*Sar, 23 Barrakas 991yk. Cyre. *
The 421st Recon Division had been on the move for days. Honest Ja’wn didn’t allow them a moments rest.
“Honor, vengence, Glory. It all lies over the next hill boys.” He shouted confidently pushing his exhausted recon unit up the hill.
“You said that 5 hills ago.” Panted Arden, who was already at the top of the hill slowing only enough to verbally jab at his commander. Ja’wn ignored him. The unit crested the hill.
“Captain, I see no trace of the Thrane supply caravan we are tracking, nor do I see any sign of the recon unit that was escorting them.” Arc246 reported.
“Nonsense. They must’ve come this way. It’s the easiest way from the border to the front lines. General Char would definitely come this way.”
Egnarac crouched in an almost feral stance, and all discussion ceased. He sniffed at the air, and then tasted a sample of earth from the top of the hill. “They came through here. Horsemen, caravans. The scouts covered their tracks from the rear… they expect us.” Egnarac said standing.
“See Arc? Thank you Eggs for confirming what I already knew!” Honest said patting Egnarac on the back. The Dragonborn rolled his eyes, then turned to face Kiri, the child he had looked after the last few days. She was a mess, still covered in a mix of Thrane blood and the soot from her family’s burned farmhouse. The bruises and lacerations on her face a painful reminder of the abuse she received from the Thrane “Crusaders”.”Are you all right child?” Egnarac’s voice was calm and soothing, he placed his scaly hands on her slumped shoulders.
Kiri was taken aback. She didn’t know how to react to her new companions. They were all so different than any of the people she had met before, and none of them acted or spoke in a way that was familiar. The hand on her shoulder wasn’t comforting, but it wasn’t scary. It just was.
She felt a mixture of fear, anger, and sadness, but those were all dwarfed by another, stronger force – numbness. She knew she should feel upset and angry and sad, but instead, she felt adrift in a never ending sea. She was like a feather in the wind, being blown from place to place, without purpose.Kiri lifted her hand up to her face and felt her swollen lip. Every part of her body hurt so badly that she could not tell where certain parts of her face started and other began. She felt her nose – had it always been slightly crooked? She patted the scale-laden hand on her shoulder and slumped off to the corner while the soldiers bickered back and forth. She didn’t always understand their arguments but she was beginning to understand a little about each of their characters. Ja’wn, the commander, was terrifying and unfeeling. Arc, the robot, was a figure out of a nightmare, tempered with the only sense that she could often discern. Arden was reckless and dangerous. Eggs, the most terrifying of all of the companions, seemed to be the only one with a little compassion. All of them made her feel as though she was underfoot, even when she tried her hardest to stay out of the way. She got the distinct impression that she was viewed as cargo – a small, annoying cargo of almost no consequence. She yearned to feel a sense of something. Belonging, maybe? Fulfillment? Happiness? None of those seemed quite right. If anything, she would settle for a feeling of usefulness.
The unit continued down the hill. The downhill portions of the trip were quick, but in the late summer sun the heat was oppressive. Moving down the hill as one, the unit was quick and efficient. Kiri attempted to fall in line, following closely to Egnarac’s moves, watching his feet. Anything she could do to fit in and stay out from underfoot. She had her brothers bow slung on her back, the bow she’d used to kill the men who burned her home, she had taken a sword from one of the men, and she had that on her belt. She was hardly a soldier and looked more like an old doll her brother used to play with. At the bottom of the hill the unit stopped. “We must rest now.” Egnarac stated.
“It will be a long hotter day tomorrow, and we must not engage the enemy in a weakened state.
“Weakened? Speak for yourself.” Arden’s ego, and his verbal assault targeted the entire unit. “I’m ready to go, maybe you can follow and clean up.”
“Arden, Eggs is right. We’re all tired. We’ve had a long day…a long week. Plus our little refugee needs a break. Isn’t that right?” Honest Ja’wn smiled a fanged smile at Kiri, who hid her face and fled behind Egnarac.
“She’s not chatty is she?” Arden said setting down his sword and sitting down in the high grass.
“She is in shock.” Arc248 responded matter-of-factly “She has lost her home family and suffered head trauma. She is quite resilient to still be alive.”
“She shot straighter than you did in the fight with those marauders. Never seen a farmer who was such a good shot.” Honest Ja’wn said.
“A cornered house cat can be twice as vicious as a stalking panther.” Egnarac said.
“I bet that little anecdote sounded better in Draconic…” Ja’wn said. “Set up camp and go see if the kid can be of use.”
“Captain you can’t expect her to fight…” Egnarac interjected.
“Um… yes I can. Have you noticed that Cyran infantry are in short supply? The kid has just been drafted.” Once she knew they were stopping for the night Kiri slunk away from the unit and found a small copse of Apple trees. Apple trees are common in this part of Cyre and most farmers had an apple orchard. Kiri deftly climbed the tree and reclined back on a branch. The smell of apples reminded her of home. She wept openly for the first time in days. A few moments later Egnarac accompanied by Arc248 approached her tree. She stifled her tears, hoping they would not find her.
“Child, come down, we must speak a moment.” Egnarac instructed.
From her position, she plucked a few apples and tossed them down to Arc and Egnarac, feeling only a tiny bit of remorse realizing that Arc might not actually eat food.
“I think I like it better up here.” She said quietly. “Here, I’m safe.”
She knew that for once, she was actually right. Maybe her comrades could climb a tree, but there was no chance they could climb better or faster than she could. For a moment she considered running away – swinging from branch to branch until she was back in her own orchard, back at her home, never experiencing the harsh reality of this world she had seen so far. She had never realized that the world could be so rough, and filled with rougher people. Where was the warmth and comfort she was used to?
Egnarac and Arc248 caught the apples. Arc248 stared at the apple blankly. Egnarac took a bite. “Delicious, thanks, now I’m going to need you to come down and help us with a few things, and bring a few more apples.” Egnarac held his arms out.
“I’ll catch you if you like…”
“No… that’s alright, I can get down fine.” Kiri dropped from the tree with a shirt full of apples. No chance she was going to leap into that scaly monster’s grasp, though he did seem more and more to be nicer than the rest of them. On her farm she’d heard little about Dragonborn.
“What do you need?” Kiri asked tentatively. Egnarac motioned to Kiri’s brother’s bow. “How good of a shot are you with that?”
“My brothers bow? I’m pretty good. He showed me how to hunt. I’m better than he is.” She smiled prideful
“It’s your bow now child.” Arc248 stated. “Let us see a display of your prowess.” Weaving arcane patterns in the air the warforged caused the apples to float away from Kiri’s shirt and hang weightlessly in the air at different distances. Egnarac produced a quiver of arrows.“Shoot them.”
Kiri picked up one of the arrows and carefully inspected it. To Egnarac and Arc’s surprise, she tossed several aside after careful inspection and finally settled on a three arrows.
“Your arrows are crooked.” Kiri said it so matter of factly that Arc and Egnarac stood stunned for a moment before they scooped the discarded arrows from the ground. In surprise, they analyzed them carefully, wondering how a young girl could criticize the quality of arrows they had made themselves. Egnarac knew he could fletch a fair arrow. He stared at it so intently that when he looked up, he met only a blank look from Kiri and what Egnarac could only assume was surprise on the warforged’s face. He looked expectantly at Kiri and then realized her hands were empty and her bow was handing loosely from her arm.
His gaze wandered upward to the first apple and he gaped – each arrow was centered exactly through the apples that Arc had suspended in the air. Even the highest one, almost 20 times the child’s height, was perfectly shot. Egnarac didn’t know whether he should feel shocked or proud – this was natural talent, and possibly more of it than he had ever seen on one so young – especially a girl.Kiri looked up at her work expectantly. She thought that this was a fun game and now it was Egnarac’s turn. This was the closest to fun she had experienced in weeks and she couldn’t believe that soldiers would engage in games, just like she had with her brother. The memory should have brought sadness and loss, but instead she felt a tiny bit of joy at the fact that she had something in common with this scary band of misfits.
“By the Sovereigns!” Egnarac stared slack jawed. Arc248 lowered each apple down and examined each.
“Each of these is a kill sir.”
“I can see that. How…” Egnarac’s shocked response was silenced by a slow clap as Captain Ja’wn stepped out from behind a tree.
“Well done girl. Well done. Congratulations!” He said beaming. “You’ve just been promoted.”
“Promoted?” Egnarac and Kiri exclaimed at once.
“You’re the newest member of our unit Private. Now go to sleep. We’ve got a squad of killer Thranes and a supply chain to cut tomorrow.” Arc finished removing each arrow and placed them back in the quiver. He handed the quiver to Kiri and walked away with Egnarac back to the main camp.
Arden had lit a fire and was singing war songs, hoping the Thrane scouts could hear him. Kiri fitfully tossed and turned that night. Her stomach felt like it was filled with butterflies and every time she closed her eyes she could see herself dressed in a uniform with a big knife and blood everywhere. It was a terrifying vision, but she also felt a small stab of pride that she couldn’t quite explain. Morning came and she packed up her meager belongings, grabbing a few rations from Ja’wn’s bag. She was small and didn’t eat much. The soldiers had been uncommonly nice to her about food. Even Arden, who seemed self-absorbed, always made sure she had something in her stomach. Before leaving the camp, she grabbed a few apples, thinking that if she was now a soldier, she would have to learn how to feed herself. She couldn’t depend on the kindness of strangers for long.“Move out, soldiers!” bellowed Ja’wn from across the camp. She watched as the other members of her party scurried to do as he said. She took a deep breath and sighed, steeling herself for what was sure to be an interesting first day on the job. The 421st was on the move again. The brief rest filled each member with vigor, a testament to their strength and will. Kiri made sure to keep up with Egnarac, who Ja’wn assigned her to. “Eggs will make a scout out of you, kid. Listen to him and do whatever he says.” The Thrane supply caravan had to be close, the old trade road was recently worn with wheel marks. The high grass by the street was trampled. Egnarac examined a blade of grass.”What do you see Kiri?” He said handing her the grass. “The grass has been stepped on, it’s muddy.”“Good, what does this tell us?”“Someone stepped on it?”“Yes, but examine the mud. Let your sense work for you.”“It’s sandy. Smells like fresh water.”“From the river bank. These men came from over the border. From-”“Thrane.”“Yes. They are using our own trade roads.” Egnarac patted Kiri on the back. “Good work.” For the first time, Kiri did not wince at his touch. He stepped back from the road into a ditch where the rest of the unit waited. A few moments later they were on the move, staying close to the road, but under cover of the high grass. Egnarac showed Kiri how to crouch low without giving up speed. Hours passed.”Egnarac, take Kiri on point. Report back any contact.” Ja’wn instructed. Kiri and Egnarac moved forward and away from the unit, moving quicker than the rest. Kiri allowed her senses to work for her. She smelled smoke. She alerted Egnarac using the hand signals she had seen him use. He nodded. _Contact How many? Shrug _ Egnarac stood and moved to the road. Kiri, wondering if this was some suicidal charge waited for a moment, then followed. They came upon an overturned apple cart. No sign of the enemy, but they had left their mark of these Cyran merchants.
Kiri tentatively went toward the cart, crouching down in the grass by the road to avoid detection. She knew that Egnarac was too large to remain undetected but she had always had a talent for stealth and she felt sure that this was a time to put such a skill to good use. When she reached the edge of the grass, she closed her eyes, trying to heighten her perception of the world around her. She listened carefully to what the world was trying to tell her. She heard a bird’s song – a dove, cooing from the woods to the east. She heard the wind whistle softly through branches. She heard the crackle of leaves as an animal stepped lightly to the west. A deer, perhaps? She felt a sense of satisfaction. She was good at this! She had the ability to block out everything else around her and focus in on the individual sounds. She concentrated harder and listened to the light steps as they went through the grass and leaves. They paused for a moment, like the animal was hesitant – conflicted on where to go next. She pictured a few animals, but none of them sounded right. She listened harder and then realized that something was very wrong. She was able to hear these light footsteps because there was an absence of sound. The light buzz from the high grass was gone, but not just in her position – all around her. She couldn’t hear the buzzing at all. The shocking realization told her that there was something that didn’t belong all around her. Her eyes flew open and she started to silently wiggle in the grass back toward Egnarac, praying silently to any god or goddess that was around that it wasn’t too late. Rejoining the unit, Kiri explained what she had heard or, rather, what she hadn’t. Ja’wn was convinced, that the Thrane scouts were ahead attempting to counter any ambush that they could bring down on the supply caravan.”They probably have been ambushing any merchants on these roads to make room for the supply lines. You saw what they did to that apple cart.” Ja’wn reasoned.”A guerilla attack against a surprised foe has an 80% success rate.” Arc248 agreed in his way, by presenting facts”Well let’s give them someone to ambush who won’t fight like merchants.” Arden said.”Right, decoy.” Ja’wn said.”Decoy could be my favorite word.” Arden said gleefully. He put down his backpack and began rifling through it. “I found these robes on one of those dead merchants back their. We’re lucky… the purple hides the bloodstains pretty well.” Kiri’s stomach knotted. Arden donned the bloodied merchants robes, and picked up his backpack. “Alright, here’s the plan.” Ja’wn instructed as his unit gathered. “Arden you walk right down the street. Whistle, do what you do best. Insight violence.” Arden giggled mischievously Honest Ja’wn continued, “Arc you’re on antimagic countermeasures. Prepare incase they have a caster. Quick kills, range. Nothing loud.” Arc248 nodded.”Eggs you and me will provide back up.” Egnarac agreed.”What about me?” Kiri spoke up. “What’s my job captain?”“Well you’re a good shot right?””...yeah.”“Good. You take point. Cover Arden. If someone attempts to jump him you give them one in the brain pan…squish.” Ja’wn instructed, complete with gross hand gestures expressing head explosions.”Ok.” Kiri said, before she gave it any more thought. “Move out. For Queen and Country.”
A thick tree with long branches provided Kiri with the cover she needed. She watched nervously as Arden walked slowly down the road, imitating the motions of a frail, happy-go luck merchant. He walked with an exaggerated limp and leaned heavily ona walking stick, silently screaming, “Easy target!” as if he had done this a thousand times before. Kiri held an arrow notched, and her arm posed for action, watching fearfully as she saw the first dark-clothed bandit step from the tree line and begin mimicking Arden’s slow pace. Arden was within earshot now, and she could make out a song he was singing. Hearing his ridiculous song made her smile in spite of her feelings of apprehension.
“Apples in the morning, Apples in the evening, Apples all day and night! Apples for my lady, Apples for my maid – hey! Apples for my favorite knight!”
The song was a children’s song that made almost no sense, but that every Cyran child knew. The chorus was just the word “Apples” over and over again, getting louder and louder and louder each time. Typically children would alternate the words but Arden seemed quite content to do both parts himself. He even adopted a female and a male voice as he said ‘Apples’ over and over again.
Kiri felt must more at ease. She saw 4 more bandits creeping toward Arden, weapons drawn. The ones in the back weren’t even trying to be stealthy. She drew back her bow and aimed it on the man in the back. At her angle, she would pick him off before he even got the chance to call out. She thought she would be scared to take her first shot, but she found that she wasn’t. Instead, she felt calm. Her heart wasn’t racing, and her mind was unclouded. She aimed carefully, and fired at the man’s throat from 200 feet away.
The arrow was gone before she lowered her arm. The entire world seemed muted. She watched her target. She saw him in the same way she saw the apples the day before. She saw the arrow hit. An explosion of red. Watched his hooded form slump to the ground, a crimson mist still dangling in the air. She watched as Egnarac and Captain Ja’wn stormed the men from behind. Arc248 firing bolts of blue energy into them. Watched as Arden wheeled about and cut two men down before they could scream. It was a well executed massacre. The silence remained until the all clear was given. “Kiri…Kiri! Kid!” Kiri’s trance faded as she heard Egnarac calling up to her. “It’s over. You can come down.” She nodded and slowly descended from the tree. Egnarac walked over to the rest of the unit who were cleaning up after the carnage. Kiri slowly approached her dead quarry. She saw that her arrow still shown out the back of his neck. She rolled him onto his back and drew back his cloak. He was young, no older than her brother was…had been. His blue eyes looked vacantly up at her. His mouth was bloodied and open. He was clutching a medallion. Arden approached Kiri and inspected her kill. “Nice. Looks like he was a caster. Would’ve probably blasted me full of holes, or set me on fire.” Arden scoffed. “Or tried to at least.” Kiri looked up at him and said nothing”Oh look.” Arden grabbed the man’s cold, dead hands and pried them apart.”Trophy.” He held the medallion up and inspected it in the afternoon sun. It glimmered. A miniature silver apple on a shining silver chain.”Looks like a piece of the loot they pillaged from some Cyran merchant. It’s a good luck charm, these are the guys who sacked that apple cart.”“It does not seem to have brought him any luck.” Arc248 mentioned, rummaging through the caster’s satchel recouping bits of magical reagents”To the victor go the spoils…right kid?” Arden said, placing the apple medallion around Kiri’s neck. “That way you don’t forget what we’re fighting for.” He smiled. She never forgot.