“Sard it.” Matilda slapped the tree she was standing next to as the Armforge Guild sentries raised the alarm. “I was hoping we’d catch them asleep.”
She, Ellison, and Clinio Lind were well back from the initial wave of attackers, though not far back enough as far as Ellison was concerned.
“They must have been expecting us to come for the hostages,” Clinio said.
“Or they were waiting for an attack from the cult,” said Matilda.
“I thought the cult was all hold up in the castle,” said Clinio.
“Only until they get killed,” said Matilda. “Then they get sent back to the welcome center and can come right back in again through the main gate.”
“They respawn?” asked Clinio.
“Krim’s not a game,” said Matilda. “So it’s not technically respawning. They just get a new avatar. And they can come in through any gate they want.”
“How many gates are there?”
“The main one in the center of town,” said Matilda. “And the commercial gate, for cargo.”
“Doesn’t the administration building have its own gate?” Ellison asked.
“Oh, yeah,” said Matilda. “But regular Krim residents don’t use that one. Same for the Lifeworks gate. That’s just for staff and clients.”
“So there’s not exactly a lot of choice of gates,” said Clinio. “They can’t come back in, say, in the middle of the desert out there. If we kill them, they’d have to come all the way back from the center of town.”
“As far as I know,” said Matilda. “Though there might be secret gates out there nobody knows about.”
“There’s a guy in the welcome plaza who sells maps to hidden gates,” said Ellison, then ducked behind the tree when an arrow flew by too close for comfort.
Matilda peered out to see where the arrow had come from and finally spotted the archer up in a tree stand. She drew out her arquebus and held out a thick string to Ellison. “Hold the match,” she said. He’d been wondering why he hadn’t heard any guns firing yet. She lit the end of the match.
She put the butt of the gun on the ground, pulled a thin metal rod from next to the muzzle and cleaned the barrel of the gun with it, then got paper twist full of gunpower out another pocket, poured it down the muzzle then tamped it down with the tick, then dropped a round ball of lead down and tamped it into place as well, followed by the paper the gunpowder had been twisted in. She picked the gun up and nestled it under her arm, flipped a lever to open the priming pan and poured in a different powder. Then she closed the lever and reached for the match.
“That really takes a long time,” Ellison said.
“If I practice, I might be able to get it down to a minute,” said Matilda. “But we don’t have enough ammunition to practice with. Or enough gunpowder.”
She lifted the gun up to her shoulder and sighted it. “The two of you might want to cover your ears,” she told them and fired the gun. There was a small explosion in the firing pan in front of her face. She flinched back but wasn’t hurt.
“Did the gun explode?” Ellison asked.
“No, it’s supposed to do that,” said Matilda, peering around at her target. “I think I might have hit the tree.”
The gunshot itself was enough. The archer scrambled down and was quickly caught and killed by one of Matilda’s mercenaries. Other Armforge Guild fighters began to pull back as the mercenaries closed in.
“You know, I’ve worked in security for decades, and I’ve never been involved in a battle before,” said Clinio.
“You’re kidding,” said Matilda. “Not even on World of Battle?” She blew out and put away the match and priming powder and slung the gun back over her shoulder.
“I have a real life,” said Clinio. “I don’t have a lot of time to play role playing games.”
A loud shout went up from up ahead.
“They’re putting the bridge in place!” one of Matilda’s mercenaries yelled from the front edge of the fighting.
“Let’s circle around,” said Matilda. “I think the guild is getting ready to cross.”
“Why wouldn’t they finish fighting us first?” asked Clinio.
“They’re probably on a schedule,” said Matilda. “The guild has most of their force on the other side of the castle. If they’re going to attack from both sides, they have to do it all at once.”
“Is that a good or bad thing?”
“I doubt they’ll have the hostages with them right in the middle of the fighting,” said Matilda. “They’ll want to keep them safe.” She looked around. “Let’s assume that they brought Raphe and Wynefrede here for a reason. Maybe they were planning to keep them locked up in the castle once they got it back. Then they’d keep them close by, but not so close that they’d be killed by a stray arrow.”
The three of them were standing behind a tight group of pine trees just off the main path south of the fighting. The forest floor was relatively clear here, mostly covered by pine needles and the occasional cluster of ferns.
“Not a lot of places around here to hire hostages,” Ellison said.
“No,” said Matilda. “Let’s go.” The three of them backed away from the fighting, then headed west. Matilda led them clockwise, first away from the river then up through the woods. She stayed closest in, with Clinio further out, and Ellison walking the widest perimeter of the half-circle.
“Wynefrede! Raphe!” Ellison stopped every couple of minutes to yell out the names then listen for a response. Once, someone shot an arrow at him. But before the guild member could reload and fire again Matilda had snuck up behind him and slit his throat.
She gave Ellison a thumbs up. He took that to mean that she wanted him to continue drawing attention as they circled the fighting.
They didn’t see the hostages, or a suspicious cluster of fighters, or even any spots where anyone could hide. Then they got a little north of the fighting and the forest became patchier, with the other types of trees starting to appear in addition to the pines. There were now some areas that were wide open, and others where there were dense thickets of shrubs and younger trees.
Matilda had them grab long branches so they could move bushes out of the way to see behind them and to poke at the ground. She also kept looking towards the sky in case the hostages had been hoisted up into the trees. They found two tree stands. Matilda made Ellison climb up into both of them, since he was the least armored of the three of them. Ellison didn’t know if they were formerly used by sentries or by hunters. Either way, the hostages weren’t hiding there.
As they got closer to the northern part of the path, the forest grew even denser and movement became slower. There were also more openings in the tree cover, with small meadows covered in undergrowth and fallen logs.
The three of them had to zig back and forth as they checked out potential hiding places.
Meanwhile, it sounded like the fighting was dying down, with the occasional gunshot letting them know where the mercenaries were positioned.
There was a muffled coarse groan from up ahead. Ellison stopped and whistled, then pointed in the direction he thought the sound had come from. Off in the distance, Matilda nodded back at him.
“Did you find them?” Clinio called out.
“Maybe.” Ellison moved forward but when he edged around a wide tree someone stepped in from behind it and slashed at him.