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The Secret of High Hallack

Posted on Fri Apr 14th, 2017 @ 9:32pm by Anastasiya Windwalker & Hawke Windwalker
Edited on on Fri Apr 14th, 2017 @ 9:54pm

Chapter: The Feast of Samhain
Location: Felonwood Hold, Harkania March, Cymeria
Timeline: 31 October 3550

The celebration was in full swing. Several bonfires burned at the periphery of the courtyard and nearest field that had been cleared to allow more room. Children dodged in and out of the shadows playing games or cadging sweets. The adults were either still eating from the vast quantity of food that had been prepared, conversing in small groups, or dancing. A few slipped in and out of the shadows, lovers stealing a moment for a quick kiss. Few paid attention to the flame-haired shadow that moved amongst them.

Anastasiya Stormdanovich Windwalker, Seneschal of Cymeria, had eschewed her uniform. Instead, she wore a long, split skirt made of the softest of leathers. It was dyed a deep blue and matched her low-heeled boots and the sleeveless tunic. Beneath the tunic was a stark white, heavy silk blouse with long, voluminous sleeves and tight-fitting cuffs. Some people called it a poet's blouse. The only thing that set her apart from the other women at the Gathering was the sword and long dagger that hung from the wide belt that encircled her trim waist. In another departure from the normal mode of dress for her, two thin braids were pulled back from her face and clasped behind her head. Her dark red hair hung in waves to her hips.

Passing a group of women, three of which were heavy with child made Stasya lay a slender, strong hand across her middle. Not yet, but soon, she thought. It was time. She was ready for another stage in life and found herself wanting motherhood more and more. She had been grooming her replacement. Brychan Emrys was a fine man, trusted by the High Lord, and a tactical genius. He was also well-loved by the troops. When the time came, he could step into her shoes as Seneschal with relative ease. Brychan was a good man and loyal to a fault. Motherhood would be challenging, but Stasya would return to service at some point. Perhaps by then, Mikhael would have wed. It was in her mind to suggest to her husband, the Commander of the Morrighan and the Ryndar of Cymeria, that she take charge of the High Lady's and Heir's details leaving Hawke to focus his efforts on protecting the High Lord. There were also Ravens amongst the Morrighan, maybe Gero could use one more.

Anastasiya continued onward, actively seeking her husband. They had not danced since their handfasting in September. It was time that she drag him away from Mikhael and his other friends. She started to walk past a copse of nut trees when a familiar deep voice caught her attention. She stayed within the trees although her eyebrows rose as she recognized the four men standing in a small group, their faces partially shadowed since the grove was lit only by the moons of Gaia.

Mikhael stood with his back to her, a small goblet in his hand. To either side stood her husband, Hawke Windwalker, his uncle, Dougal Windwalker, and a Xian man with fine aquiline features and watchful dark eyes. She had never learned his name, but he was Dougal's shadow. She had to wonder if Dougal's brother, Thoreson Windwalker, knew of his presence.

The High Lord tipped his goblet to allow a few drops of its contents to spill onto the earth. Anastasiya bit back a gasp! He was spilling red wine, and in Cymry rituals, it was a substitute for blood. When he spoke, his deep voice was solemn and measured.

"Take me now, take me now for to face the Summerlands. By the earth, the wind, and the fire and rain. I'm on my way. Remember me."

Mikhael turned to the North and continued, "Take me now back to the earth from which we spring and then return.
I shall cross over, now it is my turn. I am not afraid. Remember me." He turned in each direction, spilling the wine and repeating the verse. When done, he raised his goblet to the other three men, "High Hallack, blessed be."

Her brother exchanged a few soft words with the men, clasping Dougal's arm as a warrior would to a comrade-in-arms, then he was gone. The second the High Lord was out of sight, Anastasiya stepped from the shelter of the trees, gliding toward her husband, eyebrows raised in question. "A ritual in the trees?" Stasya said, stopping beside Hawke.

Hawke spun at the voice and only slightly relaxed when he saw the source. Dougal's bodyguard had already been watching her approach from the moment she stepped from the trees. Hawke held out a hand, palm down when he glanced at the man. "It's alright, Yinying..."

Dougal turned and smiled at his niece by marriage. "Stasya, it's good to see you again...it has been far too long..."

Anastasiya nodded pleasantly at Yinying and then smiled radiantly at Dougal. She might have reservations regarding the man's choice of career, but she had never known him to be less than honorable. She leaned forward to kiss his cheek, "Dougal, it is wonderful to see you. It is rare that you grace a Gathering." She glanced between the three men, "Am I interrupting something?"

Dougal shrugged. "We were just finishing. I usually only come in for our little ritual each year. I am afraid my brother isn't usually very happy to see me around the civilized-" The man's words cut off with a soft grunt as Hawke elbowed him from the other side. "...well, that is, Thoreson disapproves of me in general." Yinying and I need to enjoy some homemade mulled wine. One of the few things from here I dearly miss. We will leave you two alone. Good evening, milady." Dougal bowed his head and turned, moving off toward the Gathering with Yinying drifting in his trail like always.

She watched the two men walk away for a moment before turning her dark blue eyes to her husband. Stasya raised an eyebrow, "Dougal usually comes for our little ritual each year...hmmm? What little ritual would that be?"

Hawke glanced up at the sky barely visible through the trees overhead, then he blew his breath out. "Stasya, you do not want to know this. I am not patronizing you or insulting you...just being honest..." Hawke's hand came up as he saw her face darken in preparation for an eruption. "...honest in saying you do not need to know. What you don't know you do not have to tell anyone about."

"There is no one I have to tell period, except Mikhael, and to my eyes, it appears he already knows," Anastasiya's face was set. She thoroughly disliked surprises, and if Dougal were involved, a surprise was almost certain. "Do you not think it might be best that I know so that I do not walk into something I am ill prepared for?"

Hawke shook his head. "You don't need to fear walking into anything. It's something from very long ago...something neither Mikhael or myself are proud of, but we do not regret what happened. We were younger...full of passion and the need for vengeance and full of a whole two decades of knowledge of the world and how things should be..." The Ryndar grinned with a wry twist. "What a pair of damned fools we were."

Anastasiya crossed her arms and stared steadily at Hawke, "Tell me." The tone was soft. She was not ordering, yet not pleading either. It was simply a request, but one that would not be denied.

Hawke sat down on a log and looked at the ground silently for several seconds. Finally, he spoke without looking up. "Do you remember that time we were on patrol...you were in charge...and we came across that raider attack?"

Anastasiya nodded and settled down next to him, slipping her hand into his. "You are talking about the massacre?" There had been other patrols and other encounters with raiders and groups of bandits, but nothing to compare to the horrors they found in that formerly peaceful and beautiful valley.

Hawke nodded. In all the years the three of them had passed together since that day, mentioning raiders and attacks always brought that memory up, more than any of the dozens of lesser incidents they had dealt with before or since. "That one." Hawke straightened a bit and turned to look at Stasya. "Just what do you know about the massacre? I mean besides what you saw and experienced with the rest of us that day."

She wrinkled her brow, not sure where he was going with the story, but willing to listen when he got there. Stasya let her mind drift back, "It was the first patrol that you and Mikhael were sent on. It was meant to be a training exercise which was why Thoreson put me in command. It was essentially a welfare check of the valley residents, something that was done every spring." She tilted her head to look at her husband, "Then we found the first hold and the next."

Stasya quit speaking for a moment. When she continued, her voice was shaking, "I made the decision to withdraw. We were not equipped to handle a serious incursion, and there was a real possibility that the bandits were still in the valley. You and Mika returned with the search and burial detail, but Thoreson reassigned me. I read the reports, of course, and learned that nothing had been left alive, not even farm animals. Rumors that it was y Carthu ran rampant throughout the Guard, particularly amongst the Cymry." Stasya shifted her seat against slightly, "I think the search and rescue unit was under the command of Brychan Emrys and some of the first Morrighan?"

Hawke nodded. "That sounds right, and that's how all the accounts read...but that's only part of the story..." The Ryndar's eyes took on a faraway look as the years fell away in his mind...

== Spring 3532 (18 years ago) ==

Hawke Windwalker looked around as the double column of mounted men moved at a walk along the road. Mixed in among the guardsmen were several wagons carrying various people and equipment thought, and in some cases, hoped would be necessary. Up at the head of the column, Brychan Emrys reined in and held up an arm to halt the column. The wagons and men stopped easily without overrunning those in front of them in line. The column commander turned his head partially. "Hawke! Mikhael!" Both men spurred their horses out of the column and rode up front to either side of Emrys.

"If I remember your accounts, the first attack location is over this next hill?" Brychan spoke, but his eyes never left the area ahead of the column.

Mikhael nodded. "Exactly. There's a small hold there, and the rest continue along the road for quite a distance."

Brychan raised his arm again. "First Troop! With me!..." Brychan spurred on, Hawke and Mikhael falling in together behind him as the first group of men trotted after. The detachment moved up the hill to the ridge and then down the other side, winding its way toward the small group of dwellings.

Mikhael had spent most of the ride with his head down although he surreptitiously surveyed the company he rode with. Amongst their number were two powerful Cymry archadepts. After hearing Mikhael's report of what he had felt when they had found the first bodies, Thoreson had advised him to be silent and let him handle how the reports were conveyed to the High Lord. The end result was a company made up primarily of Cymry and accompanied by the two high adepts.

He moved his big blood bay stallion up next to Hawke's horse, his head up and eyes sharp. Even though they had yet to clear the dense forest and enter the valley proper, Mikhael heard the first screams of agony. There were no true voices, just the cries, and calls of spirits trapped between life and death, or in the case of Cymry, between life and Crossing to whatever was beyond the Veil. Mikhael began to visibly shake as he became lost in the mayhem of the trapped. He was, therefore, startled, when the woman adept riding with them reined her mare in next to his.

Sharp gray looked at Mikhael and then beyond to Hawke. Whatever she saw made her nod. "This is high dark magic, young Lord. My name is Bronwyn. My companion is Barrett de Laney." Bronwyn indicated the man that rode behind them. "y Carthu blinded him by holding a blazing torch to his eyes when he tried to save several Cymry children from a Purge."

"But," Mikhael protested and waved his hand toward the valley ahead of them, "there are babes-in-arms impaled next to their mothers. I hear." His distress was palpable.

"I may not teach you how not to hear them," Bronwyn said quietly.

Hawke moved his horse around to rein in on the other side of the woman. He kept his voice low. "Whatever it is that's troubling my friend is serious..." Hawke then leaned over and rested an elbow on his knee as he put his face closer to her. "If you know something that can help him after what I saw him deal with last time...you do it, or the raiders will be the least of your worries."

The woman regarded Hawke without perceivable distress, "You would have me defy the High Lord's edict regarding magic?"

At that moment, the man identified as Barrett de Laney spoke. His voice was deep, clear and perfectly modulated. "We are already in defiance of the High Lord, simply by being here, Bronwyn. It is why the Seneschal selected these men and women so carefully. Kimber will know, but he will not be able to prove without implicating his son." The blind man moved his horse up next to Mikhael's. "I can teach you the theory, but it requires practice to work well. Even then, it does not stop the voices entirely. Perhaps, though, it is best to bear it so that you remember and are never tempted to use this power yourself?"

Mikhael looked from Barrett to Bronwyn. The woman's lips were pressed into a fine line, but the man's face and demeanor were calm, no sign of anger. "I tend to stay in trouble with the High Lord regarding my desires to learn more of our heritage as Cymry," he said wryly. "I would learn the theory, although at a later time. I need to learn how to handle what faces us as a warrior first." He smiled at Hawke in appreciation of his friend's desire to spare him the distress that was surely ahead of them.

=== Present Day ===

"So we checked all the nearby homesteads and villages...buried the bodies, burned all the buildings. The archadepts worked together to release all the trapped souls and finally quiet the voices Mikhael kept hearing." Hawke rubbed his forehead with his fingers a few times before sitting back up straight. "That's as far as the official actions went, but Mikhael was not satisfied and honestly, neither was I." Hawke smiled. "Then, six months later...I received a note asking me to bring Mikhael and come to a small tavern in Dinas Ulchedir..." Hawke nodded at Stasya's expression. "I know...not the smartest thing for either of us to do, but the note included a mention of the massacre...how could I stop him from going?"

Stasya's face was white after Hawke finished describing the deeper horror of what had happened in the valley. She was less than surprised that neither man had ever told her about it. Mikhael's involvement with the arcane had kept him at odds with their father, the High Lord. He would not have dragged her into the fray by telling her something that she might have had to report. And, no matter their relationship now, Hawke would never reveal anything that might have caused harm to befall her brother.

"Go on," she said softly, understanding far more than she had before about the other events surrounding the Massacre of High Hallack.

=== October 3532 ===

Hawke and Mikhael walked along the crowded narrow lane, their faces and bodies hidden under hoods and cloaks as they moved along the stream of people. This area was crowded with taverns and inns, none very comfortable or safe looking. The two men soon stood in front of their destination, The Gutted Boar. They shared a look with each other, then pushed their way through the heavy door into the dimly lit tavern. Mikhael stood near the stairs while Hawke made his way over to the bar and got the innkeeper's attention. He leaned across the counter and handed the note over to the man behind it. He looked at it and said a few words, gesturing with a thumb upstairs. The pair walked up the stairs, eyes constantly moving as they headed down the hallway and Hawke knocked on a particular door.

"Enter!" a voice came from within. Hawke turned the knob, and the two stepped inside, partially turning each way to cover each other in case this was an ambush. The older man sitting on the far side of the table gave them a slow look before letting out a chuckle. "By the Stygian Witches...do you two have any idea how ridiculous you both look?" Dougal Windwalker smiled and stood, coming around the table and opening his arms to hug his nephew. "Hawke, you're looking well..." The man released Hawke and turned to Mikhael and extended a hand. "Mikhael, it's been a while..."

"The vanity of youth, Dougal," Mikhael said in response to the man's comment about their appearance. He took the proffered hand in a strong, warm clasp. "Of course, we expected we would be recognized. Who could fail but take note of two such striking Guardsmen?" His voice was laced with humor as he spoke, willing to acknowledge the older man's observation. Mikhael chose not to add that they hoped to elude any of his father's watchdogs by donning the disguises.

Dougal nodded and gestured to the table, resuming his place as the other two men took their own seats. "I understand...the High Lord has eyes and ears everywhere, as does his Ryndar, and even my brother..." Dougal smiled and chose not to continue that particular conversation. "...I know you have been looking for some answers regarding that series of massacres earlier this year. Word...made its way to me about what happened..." Dougal looked at Mikhael steadily, "...all of what happened."

A pained expression flitted across Mikhael's features, but he managed to keep from visibly starting at the news. He felt some consternation, and yet was not truly surprised. The detail that returned to High Hallack had not been sworn to secrecy, and magic that strong was bound to arouse whispers and rumors. That Mikhael was seeking out training and knowledge regarding his Cymry powers, and heritage was not a secret either.

Dougal raised a hand slightly. "Yinying..." Suddenly a man was standing between Hawke and Mikhael. He leaned slightly and laid a cloth on the table, it draped open to reveal a small pile of round tokens that resembled coins. A few still had the dark stain of dried blood on them. "My men and I discovered a group of strangers in our territory. Normally I am fine to let groups pass through as long as they don't cause me any problems, but these men murdered an entire farm. People I knew and did not bother because they let us camp and hunt on their land..." Dougal snorted an angry breath out. "...well, tracking them down was not a problem, but the bastards did not surrender. We ended up having to kill everyone...except one. He was wounded too bad to fight before he could kill himself. We decided to ask him some questions, and he was too weak to live through the process."

Hawke's uncle sat back and took a drink of his ale. "Because of the way the farm was attacked, it made me think about what I had heard about your incident." Dougal poked a finger at the pile of tokens. "Two things came from our little confrontation...One, those tokens were on every person we killed, and two...if you're interested...he told me where their main group was spending the winter. His group had been out foraging for winter supplies."

Mikhael had been looking at the tokens, noting that though they resembled coins, they appeared to be carved out of graysteel oak, rare and hard to find in Cymeria. He had been discreetly probing at the tokens with his arcane senses but was not receiving impressions from them. At Dougal's words, he raised his head, his eyes narrowed, and his attention focused on the older man. "These are y Carthu," Mikhael said, one finger flipping the token nearest him over so that it displayed the ornate carving on one side. "The emblem is ancient Celt in origin, although there are changes and embellishments to this version. It was originally a symbol of purity and dedication amongst Celtic warriors." He gazed at Dougal for a few seconds, "y Carthu espouses death to everything and everyone arcane, yet what was done in High Hallack was high magic...and dark. It is an ancient punishment cast on Cymry who have transgressed all of our codes, rules, and ethics in the use of our powers."

Dougal's fingers tapped on his mug. "I will defer to your expertise on that matter...but it leaves the question as to who would choose to do this to innocent people? If it's the punishment you describe, it makes no sense to inflict it on the undeserving."

Hawke had been holding one of the tokens as well but said nothing as the two men talked. He slowly turned the emblem in his fingers, moving it along his hand then back, using his knuckles to roll it back and forth slowly. Finally, he spoke during a pause in the conversation. "You said he gave you a location for the rest of his...group, cult, whatever. Did you get any idea as to their numbers or defenses?"

Dougal shook his head. "Nothing solid. He made it sound like they had some numbers but no idea if he meant dozens or maybe hundred. I doubt it's a bunch of tents either, not if it will be their winter camp. I wager they occupied an old village or maybe even a keep."

Hawke's lips thinned as he pondered the possibilities. He looked over at Mikhael. "Do you think we need to tell my father? He can give us some Guard detachments..."

Dougal coughed lightly. "Ehhh...I do not think that would be a good idea to bring my brother into this, nor the High Lord's troops..." The older man smiled. "...as it happens, I have enough men to give us a chance if we act wisely." Dougal looked over to Mikhael. "If you are willing to go into battle with men who are not considered law abiding...or even very civilized depending on who you ask..."

Mikhael listened closely to Hawke and Dougal, finding himself in the position of having to make a decision that he felt sure would bring him into conflict with Highlord Kimber...again. There was far more at stake than merely bringing the murderers to justice although the voices still clamored for retribution. Was he concerned about the men he would be riding with? That thought brought a slight smile to his face. "Dougal, I would be honored to ride with you. After all, my fledgling Morrighan, the unit that is to be under my command are not what is commonly considered to be optimum Guard material." He once again passed his long fingers over the tokens, extending his arcane senses in an attempt to detect anything of the dark magic encountered in High Hallack. "We need the identity of the arch adept that did the spirit-binding. He or she needs found and dealt with...harshly. It took considerable power and skill to create such a working on so many."

He stood and walked to a sideboard where a pitcher of water sat. Pouring a mug full, Mikhael returned to his seat. "y Carthu has espoused hatred and loathing for all things arcane. While their rhetoric is low-key, it is well known they have a growing military arm composed of apostates that will happily slaughter anyone associated with anything deemed by them to be magical in nature. Yet, magic was used in High Hallack, and these tokens confirm an y Carthu connection." He sighed as he tried to articulate all of the concerns that High Hallack raised.

Dougal listened then regarded Mikhael. "You know that my family..." He nodded at Hawke and by doing so meant his brother as well, "...and myself do not and have not had much exposure to magic and the arcane arts. That is something we do not deal with." The older Windwalker reached and tapped a finger on one of the tokens. "You realize that except for a few differences in background and personal belief we all could be just like y Carthu? Fearful...deeply suspicious of anything to do with magic and willing to kill to prevent that particular fear to become real." Dougal then straightened. "But to claim to believe in or be against something and then to use that very thing to maintain that control I cannot allow existing...in any form..."

"And the opposite is true as well, Dougal," Mikhael said solemnly. "Ethical Cymry cannot allow an archadept of this magnitude to use their power to harm others. This time it was Cymry who, had all things been equal, might have defended against the magic. Next time, what prevents this adept from doing the same or worse to non-magic users, a village of innocent Celts perhaps? If they would turn their powers against their own kind, little prevents them from doing the same against others." The Heir smiled, "It is wrong." He stretched and returned to his seat, "I defer to your greater experience. How do we proceed and what do you need from Hawke and me?"

Dougal sat back and was silent for some time, his eyes staring straight ahead in an unfocused fashion. Finally, he blinked as if stirring himself from sleep. "An ambush..." Dougal's eyes crinkled with a smile as he saw the two younger men pondering his words. "...Don't overthink it, young masters. We know these raiders need supplies, and cannot resist a target of opportunity." The older man leaned forward and crossed his arms on the tabletop. "I have chosen targets using the same standards these animals appear to use. I can make an innocent caravan look laden with food and supplies as well as loot they will want to have while spending the coming winter. We hide men in each wagon and have a group ready to ride in and close the door behind them once they attack the caravan. Trapped between two forces, they won't know what to do because they were not expecting to go from being the attacker to being attacked." Dougal's slow smile was not pleasant at all. "I have had it happen to me, and it's not conducive to long life, let me assure you...against bloodthirsty monsters like this, it will be devastating."

=== Present Day ===

Hawke's voice trailed off. To Anastasiya, it seemed as if his memories were running their course. She hated the thought of causing him distress, but his story was explaining so much. Stasya curled her fingers a bit more tightly around his, leaning against him to give comfort and to receive it. Her dark blue eyes rested on his well-loved face. "Dougal may step outside the strict guidelines of the law, but at his core, he is an ethical and moral man, a good man. It explains why Mikhael takes no issue with his operations within Cymeria." Her voice was quiet, pitched for his ears only. "You found those responsible for the massacre?"

Hawke smiled with a quirk of one side of his mouth. "Even better...they found us. Dougal's bit of theater with the caravan we put together worked better than I think even he hoped. Apparently, the raiders were worse off for supplies than we thought, or just greedy...The reason did not really matter to us at the time..."

=== October 3532 ===

Yingying rested a hand on Dougal Windwalker's shoulder, and the man nodded slightly, his head hidden under the cloak's hood. "Yes, I saw them."

Hawke started to straighten and turn, trying to see what his uncle was referring to. "Don't, boy..." Dougal said as he sat on the wagon's bench, reins hanging loosely from his fingers. "...We're a random caravan plying its route, manned by fat, dumb merchants. We would never spot people being as careful as they are."

Hawke settled back down and stared straight ahead as he spoke. "So where are they? I can't see anyone from here."

Dougal smiled as he lightly flicked the reins and let out a whistle as if keeping the wagon moving. "There is a group up ahead planning to block our route...and Yinying and I saw men on either side waiting to close in on us to finish us off before we can get organized...or so they think." Dougal turned and picked up a wineskin, holding it with one hand for a long drink before handing it to Hawke. "I am sure they have mounted men hidden nearby ready to put in a show of force and cow us into surrendering."

Hawke took a drink to steady his own nerves before setting the skin back in its place. "What will we do when they attack?"

Dougal turned his head to regard his nephew. "You'll go off your side, and I will go off mine along with all the men we have hidden in the wagons, and we kill as many as we can, then your friend Mikhael sweeps in with the reserve to get the ones we miss..." Dougal stretched on the bench, using the maneuver to scan the surrounding area. "...Can we trust Mikhael not to attack too early and give them a chance to scatter?"

Hawke smiled for the first time that day at Dougal's question. "Mikhael wants these people so bad you should worry more about him waiting until we're in serious trouble before he attacks to make sure none of them get away..."

Dougal's head snapped over at Hawke, but then both men turned to look ahead of the caravan as a dozen men stepped from the treeline, blocking the road, they were armed with spears, sword, and shield, and a few had nocked bows. Manifold rustling came from both sides as more men emerged from the trees along the road and the wagons on it. They were all armed similarly, around three score or more from the quick glances Hawke and Dougal were able to catch of the raiders.

Mikhael folded the spyglass back into its cover and stowed it away in a saddle pocket. The crystals that were used to provide light also made great pieces for long-distance viewing when they were cut and polished just right. He motioned toward the treeline where he had spotted movement, alerting the men with him to prepare. His big bay war stallion sidled restlessly as it detected the shifting of his weight in the saddle and the tensing of his muscles preparatory to giving the order to attack.

The last few moments of waiting would be the hardest, but for the trap to be successful, the small cavalry had to time their attack perfectly. They needed to take a few of the y Carthu cell alive to be questioned. It would all be in vain if they failed to learn the name of the archadept that had orchestrated the magical atrocities in High Hallack.

Mikhael would have to subvert his personal desire for justice and revenge as well. The need to extract blood for blood was almost overwhelming, but while young and inexperienced, the Heir was no fool.

Still, waiting was hard.

Hawke's hand strayed to his side but did not grab for the hilt of his blade. Several of the raiders approached, brandishing their spears, swords, and bows. One moved up alongside the lead wagon and gestured with his sword. "All of you, get down! These wagons are ours!"

Dougal held up his hands and stood on the driver's ledge. "Easy, lads...no need for violence...we'll be happy to give you everything you have coming to you." The closest raider smiled, showing several missing teeth to his men. Suddenly there was a swishing sound and then a meaty thunk. The raider's smile collapsed, and his eyes moved around and down to stare at the small hatchet buried several inches in his ribs, having impacted almost horizontally from Yinying's throw from the bed of the wagon. Dougal stuck one hand up to his mouth, two fingers in his lips as he let loose with a piercing whistle. Covers flew back all along the caravan and men leaped over each side, weapons ready as they charged in both directions at their would-be attackers. Dougal leaped down from the wagon and shoved the injured raider aside, drawing his sword and engaging the raiders behind their fallen leader.

Hawke blinked, eyes widening at the speed everything happened, from Yinying's throw to Dougal's signal to suddenly finding himself alone on the wagon seat. He grabbed for his sword and drew it, turning and jumping down on his side of the wagon, finding himself face to face with an equally surprised raider. Hawke and the raider stared at each other for a moment, but the raider hunched his shoulders to thrust with the spear. Hawke reacted without thought as his training took over. His sword swept over and down, hitting the shaft and deflecting the spear aside and his sword then swung in a backhand slash that opened the throat of his attacker in a spray of red. The raider dropped the spear and grabbed his neck as he fell to his knees. Hawke moved past him and blocked a sword swing with his blade, parrying and punching his opponent as they pushed close. The raider did not go down, and his arms entangled Hawke's while they stumbled back against the side of the wagon, each seeking the advantage...

Mikhael slid his great sword from its scabbard on his back, twirling it a couple of times to limber up his wrist and arm muscles. Quietly, but clearly, he spoke a reminder to the men with him, "Remember, we need some of them alive for questioning." He waited for another three minutes, listening to his own heartbeat, the muffled jingle of the horse's bits, and the creak of saddle leather. He watched the battle, taking note of where each of the attackers was, their clothing, and weapons. When the caravan's raiders were all embroiled in the fight, none watching for other attacks, Mikhael set his heels to the big bay's flanks, causing the stallion to leap forward into a full gallop. The horse plunged down the slight rise, his hooves almost soundless in the soft dirt where Mikhael's small cavalry force had been hiding. It had been planned that way because they could manage their entry in near silence. By the time they rode on to the harder ground of the small plain, and the thunder of hoofbeats alerted the attackers to their presence, it would be too late for escape.

Mikhael slid the war stallion into the battle, a gleam of anticipation lighting his frosty blue eyes. Shifting his weight in the saddle, he took aim at an attacker that was getting the upper hand over one of Dougal's younger men. Using the force of the war horse's weight to augment his own strength, he rammed the sword through the bandit, piercing his heart easily. At a signal from his rider, the stallion pulled back, helping Mikhael pull his sword free. Another man charged at the young Heir. Instead of slashing at him, Mikhael guided his horse with his legs and brought his sword's pommel down on the man's head, rendering him unconscious, and likely concussed. The stallion whirled on his back legs, lashing out with his front feet to savagely attack another man. Around him, some of his riders had dismounted to engage the enemy directly while two guarded his back.

Hawke shifted and brought a knee up into his opponent's stomach, the man's breath whooshed out, and he weakened. Hawke drove his gauntleted fist into the man's face then kicked him away. Hawke knelt and swept up his dropped blade and lunged, piercing the bandit through the torso and let him collapse, sliding off the sword to lay on the ground. Hawke looked both ways, seeing Mikhael and his men crashing into the caravan attackers farther back along the wagons. He turned and ran to the front of the caravan, heading for where Dougal was dealing with multiple attackers. Hawke's arrival drew off a few of the men, and he began slashing and parrying with them. Yinying appeared on the other side of the wagons, kneeling to yank his hatchet free of the earlier target. His arm came up and swept forward, sending it flying again to stop in the back of one of Dougal's opponents. The man stiffened and fell forward onto the ground.

Suddenly, it was a feeling like a branch snapping. The bandits began to back away when able, those without active opponents began to turn and run, and the ones still fighting began to try and break off, the bandits scattered in random directions as they realized they had lost too many to win and were facing much more than the usual merchant caravan guards. Hawke stood panting hard as a group of horsemen trotted up. He nodded and waved a hand at the fleeing bandits. The riders turned and spurred after them, blades and spears in hand. Hawke felt a shadow fall across him then a wet snout bumped his head and cheek. His hand came up and lightly pushed the horse's head aside, but his hand slid around to rub along the front slope. "Ugh, thank you but why couldn't you be a beautiful tavern wench?" Hawke leaned back a bit and looked at Mikhael sitting in the saddle. "Good work with the reserves..."

=== Present Day ===

Hawke's voice trailed off, and Stasya sat pale and silent. One slender finger traced along the back of his hand, stopping as it touched the edge of the bracer he always wore. It had been a gift from her. She realized that her mind was straying in an effort not to confront what her husband had just told her. As a soldier, Stasya understood that sometimes situations required a certain amount of brutality. Over and above that, the world they lived in was often brutal. Coping with the information that her brother had used such an archaic and cruel method of interrogation and execution as the Blood Eagle was taking some effort. More than that, it seemed that Hawke had condoned it, had not tried to stop him.

Anastasiya let her breath out, unaware that she had been holding it. They had done what they thought necessary to try to root out a far worse darkness. Wide dark blue eyes raised to Hawke's face, no judgment in their depths. She reached up with the hand that had been idly playing with the bracer to trace gently along the line of his jaw. Wife and soldier had fought their internal battle and, this time, the Seneschal won out. "You both did what you had to do. Mikhael was right, the identity of the archadept was...is...crucial. That they would not identify them even under such extreme interrogation methods is profoundly disturbing..."

Abruptly, the background noise of the celebration changed to shouts of alarm followed by a scream. Stasya sprang gracefully to her feet, a hand already on the hilt of Arthes, her sword, alarm in her eyes.

Hawke's thoughts had been straying back to that day and for a few moments, the sounds he heard at first reminded him of the fighting until his mind caught that he was hearing women and children as well. The Ryndar blinked and his head came up, looking off in the direction of the celebration. He sprang to his feet. "Mikhael..." Hawke said and glanced at Stasya, then took off at a dead run for the sounds. his hand sliding around and drawing Ravencall from his right hip to keep the weapon from fouling his stride.

 

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