Krytien. “You look like death.”

Ronav forced his eyes wider and groaned as he sat up, wiping away the crud that had accumulated in the corners of his mouth. He rested his head in his hands and rubbed at his face. “What was I drinking with Effren last night?”

“Whatever it was, you’re not the only one feeling the effects. Our employer is puking his guts up, last I heard.”

“Serves him right. Hand me that water skin.” After long gulps, he took a deep breath, his eyes regaining some of their luster. “One Above, last night was some celebration, wasn’t it?”

“Aye, and I’m sure a lot of people did things they’ll regret after sobering up.”

Ronav’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t even start. Glacar killed two of our own last night.”

“No kidding. General Ahned has the entire camp placing bets on the confrontation they expect to come. He’s put up quite a bit of money against you.”

“I’m sure he has. He still hasn’t gotten over Effren making me commander of the army.” He chuckled. “Let him lose all his pay then.”

“You know, those two idiots were cheating Glacar at dice. It’s not like they didn’t have it coming.”

“That’s beside the point. He’s not Hell Patrol.” Ronav stood up. He stumbled over to a pot in the corner and relieved himself. “You know I can’t just leave something like that alone. Fair or not, he needs to be put in his place before others think they can get away with pushing us around.”

Tightening his trousers, Ronav walked over to a table. “That’s especially true now. With the last rebel army submitting to Effren as their ruler yesterday, our contract is officially up. Some hold a lot of resentment toward us for how we got things done.”

“Effren doesn’t.”

“Aye, he doesn’t. A good man, mostly,” said Ronav, pouring water over his head. He flung his head back and his long mane of black and gray sprayed water behind him. He rubbed at his face again. “But Effren can’t be everywhere. I want those who might still hold a grudge, like Ahned, to know what they’ll get if they try anything. With or without cause.” He paused. “No better way to do that than to take a man like Glacar down.”

“I understand, but you could always let the new guy handle him. He may be small but Kroke has more than a knack for killing a man. . . .”

“Kroke? If we weren’t friends, I’d slap you for that. When have I ever let someone fight my battles for me?” He shook his head. “And if I can help it, I’d rather not kill Glacar. Like you said, those two recruits had it coming anyway.”

“You’re not going to ask him to join us, are you?”

He shrugged. “Never hurts to have another fighter in the group.”

“He’s more than just a fighter. The man’s an animal. You didn’t see the destruction he created during the last battle. The crazed lunatic was covered head to toe in gore and grinning the entire time.”

Ronav’s mouth twisted into a smile. “If you’re trying to talk me out of this, you’re doing a poor job of it. You know I like a challenge.”

“This one’s different,” said Krytien. “Since he’s so new to Effren’s army, you haven’t seen him fight up close yet but. . . .”

“One Above. You’re acting like I can’t beat the man.”

Krytien chose his next words carefully, not wanting to wound the pride of his commander and friend. “It’s not that, it’s just. . . . Can’t we push this off another day? I mean, you’re still hungover.” Krytien watched Ronav sway on his heels.

Ronav slapped Krytien on the back as they headed toward the tent entrance. “Quit worrying. I’ll be fine. All I need is some food in me.” He pushed back the flap, letting in the morning sun. He squinted and rubbed at his eyes. “You coming?”

“Can I at least give you something for the hangover?”

Ronav laughed. “Why? I gotta give the poor fool some kind of an advantage.”

* * *

Jonrell grunted as clanging steel sounded across the crude battle circle and echoed in his ears. Surrounded by a chanting crowd, mostly of soldiers from Effren’s army, Ronav leaped at his opponent, pressing him with a flurry of blows. Glacar’s double-sided ax parried each of Ronav’s attacks and the spectators cheered in satisfaction.

Despite all we’ve done for them, they love us little.

Jonrell felt anxious watching the battle unfold as the two combatants hacked away at each other. He knew little about Glacar except that the warrior’s reputation had grown quickly in the few months since joining Effren’s army. In that time, many spoke of his fighting prowess with both awe and fear. Jonrell could certainly see how Glacar had developed such a reputation as none had ever stood toe-to-toe against Ronav for so long without being overwhelmed.

The circumstances surrounding the confrontation were, in Jonrell’s mind, muddled at best. During the previous night’s victory celebration, Glacar had killed two new recruits of the Hell Patrol. The huge man had called them on their cheating and the recruits drew their swords.

Well, one did at least. The other lost his head before his sword had cleared its scabbard.

Right or wrong, Jonrell knew the validity of the recruits’ deaths mattered little to Ronav. He would never allow such an act against his men to go unpunished.

No matter what. Never a doubt in his mind. One thing that always impressed Jonrell about Ronav’s leadership was the confidence that emanated from him, even in the bleakest situations.

Jonrell had only looked up to three men in his life. The first was Amcaro, a powerful High Mage from Cadonia who instructed him in various fields of study during his youth. Another was Lord Undalain. Undalain and his wife, Lady Jaendora, acted like parents to Jonrell after his mother passed—more than his father ever had.

The last was Ronav, a man who had little in common with the others. The commander would shake your hand one moment and cut it off the next if he thought you might harm him or his men. Although rough around the edges, Ronav had given Jonrell something neither Amcaro nor Undalain could provide him with, practical experiences and anonymity from the life he left behind.

Glacar whirled his ax in the air, slowly retreating against the organized chaos of Ronav’s attacks. Steel resonated with each vicious strike. Despite having spent most of his time on the defensive, Glacar grinned ear to ear, fighting with a strange calmness. The two warriors began to trade blows more evenly, pressing and retreating under each swing.

“Man, they’re really going at it. I didn’t think anyone could last this long against Ronav,” said Cassus.

Jonrell agreed. He hated to admit it but Glacar fought better than two or even three regular men, flinging that giant ax of his like a small hatchet. The blows the wild man rained down seemed to come faster as the battle raged on.

“Ronav will finish this soon enough.”

“I hope you’re right,” said Cassus.

Jonrell heard the doubt in his friend’s voice.

* * *

Krytien watched the fight, shaking his head.

Curse you for not listening to me, Ronav. I told you not to underestimate the man. One Above, it was supposed to be over by now.

Glacar’s ax whistled through the air, just past Ronav’s ear as the commander ducked under the blow. Krytien’s gut tightened. He needs to end this.

Ronav came up fast, leading with his elbow, and crashed it under Glacar’s chin.

Better.

Glacar fell backward, but not before landing a boot to Ronav’s jaw. Krytien cursed as both men fell to the ground and rolled to their feet, in unison. Like mirror images, each man spat blood, though the spit didn’t quite clear Glacar’s tangled beard and dangled distractingly from it.

“You thought you had me, old man, didn’t you?” Glacar laughed. “I’ve been playing with you. That last attack was nothing.”

Krytien watched Ronav work his jaw and squint across at his opponent through the midday sun. “You done talking?” he answered in a voice rough with exhaustion.

Glacar flashed a bloody grin and laughed all the harder.

The wild man let out a yell and charged, lashing out with both ax and shield. Krytien winced as Ronav worked to turn away the attacks, some of which slipped through his defenses, scraping against the commander’s heavy plate. Ronav steadily gave up ground to the much younger opponent, shuffling backward and kicking up dirt with each step.

He can’t get to an opening fast enough, thought Krytien as he watched Glacar counter every attempt Ronav made to regain the upper hand. In all the years that he and Ronav had known each other, Krytien never saw him bested in single combat.

Krytien held out hope that at any moment Ronav’s experience would win out as it so often had in recent years when the Commander’s speed began to dwindle. But deep down Krytien knew that experience only went so far in a fight against someone younger, faster, and perhaps even stronger. Ronav continued to stagger back, shield arm shaking under each assault.

Krytien let out a sigh and got to work. Perhaps he won’t learn the truth.

* * *

“I think Ronav is losing,” said Cassus in disbelief.

“No. You’re mistaken,” said Jonrell. He watched Glacar howl as he forced Ronav backward step by step.

“Maybe, he’s baiting him,” suggested Cassus. “We’ve seen him do it before.”

“I was thinking the same thing,” said Jonrell, even though he really wasn’t. “That has to be it.”

However, when Ronav had baited someone in the past, he had never allowed himself to take the beating he received now. Blood seeped through gashes in his armor as bits of mail and plate fell away under the onslaught. To make matters worse, Ronav’s battered shield began to drop and his efforts to dodge the worst of each strike seemed less and less fluid than before. Ronav did not appear to be baiting Glacar at all.

Jonrell felt worn leather in his palm and realized that his hand had subconsciously drifted to the hilt of his sword. He worked the grip ever tighter between his fingers. Find a way to end this, Ronav.

The commander’s foot slipped under loose gravel as Glacar’s ax struck his shield. Between the force of the attack and the unsure footing, Ronav clattered to the ground.

Jonrell pushed men aside while working his sword free. A hand reached out and grabbed his arm.

“What do you think you’re doing?” yelled Cassus over the roar of the crowd.

“He’s going to kill Ronav,” said Jonrell, wrenching his arm free.

“We’re not in Cadonia. You can’t just interrupt the fight.”

“Watch me!” shouted Jonrell, angered that Cassus had slowed him. He whipped back around just in time to see Glacar’s ax descending again. Ronav sat exposed, transfixed on the instrument of his impending death.

I’m too late

But his commander moved in a blur. Ronav rolled away from the attack and jumped to his feet. Glacar’s crazed eyes widened as his blade lodged in the ground. Ronav struck Glacar in the face with the pommel of his sword. A spray of blood followed the crunch of a broken nose as Glacar’s head rocked backward. Ronav swept the man’s legs out from under him and a moment later stood over the warrior, sword in one hand, ax in the other, both weapons hovering within inches of his opponent’s face.

Jonrell’s mouth hung open. The roaring crowd had fallen deathly quiet. No one could believe what had just happened.

“See, I told you he was baiting him,” said Cassus.

* * *

Ronav stood over Glacar and Krytien saw the commander do his best to hide his fatigue. The mage let out a sigh. I hope it wasn’t too obvious. But who cares? Ronav is alive.

Krytien could not hear the conversation between the two warriors. After a few moments, Ronav sheathed his sword and helped Glacar to his feet. He gave the maniac back his ax and pointed him in the direction of the Hell Patrol’s camp.

One Above, Ronav. You actually went through with it? Even after all of that you still let that animal join us.

Once Glacar left and the crowd dispersed, Krytien saw just how weary Ronav appeared. His chest heaved with each breath, sweat poured from his face, and blood oozed from open wounds. Yet Ronav would not allow himself to relax. He walked over to Krytien with his usual air of confidence.

Letting the last of the befuddled onlookers shuffle by, Krytien backed into the shade and leaned against a nearby post. He noticed, all at once, how old Ronav looked. Without his helm, the sweat soaked hair of his commander seemed grayer than before. Blood from a cut on his forehead seeped into the valleys of the wrinkles surrounding his tired eyes.

Ronav threw his helm down and flung his shield to the side. He set only his sword down with care. Krytien handed him a skin of water and saw Ronav wince as he reached for it. The commander drank deeply and then poured the rest of the liquid over his head. The water ran down his neck and under his mail.

Krytien did his best not to fidget, but the mage could not keep himself from nervously running his fingers through his long gray hair. He had never seen Ronav like this after a fight, sullen and mouthing silent curses. Even with new injuries, it was common to see Ronav laughing and sharing a joke.

“Who gave you the right?” asked Ronav, his voice low and even.

Krytien cocked his head. “What do you mean? I’m not sure I. . . .”

“Stop. We’ve known each other for decades. You had no right to interfere.”

“So I should have let you die?”

“If that was the outcome, then so be it. This victory was hollow. I cheated.”

Krytien offered a smile, trying to lighten Ronav’s dark mood. “Technically, I cheated, not you.”

“You’re missing the point. . . .”

Krytien’s smile faded, tired of dancing around the subject. “No, you are, Ronav. We make our living by outsmarting our opponents in any way possible.”

“That’s different.” Ronav hissed. “You know that I don’t believe in using sorcery in something like this. This was one man against another. It’s not. . . .”

“It’s not honorable,” said Krytien, spitting the word out like a curse. “You and your honor can go to the One Below for all I care. You really are an idiot if you think the Hell Patrol would be better off with you dead and Glacar alive. No direction, no leadership, but Ronav would have his honor.”

Silence stretched.

“I didn’t ask for your help,” said Ronav finally.

“I know,” said Krytien, his voice calm.

Another long silence. “Five years ago it wouldn’t have been that close. I would have beaten him.”

“We can’t roll back time. Perhaps you were still feeling the effects of last night.”

“No. You tried to tell me this morning.” He grunted. “He is better than me.”

Krytien handed Ronav another skin of water. He tried to move the subject away from the past and into the Hell Patrol’s future. “So, you actually let him join us?”

“We can always use a fighter.”

“If you can control him. That’s quite a gamble.”

He shrugged. “Maybe I can help him redirect his anger. Make sure he saves it for the battlefield. If I recall, I wasn’t too different at that age.”

Krytien shook his head. “If you say so. But you still had good in you, Ronav. I see none of that in Glacar.”

Ronav laughed. “It’ll work out.”

The mage saw his friend trying to act like his old self. But the actions were forced and the mannerisms contrived. Losing affected him more than I thought it would. But why wouldn’t it? A man like Ronav who prides himself in being the best is going to struggle with knowing he is no longer the man he once was.

Krytien shook away his thoughts. “A messenger came by just before the fight started. Effren wants to see you.”

“He better not want to drink again.”

Krytien smiled. “It seems he wants to discuss the terms for our dismissal now that our contract has been fulfilled.”

Ronav nodded. “Better go see him then.”

“You don’t want me to see what I can do for your injuries first?”

Ronav shook his head, casting Krytien a sidelong glance. “No, I’ll let Hag care for the worst now and tend to the rest later. I’ve had enough sorcery in me for one day. I think I want to feel these bruises for a little while.”

* * *

“He let Glacar join us,” said Cassus, a sense of wonder in his voice. “I didn’t expect that to happen.”

“I’m sure he has his reasons.” Jonrell replied as they walked back to camp.

Yanasi came up beside him and tugged at his arm. She spoke in a soft voice. “Did you want Ronav to win?”

Jonrell glanced down and smiled. “Of course I did.” Even after a few meals, Yanasi had already started to look better. And if nothing else, she was clean. Still need to do something about that wild hair though.

“Oh. I thought you’d be happier then.” She looked confused.

Cassus laughed.

Jonrell gave him a scowl. “I am happy he won. It’s just that something didn’t seem right.”

“Even when something goes the way you want it to, you find cause to complain,” said Cassus.

It was the look on Ronav’s face. It’s like what he did surprised even himself.

Jonrell noticed Yanasi nervously looking behind her. “What’s wrong?”

“That man. Cord. He’s watching us,” she whispered, grabbing Jonrell’s hand.

Jonrell glanced behind him and met Cord’s eyes. The soldier scowled, but had the sense to walk away.

“Looks like he’s not going to let your little meeting go,” said Cassus.

Jonrell shrugged. He nodded to his right where Ahned bore holes into Ronav’s back as he talked with Krytien. “He won’t be the only one. Ahned lost a lot of money today.”

Cassus grinned. “Well, he is the idiot who bet against Ronav.”





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