Journeys in silence were the worst. Amatiel knew, he'd been on so many of them already; five thousand miles from one end of the world to the other. He'd marched under victory and defeat further than anyone dreamed they'd go, further than anyone had ever marched before - or in all likelihood, would again. It was this one, the homeward journey that was the worst: the last leg, the journey home. No one talked, here they were off the main highways, back in the woods where he'd grown up him and a few others... people he'd known, or known of from childhood and hadn't seen in fifteen years and they had nothing to say to one another. There were six of them all told - they'd found each other at the camps and the highways, found they were going to the same place and stuck together. They seemed to do it almost by instinct too, because there really wasn't much speaking involved - there was no point where anyone said: Hey, let's head back together, it's safer - it just happened that way all on its own.
The main roads had been chaos, endless, endless chaos. The forts and castles had their gates thrown open - the militia and the soldiers were looting everything on their way home. Amatiel didn't have the stomach for it anymore - a year ago they'd have died, and gladly, just for the chance to be of some service to the Empire. Now they were stealing and carting off everything that wasn't nailed down, and even a lot of that was. In a way he couldn't blame them... some of them anyways. He knew the death toll from the battles - he'd been to some of them: it was staggering. But they'd taken it, they'd marched under the sapphron banners, with their golden speckles, through winter, through wind and storms of hail and rain and arrows and even magic. They'd weathered it all. And when at last they came to the end of the world and stared down upon a sea of clouds that fell into nothing - they lost. Not in a maelstrom of fire and death as they'd all assumed... they were simply told it was over. They'd lost.
And the world had fallen to pieces, Amatiel reflected. His companions were a perfect example: Jerard, he had left the village to join the army when Amatiel had been a boy, before the war. He'd been in some cavalry regiment, and evidently raided their stables before he left because he and a steward he'd hired for the purpose were leading about a dozen mares down the road with them. Some of them with saddles full of various different odds and ends, others were empty - he'd done quite well for himself. Not that he let anyone ride them, or stow their own gear in their saddle bags.
Next in his conspicuousness was Aury, who Amatiel remembered as a quiet little boy, but who was now decked out in the most garishly mis-matching finery imaginable. Most of it was probably spoils from the war that he must have been carrying throughout, that or he broke into one of the commanders' wives' rooms: at least two of the hats he was wearing(each atop the other) seemed to come from some noblewoman's wardrobe, along with a fashionable silk-gauze neckscarf among other odds and ends - each in different colours and patterns. It was like watching a walking rainbow really.
Sophia - the only woman in their group - stood out for another reason. She'd been an officer or something, and she was the only one among them that had been allowed to keep her weapon - a ceremonial sword of some sort. She stood out, simply because she stood out: she was well over six feet tall and obviously hadn't shied from combat because she had the facial scars to prove it. Still she had the look and poise of someone that had been raised in the aristocracy. He hadn't known her before the war, which wasn't surprising, though they all knew her family. She wasn't as conspicuous in her robbery, but either she'd carried an awful lot of family heirlooms to war which she was hauking for money, or she'd simply had better choice of spoils.
The only other person in their group that looked like they'd done time in the army was Hammi - it was short for something Amatiel could barely pronounce much less remember and the latter name was all he went by anyway. He was quiet, unobtrusive and carried an enormous set of bags without much comment, even as the horses plodded along with empty saddles. Hammi was older than Amatiel, had been friends with Amatiel's older brother though they had been assigned to different units and separated by years by the time Amatiel's brother died. It was, as mentioned, a quiet procession.
"Oy, oy oy! What do we got here?" The cry came from up head down the road, Amatiel himself couldn't see who said it - there were some horses in the way- though it didn't sound terribly welcoming by the tone. He could hear motion ahead, the clanking of spears - a guard post of some sort. Looking around he could tell everyone else there felt as exposed right now without weapons in hand - not that the fact they'd surrendered their arms meant any of them were unarmed right now. Even Amatiel, who'd spurned the pillaging their camp or the countryside on his way home hadn't been stupid enough to try walking so far without having something to defend himself. He had the vague sense that most of his companions probably had something better than a dagger concealed about their persons... except Sophia who had a sword at hand.
"I am Captain Sophia Delis; unless you have a some grievance with the Delis family, I suggest you change your tone." Amatiel had decided to get out from underfoot the horses, while the captain had bravely stepped forward to confront the group of ten or so people with spears that were standing in their way. Militia guards, and the half-hearted camp they'd set up around the road suggested they'd been sitting around here for some time. None of the faces looked familiar which meant they were probably from elsewhere.
"Right then Lady Delis - you can go through. The rest of this lot though - they with you? Otherwise we gotta check them." Amatiel could sense a shakedown coming, frankly he had no idea how Jerard had gotten these horses as far as he had - getting robbed at road blocks wasn't exactly uncommon these days. Since Amatiel didn't have anything on hand worth a damn thing except for some carefully hidden spending money - and looked like it too - they didn't bother much with him, especially as there were typically, as there was now, much fatter chickens to be roasted.
Lady Delis didn't have much else to say, she gave one last furtive look at her travel companions and turned back to the militia sergeant. "I've been travelling with them, but I don't know them and they certainly aren't 'with' me." Not waiting for any response she started to walk on - he couldn't help but think she might be a little put off that Jerard had never even offered to let her ride a horse, and never deigned to walk himself. Certainly a little more tact might have saved him a lot of trouble right now and there was a certain victorious look in her face just before she turned her back to them and started off down the road.
"Right then." The sergeant said turning his attention back to the rest of the group. "Let's see about you lot then..." His eyes were clearly on the horses, although Aury couldn't help drawing at least a little bit of attention. After a long appraising gaze he seemed to settle on Jerard. "I suppose you've got papers for these right?"
"Lost. War you know..." Jerard said simply gently coaxing his horse up next to the sergeant where it began stomping its hooves against the ground impatiently. Amatiel revised his original estimate - it was possible Jerard didn't have any concealed weapons, because he was sitting atop a 600lb black war beast that could kick a man in half if it were so inclined. As the sergeant stepped away, the horse let out a loud - almost triumphant - snort from its flaring nostrils.
"Right then, we get that alot. So then, you're saying these are your horses? You brought them back all the way from the front and they're yours?" The sergeant asked incredulously.
"Well we're going to have to hold on to them until we can verify that." Like that would even be possible. The moment the Empire had abandoned its forts and roads they'd more or less lost all contact with the far corners of the world. It was hard to tell which of them needed a mouth enema more right now.
"How about, I take them - and if there's any problems, you come see me in town - how about that?" Jerard offered flippantly.
"This isn't a negotiation - check them." He sergeant said, stepping further back and giving the nod towards the militiamen standing about. Dutifully they moved in and started searching them. Jerard and his horses got the most attention, a pair of militia were searching Hammi and Aury - tossing pretty much anything of value they found on the side of the street. Amatiel himself got one bored looking militiaman who pocketed a few coins Amatiel made apparent were meant for him to find. In return he was kind enough to finish the search without making any real effort to find the few coins Amatiel had left to his name. The sergeant watched the growing pile of booty with raised eyebrows. "So you lot claim ownership of all this stuff huh? What about that one, what'd you find."
The guard that search Amatiel gave a shrug. "Guy's poor as goat." Amatiel could feel sour looks from his travel companions as the attention of the militia shifted back to his three former travelling companions - he made a mental note to affix the 'former' amendment to their relationship status.
"Sounds like I'm good to go then, right sergeant?" Amatiel suggested hopefully.
"Gotta pay the toll first." The sergeant replied. Amatiel's disappointment must have showed because the sergeant and then a few of his guards laughed. "Kidding, get lost kid." He didn't say it, but 'we got bigger fish to fry' seem to be implied.
That was all Amatiel was waiting for and he started off, happy as a pig in mud as the saying went. Apparently Sophia's delite at ditching her travel companions was infectious and the day seemed to improve immediately as a result - though the feeling was short lived.
Maybe ten paces down the road he heard a horse whinney and someone yell out. He could see Sophia, further down the road, turn back to look at the same time as him. The scene that met them was like a flashback to the war. One of the militiamen was collapsed in a heap already. Jerard - suddenly with a spear in hand - was in the process of running it through the neck of a backpeddling sergeant. Haplessly the sergeant tried to fend off the attack with one arm while his other fumblingly attempted - and failed - to withdraw his sword. Horses were running in every direction and all was pandemonium as the sergeant gave one last violent convulsion before sinking deathly to his knees.
It was sickening watching it from a distance. The few militia that fought did so badly. They were too slow to move, too slow to position themselves, too slow to thrust and even when they did they were doing it from the side at a moving Jerard - who contrasted their ineptness with brutal and methodical precision. Even so if they'd worked together, Jerard - unarmoured - would have almost certainly eaten a face full of spear at some point. The horses seemed to confuse them though, and at some point someone must have attacked Hammi and Aury because as the conflict cleared with a crack like thunder Aury seemed to have found a bloody sword somewhere(presumably from a dead sergeant) and Hammi was standing over a smoking headless corpse with a small crater where its head should've been; apparently Hammi knew magic - who knew?
Pained lamentations filling the air as Captain Delis brushed past him at a brisque jog yelling after Jerard who was furiously kicking at his horse as it bounded off the road after the few militiamen that had escaped. "What in the name of the Emperess are you doing!?" The demand came through like the call to temple prayer. Loud and self-righteous. Her sword was out - it was jewel encrusted but looked sharp as it glinted against the sunlight. That said, Amatiel wasn't sure how readily he'd show a jewel encrusted sword to Jerard and his ilk - not after they'd butched a pile of militia just to keep their ill-gotten spoils. She was left confronting a trail of dust kicked up by the horse.
Seven men lay on the ground. The sergeant, the man Hammi had decapitated with... whatever it was he just did and another militia guard were clearly dead. Of the four others, one was unconcious and looked almost uninjured - sitting peacefully on the ground. Two others were lying down, their pained moans, lamentations and curses piercing the otherwise peaceful afternoon air. The last, perhaps most pitiable lay splayed out to a tree. His two hands cupped a wound in his belly from whence blood spurted occasionally between his fingers; Amatiel had seen wounds like this before, they all had, and there was no happy ending here.
"What the hell just happened?" Delis sheathed her sword, still staring off in the direction Jerard had disappeared with murder in her eys. The question was clearly directed towards Hammi and Aury, who each looked at each other as though they expected the other to answer. Amatiel himself felt some strange compulsion to confront this grizzly scene along with Captain Delis - almost unwillingly he found himself at her side.
"Hey we didn't do anything here... Jerard, he started it." Aury commented looking around, his gaze eventually fell on one of the wounded guards. "You saw it right - Jerard he started it." The young man, clutching a wound in his thigh mouthed some sort of curse that seemed directed more at the agonizing pain he was no doubt feeling right now rather than Aury's version of events.
"We just defended ourselves... they came at us." Hammi added.
Delis didn't make a reply, she was now massaging her temples while looking around at the seven militia guards laying in heaps and pools of blood on the ground. "By the Heavens..." Amatiel didn't know what to say, and neither did she. She just shook her head - in shock, dismay, or horror it was difficult to tell which if not all she was experiencing right now. Thinking wasn't made any easier by the sounds, like the cries of hell come to life, that emenated from wounded.
"They saw it..." Aury added, a little helplessly. There seemed to come the slow dawning in their minds of just what it meant to have pretty much butchered an Imperial Guard Post. Hammi too looked around with an empty expression on his face. Amatiel's eyes kept being drawn back to the young man propped up against the tree and the inhuman squeals he made every few moments through clenched teeth and a face wracked in agony.
"Stow it..." Delis commented, her attention drawn by something off in the distance and a wrathful determination edging its way into her voice. Jerard was riding back towards them, though he was taking his time...rounding up wayward horses as he did.
Amatiel whispered a few last words into the young guard's ears. It was really the only thing he had to offer; an apology and a dagger. Everyone else was watching Jerard, they never saw, or heard or noticed a thing. Amatiel made it as quick, he didn't really have a choice but watch as the life left the young man's body. He himself fell back into a sitting position, he hadn't done much, a quick blow with a dagger - nothing he hadn't done before certainly - but still he felt exhausted.
"What in the name of the Emperess do you think you're doing?" He heard Delis demand as the hoof beats grew closer.
"Ridding her lands of some horse thieves." He said, as though he'd just come back from dumping a chamber pot. "Can you believe these guys?" Jerard replied looking around to keep track of his other horses and where they were off to. His steward was already riding after the most flighty ones. "Just check their camp before you start getting all undignified at me - these guys weren't out here just to check papers; they've been robbing people left and right I wager."
"Those aren't your horses and you know it." She replied - noticeably she didn't seem to challenge him on the militia camp issue. She seemed to be looking at their hastily assembled road blocks, and the little wooden huts setup along the road.
"They're not theirs either. Hell, where'd you get that sword? You seem to have managed all right for yourself getting home, nice clothes, not a scratch a stain or a tear on them. Only one here looks like they walked home without taking squat from no one's Amatiel over there." Jerard gestured towards him with the point of the still bleeding spear. Amatiel looked back from where he sat next to the dead boy and said nothing. He was dressed in ragged clothes it was true - five thousand miles - he wondered how far out the rest of this group had come to get home. Had they gone all the way to the Edge? It was a long way to go. Too far to go - not without taking something. He hadn't taken much, only what he'd needed but still, Jerard's praise stung.
The captain too seemed to feel the accusation acutely. "I should cut you down for even daring..."
"Just try it." Jerard's bloodied spear moved its blood soaked point towards Captain Delis, his voice was hard. It wasn't surprising, he'd probably just killed four or five men. "You want a shot at me for telling the truth? Go ahead - gather every self-righteous god you can find to back you up and you come at me." Before she could make further reply he added. "Truth hurts doesn't it Lady Delis."
Delis didn't respond and simply stormed into the huts. The sound of things being ransacked quickly eminated from inside. "Checking for loot?" Jerard laughed but then started to trot toward the road, letting go of the reigns of the three horses he'd led back, they were a lot more placid now and stood around, their tails flicking at bugs. "So, we gotta do something about these witnesses..."
"I hardly think that's necessary." Amatiel protested, and his voice sounded small even to him. The awkward thought occurred that this might turn violent again and when Jerard turned on him again, looking down from at him from atop his quite literally high horse, it only re-enforced the thought. The man looking down at him would do it, if he thought it would help, he'd come right at Amatiel right now and put a spear in his neck just like the sergeant. Amatiel gripped his little dagger a little tighter.
"Listen up Amatiel." He voice wasn't angry, or loud, instead it grew cold. Sinister even. "We're in this together. One word gets out of anyone, if the slightest hint gets to the magistrate of what happened here..."
The militiaman screamed profanity, clutching at a spearwound in his side. It took a few moments and a few more yells before he managed to compose himself enough to yell. "I didn't see anything alright!"
"Wish I could believe that..." Jerard commented, looking back at the guard who'd spoken.
"Hey wait I won't say anything I promise - I'll swear before the magistrate, the sergeant came at you because you wouldn't give him your horse. It was self-defense." The man pleaded.
"What do you two think?" Jerard asked Aury and Hammi, dismounting his horse though he kept his spear in hand. "You two are as guilty as me here; think we can trust all of these guys not to ever say for the rest of their lives a thing about this? We're this close..." He held up his hand, his fingers an inch apart. "This close from getting home - you want to risk it for a couple of robbers?"
Delis emerged from the main camp structure before either of the two men could respond, though they shared worried looks with one another. A pile of items were tossed out in a heap on the ground, fine silks mostly, followed by a lockbox that landed with a metallic clank and the crashing of something inside. "Don't even think about it. Looks like he was right about what they were doing though. I doubt its laundry in there." She said giving the box a swift kick.
"We gotta do something about this lot." Jerard said, Delis was clearly the one he had to deal with first. Amatiel himself wasn't sure he wanted to stop this - home just over the next hill. To die out here to a crazy man like Jerard over a bunch of militia that sat out here just to rob travellers and homeward bound soldiers like them of whatever they'd managed to keep for themselves. The two guards still conscious were pleading now, crying so much it was hard just to hear.
"They were stealing - plain and simple - that's our story." Delis replied. "We put that before the magistrate."
"You think the magistrate doesn't know? How couldn't he - I guarantee someone goddamn made a report to the magistrate about this. If he wanted these goons shut down, he'd have done it - he's taking a cut himself, don't think he isn't! And you think he's going to put in one of his damn reports that a bunch of his guys were stealing right under his nose? Hell no! He'll bury us! Even you, family or no!" He pointed a finger at Delis herself. "He'll have us all swinging from the gallows - we just exposed his goddamn scheme. Curse every goddamn god in heaven, but I am not swinging from the gallows over these maggots!"
There was more pleading from the wounded guards. Everyone else was silent. "Shuttup!" Jerard demanded, bringing the haft of his spear down on one of their heads eliciting a violent yelp. "Shut up if you don't want me to run you both through right now!"
"I said don't even think about." Delis' voice seemed to rise above the cacophony with the practiced ease of someone who'd done the same thing a hundred times in battle. Only they weren't in battle here, they were on a road on their way home. Her hand was on her sword again.
Jerard turned slowly towards her as if just remembering she was still there, really slowly as though he too sensed that a wrong move right now could end really badly. "The magistrate's in on this... you're gonna get us all killed." His spear was readied but his tone was sounding a lot more diplomatic all of a sudden. He wasn't taking his eyes of Delis though. There was the palpable sense in the air that a fight was about to break. "I know you're not happy about it. But we don't have much choice here. The war's over - I'm not dying for them... not after coming all this way. That's just the way it is. Aury, Hammi... you're with me right? You both want to go home right - not have to worry about the magistrate's men banging down your doors, or running like fugitives for the rest of your lives?"
Neither Aury nor Hammi said anything. They were waiting to see what happened. A warm south wind blew down the road, the smell of blood and guts momentarily lost in the wind.
"They're robbers, pure and simple..." This met some renewed protests from the two militia, pleading they just did what they were told. Pleading they had wives. Pleading they had children. Pleading they wouldn't say a thing to the magistrate... they say bandits did it. No one was really paying attention to them anymore. Delis was watching Jerard, Jerard was watching Delis - Amatiel, Aury and Hammi were watching them both. Amatiel wasn't sure what to do - if he looked like he was stepping in Aury or Hammi or both might get involved too. They might have been thinking the same thing even. Jerard shook his head. "I'm not risking it. And I ain't asking you to kill nobody Captain. I'll do it myself."
Amatiel watched as Jerard took a tentative step away from Delis... slowly, ever so slowly shifting his spear away from Delis, towards the militiaman. He expected Captain Delis to do something, say something, but she didn't. "Don't do it..." She said, there wasn't any of the force in her voice there was before. It was plain to see - she didn't want to die out here either, not by a crazy man like Jerard, not over a bunch of militia turned bandits...even if they were just kids; not with home just over the road. Maybe it was just too much to expect of a human being - that sort of selflesness.
Amatiel took a step towards Jerard as the bloodied spearpoint was drawn over the wounded guard who now began, as though possessed by renewed strength to back away... slowly, trying to get in a position to avoid the coming spear thrust. He continued pleading. "Amatiel..." It was Hammi's voice that called out, a warning tone that sent chill down his spine. "Don't do it." Looking over at his brother's friend Amatiel could feel the hairs on the back of his neck and hands standing on end, the air seemed to grow still... it was a feeling he'd felt before, the feeling that usually preceded some forms of magic. He swallowed, even if he were sure, even if he wanted to...he'd never make it to Jerard.
The spear thrust home, and with a shrill cry the pleading lamentations of the two wounded men were cut in half. Amatiel heard the sound and jolted as though the blow had struck him instead but it didn't. Instead a few moments later it happened again and everything was quiet. This was what it had felt like when they'd been told they'd lost the war - just like this feeling right now. Indignation at losing a war without ever losing a battle, anger at the people who'd sold them out to save themselves. The only difference this time, unlike then, was that the part of himself that felt a great release that the ordeal was over... he didn't like that part, not at all.
They returned home in silence after disposing of the dead. Jerard, Aury and Hammi took the box and the clothes and their contents - neither Amatiel nor Delis wanted anything to do with it anymore. The magistrate's men came to town, asking about what had happened but no one seemed to know anything and they didn't return and not long after he heard that the local magistrate was reassigned elsewhere. He thought he sensed the hand of the Delis family in that. The years after the war were hard - there wasn't much work for anyone, and there was always someone willing to work for less.
Still, they were alive.