FIC: Chosen Champions (4/?)
Faith crouched at the edge of the forest, the towering trees casting long shadows that utterly enveloped their group. Some six hundred yards to their right stood a modest village of maybe a couple hundred mud-brick, thatch roofed buildings encircled by wooden palisades jammed up against earthworks. There appeared to be a dirt-track leading into the hamlet and one at the far end leading out. Faith licked her dry lips, a fierce thirst and hunger filling her, hunger and thirst that she knew her fellow Slayers at the least would be sharing. “So who goes in?”
“Well, I have an interest in primitive and medieval cultures so I’d like to volunteer myself,” Giles eagerly commented before looking towards Duncan MacLeod. “Mr. MacLeod, if I might be so bold, an acquaintance of mine did a thesis on you, detailing mentions of you in British history way back in 1700, in Russia in 1750, in China in 1780, and photographs of you in America in 1860, 1880, and in both World War I & II. At the time, his paper was laughed at, but meeting you here and now. You’re not merely a swordsman are you?”
The ponytailed man stared at Giles for a long moment before shaking his head. “No I’m not, I’m an Immortal, who first died in 1622.”
“Ah,” for all he’d challenged the man, Giles looked as dumbstruck as Faith felt. After a couple of minutes the Watcher shook himself. “I assume then you have a great deal of experience blending into your surroundings?”
“Ach, I guess you could put it that way,” Duncan agreed.
Angel shrugged. “I guess given my age, I’d be most capable of blending in with this time. Although,” the vampire looked down at his clothing, “I don’t think we’re dressed to blend in.”
“Yes,” Giles grimaced, “that is a problem. Another is our lack of money-.”
“No,” Faith shook her head, the pieces of a jigsaw she’d been struggling with falling into place, “we’re all missing the big picture.”
“I beg your pardon?” Giles glanced towards her.
“You commented earlier that we’re all special, uniquely skilled etc.” Faith replied. “But you didn’t follow that thought all the way to its logical conclusion.”
“Oh?” Giles’ brow furrowed. “Do tell?”
“What force brought us special people from our dimension to here and for what reason?” Faith asked. “I mean we’re all Grade A ass-kickers, so what ass are we here to kick?”
“Huh,” Faith saw something, maybe a new respect in the Watcher’s eyes, “I think you possibly have a point. However to find out whose ass we are here to kick, we need to find out more about this world in general, and the only way to do so is by talking to people.”
“It’s maybe an hour from nightfall, I’d suggest waiting until morning, then we can better see what’s going on inside the village, in case you need help.”
Spike smirked. “You’re forgetting our eyes don’t have your short-comings, whelp. Me, the Poofter, Connor, and,” Spike glanced at Blade, “Blade all have enhanced night-vision.”
“Right,” Xander glanced at the peroxide blonde and then back at Giles, “so just the three of you?”
“And me,” announced Ms. Gard, the power-suited blonde staring imperiously at Giles, “I am not unfamiliar with medieval culture.”
“And Viking too if the rumours I’ve heard about Monoc Securities are true,” Giles stared at the blonde then shrugged when his words failed to elicit a response. “Very well, the four of us should make a reasonable team. I’d suggest the rest of you split into two groups, and watch each end of the village for trouble.”
“I should come with you,” Bo suddenly decided. “My special abilities mean I’m able to get information out of people that they wouldn’t normally share.”
“Dude, what about food?” Faith protested. “My belly thinks my throat’s been cut.”
“Yes, what an earthly image,” Giles sniffed. “I suspect you forage for berries, nuts, and the like.”
“Berries?” Faith moaned. “Seriously?”
As much as he was thrown by the quite stunning change of circumstances, Giles also had to admit to being invigorated by it. Not only was it an opportune chance to examine a medieval culture up close, so many of his new companions were intriguing in their own right.
And after several unimaginably dull years running the Council, he felt he was due a final adventure while he was just about young enough to survive it.
Of course, his mood took a downswing, all that was contingent on them all getting home in one piece.
Giles decided to take his mind off that particular problem by examining the palisade-ringed village they found themselves in. The lands to the east and west were covered in farms, complete with peacefully-grazing cattle. The village homes, the chimneys on their thatched roofs puffing smoke into the darkening sky, were dotted around two well-rutted cart tracks that came together to form a cross in the small hamlet’s centre.
Men hurried about their business, some carrying recently chopped logs in their thick arms, others carrying recently-slain animal carcasses over their shoulders for their wives to cook. The older women hurried on their chores as well, occasionally stopping to gossip, their lined, care-worn faces running the full gauntlet of emotions as they devoured the latest local scandals. The younger lasses eagerly eyed the working men, some competing to catch their attention. At the village’s far end there stood a well-tended green upon which the younger children played, their faces flushed with joy and voices raised in innocent excitement.
All this activity and more came to a halt as their group made their way through the activity, every eye resting on them filled with at best wariness and at worst suspicion. Giles cleared his throat. “Perhaps we should find the local hostelry?”
“Ach,” drawled Duncan, “you wouldn’t be stereotyping us poor Scots would you?”
Giles shot the Scotsman an amused look. “I wouldn’t dream of it, but I know I at least am thirsty, so I’m begging you to take pity on a wee sasanach.”
Duncan chuckled. “I’m a compassionate man, that appears to be the inn over there,” Duncan nodded towards a trio of buildings unique in the village for having tiled rather than straw roofs. “The one in the middle looks like the local tavern.”
“Then I suggest we make our way over,” Giles replied.
The quintet marched over to the building in question, Giles growing ever more conscious of the eyes watching them. Clearly this was a nervous time for people of this country.
The inn was also one of the village’s few buildings to have more than one level to it, stretching to a full three stories. The inn’s construction was also a lot sturdier than most of the hamlet’s buildings, constructed out of thick granite like the town hall and blacksmith, rather than the other buildings’ combination of mud brick and wooden supports. Above the inn’s door hung a crudely painted sign of a traveller laying his head down on a pillow hanging on it with some faded writing beneath the picture that proclaimed the inn’s name as ‘The Happy Welcome’.
“I doubt the inn will live up to its name, but let’s give it a try anyway,” Giles muttered before standing aside to allow Ms. Gard and Bo to enter first like a typically well-bred English gentleman before following them inside. The inn’s wooden floorboards creaked underfoot as their quintet strode in, the tavern’s interior lit by half a dozen brightly-burning rush torches stuck in wall-fixed iron holdings. The smell of sweat, wine, and half-burnt meat combined to hang in the common room’s air, while the drinking house’s occupants were mostly dressed in the rough woollen tunics and shabby linen breeches of farm workers or craftsmen, their muttered conversations ceasing at their entry, every eye turning to them.
Ignoring the glares, Giles strode over to the bar. “Allow me-,” he paused, a colour rising in his cheeks as he belatedly realised he didn’t have any money or even any idea what the currency was. “Oh bugger.”
“Allow me,” Bo smiled as the succubus slinked past him and reached over the dusty bar to grab the bartender’s beefy forearm. “Hi,” Bo simpered, “can we have five beers as a gift for the newcomers?”
The pudgy man’s eyes glazed over, his flushed face taking on a dreamy expression. “Of course, five beers.”
Giles watched, eyes widening slightly as the bartender quickly poured five pints of foam-topped beer then hurried back to return to staring dreamily into Bo’s limpid orbs. “Thank you,” the brunette beamed up at the man, “now would you mind answering a few questions?”
The bartender beamed back at the beautiful brunette. “Sure, sweetheart.”
Bo giggled as she ran her fingers up and down the man’s thick forearm. “We’re strangers in this land, we need a big wise man to tell us all about this strange country, do you know anyone who fits that description?”
The bartender’s chest expanded several inches. “I can!”
“Then perhaps you can begin by telling us where we are?” Giles put in.
“This is Emill’s Green,” the bartender replied, his gaze still fixed on the succubus. “A village in Coltura, a client nation of the Grom empire.”
“And who rules this land?” Duncan demanded. The bartender looked suddenly nervous, as if their conversation was heading into dangerous waters. “Who rules this land?”
The man’s eyes glazed over again. “The Basilika family had ruled the Grom Empire for over a dozen generations. But seventeen years ago, Emperor Olvan and Empress Duclis were both murdered by agents working for the emperor’s youngest brother, Andronicus.” The bartender leaned forward to let out a conspiratorial whisper. “They say Andronicus is the Great Betrayer reborn, the Ascendant who betrayed and killed the other Elder Gods before being slain by the Justice Ascendant.”
“In the Reign of Fang, Andronicus’ agents murdered the empire’s military officers, nobility, and religious leaders. Some escaped, but in that single night, over a hundred people died.” The bartender shook his head. “Since then the empire has expanded remorselessly, through an alliance with the Urads it has taken the three nations of the Northern Reaches, as well as the Lutte Duchies and Brython to the west, it has even expanded to the east using an alliance with Nomadia to invade Auro, Joseon, and the Ishanti Houses. Even to the south, across the Norde-Kanika channel the Askumites and Arzawans have crumbled before the empire. The Purge, the imperial secret police, are everywhere, hunting down anyone who dares oppose the emperor, executing all dissidents. Corruption also reigns supreme, honest merchants losing their trade routes to price gougers and cronies of the new regime. But still worse are the Cursed.”
“Who are they?” queried Bo with a purr.
“The creatures of the Great Betrayer, goblins, trolls, ogres, and gargoyles,” the bartender shook his head, eyes filling with disgust. “Foul beasts that prey upon humans, elves, dwarves, and griffins alike. Once we hunted and harried them, now they are allowed to flourish, even serving in the army. Worse are the Clear-Bloods, racists that were once outlawed, but are now encouraged to hunt any non-humans.”
“Do any lands remain free?”
“There’s the Disputed Lands to the north-east across the ocean, the Trade Isles to the south-east, and some of the southern lands, but the Emperor’s hunger is such that ‘tis only inevitable he will seek to conquer them once the Howling Hordes and the Imperial Fleet are ready.”
A long silence followed the bartender’s words, but then Jarod spoke. “Surely there is a resistance.”
“Ohhh,” the bartender looked briefly furtive then nodded. “There’s many groups who seek to overthrow Andronicus. There’s the rebels in the forest on the Colturan\Bragan border, it’s rumoured they’re led by Earl Theo Semnos formerly of the Nobles Council, there’s the Northern Reaches resistance, the Keenest Blade, the world’s most renowned mercenary company, in the Lutte Duchies, the Elves in the forest on the Vagan\Fieron\Nomadian border, and I guess others in the further off foreign lands.”
“Which of those is nearest?” Giles asked, Bo repeating the question for him at a look.
“The Colturan\Bragan border is perhaps two hundred miles from here,” the bartender replied.
“Huh,” Giles pursed his lips together. He was making a lot of assumptions but if they’d been brought here for a reason, it was also only logical that whoever brought them here would want them as close as possible. The possible reasons why they weren’t any closer were legion, ranging from the spell being interrupted, the caster running out of power, and the spell-caster not wanting such a powerful spell to draw the imperials’ attention too much towards them.
His decision made, he nodded. “We have a destination.”