Morning, Corday the 9th of Tanot, 674 AG (After Godswar)
Several miles outside of the village of Benbridge, home to the Toshiko’s
At just over 6ft in height, Yamasaka Jiro was a powerfully built man that rode his horse with confidence. His black hair was tied back into a ponytail that reached down to the base of his neck. Jiro had always considered his striking blue eyes his best feature and even though he was now in his 40’s, they still had that boyish twinkle about them. He was dressed in a white short-sleeved tunic over the top of which was worn a dark green pocketed waistcoat made of tough fabric. His tan pants were made of the same material as the waistcoat and he had metal knee guards strapped over the top of them. Jiro had similar protection over his elbows, shoulders and metal plates were fixed to the backs of his gloves. A pair of horizontal scabbards at the base of his back held a pair of matched short swords and on his left forearm he wore a leather bracer with a silvery jewel embedded in its centre.
Although his appearance suggested that he was a somewhat roguish adventurer he was in fact an experienced warrior having been a member of the Royal Guards since the age of 22. He had been the youngest individual to be accepted into its ranks for generations, a fact that he was very proud of. Jiro thought that the achievement was due in no small part to the training he had received from his instructor Toshiko Ren. He had taken the nervous young squire and moulded him into a capable soldier.
Jiro whistled as he rode his horse through the woods to the east of Benbridge. So far, the start of spring had been glorious and today was no exception and Jiro was looking forward to seeing his old friend and mentor again. It had been over a year and a half since he had last seen him and he had planned to visit last month but his duties had kept him away. In the left saddlebag pouch was a tightly wrapped parcel. A belated birthday present for Ren’s son. Kiba had a keen interest in hunting and according to Ren’s letters, was “a devil with that home-made bow of his”. When he was in Galtea several months ago, he had seen an item that Jiro thought would make a perfect present. Obtaining it was difficult to say they least, but he thought it was worth it. Fifteen years ago, he had left the newborn boy with Ren and had kept a close watch on him as he grew. He had feared that one day, his decision to disregard the law and let the child live would prove to be an ill-advised one. That one day, the boy’s titan-nature would prove too strong to resist and on that day, Jiro would be the one that would have to put him down. Thankfully, as Kiba grew it became clear that the decision Jiro had made was the correct one and that Ren had been the right choice as surrogate father. Ren had raised the boy well and instilled within him a strong sense of right and wrong. As far as Jiro could sense, the boy did not have one evil bone in his body, regardless of the blasphemous circumstances of his birth. Of course, Jiro admitted to himself, he had lost his objectivity on this matter years ago.
Although he appeared to be casually ignorant of his surroundings, Jiro was paying close attention to the bushes that ran either side of the dirt road. A few minutes earlier he had heard the sound of movement from with the bushes which alerted him to the presence of at least four individuals. They appeared to be shadowing him from within the undergrowth and if he was not mistaken an ambush would take place any moment. He was not disappointed for soon enough his keen ears heard the sound of bowstrings being released.
Four arrows, two from each side, whistled through the air passing each other exactly where Jiro had been a fraction of a second earlier. Jiro had dismounted in one fluid motion, leaning back and rolling to the side, landing in a crouch grasping the hilts of his two swords. His horse had galloped off down the track and out of sight, just as she was trained to. She would return when Jiro called for her, meanwhile he had the men in the bushes to deal with. From out of the undergrowth stepped four grubby men in bandit attire, each wielding a bow with sword strapped to their belts. Slowly the arranged themselves in a circle around Jiro.
“So it’s to be four against one, I appear to have the advantage then.” Jiro taunted confidently, if not a little arrogantly.
One bandit, slightly cleaner than the rest, took a small step forward. “We got you surrounded mate, if you haven’t noticed,” he retorted. Jiro mentally marked him as their “leader”.
“No, I’ve got you precisely where I need you to be.” Jiro looked into the leader’s narrowed eyes and smiled.
The bandit leader scowled, “And just what use do you think those nice shiny swords are going to be, you take one step and you’ll become a human porcupine before you get close enough to use them.” Jiro had to admit that he had a point. One of these day’s his overconfidence is going to get him killed. “Kill him.”
On their leader’s command, three of the bandits loosed their arrows. Jiro turned side on to one arrow letting it pass by and embed itself harmlessly into the trunk of a tree. He swept his twin swords upwards, the sun glinting of their blades as he intercepted the two remaining arrows. The arrows ricocheted off the parrying blades into the chest of the bandit leader. As Jiro span to face the archers, the bandit leader looked down at the arrows embedded in his chest in confusion as he dropped to his knees before limply slumping forward. “Captain Hakisson!” screamed one bandit as he dropped his bow, drew his sword and charged at Jiro. He easily rolled under the bandit’s wild swing and thrust one of his swords into his back. Spinning round the hapless bandit, he back thrust his other sword into the man’s neck nearly decapitating him. Jiro turned towards another bandit and flung his sword at him. The blade struck him in the stomach, embedding itself up to the hilt. After the seeing his comrades dispatched so effortlessly, the final bandit nervously stumbled backwards, turned and fled. Jiro sighed and raised his left arm. The jewel embedded in the bracer glowed softly and an ethereal light flowed upwards from its silvery surface. The light coalesced into a spectral form in the shape of a small crossbow, complete with a ghostly bolt already loaded. With a mental command, the crossbow fired and the bolt flew across the space between Jiro and the fleeing bandit leaving a white streak in the air behind it. The bolt struck the man square in the back, exploding in a burst of energy that surged throughout the man’s body and sending him crashing head first into a tree.
When the bandit regained consciousness several minutes later he found himself naked and tied tightly to a tree. Next to him were piled the stripped corpses of his comrades and next to them was a neat pile of their possessions. Jiro sat on a log across from the man eating an apple, peeling it with a small dagger. “Packs a hell of a punch doesn’t it?” he asked between bites.
“I ain’t saying nothing,” spat out the bandit.
“You know what you are,” said Jiro as he pointed to the bandit with his knife, “you’re a question. And I hate a question without an answer. Let’s start at the top shall we.” He got up and crouched next to the bodies of the bandits. “This man,” he said prodding the nearly headless bandit, “called this man,” pointing at the leader’s body, “Hakisson. That’s not a local name is it? Then there’s the matter of your accent. I’ve been to every province in this Kingdom and none of them have an accent quite like yours.” He turned to the pile of weapons. “Usually in this region its crossbows, but bandits with bows I can accept. What I can’t accept is this sword. See the design of the blade, the distinctive markings and patterns in the metal, this shows it was forged somewhere in the Eastern regions of Eldala.” The man watched Jiro through gritted teeth, beads of sweat beginning to form on his brow. “Almost every aspect of you screams bandit … except this sword, your accents, your names, and the fact that each of you have had a shoulder tattoo obliterated with a hot blade. All that says that you are not bandits at all, but Eldalan troops. So here’s the question, and it’s strictly pass fail, what are a group of soldiers from the Empire of Eldala doing in the woods of west Arcadia?”
Jiro waited for an answer but the man just stared at him defiantly. He shook his head and went over to his horse that was tied to a nearby tree. Taking a canteen out of one of saddlebags, he took several large gulps. There is more than one way, he thought, to pry the truth from unwilling lips. Jiro put the canteen down and reached back into the saddlebag. Down at the bottom, there was a small pocket and from within that he pulled out a small silver chain. A small ivory hammer, no larger than a thumb was attached to the chain. It was the symbol of the Hedrada, the god of justice and knowledge. Tossing the chain back and forth from hand to hand, we went back to his prisoner and knelt in front of him.
“This,” Jiro said as he started to place the chain around the man’s neck, “is called a Confessors Chain. Anyone who wears it is compelled to speak nothing but the truth.” The prisoner tried to twist out of his grip but Jiro smacked the back of his head against the tree, stunning him, and finished fastening the chain. “Let’s start at the beginning. What’s your name?”
“Gelir Idmundsson,” answered the man without hesitation.
“Good, where were you born?”
“Stockdon.” Jiro nodded, he knew Stockdon. It was a coastal city in eastern Eldala.
“Now, what were you doing here?”
“We’re attached to the 2nd Battalion. Our orders were to infiltrate Arcadia along with the 1st and make our way to our assigned targets.”
“And then what?” Jiro prompted sternly.
Ten minutes later Jiro had the information he required and was galloping through the woods towards Benbridge. He was still several miles away and it took him nearly an hour to close the distance, all the time praying that he was not too late.
What he had been told chilled him to the bone. The man had explained the Eldalan plan. How hundreds of soldiers had crossed the border secretly and took up positions around the towns and cities posing as bandits or travellers. Eldalan Rangers had gone ahead disguised as merchants and infiltrated the towns. As he talked, a dawning sense of realisation had overcome Jiro. The Royal Guards had been receiving reports over the last several months of massive troop movements within Eldala and a build up of forces in their northern coastal cities. It had been presumed that they were preparing for an attack on the Calastian Hegemony. The two countries had been enemies for generations so it had been a fairly safe bet. But surely, Jiro asked, any troop movement that size towards Arcadia would’ve been seen weeks in advance. The man’s answer was frighteningly simple. Each of the Rangers carried a simple staff that had a special headpiece, an enchanted crystal. When used, it created a portal between the Ranger and the attack staging grounds in Eldala. Suddenly it all became clear; the Empire would be able to ‘port legions of troops directly into the hearts of Arcadian towns and cities. There would be no warning, the Empire would have complete surprise and it would be a complete rout. It was already too late to warn the capital; according to the man, the attack was already under way. With him being under the control of the Confessor’s Chain, Jiro had no reason to doubt this. When the man had explained the intent behind the attack, Jiro felt sick to his stomach break. This was no invasion, this was genocide. The Empire of Eldala intended to wipe out every last Arcadian and lay the entire country to waste. Worse still, if what the man had been told was true, all this might be Jiro’s fault. Just before he had left the man to the forest’s mercy, he had told him that if any harm had come to Ren or Kiba, he would track the man’s soul down in the afterlife and make him suffer for all eternity.
As he approached the outskirts of the village, Jiro heard shouting and the sounds of fighting from a clearing ahead. Charging into the clearing, he saw three Eldalan soldiers facing off against a single youth wielding nothing more than a broken staff. Behind him stood a woman armed with a small dagger shielding a small girl, probably her daughter, from the men. The boy was badly injured; sporting numerous cuts and bruises, yet still, he held his ground. Standing between the soldiers and his family, waving his staff like a club. Clearly, the soldiers had been toying with him for their own amusement.
Using the element of surprise, Jiro charged his horse straight at a soldier that appeared to be moving in for the kill. With a downward slash, he struck the soldier’s neck cleaving the head cleanly from the body, a spray of blood in the air marking his death. Jiro dismounted and landed with both swords drawn between the family and the remaining two soldiers. Unlike the last group he had faced, this time he was in no mood for banter and he immediately advanced on his enemy. Jiro’s sudden appearance had stunned both of the soldiers but one of them, an archer, recovered quickly enough to let loose an arrow at the new arrival. Jiro was so intent on the soldier in front of him that he failed to notice the approaching arrow. Yet when it struck him square in the shoulder blade, he didn’t show any sign of noticing the impact. Ignoring the pain, he leapt forward and attacked the soldier in front of him, his blades forming a whirling windmill of death ahead of him. The man tried in vain to block Jiro’s blows, but there was too many and the blades moved too fast. Within a few brief seconds, the man’s chest became criss-crossed with slash marks and the blood flowed freely. As a killing blow, as the man staggered backwards under the onslaught Jiro opened his stomach with a single slash to his abdomen and he was dead before his body hit the floor. The remaining soldier was still attempting to knock another arrow when a barrage of spectral bolts from Jiro’s bracer struck him in the face. He screamed and clutched his face, sinking to his knees, as the flesh burned and sizzled. Jiro finished him off with a double stab to the back of the neck.
“Ichiro!” cried the woman behind him as she rushed forward to catch the boy as the collapsed backwards. Jiro ran over to her as she cradled her son, up close Jiro could see that although the wounds were serious they were not fatal. The woman begged him to help as he reached into a saddlebag and pulled out a small leather pouch. Inside were some bandages, several vials and small metal flask. “Take this and give him three cap-fulls,” he said giving her the flask. “It should help dull the pain and speed up the body’s natural healing process.” She did as she was told as Jiro took one of the vials and began to apply the yellow ointment from within to the boy’s injuries. “This should staunch the bleeding and ensure that the wounds do not get infected.” The boy tried to cough up the foul tasting potion but his mother held his nose and forced him to swallow it, obviously used to giving medicine to a reluctant child. Jiro reached behind him and pulled out the arrow from his shoulder, wincing with the sudden pain, and discarded it. “Peno isn’t it?” he asked as he began to dress the boy’s wounds with bandages, “Kyojima Peno, you’re Yuji’s wife right?”
“Yes,” she said nodding looking at Jiro slightly confused, “do I know you?”
“Probably not, I’m an old friend of Ren’s.”
“Old Man Toshiko? You must be Jiro, he talks about you often.” Jiro smiled, he knew how much Ren hated that nickname.
“Can you walk lad?” He asked as he helped the boy up. Ichiro took a step forward gingerly and after feeling no pain nodded. “What’s happening in the village?”
She told him how suddenly, soldiers started pouring out of a hole in the air in the village square. When they started torching everything and cutting down anyone they came across, they had tried flee but a group of soldiers had started chasing them.
“They just started killing everyone,” Ichiro began, “then they came after us. Dad and Piro stayed behind to hold them off.” His eyes were red as he held back tears. They appeared far older than they should be and gave the impression of having seen things no child should have to see.
Jiro knelt in front of him. “Take it,” he said pressing one of the soldier’s swords into his hand, “you keep protecting your family.” He turned to Peno, “Keep to the woods. They have patrols watching the roads looking for anyone trying to escape. Try to avoid the towns and cities, the same is happening there. Make for the border.” As he climbed up onto the saddle of his horse, Peno grasped his good shoulder.
“You’re going after Ren and his boy aren’t you,” Jiro nodded, “be careful, we saw soldiers heading in that direction before we left sight of the village.” Jiro thanked her, mounted the horse and rode off.
Riding in a circuitous route around the outskirts of the village, he kept inside the tree line to remain hidden. On one occasion, he got a clear view down the valley into the Benbridge and could see the burning buildings and the carnage that had taken place in its streets. He finally made it to the flat plateau to the south of the Benbridge where the farms were located. As he rode past the burning farms with the butchered remains of those that had lived there, he urged his horse on, anxious to get to the Toshiko farm and dreading what he might find there. When he arrived in the hollow, he was confronted by a sight that shocked even him. On the dirt track leading down to the farm through the fields, he saw the remains of four soldiers. Only one of them was intact, apparently killed by a single arrow to the neck. The others appeared to have been torn apart and blood was soaking into the ground in all directions. Not even one seemed to have all their limbs still attached and each of them had a look of abject terror frozen on their faces. As Jiro looked at the bodies, one of them even seemed to have been beaten to death with his own severed limbs. For a moment Jiro was at a loss to understand what could have happened to the soldiers, the brutality displayed was inhuman. In that instant he realised that there was one thing that would have the strength and ability to do this, and potentially it lived right in this hollow.
Gathering the reins, he charged his horse down the track into the farmyard. There was blood soaking into the dirt and there were signs of a struggle. Drawing his sword, he tentatively called out.
“Ren! Kiba! It’s Jiro, are you still here?”
For a minute the only answer Jiro received was silence but then he heard the sound of the farmhouse door opening behind him. He turned his horse and readied his sword, preparing himself for whomever or whatever came out. As Kiba stepped out, Jiro nearly collapsed with relief. Lowering his sword, Jiro slid out of the saddle as the boy dropped the pack he was carrying. From the look on his face, he didn’t need to ask Kiba about his father. Jiro walked over and embraced him, Kiba was filthy, his clothes were covered in blood but he was very much alive.