The walls of Levora came into view and Callindra heaved a sigh of relief. She was certain she would lose her mind if she had to put up with one more hour of Jordan’s chatter. His hero worship had degenerated into some kind of awkward attempt to pay her court and she couldn’t decide which one was less welcome.
All thoughts of the boy and his strange behavior vanished as they drew close enough to see details. Throngs of people were outside the city walls, living in what she could only think of as abject squalor. The sheer number of them had churned the grass into mud and when an errant breeze swirled around her, Callindra could smell the rank scent of human waste, fear and illness.
“What is this?” She demanded in disgust, “Why are these people forced to live in such conditions? Doesn’t the Lord of this Holding take care of his people?”
Tom Gild ignored her as usual and frowned, looking at Tryst. “Levora got a strong town council and is full a folk with plenty a gold. Ain’t like ‘em ta tolerate such outside their walls. Guards shoulda run ‘em off else fed ‘em. Bad for business havin suchlike around.”
Callindra’s eyes narrowed, and she rode forward so as to avoid making acerbic remarks to the stubborn farmer’s face. “Damn prejudiced old goat.” She mutters, riding through the throngs of people who line the roads.
“Do you have any food?” A woman with sunken eyes asks in a hopeless tone, “Or clean water? I wouldn’t ask, but… my children…”
She gestures behind her and Callindra is shocked to see three children in dirty rags huddled together on a tattered blanket. Even though it was obviously inevitable that children would suffer as well, seeing them in such a state wrenched at her heart and she wordlessly handed over her waterskin and what was left of her trail rations.
“Gods favor you!” The woman said, clutching the food and running back to the blanket. Several others close by saw her giving food away and ran toward her, startling her horse as they began to clamor for food, water, anything to help.
A few became a dozen, and a dozen became a hundred. The crowd of people, each shouting their need, trying to be louder than the others to be heard. She needed to calm them down, but her voice wasn’t loud enough, she wasn’t tall enough and worse they had spotted the grain wagons. Hundreds of hungry, angry people surrounded the wagons, their voices melding into an angry rumble.
A rock flew from the anonymous crowd, striking the canvas of the lead wagon and several more followed, one nearly hitting Jordan Gild in the head. Tom shouted, his voice barely audible to Callindra although he was only a few yards away.
“Get back ya filthy scavengers! If ya got coin we cn deal, but get otta th way! We’re headin ta Levora an yer blockin th road!” His angry words exploded the mob’s already tinder dry mood into a raging bonfire of anger and desperation.
As people began to try and climb onto the wagons, Callindra’s companions prepared to defend themselves. She couldn’t stand by and watch these poor people get hurt just for trying to feed their families. Whipping Brightfang from his sheath, she drew upon the Weave to lend her voice strength and shouted, “STOP!”
Her voice broke through the low rumble of the crowd whip crack sharp. A swirling vortex of dust and dry leaves spun around her rising two score feet into the air and taking on the semblance of a humanoid form. The crowd took several involuntary steps back, staring in stunned silence as she continued.
“WE HAVE NO WISH TO HARM YOU. WE WILL HELP ALL WE CAN BUT YOU MUST LET US PASS IN PEACE!” The vortex gradually spun slower and slower, collapsing into nothing and leaving her covered in filth, but the people stood by, watching her with frightened eyes as they rode past and through the town gates.
Callindra sheathed her sword as they passed the gates and fatigue hit her like she’d just run for miles. She saw Cronos staring at her and gave him a shaky smile, “I didn’t know I had it in me…”
“That was quite the display of power.” He said, “I haven’t known many skilled enough with the weave to manifest an illusion that could appear solid and speak at the same time.”
“Illusion?” She asked, confused, “It was just a whirlwind… and my voice got louder.”
“That might be what you saw.” He said with a raised eyebrow, “I saw a forty foot tall Callindra with a drawn sword and a voice like a bolt of lightning. Would have scared the life out of me if I hadn’t known what a kitten you are.”
She bristled and then shook her head, still adjusting to his wry sense of humor even after knowing him for months. “I just wanted to make myself heard… I guess I accomplished that. Gods and Demons it took a lot out of me though.”
He stared at her for a few more moments as if trying to ascertain if she was making fun or serious and then shrugged. “My… ah, teacher… pushed my limits pretty ruthlessly. I’ve felt the exhaustion that comes with it.”
Anything else he might have shared was cut short by the sound of the great gates of the city booming shut behind them. As the sun had yet to reach its zenith, it was highly irregular and caused Callindra and her companions to look around in alarm. A phalanx of guards closed rank around them and an officious looking man in dark blue robes trimmed with gold came out to greet Tom with a pleased smile on his face.
“Ah, Master Gild, I see you’re punctual as usual.” He flicked his eyes dismissively over Callindra and her friends, “Picked up some rabble along the way? No matter, we can deal with them.”
“My pardon sir but we are on an errand of some importance.” Tryst said, his voice dripping contempt. “We will leave you to conduct your commerce.” He wheeled his horse and swept down the street with the rest of them following close behind.
Once they were out of earshot, Cronos brought his horse abreast of Tryst’s. “What are you trying to do? Those guards might look like a bunch of idiots with their matching armor and plumed helmets but there are a lot more of them than there are of us.”
“I’m just following the Hand.” Tryst said shortly, referring to the precious artifact that Jorda had given them. “I checked it briefly just now. Those guards can go to the crows for all I care.”
Vilhylm glanced over his shoulder, “Well you certainly got their attention. There are a dozen of them following us.”
Too late, Callindra realized Tryst had led them down a blind alley. She vaulted from the horse’s back, not wanting to try and fight from there since she had no experience and Brightfang was hardly long enough to use from horseback.
“You must return with us for proper questioning and customs excise for any items you might be attempting to smuggle into the city.” Their captain announced, his men lining the exit of the alley and forming a wall of burnished breast plates and shining shields that bristled with spear points.
“Smuggling?” Callindra demanded indignantly, “We SAVED those wagons of grain from monsters on the road and again just now from an angry mob. If anything you should be on your knees praising us for our bravery, not treating us like criminals!”
A stone bounced off the captain’s helmet with a resounding clang and he staggered to one side. “Rebels!” He shrieked before a hail of stones, slate shingles and other assorted heavy objects rained down upon his squad, reducing them to twitching, bruised unconsciousness.
Ropes dropped from the rooftops and three figures dressed in leather armor slid quickly down them. Without paying any attention to the others in the alley, they began stripping the weapons, armor and valuables from the comatose guardsmen.
“Hey!” A voice from behind them said, “Hey you, an enemy of the guards is a friend of mine, come on!”
Callindra felt her heart quicken, the voice was … beautiful. She spun in place and saw an ordinary looking man who was holding a gate aside, wearing much the same nondescript leather armor as the others. It was cunningly painted to look like the stones of the alley, a deception that was only apparent after it had been opened.
“Never mind them, they’ll be done in two shakes. But you need ta get them horses in here quick like if ya wanna keep them.” He grinned at Callindra and she found herself grinning back. “No need fer that little slicer here. I ain’t one ta tell a girl she can’t do as she pleases.”
“I’m Callindra, and these are my friends.” She said, not bothering to introduce the others, “Who are you and what’s this about rebels?”
“Oh, I’m Tanner.” He said, making an elaborate bow, “We’re rebels. Ya see, these bastards have taken all the food and such for themselves, leaving all the refugees and the poor cityfolk high and dry. So we’ve been sticking it to the buggers! We steal their food and hand it out. Soon, maybe we’ll be able to really do something about it too.”
Callindra followed him through the door, a wide grin on her lightly blushing face. He wasn’t very cute, but there was … something about him that she found irresistible. Turning, she saw her friends following with expressions of relief on their faces. Only Tryst had a mild frown creasing his brow.
Tanner led them through twisting back alleys and narrow streets until they came to a large stable attached to what appeared to be a cathedral. No grooms came to tend the mounts, but that wasn’t an impediment to Callindra and her friends who would have wanted to take care of their own animals anyway. Once their beasts were settled, they followed Tanner through a door.
Callindra felt her breath catch in her throat when she saw what lay beyond the door. The room was the largest she had ever seen, and it was packed with folk. They sat in rows, filling the pews. They stood in ranks, filling the isles. Hundreds, perhaps a thousand or even more and they all cheered when Tanner walked through the door.
“We gave ‘em hell and chalked up another victory for the resistance!” Tanner said with a wide grin of triumph, “Afore long them highborn jackals won’t have a choice but ta give us our share!”
The cheers grew louder and Callindra surveyed the gathered people. Most were much the same as the ones outside the walls, although they were slightly better fed and in far better spirits. Most were grown men, but there were a fair number of women and children as well.
“And now I’ve taken these heroes!” Tanner continued, “They’re gonna fight for us against the tyranny an lead us ta victory!”
“Wait a minute-“ Tryst started to say, but Callindra was swept along by his words and found herself cheering along with the masses in the room while brandishing her sword aloft. Tryst’s hand landed on her shoulder and she was jarred from her exuberant state with a shock.
“Callindra!” He hissed urgently into her ear, “He has a piece of it, look!” Tryst was pointing towards Tanner’s neck. A pendant hung there, a strange half rounded looking flat piece of what looked like clay but if it was anything like the Hand it was near as indestructible.
“Is that… a tongue?” She asked, “Wait, why aren’t YOU affected by him?”
“I think because I have a piece of it too.” He said, “We need to get Tanner alone so we can have a serious talk with him.”
The crowd had finally quieted down, and Tanner turned towards Callindra still beaming. With Tryst touching her, she could see through whatever glamor was covering him. He really was quite ordinary after all, she thought with mild disappointment.
“We should go and discuss your plans.” She said, “We can hardly have a war council out here with all this noise.”
“Of course!” He said, turning back to the crowd. “Prepare yourselves! Brother Dominic will speak and then you shall all follow his instructions for the next raid.”
The four of them followed him into a small alcove that had likely once been used by priests to prepare sacraments or vest themselves. It was paneled in dark wood, had thick carpets and tapestries on the walls. Tanner moved to the sideboard and poured wine, handing cups around.
“So, how should we plan our attack?” He asked, eyes shining and Callindra began to slip back under his spell once again. Tryst, however, was having none of it.
“Take off that necklace at once.” He said sternly, “You have no business using such a powerful artifact on any whom you meet without warning or giving them a choice but to follow you.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Tanner protested, “This necklace is a gift from Brother Dominic after I expressed interest in helping to gather the people for the resistance.”
“I think he’s telling the truth.” Cronos said, uncharacteristically trusting. Callindra opened her mouth to agree, but before she could speak Tryst reached forward and yanked the braided leather cord from around Tanner’s neck. It parted with a snap and that seemed to break them all free of the spell of belief and adoration they had been under.
“Where.” Vilhylm asked, his voice deadly with menace, “Is this ‘Brother Dominic’ then?”
“He’s just outside talking to the folk!” Tanner said, his voice sounding shrill and unbecoming. “I swear, I thought they were following me ‘cause I was a good leader!”
Cronos pushed past him and opened a small window, looking out at the back of the man speaking on the raised pulpit. He hissed a breath in warning and fear. “That’s Dergeras out there, I’m certain of it!”