We walked out of the gates, squinting against the glare of the sun. To be fair, the clouds were moderate, and the sunlight weak, but compared to the inside of the fortress, it was glaring. As my eyes adjusted I saw an amazing sight. The frogs lined the west side of the grand courtyard. Turns out there were four hundred and thirty seven warriors, some wounded and another thousand non-combatants including children. They were backed against a wall that ran three times as high as I stood, I could tell fairly close to just how tall it was because Alfred stood at the entrance speaking with Just Jacob and the brigands.
Hemming the frogs in were six cohorts of the Broken Finger Legion. They were impressive in their uniforms with their straight lines and everything. Order had a certain beauty to it. Brother Durham would’ve been very impressed.
Along the eastern half of the great courtyard stood the baggage train of the Broken Finger Legion. There were wagons with food and supplies, as well as three ballista and two broken down catapults ready to be assembled by the waiting crews. Tents were being put up between the wagons and the wall, with goblins scurrying around seeing to the logistics’ of making camp.
Rufus weasel gnome stood at the bottom of the stairs leading from the courtyard to the landing we had just come out upon. Bob stood with him, as did Tim. In front of the three of them stood Leviathus pontificating loudly and gesticulating with one hand. His other arm was in a crude sling securing the broken limb against his body. By his voice I could tell he was sorely indignant.
Squaddie Kregal ran up to me, tossed off a salute and informed me that the Broken Fingers were setting up a section of their camp for the lizard folk. He said he would be happy to escort them where they could get food and water, perhaps a bed and for the sorely wounded, some care with his healers.
I thanked him, consulted with Liz and sent them all off with Kregal. He was efficient and respectful, helping the infirmed down the stairs and seeing that the young ones were not left behind. Liz went with them and I promised I would catch up once I saw to the wizards. She nodded once before leaning in and hugging me.
“Do what you must,” she whispered to me before breaking away. “I trust your decision.”
What more could I ask for? Sparkle opted to accompany me as she had words she wanted to say to Tim. I was not sure I could miss that exchange for all the cheese in the world. We strode down the stairs and I was intercepted again by a young hob private. He saluted and handed me a scroll. At my return salute he went into a parade rest, waiting for me to read the message.
It proved to be an invitation to visit the command tent of the Broken Finger Legion. Their commander, who outranked a mere captain such as myself, said at my earliest convenience, so I took that to mean I could take care of the immediate business with the frogs and the wizards.
I informed the courier that I would attend to the commander after I settled the truce and he snapped off a salute before running back toward the tents. I did love the efficiency of a well trained army.
Sparkle and I made it to the bottom of the stairs and walked the dozen strides or so to stand behind Bob and Rufus.
Wizard Tim glanced at me and tipped his hat in my direction. It was quite a magnificent hat, I must say. It was a large, sweeping peach basket hat adorned with purple and gold flowers and several long pink ribbons. The entire thing made his head look too small and his beard look just right. Funny that. His beard was usually over grown.
“I refuse to be accosted again by this lout,” Leviathus roared, his voice strained from the obvious pain he was in. “He has no respect for my station.”
Tim glanced at me and shook his head. “Young Merric here spared your life, Leviathus. You should show some deference.”
Rufus grumbled and Leviathus shot him a look of disgust. That’s when I noticed the seven frogs kneeling on the cobblestone behind Leviathus. Each was bound and had his or her head bowed (it was hard to pick out gender with the frogs).
“Are these the wizards who controlled the slaves?” I asked, waving my arms at the kneeling frogs.
To my surprise it was Nebuchadnezzar who stepped from the crowds of frogs aligned to the west and came forward, only to be held at bay by two burly hobs with spears.
“If I may speak?” he asked.
One of the hobs pushed him back with the shaft of the spear and I called out to him.
“Let him come forward.”
The hobs glanced at me, conferred with his compatriot who pointed to my rank insignia and stepped aside, allowing Nebuchadnezzar to approach.
“Do you speak for these?” I asked, indicating the wizards.
“Only those of my people,” he said, his voice strong and his head high.
“And what of your ally Leviathus?” I asked, indicating the tall lanky wizard who sputtered and spit in indignation at being ignored.
“He was never my ally,” Nebuchadnezzar said, plainly. “His bargain was with our late and barely lamented king. Any bargain he had died with him.”
“Fair enough,” I said. “So, are these they who controlled the slaves? Those who forced child to fight for his life in a vain hope to save the life of the parent?”
“Yes,” Nebuchadnezzar said. “Three are such. Four are apprentices.”
I walked around Leviathus who turned as I passed and spat. “You will not ignore me, heathen,” he said, the pomposity so thick I could make a stew of it.
“Don’t make me break your other arm,” I said to him in a calm and even voice. “I’ll see to your execution directly.”
This quailed him for the first time. He opened his mouth twice but nothing came out. I took that as my sign to proceed.
“How did you control them?” I asked the three wizards. The center one, a pale green frog with a curious bracer on his left wrist, looked up and spoke croaking words I could not understand.”
“Speak the trade tongue,” Nebuchadnezzar barked and the wizard glared at him.
“Tell me this and I may spare your life,” I said. I really had had enough bloodshed this day.
The wizard frog sneered at me. “You are filth,” he said. “I would see you hung from your entrails from the top of the fortress, our most sacred home.”
“Harsh,” Rufus said.
“You lose,” I said. “Anyone else?”
The two other wizards stubbornly looked at the ground, while the first one reviled me for my inadequacies and my poor parentage. I am unclear how he knew of my parentage, but he was a wizard and they know things.
“I will free the one who tells me of this secret.”
Nebuchadnezzar shook his head. “They will not help you. They are sworn to their masters and will not betray them.”
“Then they hold no use for me,” I said, shaking my head. “I might as well kill the lot of them now. I am sorry Nebuchadnezzar, I told you I would accept the surrender of your people. But I cannot abide these who enforced tyranny over those I hold dear.”
Nebuchadnezzar looked at me curiously. “Why do you not just take what you want, torture them until one of them breaks?”
I turned to look into his great bulbous eyes and answered, never a hesitation in my mind. “While sometimes we must kill our enemies, it is never the first choice. Killing is simple. We are better for diplomacy and tolerance. While I cannot condone the horrid conditions your people place my friends into, I can change the paradigm and end the cycle of retaliation and violence. As for getting answers. I have learned that torture is rarely fruitful. There is no compromise there. If we are to be an honorable people, we must learn to live within certain boundaries.”
At this Leviathus laughed and Sparkle leaned forward and thumped his broken elbow. He cried out and fell to whimpering.
I motioned for the two hobs who had stopped Nebuchadnezzar and they approached. “Take them back to their people. Remove their bonds and see that they are fed. Do not hurt them.
The hobs saluted and escorted the froggy wizards away. Their leader stared at me in disbelief when his bonds were removed but he want with them quietly. I turned again to face Nebuchadnezzar. “Tell your people that we will negotiate for the turnover of this fortress to a new governor. We will strip the palace of anything of value to pay wages and supplies. But your people will not be killed. If they swear to serve me, to join my forces, I will show them mercy.”
He did not respond, just looked into my face and blinked his great eyes, the squicking sound the ticking of a clock.
“And if none choose to stay here under your thumb?”
“They will be free to go. All but the wizards, I’m afraid. Until I can free my people from their control they will be kept here.”
“I will tell them,” he said. Then he did a remarkable thing. He held his hand out to shake my own. There was an air of ceremony there, one I could respect. I stepped forward and clasped his hand and wrist, giving it a firm yet gentle shake.
He turned and moved toward his people, only to stop and look back. “You are a holy man, are you not?” he asked me.
“I strive to be,” I replied. That answer seemed to please him.
“Have you ever heard the whispers of the gods?” he asked. “I have prayed to the gods we found in this place for the entirety of my life and for the first time one of them has answered me.”
“That is good, is it not? Are you the shaman here?”
“We have no such,” he said.
“Perhaps you do now.”
He pondered this. “There was a moment when a golden light flashed through the castle and a voice spoke in my head, telling me that the fool would be our salvation.” He was obviously confused and perplexed. “Was that a god?”he asked. “Or a demon sent to vex me.”
I thought back to when I pulled out the amulet of the Bountiful One and how the golden light had pulsed from it, calming and healing us all.
On a whim, I pulled the necklace off my neck and placed it in Nebuchadnezzar’s hands. I would’ve placed it over his head, but he had no neck. “This is the symbol for he who spoke to you. Take it in and speak with him again. Perhaps you can find wisdom in the conversation.”
He grasped it tightly in his fist and golden light pulsed outward, encompassing the entirety of the courtyard. Every head turned toward where we stood and the frogs cried out in unison.
“What do they say?” I asked when they grew silent once more.
Nebuchadnezzar wept, his great eyes trailing tears across his mottled face. “They name me ruler,” he said, the awe strong in his voice. “Me, the outcast.”
I patted him on the shoulder. “Fair enough. Go to your people then, and tell them of our bargain.”
Then I turned back to face the wizards who remained and thought how I was going to deal with Leviathus.
As if she read my mind, Sparkle tip-toed up to whisper in my ear. “I’ll kill him for you,” she said.
“No, you won’t.”
She stuck out her lower lip. “Why?”
“Because Lilith would not like it,” I said and I stepped back next to Rufus. Time to unravel another piece of the puzzle.