The Bruckin skiff sped along on the wind, barely skimming above the trees and the undulating fields. Roldan Stryke held on to the rail as best he could, his body rocking left and right with the shifting of the vessel. It was small, with only room for half a dozen people, including crew. There was Michels, of course, looking grim, dispassionate and professional as always, accompanied by his usual team - those which had survived the battle of Bruckin.
They were ahead of the main fleet, as were several other light craft approaching from different lines of approach, pincering in on Treydolain. The lake rose into view, its waters glinting in the sun, and the skiff kicked up a plume of vapour in its wake, before its source braziers were extinguished and it dropped elegantly into the water's surface. The airship became a boat, its sails continuing to propel it across the lake, closing in on the south-eastern shore. It was the fastest land approach to the mesas and they would be able to identify and neutralise threats along the way, including any anti-airship artillery which could pose a threat to the airborne divisions. Roldan had requested to be on the leading edge of the attack and the princess and Lief brothers had been happy to oblige. He had a debt to pay: the shipyard workers had said nothing, done nothing, despite Pienya's revelation. Instead, they'd merely saved his life. That had somehow made his prior actions all the worse.
No arrows were fired from the shore, nor flaming projectiles to take down the ship. They reached the small, wooden pier jutting out from one of the city's great estates without event and the wide metal door at the front of the skiff clanged down onto the wet mud.
Roldan drew his weapon. "Right, lads," he said, wincing as the muscles of his sprained shield arm complained, "let's go see what's been going on here." Leading the squad onto land and along the decking towards the house, its colonnades running parallel to the lake and seeming incongruously grand for the circumstances, Roldan scanned the shoreline and the dark windows of the house. There was no welcome party, friendly or otherwise, the hanging baskets and flower beds appearing untended and dishevelled.
"Quiet," Michels noted.
Roldan nodded. "That was definitely smoke we saw on the approach. Somebody is here."
They continued on, skirting around the main house and into the elaborate gardens, where ornately carved hedges provided them with some cover.
"There should be servants here, gardeners," Michels muttered.
"Let us take a closer look," Roldan said, "then we'll make our way into the city." Cautiously pushing open a gate he passed through into the interior of the estate. The air was still, dust particles floating in the sun beams. A tiny lizard raced up a wall to escape their gaze. Roldan felt his chest rising and falling, his breath still a little ragged after his encounter with Pienya. If he had any sense he'd still be lying on a bed in a medical tent back in Bruckin.
Emerging into a courtyard they encountered a most peculiar scene. In the centre, occupying most of the floor space, was a sprawling diorama, its components animated with what must have once been intricately detailed mechanisms. The entire display was now a malfunctioning cacophony of grating metal and irregular clicks and whirs, the tiny representations of people rocking back and forth, unable to complete their preordained movements. It appeared to represent the valley, though with a decidedly over-sized depiction of Treydolain. Lying about the courtyard were half a dozen bodies, dressed in what once must have been finery but was now sullied and torn. For a brief moment Roldan took them to be dead, until he noticed the heaving chest of one nearest.
"What is this?" whispered Michels.
Roldan approached with caution, peering at the man who lay on the floor, head lolling, back propped up against one of the miniature buildings. He was unarmed and appeared intoxicated, most likely by more than alcohol. Lifting the man's head by his chin, Roldan stared down at him, half expecting to recognise the face. "Who are you?" he demanded.
The delirious man stared back stupidly, blinking repeatedly. "Who are you?"
"Where are the masters of this house?"
Flinging his head from side to side, the man made a show of looking for something. "Don't think they're here no more."
"Where are they? What happened here?"
"No need to shout," the man said, raising his hands to his ears. He struggled to sit more upright, then decided against it and slumped back down. "The King came for them," he said, waving a hand wildly. "Came for all of them."
Roldan glanced up at Michels, who shrugged impatiently. "So you broke in?"
"Door was unlocked," the man said, shaking his head. "Anyways, the city guard bashed down our homes. All gone."
"He's telling the truth," came another voice, clearer, from the archway at the far end of the courtyard. Roldan looked up to see a man younger than himself but wearing the age of a hard life. "The name's Gatley," the man said. "We're all most of us living here now, on the estates. Our quarter was demolished for the new barracks. So we came here."
Roldan, Michels and the others stepped over the broken diorama and half-aware commoners. "The family that used to live here," Roldan said, "where are they now?"
"Gone," Gatley said, looking nervous. "My guess would be the prison. Some say they saw them all being carted off up to the mesas." He took a step backwards under the arch, arms lowered and palms open. "We don't want any trouble. We have children here. We're just surviving."
Pausing, Roldan looked down at his sword, then slowly sheathed it. "We're not here for you," he said. "What's been happening here?"
Gatley assessed them suspiciously. "Who are you? Where are you from?"
Casting a quick glance at Michels, who offered another shrug, Roldan stepped forward. "My name is Roldan Stryke. I come from the north. We intend to restore law and order in the city. What more can you tell us?"
Finding a bench positioned along the wall, Gatley sat down heavily and rubbed a dirty hand through his hair. "It was bad before," he said, "but it got worse once the army marched off. Then we heard the King had left as well. Gone to war. The city guard was left to control the city and they came down hard. Anyone who stepped out of line, for the smallest thing, would be up on the gallows. The main square has had executions every day. There's a pyre there that's always burning."
"This is still happening?"
Gatley rested his head in his hands. "Possibly. We came out here to get away from it. The guard have stayed close to the mesas. Out here they leave us alone. We're gathering supplies so we can leave the city altogether."
Michels made a noise of approval. "I think that would be a good idea."
"Get as many of your people away from the city as you can," Roldan said. "There will be fighting beginning soon."
"It never stopped," Gatley said. He gazed up at the ornate ceiling. "There was a time when I dreamed of living in a place like this. I'd look across the lake and imagine myself as one of the noble lords."
Making for the front of the house, Roldan checked his weapons. The journey through the city would not remain as quiet as this encounter.
"Where are you going to go?" Gatley called after them.
"To the mesas," Roldan replied, hand on the hilt of his sword. "To put an end to it."
"Better you than me."
Roldan nodded. "Agreed."
Thanks for reading! Nearing the big finale, so I'll see you next Tuesday....
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The Mechanical Crown (complete novel!)Fantasy
An explorer, a princess, a secret and a sword. A belief that the world can be better. The Mechanical Crown is an epic adventure full of intrigue, mystery and adventure. Plus a bit of romance. **Selected for the Wattpad Picks FEATURED LIST March 20...