Arthur awoke as the sun streamed into the cave. He squinted his eyes at the bright light, trying to shield himself from it while his hands freed themselves from the tangle of his sleeping bag. His muscles awoke one by one, most of them reporting dull sensations of pain and stiffness from sleeping on the rough, uneven stone of the cavern floor. It had been a long time since Arthur had been forced to sleep on anything harder than hay, though he felt the experience was a formative one. Complaining was useless at this point. He eventually got up, grabbed his shirt from a nearby stalagmite, and walked out of the cave.
It was a beautiful day. Mountain birds chirped and flew from bush to bush, hunting the few insects that were at this altitude, always seeking a berry or two to round out their food supply. The morning air was dry, but not cold. Around Arthur, the bare rock followed the noticeable slope of the mountain. He stepped across the relatively flat, narrow path they had used the preceding night, looking down the ditch. Bellow, in the distance, the city could still be seen, it’s greatest buildings now the size of specs in Arthurs vision. On the horizon, the plains stretched as far as the eye could see. “These plains will soon be ripe with fire and death”, he thought. After a few minutes of uninterrupted silence during which he let his mind flow freely, Arthur was brutally brought back to reality by the panicked screeching of a little girl.
Marissa had awoken painfully from a frightful night of troubled sleep. Every time the pain reached the threshold she was willing to tolerate, she shifted her weight and her body, then only staying idle for a few minutes, until yet another source of discomfort forced her to repeat the process. Eventually she ran out of new positions, and her body ran out of energy. She fell in a sleep filled with troubled dreams of burning buildings and oncoming daemons. The sight of light streaming in from the cave entrance was a welcome one, signalling the end of this ordeal. She pulled herself from her sleeping bag and headed out the cavern. Immediately she felt something was off… Something important was missing. Then it hit her: The wagon! It was gone! Someone had been here and taken it! She screamed out these realisations as they streamed in to her mind, slowly wrapping her head around the possible implications-
“In the name of what god are you screaming like this?” It was a feminine voice, intense and angry. Marissa turned around to find Angel, still in her night gown, glaring at her with a fire in her eyes. “Can’t you see some of us where sleeping?” As she spoke, a still shirtless Harry and a half awake Nikke stumbled out of the cave.
“Somebody stole our wagon! They must have come when we were sleeping! We have t-”
“Nobody stole the wagon” Marisa turned around to the sound of Arthur’s voice. He was standing on the edge of the path, looking back at the cave, calmly cracking his neck. “In the Hollow, favours are the main currency. The merchant we got this from owed me a favour, a service, not a permanent mode of transportation. That would be insane. One of his lackeys was probably sent overnight to recover what was rightfully his.”
Marissa turned around once again to evaluate the reactions of the rest of the party. Angel was nodding in approval, clearly well aware of the practices of the shadier side of town. Nikke was supressing a laugh at the thought that her regal friend was unaware of what surely seemed to her like an evidence to her. As for Harry, he seemed slightly worried.
“I had cargo in the back. Did they take it back with them?” As an answer, Arthur raised his chin in the direction of a bush near the entrance of the cave. Sure enough, all of Harry’s cargo was hidden within the vegetation. The band soon settled for a rudimentary breakfast, mostly composed of leftover supplies and a bird Angel shot down easily with her arrow. Harry took advantage of the situation to empty the components of one of his bags in between the bunch. Armour and weapons spilled out as the smithy spoke up.
“If you lot or going to actually pull your own weight during this little escapade, you need to be equipped. Thankfully, I brought some spare gear with me. Here you have padding, mail, rudimentary-”
Angel had risen her hands, signalling everybody to stop talking. Silence instantly fell on the small party. Her face seemed intensely concentrated and worried. Instants later, Nikke breathed in sharply, her face growing pale. Almost at the same time, Arthur and Harry’s facial muscles clenched, their fists tightened. “I heard it too” Arthur whispered.
And then Marissa heard it: A war horn. The band hurried back to the edge of the path to survey the city and the surrounding peaks. The entire mountain across from theirs was covered in red figures, all in formation, banners flying above them, dust rising in the air from the marching. Amidst the army were catapults and ladders. It was the invading army, approaching from the mountains.
“What kind of sorcery-” Angel was interrupted by another war horn, this time much closer. The members of the group sent panicked looks to one another, and, without a word, hurryingly gathered the equipment and rushed inside the darkness of the cave. Soon after, the light from the outside was dimmed by rows of passing soldiers. The air was filled with the constant drumming of thousands of armoured feet stumping the ground in rhythm. The occasional roar of the war horn resonated into the cavern. Marissa was struck. How could they already be here? How come even they didn’t see them approach? More importantly still, how was she to escape this new threat to her freedom, to her life?
And once again, Hannibal crosses the Alps 😉 And yes, my job in this collaboration is to make everything more complicated for our heroes… Though I must say the preceding title kinda forced my hand. This one is just over 1000 words, and definitely one of the longest pieces I’ve written for this site. Hope you don’t find it too boring.