The Forward Front

Of Armor and Bone: Chapter 34

Kensley frantically grabbed at the pieces of armor beside his bed, fearing an attack. He looked out into the darkness through the window for the source of the loud sound. The low pounding of wagon wheels rumbled down beside the main wall of the settlement after coming through the gate. Kensley turned away from the bed and shoved his feet into the cramped, crumpled leather shoes. Before heading out the door, he pulled the furs off the wall and draped the over his shoulders.

The cold air stung Kensley’s cheeks as clouds of breath poured from his mouth. Down the dirt road, the carter extinguished the meager burning torch in his hand, the oil-soaked fabric smoldering down to almost nothing. As Kensley arrived at the level of the road, a sudden pounding in the ground and the flash of fur and metal boots beside him nearly toppled him over. The horse stopped and turned back towards him.

“You’re awfully at ease, walking about in a daze here in enemy territory.” General Edrian spoke down at him.

Kensley blinked, staring off into the distance of the inky shadows of the eastern horizon. He adjusted the furs upon his back and took a step back to get a better look at the general. “We assessed the integrity of the defenses during an examination of the area.” He reported, his tired eyes sternly gazing up at the mounted man. “We would have ample time to react to an attack.”

Edrian swung his leg over the horse, stepping down from the stirrup. “Nothing but excuses.” He grumbled. “You should be at least in your armor.”

“I had just awoke.” Kensley admitted. “Did you just arrive?”

Edrian scanned the settlement before his eyes returned to Kensley. “Traveled all night along side the supply carts.” He said tiredly, his voice hoarse.

Kensley rubbed his hand over the horse’s snout as he took a step across the road to face the carts. “Meager supplies. Have you sent a messenger back to Valleus? They would be able to get us at least some provisions faster than we would from the capital.”

“Shall I offer you command?” Edrian growled. “You seem to be assured of your decisions to the point of speaking out of line.”

Kensley glanced back at the General uncomfortably. “No, sir.”

“We have plenty.” Edrian nodded. “Even if the rude Tuleforians left nothing for us. We have grain for the horses, then some provisions for us and the few extra of the men that are about.”

“The army then?”

Edrian crossed his arms and turned back to the gate of the settlement where the lines of men had been position since the day previous. “What of them? You should know better than anyone else they will move whether they have sustenance or not.”

“They are still men inside those suit of armor.” Kensley said, shoving his hand out at the armored soldiers.

“They are elite trained individuals. They will not succumb to boredom, or wish to step out of line, or complain of the conditions in which they are put. The enchantments upon their armor will take care of the rest.”

“And what then, at the end of this, when they finally take off those suits of armor? The enchantments you speak of work in mysterious ways. The cumulative strain upon their bodies could devastate them. You must at some point allow them reprise from the powers of that equipment.”

Edrian cleared his throat loudly. “Should all go according to plan, we will end this conflict swiftly.”

“How?” Kensley said, folding his arms. “Where do you intend to conclude this war path?”

“It shall end when I believe Tulefore understands our power. Your new Captain has concurred with me, but you still seem to be uninformed. Where is Bouglin anyways?”

“Likely still asleep.” Kensley gestured back at the grouping of buildings behind them. “We were up studying much of the maps we found, just until the candles burned themselves all the way through.”

“Good. All the more opportunity to forge on rather than standing around worrying about trivial nonsense.” Edrian commented, his grasp tugging absentmindedly at the horse’s reins. “Tell me, how fast were we able to eliminate the Tuleforians?”

Kensley silently cleared his throat. “We had hardly any resistance.”

“Good.” Edrian smirked.

“It was barely noon when we had taken the settlement for ourselves. Bently arrived here later in the day, coming from Arkyan.”

“As to be expected of him. And Mr. Chin?” The General urged. “I would wish to confer with him.”

“It seems he was held up by the Order.”

“Pompous magi.” Edrian grumbled. “Where is Bently now? And Scarborough? I shall have you wake the Captain so that we may discuss our plans for the forthcoming days.”

“Bently…” Kensley hummed. He looked out at the still dark, mostly deserted settlement.

Edrian tugged at the reins attached to his horse before guiding the animal to the post where others were put to rest for the night. Kensley held back a shiver before turning away and beginning his march up the hill.

Scarborough sat motionless at the shack’s entrance. He had allowed Kairen to lie upon the bed, unbound for the night. She had begrudgingly laid down, keeping her eyes open to watch the armored man’s back, before eventually succumbing to her exhaustion.

Scarborough had remained for the night, only turning to her if she happened to make a sound in her sleep.

Kensley approached the building, meeting eyes with Scarborough before looking to the female Tuleforian lying uncomfortably under the thin blankets. “Has she tried anything funny?” He whispered.

Scarborough stood up stiffly and removed his helmet. The cold air instantly hit his face, causing him to gasp in sharply. “Mmm, When Bently came to me last night, she attempted to sneak off.” He grumbled lowly. “Didn’t try anything else though. Seems as if the General has showed up?”

“Yeah.” Kensley nodded, looking back down the road. “He’ll probably want us to confer with Bouglin soon.”

“Have you told him we have a prisoner?” Scarborough whispered again, glancing back at the woman.”

Kensley stared at Kiaren’s sleeping face with a grimace. “We shouldn’t.”

“Just because she’s a woman doesn’t mean…” Scarborough debated himself.

“Diplomacy, I told Boughlin.” Kensley pondered aloud. “I doubt Edrian even knows the word. The General’ll just have her killed.”

“You’re able to act so soft after the mess we made of this place yesterday?  And before that as well?” Scarborough hissed. He lifted the helmet in his hands and shoved it into Kensley’s chest. “We don’t owe Tulefore anything. Remember, it’s been her command that sent Tuleforian forces across the pass during the attacks upon us.”

“You’re wrong.” Kiaren sat up, having been awoken by the exchange.

“What did you say?” Kensley pushed Scarborough aside and walked up to the bed.

Kiaren sat up and pulled the blankets up around her shoulders. “Before the detente, it was my father who commanded our troops.”

“Where is he now? Why are you here then?” Kensley tapped his foot impatiently.

“You were right.” Kiaren stated, her breath heavy from the pain in her ribs. “I’m not far extended from the throne. It was my father’s privilege of being brother to the Emperor to be assigned the simple task of protecting the border here. Xiandol has never been seen as a prospect for us, so we stayed on our side of the mountains.”

“Until the artifact arrived.” Scarborough added.

“Yes, you became a threat… someone who could take what we wanted.” Kiaren explained. “But after all the fruitless fighting, and the formation of the Order, that power was deemed to be more burden than it was worth. My father returned from the front and my brother and I were sent in his stead.”

“That’s why we encountered such little resistance here since last year. Why are you telling us this?” Kensley asked, leaning against the side wall.

“So we can stop this fighting.” Kiaren announced, breathing painfully. “We figured that if you got what you wanted… the artifact… we could decrease our presence here. We could leave this dreadful place behind.”

“Edrian won’t buy it.” Scarborough said.

“No, he won’t.” Kensley concurred. “But I can see if we can talk even the least bit of sense into him. He’ll be expecting us shortly. Where did Bently head off to?”

“The third one of your group?” Kiaren perked up.

“Yes, the one who stopped you from running off.” Scarborough recounted.

“He threatened me, you know.” The woman sighed. “Asked where he could find the sword that your Captain left behind after his attack.”

“Mandabus?” Kensley grumbled. “So he was here? Where did he head off to, woman?”

“He escaped, but only after a torrent of violence.” Kiaren growled. “He had left that sword of his behind, but now if he has it back…”

“If Bently is working with him, why didn’t he tell me?” Kensley sighed. “There’s something I don’t like about this.” He stepped past Scarborough and looked down the hill. The morning light had just begun to shine upon the horizon, and he could see the stirring of people inside the tents and buildings. “If you remain here, woman, we can attempt to guarantee your safety. If we dawdle much longer, Edrian will suspect us of something.”

Scarborough glanced at Kiaren one last time, as if urging her to stay. “Don’t go out. We can bring you food when we get a chance.”
Kiaren sat back and adjusted the blankets as the two men exited the building.

The sun was still attempting to breach the mountains. Above on the jagged crags above the settlement, the first signs of the morning cast a glow upon the outcroppings. Mandabus watched intently from the rocky perch several meters outside of the encampment walls. The two men whom he recognized made their way down the dirt road, their heads seeming to scan back and forth. Any other movement from those inside of the walls was located down at the eastern walls.

Mandabus slid down the steep, crumbling cliff side, the newly returned bastard sword in its scabbard rolling back and forth gently at an angle down his back. He landed on the naked dirt facing the walls with a thud and a short clack of the plates of his armor. Before approaching the tall timber defenses, he looked to either side of him for anyone who may have noticed him.

The darkness concealed him as he stared down the settlement’s walls for the second time. He scanned the tight gaps between each of the long logs that had been stripped of bark and driven into the ground. Pulling out his sword, Mandabus shoved the thick blade sideways between a set of two logs that had been pushed apart slightly from a swollen knot that had apparently been ignored during construction. The sword widened the gap, just slightly enough for Mandabus to begin rocking the metal weapon back and forth. The logs squealed and strained slightly as the dirt in which they were buried began to loosen.

The prying force slowly opened a gap in which Mandabus was able to plant the fingers of his armored gloves. He returned to the sword to his back and began to pry further. The long logs uprooted themselves and bowed to either side of the fence, finally offering enough space for Mandabus to enter.

Kiaren had preemptively crawled under the bed after the two soldiers had left, despite the pain in her ribs, and covered herself in the thin blankets. As the footsteps approached, she peeked out under the gap along the dirt floor, seeing the armored boots approach. “Forget something?” She said as she jutted her head out.

Mandabus crouched to the floor and yanked her arm before she could react.

“You!” She yelped as the dark armor lifted her off the ground. Before she could make another sound, it pushed against her throat and pushed her back against the bed.

“I appreciate you helping get my sword back to me.” Mandabus sneered. “It seems as if you’re lacking the one you struck me down with that day.”

The armored gauntlet let off her voice box just slightly. “I’ll scream.” She muttered, her voice hoarse.

Mandabus shook his head and glared off in the direction of the others. “You seem to believe that that you will receive treatment preferential from those troops than by me.”

“You killed my brother. What’s to say you won’t do the same to me?” Kiaren hissed, kicking at the hard plates of armor upon the suit’s thigh.

“Oh, that man was your brother?” Mandabus said, holding back a laugh. “Then my message should have been received that much better. You could have save his life if you had offered up the mage’s.”

“He’s not here.” Kiaren said, struggling.

Mandabus placed his knee on Kiaren’s breast bone, putting pressure upon her rib cage. He stood back up straight and watched the doorway for any signs of movement outside.

“Of course not. I followed his scent to Arkyan. There were simply too many obstacles for me to complete my objective, especially without a weapon.”

Kiaren attempted to push back against Mandabus’s knee. “So you failed again.” She said, her breath heavy and strained.

Mandabus lifted his knee from her chest and grabbed her up by the arm. “You will shut your mouth! While the enchantments upon this armor are still intact, I am still able to hunt him down.”

Mandabus released his grasp and pushed Kiaren to the bed again. She winced and held at her side. “What… do you want from me?”

“The mage and one of your men ran back to Tulefore city.” Mandabus glared at her. “You’ll lead me there, and draw him out for me.”

“And if I refuse?”

Mandabus stood at the entrance to the building. The daylight had just began to bathe the settlement. “What would Xiandol want with a prisoner? It would be an utter waste of resources to have anything to do with you.”

Bently awoke to the glare of the sun across the plates of his armor. As he rolled from his back to his side, the frigid water flowed under the helmet and into his nose and mouth. As he sat up and began to sputter, he could feel the heavy pressure digging into his side and preventing him from catching his breath. He rolled back and forth upon the rocky bed of the stream as he attempted to right himself.

He slipped off the gauntlets and tossed them on the dry patch of dirt to the side of him before reaching up to his shoulder to unbuckle the leather binding hidden under the hinged plate by his neck. The crumpled section of armor popped as the two halves of it separated down his side. He plucked off the helmet next before slithering out of the cuirass and onto the bank. The tight linen shirt was stained brown with a trickle of blood. He pulled up the fabric and inspected the gash just above his hip bone where the broken section of armor had dug into his side.

As his breath returned, he sat up and began to pull at the heavy piece of armor still sitting in the flow of water. His arms shook as he struggled to grasp onto the armor to bring it by his side. The overlapping plates had been smashed down with a singular strike, forming a thin rectangular crevice in the side of the armor. “Mandabus…” Bently groaned as he returned to his senses. In the distance, he could see the tall walls of the settlement still waiting for him.

Leaving behind the stray pieces of armor, Bently began to jog towards the front gate. His lungs gasped for air as he fruitlessly continued to suck air into his dry throat. His legs wobbled with each step. Somewhere between the bouts of his vision becoming dark, he reached the tall watchtowers of the entrance.

“Anybody!” He called out, leaning against the tall logs.

A face peered down at him from the watch tower after several doubtful shouts. The guard waved down frantically to someone on the other side. The gate began to open for Bently. As he stumbled through, a set of hands caught him and pulled him in, allowing for the others to close the gate once again behind him.

Bently blinked up into the bright sun. The shadow of a person covered his face. “Where have you been?” Scarborough asked, leaning over him. “Who did this to you?”

“Is it him?” Kensley called out as he approached the scene.

“We’ve got him.’ Scarborough responded, looking up at the lieutenant.

“Mandabus.” Bently mouthed.

“What about him?” Kensley said, kneeling down.

“He’s… here.” Bently hissed. “He’s… not to be… trusted.”

Kiaren focused on taking deep breaths as the stabbing pain in her side worsened. He stared at Mandabus’s unmoving back, taking up most of the space of the dilapidated building’s ragged entrance. “I would rather… die here than… lead you to my home… so you may take your petty revenge.”

Mandabus sighed and slowly began to turn back towards her. “Then I shall head there myself and kill every man, woman, and child until that mage comes out and offers himself up to me personally.”

“You… are a monster.” Kiaren spat.

Mandabus let out a loud laugh and jolted towards Kiaren, shoving her over his shoulder. Kiaren screamed and yelped as her ribs pressed into the plates upon his shoulder.

“What was that?” Kensley perked up, looking up the hill where the dilapidated building was located. A suit of tarnished armor reflected a dull light back down at them.
Kensley grabbed at Scarborough’s shoulder, pulling him up from Bently. “You must go first, I wouldn’t stand a chance against him without my armor.”

Scarborough began to sprint up the hill as Kensley followed after, several long paces behind. Scarborough turned to see Mandabus marching towards the outward wall where he had pushed through. Kiaren was rested upon his shoulder, passed out from the pain.

“Stop where you are!” Scarborough called out, readying his swords.

Kensley stopped beside him as Mandabus glanced back at the two, just before jumping through the gap. “Mandabus!” Kensley called out, running after him and stopping just at the barrier. Mandabus had already mounted his horse and began to ride off back to the tall trees of the forest.

“What is all this clamor for!” Edrian called out to them as he climbed up the road towards them. Boughlin followed after, looking as if he had just been awoken.
Kensley stepped back from the dislodged timbers and made eye contact with the General.

“Sir, it was Mandabus. Taking with him the prisoner we had taken from Tulefore.”

Edrian pursed his lips, his stubbly beard twitching. “I was told he had perished on the battlefield weeks ago.”

“Yes, sir.” Kensley bowed his head as he approached the superior officers.

Edrian snorted loudly and withdrew his gaze from Kensley. “It matters not. Why should we concern ourselves with one runaway when we have an army prepared to listen to our every order?”

Kensley glanced to Scarborough, whose swords trembled in his grasp as his gaze remained fixed to the ground.

Boughlin cleared his throat loudly as he began to follow Edrian back down the incline. “Compose yourselves. We have much to discuss before we may make out next move.”

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