Crusader

Briarís lips barely emerged from the warm water to gasp in a breath before he turned his head and brought his eyes back around to watch for guards. Swimming underneath docks for hours on end was not exactly what Briar expected when he went off to fight for the Holy City of Vumalt. As a crusader he had been looking forward to climbing walls and slaughtering the dog-like creatures that currently held their city captive, or perhaps manning a battering ram to crash through the gates. But no, his commander had sent his squad out to crawl beneath the docks of the city like sewer rats, so much for the glamour of combat.

As he sweeped his eyes back and forth through the crack in the dockís planks, he wondered how his superiors thought this would help. Sure, they could attack the caneenís ships and guard posts from this position but a squad of ten men would hardly put a dent in the forces that guarded the seaward side of the Holy City. This was after all the only side of the city that lacked the great wall that served to deter storming from the other three sides, which meant that it was most open to attack. The Kranjarr warriors may look like the dogs that fought for scraps at his fatherís dinner table but they were just as smart as him and his fellow Cytrians when it came to warfare. They had proved that by holding the City for over three years, longer than any other faction had in his memory. If his leaders knew what they were doing however, they would not hold Vumaltís City for much longer.

The ability of his commander was something that Briar doubted after receiving this assignment. He had gone over the plan in his head several times and most of it made sense to him but he just couldnít see what it would accomplish. He and his squad mates waited near the point where the wall jutted out into the sea, and at high tide they swam around the great stone barrier. Had they gone at any less than the peak tide then they could have been spotted by the Kranjarr archers manning (or perhaps "dogging" would be a better term) the end tower. From there they swam along beneath the main dock until they came to their present position, under one of the shallow floating docks that slid up and down their pillar moorings. Being just inches above the water these docks left little room beneath, hence the head turning to breathe. Briar sucked in another breath and brought his eyes back up to the crack that served as the groupís guard post.

Briar unconsciously sank a bit into the water at the sight of an approaching caneen guard. He recognized this one from earlier in his shift. The guard had the dogís head and furred skin like all those of his race. Briar recognized this one by his wolf-like face and black-tipped ears. The wolf race of the caneen was supposed to be the best hunters of their species but Briar couldnít tell from the guardís example. Shuffling along the boardwalk, the guard trundled through his patrol with the end of his spear dragging behind him like a mimic of his limp tail. Briar silently wished that all of the enemies in the City could be as untrained as this one. The guard stepped over the crack without paying it or the soldier floating beneath it even a glance and continued on his patrol. Briar was glad that the warm seawater that he floated in thwarted the caneenís keen sense of smell. If it didnít, even the bumbling guard stood a chance of detecting the humans that hid underneath their very floorboards.

Looking down from the crack, Briar saw one of his fellow crusaders signaling him to return to the group. He paddled silently over to the circle of soldiers surrounding the lieutenant and gave the all-clear sign that meant they could speak. Signing was necessary in this situation due to caneen hearing being just as sensitive as their sense of smell. The lieutenant whispered to the squad the final phase of the plan. After hearing the plan, the whole mission made complete sense to Briar. High command had received word of a secret dwarven tunnel that led up into the Holy City. The lieutenant had located it and in a few minutes, at low tide, they would be able to enter it and follow it into the City.

For Briar, the next few minutes flew by. He busied himself in adjusting his leather armor, checking and rechecking the placement of his daggers, buckler, and sword to be sure that they would not be lost in swimming. He did not want to lose any of his weapons like his squad mate Glenard had when they swam around the tower. All that Glenard had left was a dagger, hardly a proper armament for a knight of Cytra. It probably didnít matter much to Glenard however; he was more of a scholar than a warrior anyway. Back at camp he had been a reader of documents (both foreign and domestic) to some of the less educated soldiers. In the time ahead, Glenard would probably busy himself with translating signs and inscriptions within the city. When the time for fighting came, Briar would be fully armed and ready to deal out death to the furred menaces infesting the streets of the City. Then his hopes would be met.

The group of aquatic knights slowly pulled themselves along the floating dock until they reached itís connecting point. Briar bobbed patiently beside the lieutenant and waited for the crashing waves to reveal the secret cave. The lieutenantís hand shot out at the ebbing of one wave. Briarís eyes darted in the direction he pointed just in time to see a hole about three cubits wide get swallowed by the incoming surf. The lieutenant waited until every member of the squad nodded in comprehension before he ordered the next move. At his leaderís signal, Briar peeked his head out from the shelter of the dock to see if there were any guards up on the main dock that would see them. Briarís eyes followed the long curve of the main dock along its run until the next floating dock interrupted its view. The only guards that he saw were entering a small shanty that he decided was their break room. He gave the Allís Clear sign and with each wave, another warrior of Cytra entered the cave.

Briar was the last of the knights to enter, as he stood drying his flexible leather armor he regarded the dwarven made surroundings. The squad had emerged from the sea into a long chute nearly thrice the width of the hole we had entered through. Two sets of stairs wide enough to accommodate two men abreast ran up both sides of the chute while the center was dominated by two rusted iron rails. Between the rails was a series of small gear teeth that were barely noticeable in the light that filtered in through the pounding surf. As he arched his back to allow a bit of seaweed to escape his breastplate, Briar noticed a capped pipe-lamp attached to the wall. Following the pipe up the passage, he saw another about every 10 cubits. A quick glance and he saw that the pipe-lamps were mirrored on the other side as well.

A muffled squeak from the female knight on the other side of the chute distracted Briar from his. He looked over to see Jodae mouthing an apology. Apparently the tide was rising and the last wave had splashed against her. A couple of signals and a bit of glaring later, the lieutenant was leading us further up the passage. Briar felt sorry for Jodae, not only was she one of the few women who had gained knighthood but she was also had the best arm of anyone in the squad. Most would not feel sorry someone with such a gift but Briar knew what kind of pressure being the best could bring on.

It was the same way with him and his eyesight, he could spot a hare in a meadow at 100 cubits. A bit after passing the high tide mark, the pipe-lamps on the wall were uncapped. Though most had been blown out, Briar thought he saw a flicker of light a ways up the tunnel. He was about to tap the shoulder of the knight in front of him to ask if he saw the flicker when the lieutenant stopped the group.

Lighting a nearby pipe-lamp with some flint, he explained to the squad that they were far enough up the tunnel that the Kranjarr wouldnít be able to hear them anymore. According to the lieutenant, the tunnel they were in was once used by the dwarves to move cargo from boats to the Holy City and back. Once the knights reached the top of the chute they would probably see the large mechanical platform that ran on the center tracks. Under no circumstances were the crusaders to touch the platform, it would alert the dwarves and possibly even the caneen of their presence. Although Briar understood his leaderís reasoning he was still greatly disappointed, he had always wanted a chance to see some legendary dwarven machinery in action.

The knights continued slowly up the tunnel, reaching the area of lit lamps. In the light, Briar noticed that the iron gear teeth and rails were clean and shining, as if they had bee polished recently. Looking up along the rails he finally saw the platform. After several miles of trudging uphill, the end was in sight. The soldier ahead of him, a thin moustached man named Lonny, turned to Briar and related a brief story of his previous experience with dwarven machinery. Apparently Lonnyís cousin once bought a dwarven grind stone which worked so well that before his cousin could stop it ground one his best swords into a dagger. Lonny let out warbling laugh and Briar just grinned slightly. Lonny loved to tell stories, and usually they were pretty far fetched. They were always enjoyed though, even if Lonny was the only one laughing. Lonny was hushed almost immediately by the lieutenant as the group reached the top of the chute.

The tunnel opened up into half dome with passages lead outward from each of itís poles. In order to reach the chamber, the knights had to climb up a ladder since the floor had been built out around the movable platform. Facing the tunnel was a wall about two men high with a mighty door in the center. Upon the door was the writing of Lumnor Dwarves who lived in the rocky wastes Northwest of the City. Glenard padded silently over to the door to translate the script while the rest of gathered around the lieutenant. He whispered to the squad that the next step in their plans was to get to the surface and make their way to Cytraís Cathedral in the Holy City. They had to be careful that they surfaced within the Holy City and not in the City which surrounded it.

For as long as Briar knew, the City of Vumalt had been fought over. According to legend, it had been ravaged and rebuilt more times than the moon has filled itself. Briar wasnít sure about that but he did know that no matter how many times the City had been thrashed, the Holy City remained in pristine condition. Holy City was a grouping of temples, churches, abbeys, and other religious buildings that dominated the mountain rising up from the Cities center. Neither of the human factions nor the elves, dwarves, or even the caneen dared to desecrate the grounds of the Holy City with blood shed. Briar remembered an exception to this rule, mass sacrifices in which enemies were chased onto giant altars such as those in the Elven pyramid. Sacrifice the gray area in the Holy City. When in the City one was safer indoors during battle, but once you were in the Holy City you were safer in the middle of the street, away from enemy alters. Briar grinned at the irony of it.

He was thinking about bringing it up but Glenard came back with his translation. Apparently this was an entrance to the Halls of Boldor, the dwarven equivalent of Cytraís Cathedral. The whole squad knew that if they entered here they might never see the surface again, let alone the light of day. The lieutenant explained that they did indeed plan to enter the Halls but not through this entrance. They would travel down a side passage until they found an entrance to the dwarf city closer to the surface. The lieutenant would knock on the door and explain that they were part of the movement to kick out the Kranjarr. Since the dwarven ideology "The enemy of my enemy is my friend." reigned supreme within their culture, they would then gain passage into the Holy City.

Lonny, who had been standing next to Briar near the platform, chuckled about how easy it would be. Lonnyís hand unconsciously set itself upon one of the three levers attached to the metal platform and with a grin began to lean on it. Briarís warning was cut short by the squealing clang of metal on metal as the platform began to move down the chute. Lonny completely lost his balance and tumbled onto the falling platform. The squad mates rushed to the edge and watched Lonny descend rapidly only to stop with a loud clank just two pipe-lamps down the tunnel. Lonny shook his head and sat up. He appeared to be unhurt so Jodae began to jeer him about his folly. Lonny was starting his response when the oil pipes on the walls swung out from their slots in the walls and began to pour out lamp oil all over both Lonny and the platform. In moments the entire platform, as well as Lonny, was covered in oil. As the fountain-like pipes returned to their wall slots, a small hatch swung down from the ceiling. Jodae barely had time to cry out a warning before three sparkling pebbles rolled out of the hatch. Briar recognized them a glitter stones, a rare but highly efficient replacement for flint. While flint required metal to make a spark, glitter stones merely needed a hard surface.

The stone steps and the iron platform would be more than hard enough for the glitter stones. Thanks to Jodaeís warning, Lonny managed to catch one of the rocks but the oil proved too slick and he fell down before he was able to snatch another one. The second and third glitter stones clinked upon the cold metal of the platform, sent out a starburst of green sparks, and was instantly lost in a blaze of lamp oil. The flame coursed up Lonnyís body and he began to writhe in pain. More than one of the brave knights turned from the gruesome work of the dwarven trap. Briar was surprised that Lonny, who was one of the most talkative of the squad, barely made any noise as his flesh burned upon him. He was even more surprised by what Lonny did next; still on fire, Lonny removed his flaming sword belt from his body and tossed it up to Glenardís feet. The dying warrior groaned once and half fell half slid off the platformís edge.

The squad stood listening to his charred corpse roll and slide down the chute until Glenard stamped out the flaming belt and attached it to his waist. Briar thought that at least Lonny finally got to see that famous dwarven machinery, even if it was what killed him.

Snapped from their brief period of mourning, the squad looked to the lieutenant for guidance. As their leader opened his mouth, a stony grinding emanated from the door behind them. This noise caused their hopes of dwarven help to disappear as fast as Lonny had down the chute. With his mouth already open it barely took any time for the lieutenant to shout a retreat. A millisecond later all nine of the soldiers were dashing down the passage to the right of the opening door. Looking over his shoulder, Briar gave a quick prayer of thanks to Vumalt for creating dwarves so short that they could not run fast enough to catch his squad. The dwarven guards apparently realized this as well and began to draw their short bows to fire upon the humans. Briar quickened his pace a bit as the bearded guards fired their arrows and caught up with Jodae. The small arrows raced towards them only clatter to the ground at their heels. Briar shouted out thanks to Vumalt for not allowing dwarves the height to use longbows. His thanks were met by an enthusiastic "Amen" from the rest of the squad.

After sprinting through an unknown number of corners and cross passages, the panting crusaders turned a corner to be met by the radiant glow of moonlight streaming through an iron gate. Signaling silence, the lieutenant crept up to the bars and peered at the surrounding buildings. Returning to the group, he explained that we were in a back alley facing the sea. We were definitely not in the Holy City but he couldnít tell how far from its safety they were. The squad creeped toward the bars and silently unlatched the gate. Filing through one at a time the knights entered the night. Briar was going to make such a comment when he was startled by a scraping noise while stooping through the gate. Briar jumped reflexively and nearly knocked Glenard over. Jodae calmed everyone and crouched down behind Briar. After a brief tug on his boot, Briar turned to find Jodae holding a dwarven arrow that had apparently stuck into his boot heel during their escape. Jodae said that Vumalt deserved more thanks than they had given and Briar wholeheartedly agreed.

Pocketing the arrow as his prize for escaping, Briar moved to the front with the lieutenant. Since the lieutenant had the cities layout memorized and Briar had the best eyes in the squad, they easily avoided the patrolling caneen. A few close calls were averted by the squad having rolled in a trash heap to mask their scent. The foul odor of the garbage was enough to turn the stomachs, but the crusaders managed to live with it because they knew they would be dead without it. Briar considered alluding the usefulness of the trash to that of women but thought better of it when he noticed Jodae beside him. With a great deal of stealth and luck, the squad arrived at the edge of the Holy City. Briar peeked out of the alley and saw two kranjarr soldiers standing in the street.

Beyond the wrinkled faces of the bulldog guards, Briar saw the gothic towers of Cytriaís Cathedral rising up in the distance. His heart was filled with joy to think that they were this close to his faithís most holy place. He slowly returned to reality as his eyes followed the lines of the dozens of rooftops that filled the space between him and the Cathedral. Briar sighed and turned back to the lieutenant to tell him of the guards. The pair then rejoined the squad and began to plan a way to get past the guards. A full out assault was out of the question, as was a sprint across the border. The discussion quickly turned to consider the guards. Bulldog caneens were to fighting what the wolf race was to hunting. Their downfall was that while their muscles were fast and rarely tired, their minds were slower than a bronze dragonís metabolism and as weak as a newborn gnome. After a bit of debating, the lieutenant opted for Glenardís plan; mostly because its main competition involved Jodae strip naked and dancing in the street as bait.

Jodae walked past the snickering males in the squad and received her alternate instructions from the lieutenant. Taking Briarís arrow, she leaned around the corner and flung it across the street and towards the guards. Being that Jodaeís hands were as precise as Briarís eyes, the arrow stabbed into a doorpost with an audible twang. She watched with satisfaction as the guardsí droopy ears sprang up at the sound and looked around for the cause. After about a minute or so one of the guards nudged his partner and pointed to the arrow. Growling to each other in low tones, they cautiously approached the arrow as if it would pull itself out of the wood and fly at them.

Once the guards turned their backs to the alley, Jodae nodded to the squad and they quickly padded out into the street. Being as quiet as they could, the knights tip-toed up the street towards the border between the two cities. Briar and another, beefier soldier padded up behind the two bulldogs as one of them got up the courage to pull the arrow from the woodwork. As the guards pondered the arrow, Briar and his partner removed the caneensí helmets. Spinning around, each of the guards was rewarded with their own helmets slammed into their foreheads, knocking them out cold. They replaced the helmets on the heads of their unconscious owners and trotted off to rejoin the group.

Strolling across the border, the knights of Cytria were filled with a sense of pride at their accomplishment. One crusader began to sing a song of victory when the lieutenantís fist hit his gut and silenced him. Their leader explained that they couldnít alert the Kranjarr to their presence or else the mission would still be a failure. He patted the winded soldier on the back and instructed the squad to keep moving and looking for a Cytrian building. After a bit of walking a human was spotted going into an alley. They barely had caught a glimpse of the man but they knew that he had definitely been a man and not an elf or a dwarf. Filing into the alley the group saw no sign of the man, only a door on either side of the alley. Briar strolled forward to open one of the doors when Glenard grabbed his shoulder to stop him. Briar questioned Glenardís reason and he simply pointed above the door. Briar was suddenly very embarrassed that even though he had the best eyes in the group he had failed to notice the spear and moon carved into the buildingís wall. That was the symbol of the Gadaran church, the archenemy of Cytria. While human, these heretics perverted the ways of Vumalt into a vile religion that followed the teachings of Gadar the prophet. Had Briar knocked on that door, he would have brought death to all of them.

After a humble thanks to Glenard, Briar looked to the other door and sighed in relief, for upon the wall was the dual square of Cytria. Briar proudly marched up to the door and knocked in the rhythm of Cytraís pledge. After a bit of shuffling from within a hatch opened and the head of a staff poked out. Magical energy pulsed from the wooden knob and flowed into the group. The spell quickly dissipated as the staff was drawn back in and the door swung quickly open. The squad of tired knights rushed past the priest at the door and instantly began prayers of thanks. The lieutenant closed the door behind them and began talking to the priest.

The holy man informed the lieutenant of several prepared rooms that held clean beds and cool water for the soldiers. As the knights walked towards the rooms the priest asked of the tenth squad member. Briar felt uneasy and was glad when the lieutenant ordered the soldiers to bed so that he would not have to hear the tale of Lonnyís death. Once had been enough for him. Briar shut his door behind him and blew out his lamp. Briar slid his boots off his feet and undid his armor. Dressed only in his under shirt and pants, he washed his hands and other parts of him that the garbage had touched. After drying off, he slipped between the cool crisp sheets of the bed.

As his muscles relaxed, Briar thought of what the next few days would bring. They would most likely meet with other warriors who had gained sanctuary within the Holy Cities boundaries. They would have to contact a higher priest to contact their commanders that the squad had made it in. It was almost assured that such a priest would be at the Cathedral, Briar smiled at the thought of walking into the vaulted hall of the Cathedral. Looking at the colored windows that related stories of Cytraís miracles and walking within reach of the centuries old relics that were held there. Briarís mind drifted from image to image until he fell asleep, dreaming of the far off day when him and his companions would retake Vumaltís City in the name of Cytra and his people.

The End

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