24 New Ground

Josah looked at Eva Marie with a critical eye. He couldn’t find any visible wounds but knew that her pasty color betrayed her secret. She stepped back and pulled up the left sleeve of her surcoat.

“I don’t want to hide anything from you,” she said.

Someone had wrapped her arm using soft, cambric cloth. Salve, seeping through the bandages, accentuated the wound. There wasn’t enough light in the barn for Josah to discern the extent of her injury.

“Wounds appear worse than what they are,” she cautioned him.

Eva looked away and caught Graybard’s eye. She knew he was angry. “My Lady,” was all he could say as he walked into the barn.

Dali gasped when the warrior stepped into the light. He had cuts and bruises on his face, hair matted with blood and wrists raw from abrasive straps. Graybard stood in silence.

“You should have seen him before we stopped at Tuva and cleaned him up,” said Josah.

Eva took a few steps toward the soldier. “I know you’re angry with me for going to Casselberry.”

“Aye, I am.” Graybard measured his words. “I told you not to do it, warned you what could happen.”

“I had to try,” Eva responded.

Gray sat down on a hay bundle, feeling his pain. Grimacing, he shouted his discomfort, startling Eva and Dali. “You can’t reason with a man who wants you dead!”

Eva knew he was right. Her first decision, on her own, proved to be wrong. Graybard lifted his hand and said, “Look, I’m not angry at you. I let you down. I should have counseled you better.”

Dali, unsure if she should, asked, “Why did you leave Bon Abbi?”

Graybard moved head around in a circle, trying to work out his stiff neck. “I thought Eva died. On the way here, Josah told me it was someone else. All I could think of was killing Luka. So I went to Neardore. There were too many guards that day looking for attackers when they found me.”

He lifted his linen shirt to reveal more bruises and lacerations. Chuckling, Gray said, “Now, I have new stories to tell.”

“Let me clean those wounds at the Manor,” Eva offered.

He dismissed the suggestion away. “Another time. We have much to discuss. Caleb, tell me about the weapons.”

The young Evermore walked over to the body boxes. “I asked a blacksmith to get these opened for us. I still need to sort through everything. There are four crates, one filled with swords.”

“What kind,” Graybard asked.

Conall, who stayed in the edges of the barn, walked over to the first box. “It looks like long, double-edge arming swords and single-edge backswords.”

“There are twenty long swords and thirty of the other kind,” Caleb interjected.

Graybard grunted as he stood. He walked over to the boxes, grinned when he saw Caleb’s bruises. “We’ll have to swap stories.”

“We took boxes of chainmail, spears, and arrows,” Josah told him.

Graybard grabbed a few arrows and held them up. “There are different arrow tips here. Bodkins are narrow and sharp, designed to separate links in chainmail. Broadbows are flat and dull, but they will break up a formation.”

“What do you mean?” asked Caleb, unfamiliar with that type of arrow.

“Well lad, Broadbows won’t penetrate thick armor, but you feel it when they hit. Then, there are the Plundels, flat, and square. Let those types of arrows fly through the air, 200 meters away, and it’s like striking with a smithy’s hammer!”

Graybard dropped the arrows into the crate. “What’s this?” he asked, pulling out a round, wooden keg. It was about half the height of the box and thirty centimeters in diameter. Branded on its side was a beaked creature hiding behind its wing.

“That’s from the Griffin,” said Conall. “It’s black powder.”

“There are five or six kegs under the arrows,” Graybard said, glancing at the crate. He noticed that all the boxes, except those with swords, had arrows. “Someone meant to hide these kegs.”

“Captain Munro whispered something to Rolan before he left for Northport,” Josah remembered. “He must have told him to put them into the crate.”

“Well done, lads!” Gray shouted. “Eva, are the Ruelanders still in Bon Abbi?”

“They’re in the stables with Sola. Why?” she asked.

“We have everything we need to defend ourselves. With Ruelanders’ help, we may be able to win. Can we all sit down tomorrow and decide what to do next?”

Everyone looked at Josah as he nodded his head. “Good,” said Gray. “Conall and Caleb, would you mind digging out the rest of the kegs and storing them in a safe, dry place?”

He held his side as he walked over to Dali. “Why don’t we all head out to the Blue Door? We have cause for celebration!” Attempting a smile, he said, “Besides, I’ll need some ale first, before I can apologize to Dali.”

Josah grinned. “You’ll need something stronger when you remember to thank me for rescuing you!”

“Ah, yes,” Graybard said with humility. “One evening can never be enough.”

The smile on the warrior’s face was all the reward Josah wanted. “Do you mind heading out by yourselves? I need to speak to Eva. We’ll join you afterward.” He glanced at the young girl, who agreed to stay behind.

Dali extended her arm to Graybard, then walked to the door. She stopped to pick up the blanket Eva used as a wrap and hung it on a protruding nail.

“Wait until you hear what happened to me,” said Caleb, walking behind them. Conall shook his head as he closed the barn door.

Josah walked over to the bundled hay, motioning Eva Marie to sit with him. He took her left arm with care to exam her the bandages over her wound. “What’s on the bandages?” he asked.

Looking at her arm, she told him it was the salve produced from several plants. “It’s a long slice from a knife from the elbow to my wrist. Applying salve on the wound promotes healing and reduces throbbing pain.”

Josah touched her wound, causing Eva to retract her arm. “I didn’t say it wasn’t tender.”

He lifted his left arm a few times, imagining how someone inflicted that wound. “You must have been on the ground when the strike occurred.”

Eva nodded. “The attacker plunged his knife into Gira after she pretended to be me. I got between them so he couldn’t hurt her anymore.”

Josah rubbed the back of his neck, feeling the pressure he had carried the last few days. “Evie, you must consider what I’m about to say. Don’t object until you hear it all.”

Eva sat straight, bracing for whatever Josah had in mind. “I’ll do as you request.”

Nodding his head, the boy shifted his body so he could face Eva. He raised his right hand and touched her cheek softly. “I abandoned you when you needed me the most. And for that, I am sorry.”

Leaning into his hand, Eva closed her eyes. She never thought Josah would admit his wrong. “There’s no need for me to tell you the details, as Caleb will share them with you, several times, I’m afraid. The raid didn’t go as planned. We had to rescue Caleb.”

Withdrawing his hand, Josah caught Eva’s eyes. “I also had to rescue Graybard. Thank God for Ena. She scared the guards, so it was easy.”

He leaned over but couldn’t see Ena inside the loft, a sign that she was asleep. Josah turned back to Eva Marie. “And now, I must rescue you, as Luka will come. Graybard is right when he said you couldn’t reason with someone who wants to kill you.”

“What are you saying I should do?” Eva asked quietly.

“Leave Bon Abbi. I’ll tell everyone who I am, and I’ll confront Luka!”

“No, I can’t agree with your request. I’m responding to Luka,” Eva said. “The time to tell people who you are has long gone. They trust me, willing to join the fight to protect Bon Abbi. Besides, where could I go and be out of Luka’s reach?”

Josah looked down when he realized she was right. Eva touched his shoulder with her right hand. He looked up and saw a determination in her eyes. She wasn’t the timid Evelyn Miller he remembered.

“You tried to confront Luka, on your own, when you were ten. Gray wanted to fight him on his own, as well. The lesson to learn is that we defeat people like Luka when we stand together.”

Josah exhaled deeply. “Well, I had to try to convince you to leave.”

Eva was all too familiar with that feeling. She hesitated for a moment before continuing. “Josah, right before you decided to leave Bon Abbi, I found out that your father died because of me.”

She explained how the first poison masked the symptoms of the second. Eva confessed that her error cost Lord Rando’s life. “We face this problem with Luka today because of me.”

Josah didn’t hesitate. “No. We’re defending ourselves today because my father refused to do so, ten years ago. How long would he have lived if you didn’t return to Bon Abbi?”

“Not long,” she admitted. In one moment, the burden Eva carried for days was gone.

Josah stood, reaching for her right hand. “Let’s go to the Blue Door. Graybard is right. We have many things to celebrate. Ena won’t care if we leave her in the barn.”

She followed Josah to the door. “We’ll need to stop by the stables. If Sola and the Ruelanders are there, we’ll tell them to meet us, in the barn, tomorrow morning.”

“That is a magnificent creature!” Sola exclaimed as he watched Ena catching her morning meal. He took off his blue hooded cape, laying it on the wall, then adjusted his trousers.

Sola thought about jumping over to take a closer look, but it wasn’t necessary. Josah whistled for Ena to return. The big cat ran to the boy, thrilled to be back.

Josah, who sat on top of the wall, swung his legs over, then jumped down. The Healer clasped arms while introducing himself. Ena sailed over the barrier, keeping a wary eye on Sola.

After exchanging words about Eva’s wounds and care, Sola motioned toward the barn. “Everyone is waiting for you.”

After snatching his cape, Sola led him to the barn, with Ena trotting behind. To his surprise, everyone but Theotello and Leena was inside. Even a blacksmith in his leather apron and two women he never met before waited for Josah.

“Let’s get started,” Sola said, motioning the Ruelanders to start the conversation.

Both men dressed the same, with wide leather belts fastened around their midsection. Each belt held gadgets attached with straps. The older Ruelander wore a full beard and seemed to be in charge.

“Sola tells us you need a way to keep Lord Luka from coming into the city while keeping injuries the Villagers safe. Is that correct?”

Josah wasn’t sure why he directed the question to him. “Yes, that is true. But a better plan is to get rid of Luka.”

“There’s only one way we can do that, Josah,” Graybard said. “We have to destroy the bridge.”

“How is that going to defeat Luka?”

“Not defeat him,” said Sola, “Rather, delay Luka. The river runs too swift for soldiers in heavy armor to cross. Besides, the water is frigid.”

“That gives us until Spring to get ready,” Graybard concluded.

“But there is more, Josah,” Sola said, urging the Ruelander to continue.

Pointing to the six kegs of black powder, the older Ruelander continued. “These kegs have been carefully prepared, lined in leather and cloth to keep the explosive dry. Water would render them unusable. You would need less than half a keg to destroy the bridge.”

“So why don’t we do that now?” asked Josah.

Graybard walked to him, stiff and sore. Eva held on to Dali’s arm, knowing what was about to happen. After their celebration at the Blue Door Pub, Graybard told Josah he would stay in the Manor that night.

Josah went to the barn to tend to Ena. Eva and the two brothers retired to the Manor, while Graybard stopped by the stables. He talked with Sola and the Ruelanders. Sorting through the options for protecting Bon Abbi, they came up with a plan.

Early that morning, with minimal sleep, Graybard came down to the kitchen for something to eat. He found Eva sipping some warm tea. Sharing the plan with her, Graybard told Eva to enlist Dali, as he needed help. He knew Josah would have serious concerns.

“Destroying the bridge before Luka arrives won’t quench his desires.” Graybard paused, looking around him. “He has to be on the bridge when we ignite the black powder.”

Josah gazed at the faces of everyone in the barn. It appeared most already knew what was coming next. Conall and Caleb were the only ones expressing curiosity. Eva clutching onto Dali’s arm, confirmed his thoughts.

“And how are we going to make Luka stand on the bridge, long enough for us to destroy it?” he asked.

“Someone has to lure him over, first. That person must appear non-threatening,” Sola explained. “The right person will draw Luka to the bridge while keeping the soldiers at a distance.”

“Then, I’ll be that person,” offered Josah.

Graybard placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “That person can’t be either of us, my friend. Luka will charge the bridge with his soldiers if we are at the other end. Too many of them may cross over before we can destroy the bridge.”

“Who are you proposing?” Josah asked as he looked at Eva.

“Me,” she said. “It has to be me.”

“No! No! No! I won’t be part of such a plan,” Josah objected.

Eva released Dali and walked over to the boy. She tried placing her hand on his arm, but he withdrew. “Josah, please listen to me. Luka knows I am wounded. And I’m not a threat.”

“What she says is true,” Sola confided. “Luka will cross that bridge alone if Eva is on the other side. He already thinks that Bon Abbi can’t defend themselves.”

“Eva unarmed isn’t going to make Luka pause on the bridge,” Josah pointed out.

“That is true,” Graybard confessed. “which is why Eva will arm herself.”

Josah gasped at the thought of Eva brandishing a sword. “Were you full of ale when you formulated this plan?”

Sola walked toward Josah with his hand over his heart. “I would never put Eva in harm’s way unless I had a plan to cut her risks.”

The Healer waved at the two women Josah didn’t know. One of them reached behind her, pulling something that rested on the top of a bundled hay. It was like a leather tunic, but nothing like he had ever seen.

The woman handed it to Sola. “Feel this, Josah. It’s a multilayer leather armor. This new armor is what the Ruelanders and I worked on yesterday. It’s light and flexible.”

Josah ran his hands over the smooth leather. Overlapping flaps hung down from the high waist to the knees, like scales. Four slits allowed the legs to move in any direction.

“Between the layers are thin plates, placed on the front and back panels,” Sola explained.

The blacksmith pointed to the Ruelanders. “They showed me how to increase the intensity of my furnace. The steel is light but hard, protecting the bearer from flying arrows or blade thrusts.”

Josah glanced at Eva’s arm. “What about her wound?” he asked.

Sola waved for the other woman, who brought leather trousers and removable sleeves. “There are plates and ringlets to protect her arms and legs.”

“Josah,” Graybard reasoned, “Eva only needs to stand by the bridge. Luka will be wearing the traditional, heavy armor. His movements will be slow. We’ll attach smaller kegs of black powder to several posts holding up the bridge.”

The younger Ruelander stepped forward with a wooden container. It was double the size of a drinking vessel. “This is what we’ll use. We covered the inside with pitch last night. It will keep the powder dry.”

“The scaffolding used to repair the gates is still in place, inside the city wall,” Sola pointed out. “An archer standing on the far right can strike the small kegs. We’ll coat the tips of the arrows so they will burn. Now, all we need is an archer who can hit the target.”

Josah glanced at Caleb, causing everyone to look at him. “He’s the only one I trust.”

“Good,” said Graybard. “We have a plan. And if all goes well, Luka will remain on that bridge when we destroy it.”

“Just make sure Eva has a sword and knows how to take those initial steps you taught the volunteers. I’ll be waiting at the gate. The first sign of trouble, I will intervene.”

Graybard nodded. With nothing more to add, Josah walked to the back of the barn calling Ena to follow. After stepping through the door, he slammed it shut. A few tools hanging on the barn wall rattled as a pouf of dust floated in the air.

“That went well,” Graybard said, sarcastically.

Everyone seemed to freeze in place for the moment. Not one to tolerate indecision, Sola shouted, “Why are we all standing still? There is work to do.”

He waved at the two women holding the new armor, instructing them to follow Eva Marie to the Manor. They were to make adjustments as needed. Sola would do what he could to keep the Lady of Bon Abbi safe.

Brother Sammil welcomed the warmth provided by the sun. Seven days had passed since they sailed from Weshaven. The ship called Serenum was true to its name, as their journey encountered fair weather. White billowing sails across two masts powered the Weshaven vessel across the sea.

But the Chronicler had fallen ill, something he didn’t anticipate. Tasia stood by, caring for him until his fever subsided. Meanwhile, Oona Sera ordered the ship to sail out into the open waters. She wanted to delay their arrival. Sammil needed to be robust and healthy the day he was to meet Ahnoro.

Now that Sammil felt better, Gedare gave the Captain of the Serenum new orders. He turned the ship back around and headed for Los Terra. “Please tell Oona to prepare for our arrival,” the Captain shouted.

Gedare, dressed in white with a dark hooded covering, waved his hand as he walked to Sammil. Sunlight bounced off the garment’s silver trim, creating a halo around the Watcher. “I trust you feel as good as I am telling everyone.”

Sammil tried to show he was back to normal by stretching his arms out and taking a deep breath. “My strength has returned,” he told Gedare.

“That’s good to hear,” said Oona Sera slipping from behind the Chronicler. She also dressed in a white, with a brooch on her shoulder holding a gold-colored cape in place.

Sammil never cared much about his clothes. But today, his well-worn robe and crimson sash felt inadequate for his meeting with Ahnora. He tried adjusting it, then ran his hand across his gray garment to smooth out the wrinkles.

“A Los Terran ship watched the Serenum for the two days you were ill,” Oona said. “Ahnoro will ask for an explanation, I’m afraid.”

Puzzled by her comment, he asked, “Can we not tell Ahnoro I wasn’t feeling well?”

“Yes, we can,” Gedare said, “but that may not be prudent. Los Terrans are hearty and decisive people, engaging with others of like mind. You cannot express weakness, and then request that they follow you to Karune.”

Sammil gazed out past the bow. Nestled in a cove was Los Terra, another city on coastal waters. Even from a distance, he could tell their port didn’t have significant activity. “I thought we would see more merchant’s vessels entering and leaving Los Terra.”

“I can understand,” Oona said. “Except for one thing.”

The long pause was enough for Sammil to turn his head. He caught Oona with her eyes wide open when she glanced at Gedare. “What’s the one thing?” he asked.

The Watcher smiled. “They don’t like visitors.”

Sammil couldn’t hide his discomfort. “Why didn’t you say something before?”

“You would have changed your mind,” Gedare replied.

“Of course! We are visitors! And if that’s not enough, I have to explain what we were doing for two days beyond their waters. Is the fate of our world resting on my ability to persuade?”

The Chronicler felt his stress levels rise. Oona Sera placed her hand on his shoulder, easing the pressure. “Sammil, you worry about things before they happen. Don’t forget you aren’t traveling alone,” she told him. “You must do your best, then trust the Ancient One for the rest.”

Nodding his head, Sammil acquiesced to his fate. Tasia’s sudden appearance by his side startled him. Seeing his companion wore the same clothing as before did provide some comfort.

“Well, if I am to die,” Sammil said, “at least it won’t be on a ship.”

Written by Mike Arroyo

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