There Once Was A Girl...

By Deuce Traveler


Chapter Seven

"The building being surveyed by Pent and Deuce some months ago was now marked by the Mockingbird House as a definite safe house for the new rival guild. A raid had been planned on this night that Deuce had been pulled away from Caitlyn. The rogue and other connections of the Mockingbird House had been brought in to help. Deuce had to admit this direct attack wasn't his style. "I'll just stay in the shadows and help where I can," he was thinking to himself as Pent, Trad, and he looked out the fourth story window in the building across the way from the safe house.

The attack was soon to commence when a messenger walked quickly to Trad, who was to direct a portion of the forces from her vantage point. He whispered something in her ear as she nodded in understanding. She smiled and turned to Pent and Deuce, "Seems like a large, cloaked man was seen leaving the safe house from a side entrance. Sounds like one of the men we've been watching entering the harbor section at night. Follow him and quickly. No one is to get away from us this night."

Pent did not wish to leave his wife's side and opened his mouth to protest, but Deuce grabbed him quickly by the arm and began to half-drag the dwarf away from Trad. The rogue knew Trad wanted the two of them away from the main portion of combat and he was only happy to oblige. He was still fuming that one of the main favors Deuce owed Pent involved a direct attack on a rival guild. "We should just burn their safe house around them," he thought to himself. Besides, if Trad needed him she would be able to contact Pent through her necklace. The dwarf finally conceded to the tall rogue, tearing his arm out of the large man's grip with a scowl.

The dwarf had to jog to catch Deuce's wide strides as the rogue slipped quickly into the indicated alley. He was tempted to slip his axe off his shoulder and bury it into the young man's back. Dwarves were incredibly single minded, their objective of the moment fully occupying their minds. Humans called this 'the fixation', but dwarves had a different name for almost every time this occured. A dwarven stonemason reached a single mindedness called 'the craft'. A dwarven explorer called some of his moments 'the wanderlust'. Every now and then a dwarf would be found dead from partying too hard. This was called 'the binge'. Dwarven artisans were known to work without rest for days, their apprentices hand feeding them to prevent their deaths. This stubborness was why the dwarves were such good watchmen, never needing conversation or succumbing to boredom once they got into their duties. What the warrior known as Pent was beginning to feel was a building rage called 'the red haze'. Pent's eyes bore into Deuce's back as the rogue stopped suddenly a few dozen yards in front of him and halfway down an alley.

Deuce wished Pent would stop stomping around behind him like a loose bull. He had been listening to his pursuee's footsteps, but lost the sound as he came around the last corner. The rogue stood silently, closed his eyes, and opened his jaw slightly to widen his eardrums. Deuce heard his heart pounding heavily in his chest and his lungs sucking in breaths of air. He heard the loud pounding of Pent's approaching footsteps. He heard the Riversy Temple bell far in the distance announcing that it was now midnight, the signal Trad was waiting for to commence the attack. Deuce heard a noise like cloth brushing against a post close to his left. He heard a heavy footstop closer to him and a stifled grunt. The thief opened his eyes and looked to over his left side, seeing a large cloaked man with a half rotted board in his hands charging him. Deuce dodged the falling board, hearing it whistle over his head. He came up from his crouch with a straight punch into his attacker's nose.

Pent was nearly thrown out of his red haze as he watched his partner be attacked. Deuce was a strong man, and the punch he dealt to the face of his assailant would have felled the hardiest of humans. Instead the man shouted angry words in some gutteral language and tossed the rogue like a spoiled child tossing a doll it disapproves of. The dwarf watched as Deuce purposely twirled in the air, like a cat trying to land on all fours, stopping once his body smacked into a pile of crates. Pent ran silently forward as he unslung his axe from his shoulder. The unknown man was nearly upon the rising rogue when the dwarf buried the blade of his axe halfway into his enemy's shoulder. The man howled in pain and swung desperately at Pent with a backhanded fist that cracked mightily against the dwarf's face. Pent's neck strained from the whiplash of the strike as he released the grip on his axe handle and stumbled back stunned. Blood filled the dwarf's mouth and he spat out two teeth. The hood of the man's cloak had fallen back and Pent could now clearly see his ugly face. The unknown man smelled of musk and had a large nose, dark enraged eyes, and a face full of red fur. "Great," Pent thought automatically as the mighty creature struggled with the axe in its back, "a bugbear."

The bugbear screamed as it pulled Pent's axe from its back. It looked at the blood covered blade in distaste and approached the dwarf with the axe wielded. Pent was still dazed and searched his belt desperately for his knife sheath. He found it and raised his the blade in desperation to block the bugbear's strike. The axe slapped the knife away and continued downward, leaving an ugly red slice on the front of Pent's chest. The dwarf cried in pain and fell backwards, trying to hold his life from seeping away from the wound. As the bugbear approached, it screamed suddenly as Deuce appeared behind it, stabbing his dwarven dagger upwards and into its back at the base of its neck.

The creature snarled and swung Pent's axe, but the rogue jumped away from the blade, rolling backwards onto his back and then shoulder before Deuce flipped back up a few feet from the bugbear. Another charge sent the rogue further, causing him to stumble into the same pile of trash he was just thrown into. The bugbear smiled when he saw the rogue's plight and lifted his axe. Deuce's heart froze in his mouth and in panic he threw his dagger at the creature's face. The dwarven blade imbedded itself into the bugbear's right eye and the creature stopped, as if frozen in time. The bugbear twitched, collapsed in a heap, and died.

Deuce noticed a strange red glow in the sky in the direction he had come. Putting it out of his mind he retrieved his dagger with shaking hands. "Get a hold of yourself," he thought as he stared at his fingers. The rogue had been in desperate situations before and the fear always hit him after a fight was over, but he was angry that he actually panicked in combat and threw his weapon away, something he had been taught never to do. He ran to his fallen comrade.

Pent was bleeding badly, holding his wound and groaning in pain. The rogue tore pieces of his tunic and tried to bandage the wound, but his knowledge of first aid was too limited and he merely caused Pent to shout in pain and fall unconscious. Deuce's mind raced as he tried to remember all he had been taught about helping the wounded. He quietly cursed himself for not paying more attention to that bit of knowledge as he had learning how to sneak into people's houses when they were away. Pent's necklace began to glow and Trad's voice could be heard coming from it. "Pent? Pent, my love, the attack went badly. Pent, please answer. They lit the building on fire and we're all trapped up here and I'm scared. I just wanted to tell you that I love you."

Deuce heard the loud groan of a building collapsing in the distance and the red glow in the sky that was the burning structure grew bright, then died and disappeared into the dark night. His heart grew cold. Not only was Trad in that building, but most of the apartments were occupied by tenants who had nothing to do with the guild war. The rogue suddenly thought of some children he had seen earlier who said they were visiting a poor relative. And as much as he was disgusted with the act, he realized he himself was for burning the enemy guild's own house and calling it a day. How was he better than them?

"Deuce, what happened to Trad," Pent asked as he regained consciousness. "Is she alright?"

The rogue swore under his breath as he held the dwarves head and tried to stop Pent's bleeding. "Nothing, you had a bad dream. Everything's fine, Pent."

Pent looked up at the rogue's face. "Liar! Devil! Oh, not Trad," the dwarf cried out and coughed a blotch of blood. "Not my wife."

Deuce held the thrashing dwarf and tried to console him. Pent gave one last sob and was silent, the only sound being his life's breath escaping his body as he convulsed and was still. The rogue looked sadly at his dead friend, but controlled his tears. He still had a duty to try to help Trad. There would be time for tears later.

* * * * * * * * * *

Hours later, Deuce stormed into the Griffin Lounge Inn looking for Caitlyn, but she was nowhere to be found. He ran into their other room, where she was quietly reading a book. The thief ran up to her in haste and grabbed her by the arm saying over and over again, "I'm alright. I'm OK." He had just come back from the collapsed building, where there were no survivors. It had collapsed onto itself, Mockingbird House members and many more innocent among the dead. Almost the entire city knew someone who had been lost, and the news spread like wildfire. Deuce's biggest fear was that Caitlyn might think him dead, and he didn't want her worried for him.

Caitlyn instead looked surprised. "Why, what happened," she asked as she looked at his ashen face.

"Let's get a room and I'll explain," he said. Deuce rented out a room, and took Caitlyn to it. As he closed the door, he collapsed, tears streaming from his eyes. "They killed dozens of my people," he cried. It was then he realized Riversy was his home. He might not like everyone that was there, and he might not like everything that happened in Amaranth, but it was his home. To kill so many civilians in a guild war was disgusting to him. He could accept that someone might want him dead, but why the good and the innocent? Faces of those he had met in that building spun through his mind and all he could do was weep as Caitlyn looked at him in stunned silence.

* * * * * * * * * *

The Mockingbird House seemed finished, and the city of Riversy cried for revenge. An investigation was started by the city guard, and it was soon found that bugbears from the far village of Laska were involved. The bodies of dead bugbears yielded the evidence. The village of Laska was on an island set of city states called Tiraca. Although Laska used to be a thriving settlement, it was invaded and destroyed long ago by a tribe of bugbears. Bugbears were both huge and of some intelligence, and it wasn't long before they decided to try and expand their influence. Their operations were felt in Seledorn, Elwyn, Rodby, and now as far as Riversy. The people of Riversy cried out for justice to be done (or revenge depending on your viewpoint). The Amaranth guards were too spread out to gather an effective force to travel as far as Laska, so they had asked for volunteers to aid the effort. Deuce had just signed up, despite Caitlyn's protests.

"If you go, we won't be able to see one another for some time and you know I'm getting close to when I will have to leave. Either I go with the elves or the Dark Army," Caitlyn reminded the rogue.

"I know," Deuce responded. "And I love you."

"Then stay," Caitlyn spoke desperately. "Don't do this. What do you think is going to happen when this kingdom enacts its revenge? The violence will continue. No matter what you say about the consequences of showing weakness to your enemy, it will be an act of revenge. And then they will take their revenge again. Whatever you're feeling right now, let it go and stay in Amaranth with me."

Deuce saw it differently. Weakness on the streets invited attack from bullies, and if the citizens of Amaranth didn't stand up for themselves they would always be victims. But there was more. He heard Trad's cry of goodbye to Pent over and over again in his mind. But it wasn't Trad's voice crying out her love when she knew it was the last thing anyone would ever hear. It was Caitlyn's. Even the wood elf kingdom had been victim to the bugbear's machinations. Deuce looked sadly into his love's eyes, "I can't. I have to do this," he said without explaining. The thought of Caitlyn being hurt disgusted him. He would do anything to keep her safe, even if it meant he would lose her love for him.

The elf looked sadly at the rogue, not understanding him. She always knew he had a temper and now she wondered if he had a bloodlust. Still, she loved the fool. "Deuce, it's hard enough to be your bondsmate and see you only every now and then. I fear we won't make it," Caitlyn whispered to him as she placed an elven arrow head into his hand. "Take this for good luck, and think of me often. And another thing. If we don't work out I want you to give me some years and look for me again. You've been a wonderful bondsmate, so promise me you won't give up."

Deuce's heart skipped a beat. He had begun to feel that he was a distraction. He felt Caitlyn was seeing him as a fling, as something nice to distract her before she had to leave Amaranth. Again and again she would stun him with her love for him. "I promise I'll find you in the years to come," he swore. "And I won't give up on us. You're everything I've ever wanted and more."


Chapter Eight

The voyage to Laska was the longest the young Deuce had experienced. The fact that he was cramped with two dozen other people on a ferry to Rodby added to his discomfort. The ranks of a dozen soldiers were added to by an additional dozen citizens of Amaranth. Many of the citizens that volunteered ended up being farmers and foresters from the towns of Hillby and Logby. Even the regular soldiers had roots from the poorer agricultural families. Deuce was surprised at this, and pondered if those that were used to toil were also more apt to fight for what they had. It seemed those that had everything handed to them in life were less likely to struggle when that way of living was threatened.

At the town of Rodby, Deuce used his remaining bit of coin to purchase a necklace of Duurga, a goddess supposedly created by the breath of all the gods to fight a world destroying demon. Upon Duurga's victory all the male (and some of the female) members of the Pantheon had supposedly asked for her hand in marriage. Duurga had denied them, saying that none of them were worthy of her. Deuce had found the story entertaining, and thought of how his love of Caitlyn was so unexpected. He purchased the necklace to wear along with Caitlyn's as a good luck charm.

An officer named Mullin was named commander of the two dozen men. He interviewed every volunteer for the expedition. Deuce revealed little about himself except the fact that he had good hearing and was skilled in staying hidden when he wanted to be. Little more needed to be said to Mullin for the officer to understand that Deuce was simply a petty thief. The rogue was soon named the scout for the strike force.

From the fishing town of Rodby the force commisioned a ship called the Sea Arrow to take them to Elwyn, a small town on the eastern side of Tiraca. The captain of the vessel was also a skilled navigator and pilot, successfully piercing the thick fog that was said to eternally cover the eastern edge of Tiraca. The men pulled into the harbor of Elwyn three days after they had started their voyage from Riversy. A man in his early thirties stood at the dock as the crew of the Sea Arrow threw ropes to the deckhands and dropped anchor. A wooden platform was dropped from the ship and the waiting man stepped onto the ship to speak to the Captain. The Captain of the Sea Arrow and he then spoke quietly to one another, their body language showing ease and familiarity towards one another. She whispered one last phrase and jabbed her finger towards Mullin of the Riversy force, causing the man to nod and walk towards the passengers. The man wore simple walking boots, light blue pants, and a loose blue tunic covered by a light gray vest. "I am Mayor Grumwald, town leader of Elwyn. What brings armed men to the island of Tiraca?"

Mullin seperated himself from the other Riversy soldiers and stepped up to Mayor Grumwald, raising an open, weaponless hand in greeting. "I am Commander Mullin, soldier of Amaranth, and emmisary of good King Brind."

Mayor Grumwald nodded at this and exclaimed, "Yes. Yes. I could tell where you had come from when I saw the insignia on your armor," he admitted, pointing at the large griffin engraved on the center of Mullin's armor. "Again, I must ask of your intentions here in Tiraca."

"I find it unwise to speak of my business to others," Mullin said politely. His words reached Deuce's ear, causing the thief to flinch.

"Great," the rogue thought to himself. "Good going, Commander. Piss off the first people we meet outside of Amaranth."

Mayor Grumwald also looked less than happy. "So the soldiers of Amaranth have decided they can do what they want now in other lands. Why shouldn't I deny your men access to Elwyn and send you whence you came?"

"We do not come to cause trouble in your village, Mayor Grumwald. Many members of my kingdom enjoy walking along your shores," Mullin spoke as his face held the discipline of a poker player. "Is the government of Elwyn saying that the citizens of Amaranth are not welcome in your land?"

Grumwald gave Mullin a plastic smile as he fumed inside. It was well known to all that Elwyn didn't have a standing army or even a militia. At best the town had the occassional adventurer retire among its people. Of all the independant cities of Tiraca, Elwyn depended on hired mercenaries of Amaranth to defend its shores. It was said that a full regiment of soldiers from Riversy had to be sent hundreds of years ago to liberate Elwyn from maurading seafaring barbarians from uncharted lands in the north. Mayor Grumwald knew that there were dangers lurking outside the fences of his town. Having the swords of Amaranth kept away was not in his people's best interests. "My apologies, Commander Mullin. I did not know your men were simply touring my fine town. Please enjoy your stay, but I ask that you do not brandish your weapons while you are our guests."

Commander Mullin and Mayor Grumwald exchanged another brief round of fake pleasantries before the Riversy soldier gathered his group together along the dock. The soldiers and volunteers of Riversy checked their equipment on the docks. Runners with money were sent to purchase extra food and water for the group and within an hour the twenty-five were packed and headed towards the town's western gate, ignoring the stares of the people of Elwyn who gathered to see the strangers. Through all of this, Deuce continued to send angry glances towards Mullin.

The group went through Elwyn's west gate. The exit to the town looked more like a wooden barricade, with two black crows cawing on top of posts like dark, mocking sentries. The Riversy men went westward, deeper into the island so that they no longer could smell the ocean spray in the air. The dirt trail behind the gate began to incline and turn to rock as it climbed between two stone gray mountains. The stone portion of the path was not manmade, but instead looked as if cut by an ancient and forgotten river. "Rest here," Commander Mullin called to his followers. "I'll take our scout into the west and see what he can find ahead of us. Elwyn is the only place friendly to the Kingdom of Amaranth on this isle. Anyone else we meet will at best be indifferent to our presence."

Mullin led Deuce away to the group and up the pass. The rogue was silent as he began to survey the land, looking for possible places that he could climb and get a better look at the land behind them. The two men had just walked around a corner and out of eyesight of the group when Mullin abruptly stopped and faced the thief. He asked gruffly, "Alright, scout. I've been seeing the way you've been looking at me all day. What's your gripe?"

Deuce's heart leapt in his chest as he stammered over words. After a moment of embarrassment he gathered his wits and stated, "I think you're a fool. We are far from the lands you know, yet you insist on angering the only group of people who might welcome our presence here."

Commander Mullin raised an eyebrow, his anger giving way to slight amusement, "Oh? And I suppose you should lead this group, arrogant whelp? We are armed men. No group of people are ever going to welcome soldiers from another kingdom into their territory with welcome arms unless those soldiers come to liberate them or they bring lots of coin. On top of that the Kingdom of Amaranth is the greatest military force in range of Tiraca. We will never be loved anywhere on this island, so at best we can hope to be respected and given a wide berth. Also, what would telling the people of Elwyn why we are here do? If anything they would be even more fearful and wary of us, knowing that we plan to spill blood on this island."

"The blood of bugbears," Deuce reminded the commander. "I'm sure they would be pleased to be rid of such a menace."

"Your wisdom knows no bounds. I suppose you think we will walk onto this island and eliminate the entire population of bugbears for the people of Elwyn. Are you saying I should engage in genocide? Do you think this small force would even be capable of such a thing?"

Deuce was puzzled, "Why are we here?"

"Maybe if you talked to the crew instead of sitting in a dark corner and observing the entire time you would have been told. We aren't here to destroy the tribes of bugbears, we are here to eliminate their ability to project their warriors into the elven kingdoms and the Kingdom of Amaranth. We are here to hamstring their ability to make war. And if we told this to the people of Elwyn they would be in an uproar indeed. Do you think that they would be happy to know that soldiers coming from their harbors plan to upset their violent neighbours?" Mullin pondered that for a moment and added, "Hell, son, I wouldn't be surprised if the mayor would send out runners to warn the bugbears in a sign of good faith, just so they wouldn't attack his people in retaliation later. And who could blame them? How do peace loving people protect themselves from warlike neighbours?"

Deuce was stunned by this as thoughts of war and politics flowed through his mind. If Amaranth was to send a large force to crush the bugbears in Elwyn, it would require so many soldiers and so much coin that its own borders would be open to attack by its many other enemies. If Amaranth did nothing it invited more attacks in Riversy and against its elven allies. And if this token force was able to cripple the bugbear tribes, the town of Elwyn might suffer from a retaliation. The great kingdoms played a power game where other nations were pawns on a chessboard to be sacrificed for the greater whole. For the first time in his life Deuce thanked the faiths he wasn't born a noble. "I'm sorry I didn't understand," Deuce mumbled under his breath.

"I just felt we needed a talk," Mullin said as his face grew stern again. "I don't know your motivations for coming along, but now that we've had this chat I will have you know that I won't brook disrespect from you. You will call me sir, like the rest of the men in our unit. You will also jump when I say jump and slice a bugbear gut when I say kill. Dissension in battle leads to dead men, and I only brought two dozen with me. Now go up this pass and guide us out of it. In other words, go scout, scout."

"Fine. I'll go up ahead and come back in fifteen or twenty with a report," Deuce said as he tried to go around Mullin. The commander blocked the rogue's way and waited patiently until Deuce sighed and realized why he wasn't allowed to pass. "I'll be back soon, SIR."

* * * * * * * * * *

The men of Amaranth went through the mountains without incident, and although Deuce had found tracks and other evidence that giants resided in the high caves, there were no signs of bugbear tribes. The men of Amaranth camped in the thick forest west of those mountains, devoid of signs of civilization. Deuce was allowed to skip out on watch and conserve his energy sleeping. Being scout had its privileges. The rogue wished he wasn't an insomniac. He missed Caitlyn.

Deuce was woken by a soldier on the final night's watch, given two hard rolls and a full canteen for breakfast, and told to pack. The rogue was soon wide awake, despite his uneasy sleep, and slipped out of the thick, wool blankets that had been given to him and the rest of the Riversy unit as standard issue. He gathered his dagger, a canteen of water, and stowed his blankets into his backpack. The first light of dawn had begun to rise and a guard began to wake the rest of the sleeping men as Deuce walked to the outskirts of the camp. Mullin had told him the night before that he was to scout to the south-west of the clearing they had made camp in. The commander had the Riversy men operating like a machine. Deuce would be back as the men would be finished with breakfast and preparing their armor and weapons. In this way little of their time would be wasted, a necessity for a large group travelling with only a weeks food and water.

The rogue began to scout and kept within eyeshot of a dirt trail, overgrown with years of inactivity. The trail was thought to have once connected the town of Laska with the rest of the population of Tiraca before tribes of bugbears had turned it into a ghost town. Deuce tried to stay on the highest ground in the vicinity, allowing him to see more of the area around these rolling hills. He would travel quickly, at almost a jog for what he would estimate to be half an hour. Then the thief would turn and jog back to his fellow Amaranth men and lead them short of where he had just scouted before starting the process again with them trailing slowly behind. Such work required him to be unarmored, unlike the rest of the unit. Deuce liked the arrangement. It gave him an excuse not to get involved in the actual combat.

The group had continued southerly in this way and the sun was approaching its zenith as Deuce went forth once more ahead. He passed rolling green hills lightly covered with maple trees and moss covered boulders. The rogue thought he saw some movement by a group of large bushes forty yards ahead and stopped. As he peered into the brush two straight objects seemed to erupt from them and arc high into the air and down towards Deuce. As they came closer the thief recognized them for spears. Deuce felt a chill go down his spine as he watched the spears grow larger in his eyes. He tried to measure their path and shuffled quickly to his left, misjudging one that mercifully pierced the ground inches away from his toes.

Deuce stood up and began to run to the north as a patrol of three bugbears erupted from the group of trees, wearing hide armor and brandishing spears. The rogue retraced his steps screaming at the top of his lungs, "Leave me alone, I'm just a poor merchant! Someone help me!" The thief was fast and several times he had to pretend to either stumble or slow down. The chase game continued until Deuce was finally rewarded by the sounds of fighting behind him. The rogue peeked over his shoulder to see his fellow men of Amaranth ambushing the three bugbears from a ditch on the creature's flank. Bugbears were strong, ferocious creatures, but the three of them were quickly overwhelmed by the five to one odds. Deuce could see the remainder of men gathering on a hilltop to overlook the battle and wait in reserve. In this first drawing of blood the revenge of Riversy had begun.

* * * * * * * * * *

Deuce reported that night to Commander Mullin for the next days scouting instructions. The rogue was to continue south to a decaying bridge spanning a stream he had seen nearby. Mullin looked long and hard at Deuce before dismissing him and asked, "Deuce, are you trying to join the guard?"

The rogue looked back in surprise. "Me? I'm not exactly guard material."

"Nonsense. You're tall, strong, and follow orders when it counts. Despite your aloofness, the other men seem to like you and I feel I can depend on you in a pinch. You can be arrogant and hard to deal with at times, but arrogance is not a rarity among the king's men," Mullin answered. "If you aren't here to try to prove yourself, may I ask why are you here?"

"I had some friends that died in that building," Deuce admitted.

"So it's revenge then? You don't seem the bloodthirsty type."

"No, it's not revenge. I don't hate the bugbears for what they have done," Deuce answered and searched his mind for a proper response. "It just seemed the thing to do. Why are you here? It doesn't make much sense for the city guard to travel all the way across an ocean to avenge some dead people who lived in the slums."

Mullin looked at Deuce as if slapped. "Is that what the people of Riversy think of the city guard? That we don't care what happens to the kingdom we are sworn to protect?"

"Not at all," Deuce began sarcastically. "We think that you enjoy intimidating anyone who can't stop your harrassment. And we think so highly of the brave soldiers of Amaranth who never patrol the deepest of the slums where people might actually need them."

Mullin sniffed at the rogue, "Oh, and you suppose anything gets done when we do visit the poorer sections of Riversy? If there is a rape, murder, or robbery no one stands up to be a witness so we can find the criminal. Instead they avoid us as if we commited the crime. Tell me then what's the point if the people who are being hurt the most don't try to take a risk and do what's right."

"What's right? For who? Them? Even if you do catch a person who did the crime he probably has friends. And where is a slummer going to get away to? With what money will he be able to escape the slums? If he had coin don't you think he would have spent it to slip away? All that your policing does is keep the bad sections of Riversy contained so us unfortunates don't spill in to your nicer neighborhoods," the rogue exclaimed. "You don't know what it's like to live day by day."

"You think I don't know? Son, I'll have you know that I lived there myself. Not in the worst of the slums, and by the look of your unblemished skin you haven't had to ever live in the worst of them either. As a child I sold sewroot to help my family get by. My father used to smoke the sewroot himself on some of his more bitter days," the commander shot back. Sewroot was an illegal herb in Amaranth that some smoked for recreation, like some enjoyed getting drunk. There was concern that the herb permanently affected people's minds and personalities, the outcry from families of those who used it causing the government of Amaranth to outlaw its use. "I swore I wouldn't end up like my family had. Stuck in a depressing home with a depressing life, and just trying to scrub out a meager existence. I worked on the side for a blacksmith, giving some money to help my family, and the rest I stored hidden in my room. I took the money and purchased my way into classes under the local warrior's guild. Let's just say I did well and some years later I earned myself a position in the guard. I never gave into despair as a child and I push myself to this day."

Deuce studied Mullin a moment before he asked, "How did a mercenary from the warrior's guild join the soldiers of Amaranth?"

"I impressed a knight once. All I had to do is tell him what kind of man I wanted to be," Mullin replied and stared at the rogue expectedly.

"I don't know what type of man I want to be," Deuce admitted. "I'm still trying to figure out what it means to be a man."


Chapter Nine

In the next four days the men of Amaranth struck deeper into bugbear territory, killing five more of the creatures while only sustaining minor injuries to their own. There was talk that the campaign would only get tougher, for the bugbear clans would eventually be aware that they had been invaded when those that were killed failed to return. The danger added to the tension in the camp and Deuce found him mingling and joking with the other men of Amaranth. Two friends Deuce had made, an old soldier named Rieb and a young volunteer from the warrior's guild named Thunah had snuck up on a soldier who had fallen asleep at his post. They went right up to his face, drew their weapons, and shook him awake saying "By the gods, man, draw your weapon! Bugbears are in the camp! Bugbears in the camp!" The poor man tried to wake up, draw his sword, and get up from the ground into a fighting position all at once, but failed miserably at all three, slipping halfway up from the ground and hitting his head against the hard ground. After shaking his groggy head he looked towards the camp to find many of the lower ranking soldiers and volunteers watching and laughing. He threatened murder in his rage, but he was in the wrong for falling asleep on post and he knew it. If Mullin had found him he probably would have lost pay or rank on his return to Riversy. If anyone in the party forgot their duty, someone nearby would be ready to humiliate him and so the group policed its own. Even Deuce fell victim to the practical jokes. He wanted to take a bath in a nearby stream, but hadn't told anyone. If one was going to go away from the camp for any reason except to scout, they had to travel in pairs. When he got out from the stream he had found his clothes were missing. Grumbling angrily, soaked, and naked the thief slipped back into the camp where a bunch of grinning warriors snickered at the sight of the angry rogue. Thunah gave back the clothes she had stolen from him after watching him yell angrily at the others until he finally relaxed. Deuce wasn't shy about nudity, but he was embarrassed by the fact that he had been caught breaking the rules by almost the entire population of the camp and he knew it would be a joke told for a long time over drinks by a fire.

The rogue had finished his last scouting mission for the day, and came back to camp as the last bit of sunlight in the sky retreated in the twilight hours. Thunah and Rieb were playing their usual game of poker when Thunah saw him, leapt up to her feet, and threw herself at the rogue. "Deuce, baby!"

The thief was a bit surprised as she wrapped her legs around his waist, but he went with it as he held her up easily. "Honey, I'm home. What's for dinner?"

Thunah made a show of pouting playfully and staring into his eyes before untangling herself from him and putting her two feet back on the ground. "You're thinking of dinner at a moment like this? Mother was right. Give a man an inch and they'll take a league."

"What type of men did your mother know? A real man doesn't wait for the inch," Deuce flirted back as he let go of her arms.

Thunah cackled in joy, gave a wink, and somehow managed to walk and wiggle simultaneously to her blankets at the end of the camp. Rieb sighed as he looked at the two hands of his dealt cards. "Just like that she forgets the game. To the Abyss with it, I was on a losing streak anyway."

"Nonsense. What kind of guy would I be not to take advantage of a man down on his luck." Deuce sat down and took up Thunah's hand and tried not to frown. His hand was a high card eight. Rieb was cheating again. Knowing Deuce would want to play he had switched his hand around while the rogue was distracted with Thunah. The rogue decided to concentrate on the game. Rieb had taught him on this trip that poker was not only a game of chance, but of memorization, too.

Rieb attempted to involve Deuce in conversation as they played, but the rogue at first only answered with nods and grunts. Rieb decided to go for the gut. "So how is she in the sack, anyway?"

The rogue froze, concentration ruined. He had promised Caitlyn long ago not to talk about their sex life to others. He thought it would be an easy task, but hadn't expected anyone in this camp to ask him about it. Deuce didn't want to anger his friend, but at the same time he hated broken promises. He decided to compromise by not revealing details. "It's great. Better than great, she's the best."

"She is? Hmmm . . . I imagined she would be fun, but not that fun. Maybe I should see if she'll give me a turn." Rieb smiled teasingly at the rogue as he raised the ante.

Deuce's blood boiled at first and he stared at Rieb in open-mouthed surprise. Then realization hit him and he laughed out loud heartily. "You were asking about Thunah. We're just friends. I have a bondsmate."

"Oh? And how long do you think it will be until she entertains her own desires? Here we are far away from Riversy. You're risking your life out here, so you may as well have as good a time of it as can be had," Rieb suggested with a smile.

The rogue pondered that as it had been some time since his desires were quenched. Sleeping outside among others had even eliminated his desire to please himself and Thunah's flirtations did seem more than just innocent teasing. "I think I'll behave myself," Deuce began. "I don't see her as the type."

"Ha! Not the type? You know little about women. Is she pretty?"

"The prettiest."

"And so how many men do you think are making advances on her even as we speak. How lonely do you think she is feeling? I met this beautiful barmaid years ago who I decided to marry. I would go out on a new campaign for a few months, come back a month, just to go out again. I didn't mind, though. She became a reason for me to take the hardships. I was keeping the most wonderful woman in the world safe. A year into the marriage she became with child." Rieb's voice lowered as his brown eyes revealed both pain and pleasure as he relived the bittersweet memory. "I was such a proud father. I had just come back from a campaign against a tribe of orcs when I had found my wife had the baby a few weeks before my homecoming. I rushed home to find mother and my new daughter. I laughed joyously upon my entrace, kissed my smiling wife, and looked into my daughter's wonderful gray eyes. Did you hear that, Deuce? Gray eyes. Both my and my wife's eyes are brown."

"So? Look at my own violet eyes. Children are born with unusual eye color from time to time," the rogue said.

"True, but I've had four children now. Only the third had eyes like mine or my wife's. No, Deuce, you don't understand. I was away all the time and while I was busy just surviving, it was tougher for my wife. She constantly had to worry if I was dead somewhere, dwell about how lonely she felt, and try to find distractions from her sorrow. It was easy for me. Her memory was all I had to get me through the days. She had to deal with everyday life and all the emotional problems that come with it. In the end, I think she still loves me, but as a provider for her and her children. Hopefully even as a loving father. But when it comes to passion it is for another. At first I was angry about it, but I realized what I do is still important. It keeps her and the children safe, and I do love them all. So now I don't miss out on an opportunity to have a little fun, and neither should you. You're a war hero now and the first rule of war is that war heroes never get the girl."

Deuce thought on Rieb's words and the words he had heard from so many other bitter married people. The older man was right in many ways. He didn't know what Caitlyn was doing while he was away, and she was a beautiful girl. The rogue also didn't care. Before he had met the elf he would have been trying to bed Thunah. Despite being attracted to the woman, there was a new feeling. The rogue just didn't care about getting her into his sleeping bag. The arrow head that Caitlyn gave him rested warmly against his chest. "She's a lovely girl, but I think I'll just use my nights to practice my knife work and learn to play cards from you. I really don't care what Caitlyn's doing at home, I just know how I want things to be."

Rieb sighed as he dealt the cards to the rogue so he could teach him a new game, "A war hero and a romantic. You're twice cursed."

* * * * * * * * * *

It had been two more weeks and ten more dead bugbears when the group had reached the outskirts of the ruined village. Deuce had improved upon his skills of sneaking, knife work, and cards. He had also been taught archery by one of the other volunteers to the group. The group had struck deeper into bugbear territory and used the woods to conceal their identities. The thought was to keep the bugbears guessing to who their actual enemy was. Although Mullin kept the groups painfully slow movement erratic, Deuce noticed that he tended to head southwest and towards the once human settlement of Laska. Although rumors had it that Laska had long fallen, it had never been verified by an official party of Amaranth soldiers or rangers.

"Deuce, come here, please" Mullin requested as he looked upon Laska from the edge of the concealing forest. The thief strode towards his commander's side and waited patiently for his orders. Mullin nodded at the rogue as he approached. Squinting at the village in the bright sunlight he ordered, "I need you to get inside Laska and tell me if you can find any survivors. Its been quite some time since the village was said to have fallen, but people might have been enslaved instead of killed in the war."

"What do I do if I find any?" Deuce began retightening his boots and doing a last minute check on his equipment. His few, small metallic articles of clothing he rebound in leather thongs to keep them silenced in the instance they scraped or jostled against anything solid.

"Nothing. Just come back here and let me know what you find. We can come up with a plan once I have any information you discover."

Deuce nodded and began to crawl towards the silent village, using the tall grass to hide himself. The going was slow as the rogue was wary of any bugbears who may have been watching in the distance. The problem with such humanoids was that they possessed both night and day vision. It was better to try to sneak upon them during the day when Deuce could also see. Two hours ticked by as the thief crawled through grass, hid behind bushes and stumps, and rested among the chittering, bronze-colored insects.

The rogue entered Laska between two buidlings, noting their grime-covered windows and the weeds beginning to grow out of their foundations. Dust clouds swept across the road through the town, mercifully breaking the eerie silence that blanketed his surroundings. Deuce stepped towards a door of the nearest house, then halted himself. "If there are bugbears here, why would I want to disturb them," he thought to himself. He pondered the value of quickly returning to camp and telling Mullin that he found no survivors. The rogue's conscience continued to battle until he finally thought upon Caitlyn. What if it was her who had been a prisoner? What if another man thought of his own safety instead of hers? Gritting his teeth he tugged at the rusting door knob, turned it, and peered inside.

The room was lit by the sunlight from the doorway, revealing broken furniture strewn around what was once a small one room home. It was evident as Deuce walked along the dust-covered floor that the room had been purposely stripped of anything of value. Even a far wall had been marred by what looked to have been a heavy blade. Deuce began to search the rest of the buildings, finding more of the same. Books lay torn and open, wooden furniture was splintered, and the occasional dark stain could be found on furnishings, walls, and floors. In two rooms were found several cleanly picked bones. The signs of destruction coupled with the continual silence was beginning to unnerve Deuce. He was thankful to discover that all there was left to search was one old church.

The two story church was once quite beautiful with a garden surrounding the structure and stained glass windows decorating its walls. Now the garden was just a dry, gray clump of dust and the windows shattered, its pieces scattered. The walls were once upkept with a coat of white paint that was now beginning to peel from lack of maintenance. The tall double doors of the church gave a painful groan that revebrated through the building as Deuce opened them.

The bottom floor was illuminated by sunlight coming from the broken windows, thin flakes of dust dancing in their beams. A marble altar rested in front of a half dozen long wooden pews. If there ever were holy relics they had been taken long ago. The rogue's feet padded loudly against the stone floor, despite his best efforts to remain quiet. Shards of broken stained glass tinkled as Deuce's boots crushed them under his feet. A large mural hung behind the altar of the justice god, Weiss. The mural was that of yellow weighing scales hanging in balance on a green background. The altar looked untouched for many years until the thief had come into this room. Deuce held a corner of the mural in his hands, appreciating the irony. As he pulled at the fabric, the rogue noticed a concealed door. Opening it he found a staircase leading up towards the second floor.

He climbed the wooden steps, his hands gathering a thin layer of dirt as he held them for balance. A scent of decay tickled the rogue's nose as he peered into the second floor from the stairs. A small circular window was on the far wall and a writing desk stood underneath it. The thief began to search the desk, cognizant of the dark red stains that covered the wooden frame.

Deuce tried to open the bottom drawer of the desk, but something inside got stuck. The rogue frowned and pulled harder, causing the drawer to come unstuck with such force that its contents bounced. Deuce felt nauseous as the smell of death permeated the room. The remains of a priest had been sliced and shoved into the tall drawer, tatters of a green and yellow robe still clinging to shrivelled flesh. The thief spun away from the horror in disgust and half stumbled back down the stairs and out of the church.

Deuce tried to settle his pounding heart. He leaned against the church wall and took long breaths. "Relax," he told himself. He forced himself to breath more slowly and headed back towards camp. The rogue wanted to run across the field and just be away from the place. Still, he kept low into the grass again and towards where he had left Mullin. Despite his best intentions to relax, he reached the edge of the forest quicker than it took him to get into Laska.

Rieb was waiting for him in the trees when Deuce returned to the spot he had started at. "Took you long enough. I don't know why you bothered, though. I was able to see you approach a handful of times."

Deuce cursed his own impatience. "There's nothing but death in Laska," he swore with more emotion than he intended.

Rieb nodded, noting the disgust in his friends face. "There's death if the forests, too. Some time after you left we got ambushed by four of the bastards. We were able to slay them all, but Terik and Saxis were killed, and we got about three soldiers who are going to need some better medical attention than we have out here. Mullin gave the order to pack it up. We're going home."

"How can we go home," Deuce asked. "There's got to be a lot more of the bugbears out there than what we've killed."

Rieb raised an eyebrow at the rogue. "Did you really think our little band ever had a chance of doing any serious damage to them? We were sent out to disrupt their activities. It's why we took so many precautions not to leave any evidence of who we were out here. Hopefully the bugbears will think that they have a dangerous enemy in their midst and pull back their operations from around the land. All we did was buy time so that the kingdom can better prepare for a larger campaign. Now that we have dead and injured pulling us back, we're going to have to go or risk alerting the bugbears that a small party of humans are dragging around their territory. I would hate for them to strike Elwyn in retaliation."

The thief felt a strange guilt over Terik and Saxis deaths. He only knew them by their faces, but it was as if they were all a family protecting one another. He felt their loss and looking into Rieb's face, his friend felt it too. The rogue wondered if the two dead comrades had wives or children that they had kissed goodbye like he had said his farewell to Caitlyn. "At least you'll get to see your wife and four children in a few weeks."

Rieb smiled at that, a homesick look in his eyes. "Yes," his voice grew soft. "It will be good to see them. Let's go home."

Deuce began to follow his friend into the forest, then paused and gave one last look at the ruined village of Laska. Looking at the top of the church, he swore he could see something in the top window wearing yellow and green. With a cold shiver and mortality on his mind he walked towards camp with nary a glance back.


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