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Chapter 18 - Seeing Eye to Eye

He found them past the next mess of an intersection, huddled on the ground behind a stall. Ryann rested on the ground, looking frail and in agony, her leg cut with a deep bloody gash that ran right across her thigh, above the knee, the bleeding staunched with a tourniquet applied further up her leg. A sizable pool of blood lay beneath her injured leg. A crying Blaise held her in an embrace, hardly noticing his approach. "Oh my god."

The two sisters looked up at him, grimaces over their faces. Tears fell down Blaise's cheeks. "It was all my fault, I couldn't protect sister Ryann in time. They just kept coming and coming and running everybody down, it was chaos everywhere and we got separated and when I looked back again I couldn't see her any more. And I fought and I fought but against so many of them I couldn't get back to her and--"

"Calm down," said Art, setting an arm down on her shoulder. "You can tell the story later. But first we need to get Ryann back to the other sisters. Here get up, help me carry her," he said, and pulled Blaise to her feet. Together they hauled Ryann up. She screamed in pain and squeezed her eyes shut as they brought her up to stand on her good foot. As Blaise helped hold her up, Art showed his back to her and knelt a bit. "Come," he said, and Ryann got on his back. "You don't weigh half as much as some people I know," he said, trying to lighten the mood, then he and Blaise headed back to the Smug Mug.

As they went Blaise continued to cry, even as she wiped away her tears. "Useless Blaise, useless, useless…" -- "Hey… I wanted you to know, that I don't blame you for what happened, and I don't think Ryann would blame you either. That was a difficult situation we found ourselves in, one where no one knew what might happen, and I doubt we could have emerged from it unscathed. Against so many of them, that the three of us all made it out of there alive is in itself a miracle."

"But if I hadn't fled, if I had stayed by her side… Oh why hadn't I practiced more with the spear and shield in my spare time?--"

"If you had practiced more with the spear and shield, you might be lambasting yourself for not having practiced more with the bow and arrow right about now, if that had been the situation. You tended to Ryann's wounds. That is all that anyone has a right to ask for."

"I should have done better. Could have done better. What's going to happen the next time I fight in a battle? Freeze up entirely? Watch as my sisters get killed, one after another?" -- "Shush, don't let your overactive imagination get the better of you. I'm sure you won't let that happen." -- "I don't know what to think any more. When the fighting started today, I thought for sure I had trained enough to stand my ground. I had trained alongside my fellow sisters for years! Kashya, Amplisa… They said I was ready! And when the time finally came for me to fight… You don't understand, Art! All that training… Actually fighting is nothing like that! I was so afraid. I was so afraid…" She broke down sobbing.

"I understand," said Art. "The first time in live combat is always the worst. But you know what? Contrary to what some might say, it does get easier, the more you've fought. At least, it does for me." He smiled at her, trying to reassure her. "Who knows? Maybe you'll become the fearless hero everyone looks up to."

"No. You can't possibly understand. When the town guards showed up to fight alongside us, they were just in time, I had tripped and fallen and had already lost my shield, and one of those little ones was about to land a finishing blow on me. I was so deathly afraid that I'd be hacked to pieces. Was so relieved when the guardsman parried the swing aside…"

"It's going to be alright. We're almost back to the inn now, and there'll be your sisters there."

She turned to him, and he saw on her a look of desperation. "And then what? We still have the war on our hands. What happened today to Ryann… The thought of risking such injury or worse, in every skirmish and battle from here on out… Oh, why are the heavens so cruel? Haven't we lost enough? How many more battles must we fight? We've lost the monastery, and now just when I come to a town where I think it safe to relax… I can't. I just can't take it any more," she said as she burst into sobs.

Art kept quiet the rest of the way to the inn. He didn't know what he could say any more. All along the way Ryann kept quiet as well. If he hadn't felt her pulse against his hand, he would have worried that he carried home a cadaver.

They arrived at the Smug Mug and once the crowd on the first floor parted for them, went up to the second floor where the sisters had claimed their rooms. Blaise knocked on the door, which Amplisa opened from within. One look at Ryann lying on Art's back, and she was gasping and stepping back, calling for the two other sisters with her to make room. "Heavens! What happened?" Amplisa asked as they set Ryann down on one of the beds. "Ryann? Stay with me." When Ryann turned to stare at Amplisa without a word, she turned back to Blaise. "What happened? How much blood did she lose, is she going to make it?"

Blaise neither nodded nor shook her head, merely stared at Ryann with a glum look on her face.

Art turned to see the pallid look on Ryann's face, remembered seeing the pool of blood when he'd found them on the ground, after the fight. That much blood loss… He doubted Ryann would die from it, or she'd have died already, but to make sure nothing untoward happened… "Roland. Where is he, is he here?" -- Nod from Amplisa. -- He rushed out into the hallway and was about to shout for him when he saw Roland already standing there, a look of concern on his face. "I saw you bringing Ryann in," he offered.

"Roland, you said you know the way of channeling vigor. I know you don't care much for the sisterhood and they haven't done anything to earn your help, but can you do this favor for them?"

"Step aside," Roland replied as he entered the room.

The sisters looked up in surprise. Amplisa asked, "Channeling vigor? But that won't--" -- "It won't heal any wounds," said Roland, eyes downcast. He took one look at the gaping wound on her leg and closed his eyes. "She's not going to walk on that leg ever again. With cruches, maybe, but certainly not running." -- "Never?" echoed Blaise in utter dismay, while Ryann gave out a weak moan and slumped forward.

"Come, help her up," he said, gesturing to Blaise who propped the sister up. "You'll also have to remove her top clothes." -- "What?" said Blaise, startled. -- "You heard me." -- "What, all of them?" -- "Yes, topless, is there a problem?" -- "But--" -- "Do it," said Art, and she looked at Amplisa -- Nod.

Blaise helped the lethargic Ryann out of her clothes, gambeson, shift, and bra, though not before positioning her so as to preserve her modesty.

Roland then squat down behind her, closed his eyes and began mumbling a mantra, which Art barely made out, while pressing both palms against her back and pushing her into a proper upright sitting position. Over and over he repeated his words, while remaining completely composed. Half an hour, an hour, passed as Roland kept going. As Art watched he could make out fluctuations in the air about Roland's arms, like a mirage in the desert. As he and the other sisters watched, he noticed Roland's brows furrowing, him seeming to grow a bit more agitated with each passing moment. His arms began to slip, then to shake, and he voiced the mantras louder and louder, so that Art could make out the verses:

Gift of vigor, freely given. A grace from God, glory be. To see the world all abound with life, To participate in activities of love and strife. To sense this world with touch and taste, To see this world with eyes and ears. To dance about with this mortal frame, To speak of this world, all abound with hope. Gift of vigor, I freely give, In honor of God, do I gift to thee.

With a groan Roland pulled his arms back from Ryann's back, and toppled backward on the bed. As Blaise rushed to hold Ryann from falling back as well, Art gripped the man by the upper arm. "Are you alright?" -- "Yeah, I'm fine," Roland said slowly and softly. "Necessary side effect of channeling vigor, I'm afraid, but never you mind, it's nothing." -- "Don't sell yourself short, Roland. You shouldn't have put such undue hardship on yourself." -- "Couldn't be helped," Roland shrugged. "The lady lost a lot of blood, so I had to channel a bit more than usual. Quite a bit more. And it gets harder to maintain the way the longer I keep it up. Don't mistake me; I don't think I can do this every day, and certainly doing it twice in as many days will have its consequences, but just this once? I'll manage." He gestured at Ryann. "How's she?"

"I feel a lot better," said Ryann, turning around. She winced as she tried to move her injured leg. The wound hadn't gotten any better in the slightest, but at least she was trying to move, and that in Art's book was progress already. "Seems it hurts just as much as before. Still, whatever you did… thank you," she said with a wan smile. -- "Ah, don't mention it," said Roland as he continued to stare up at the ceiling.

"Now, will one of you explain how Ryann got into this mess?" asked Amplisa. Blaise recounted the events. Amplisa listened, then interrupted, "You mean this was all an entirely avoidable affair?" She turned on Art with a furious look in her eyes, causing Art to take a step toward the exit. "And you went ahead with it anyway? You might well have taken the sword and cut sister Ryann yourself!" she said, grabbing a spear and pointing it threateningly at Art.

"What, you think I wanted all this to happen?" retorted Art in disbelief. This sisterhood, just how unthankful could they be?

"Did you? We put you in the stocks, Art, and I understand that couldn't have been pleasant, but did that deserve all this? Did sister Ryann deserve this? When did she ever do anything to hurt you?"

"I may not be happy with my treatment at the hands of your sisterhood, but at least I know who deserves my wrath. And after all that I had done on behalf of your order, Amplisa, when I had I ever gotten a word of thanks from you? Only Ryann here ever thought to approach me and get to know me. Me, hurt her? Don't make me laugh. She's got nothing to worry about from me. It's the rest of you who should feel remorse and guilt."

"Remorse? Guilt? How dare you lecture us after your actions got my sister wounded! After it got how many untold scores of other innocent civilians killed? Do you even feel a whit of compassion, do you have even a spark of empathy? Why, it seems Kashya let you off too easy. Tell me why I shouldn't gut you right where you stand!"

"Stop, sister Amplisa," pleaded Ryann, clutching the hem of her gambeson. -- "Sister Ryann, you want me to spare this traitor? After all that's happened to you?" -- "What Art did… Was for the best. It might have just saved us all." -- "What's gotten into you?" -- "Please, at least hear him out." -- Amplisa set down per spear and glared at Art. "You have a lot of explaining to do then."

So Art explained his logic behind the actions, how Ryann and Blaise had agreed before they began. How things had gotten more out of hand than he'd expected, resulting in more casualties than he'd hoped for. How the three of them had gotten separated, and how he returned to find Ryann already wounded, skipping over the part about how he'd gotten back to using necroturgy to win the fight against the redskins, all of which the two sisters corroborated. He figured Amplisa already upset enough about him to do without the reminder of how he also used a way that was anathema to them.

By the end of it, Amplisa had a look of understanding on her face, and no longer looked at Art with such venom. Instead, he thought he saw growing respect for him. "So in other words," she remarked as he finished, "I owe you an apology." -- "I would never presume such a thing," Art replied. -- She smiled, wan. "So tactful. It seems the sisterhood was wrong about you. Not that it matters much any more, does it? I hear you will be parting ways with us come tomorrow morning."

"That… may not necessarily be the case," Art replied. "What would you say if I said I wished to return with you back to Thistledown… To fight by your side and prove my worth?"

"You mean what would I say when Kashya inevitably demands to know why you stepped foot on the village from whence you'd been banished?" she smiled, looking smug. "Liene is Liene, and Kashya is Kashya, and Kashya is our bow-mother. But if it makes you feel any better, I for one believe that the ends justify the means. Even if you had fought with necroturgy, I wouldn't mind, now that I know where your heart lies."

Art nodded, careful not to let any surprise show on his face, or she might suspect that that was exactly what he'd just done. That sounded like she'd not stand up for him when he returned to the village, but was that a sign that she would support him in case he got into another argument with Liene? That would come in very handy indeed, he figured, if once he returned to Thistledown he got in a battle that forced his hand on the matter, which given he couldn't fight well by his normal ways, would come sooner or later.

"But it's not me you have to convince, Art. So long as there are those in the sisterhood who don't see eye to eye with you, you must watch where you tread, lest you step on other peoples' toes. Speaking of which, what will you do now? Hopefully not to get us embroiled in another conflict which we can ill afford. Best make yourself useful, if you want people to see the good in you."

Art smiled. "Let me guess, you have just the thing in mind."

"Tell me, what do you know of our situation?" When Amplisa saw Art's confused look, she sighed. "For helping our sisterhood with the foresight you had, I think you deserve at least that much, if for no other reason than you'd have a better understanding of what we need."

She unfurled a scroll which contained a map of the region. Art could see it had been made in Tristram; the map showed the town right in the middle, with great detail on the surrounding towns and villages for perhaps a hundred miles in each direction, but growing less detailed further away, with distances more and more skewed toward the edges of the scroll. He recognized the places he'd been to recently. The monastery, ninety miles east of Tristram. Thistledown, fifty miles east of Tristram. Stonebridge, forty miles east of Tristram. Maple Creek, twenty-five miles east of Tristram. He recognized the mountain range running north-to-south right through the monastery, the only place for a hundred miles in either direction where the mountains leveled out to form a pass a caravan could fit through.

Amplisa pointed at a region north-east of Tristram, from what looked to be fifty miles out from the town, almost all the way to the mountains. "This is redskin territory," she noted. "The twelve nearest of their villages form a single tribe, one that has been encroaching on our territory for quite some time. We've been fighting them for some time now and -- Oh, that comes as a surprise to you?"

"Why yes, I thought this was a completely out of the blue invasion at the monastery." Shows how much the sisterhood had trusted him and the other caravaners, to keep them completely in the dark like this, he thought.

"Well, the sisterhood usually tries to keep its own matters to itself. Presenting a peaceful situation to the caravaners to assure them of their safety, and all that. I'm sure you, who figured out how to deal with the redskins in the market this morning, would find that obvious. Yes, we've been fighting them for some time, though usually limited to minor skirmishes in the territory near the monastery and near the Tristram-monastery part of the silk road, to keep the path safe for the caravans. With the ways of the Sightless Eye School, we didn't have much trouble securing our territory, even if they did come at us with bows and blades, flames and necroturges--"

"Bows?" Art asked, perking up. "I hadn't encountered them using them at all."

"Yes, that's the thing, isn't it? In the recent attack and since, they'd only ever attacked us with their elders and their little runts. We would've been having it quite easy, except for the beast. I'm sure you know what happened then. Now, we have sisters patrolling this entire area," she said, running an index finger over a circular region between Stonebridge and the monastery. "With Thistledown as our base. Last I heard, from our scouts furthest east -- that would be two days ago, meaning the information is at least four days stale -- the beast was still holed up in the monastery. Though, that might have changed since then, but I digress.

"Since the beast is staying put, our immediate concern is to stop any redskin incursion westward in their tracks -- but for that we need support. The monastery may have been easy for us to guard, but this area we're covering now? It is a large region to patrol with just a hundred-odd sisters.

"Which leads me to one of the sisterhood's key missions here. Tristram is the closest town to the monastery, and the one which stands to benefit the most from free flowing trade through our pass, and the one which stands the most to lose now that the way east is blocked. Being the closest, without having to cross any other noble's territory, also means ready troop movements between the town and the region we're watching. As such, Count Traben should be the most inclined, and most able, out of all those to the west, to reinforce us. His territory includes Tristram and its outlying villages, stretching for roughly fifty miles in each direction. He should be able to field at least a few hundred men and still keep the majority of his forces in reserve to defend, and with that kind of support we should have no trouble retaking the monastery, beast or no. And if he didn't want to spare too many of his own men, he'd have the resources to hire the mercenaries to do the job."

"Liene has made arrangements to meet with him at three this afternoon, when he holds his daily court. As a member of the sister, she'd doubtless be granted an audience so that she can make her case. Now, given what I've told you, why do you suppose I told you what I've told you?"

"You want me to attend the meeting? No, can't just be that. You want me to represent the caravaners' viewpoint on this, in case the sisterhoods' petition by itself doesn't suffice. Or better yet, you know I'm good friends with Warriv -- your sisters must have told you that we stayed with the Bedfords back at Thistledown -- and you want me to get him to join Liene's petition. Two petitions at the same time for the same cause by two different parties would be more effective than one -- after all, if either of our two groups approached the count alone and he decided against aiding that group, he'd find himself in an awkward situation when the second group showed up later and he wanted to go back on his word, but bring both groups at once and he'd likely decide in our favor to begin with." He looked up at Amplisa, and her smile was confirmation enough. "We'll be at the count's court at that time. Speaking of which, where is Liene now?"

"Hiring the mercenaries I spoke of earlier," she said beaming. "You'll find her group at the northern square." -- "Very well then, I shall be sure to go visit them today," Art replied.

Amplisa turned to Roland. "And I wanted to thank you, for helping Ryann. It couldn't have been easy." -- "Oh, think nothing of it," Roland waved from where he lay on the bed, a smile on his face. "Really." -- "Nonetheless, I wanted to thank you. When Blaise and Art first brought her back to us she wasn't speaking at all. At least you've returned that spark back to her, and for that I am eternally grateful.

"The way you used - channeled vigor, was it? I've only seen it used once or twice but if I recall, that's a way of the Church of Light School." -- "It is," said Roland, sounding defensive about it, and when he neglected to volunteer anything further, Amplisa asked, -- "Then you are a member of the Order of the Temple's Light? A templar?" -- Roland kept quiet, staring at the ceiling. -- Amplisa continued, "I guess we have to be thankful for their teaching you their way then. By your good deed today you've proven the righteousness of the church."

"Righteousness? Don't make me laugh. The church is damn stuck up in its ways. Yes, sister, it shames me to say that I used to be of the order. But I am no longer. What I do, I do because I want to. I don't use my ways on behalf of their cause. So if you would be thankful of what I have done today, I would prefer you not ascribe my deeds to the church. We don't quite see eye to eye. More like they don't see, period."

"I… see," replied Amplisa, looking uncertain. "Actually I should be honest with you, I don't see." She nudged her head, indicating the mace attached to his belt. "You carry an implement with their descry, yet you say you're not with the church? Surely you could have gone and bought a different weapon, one without that insignia, if you no longer wanted to represent them. Was this recent, and you didn't have a chance to do so? You're certainly not doing a very good job keeping quiet about your disagreements."

"It's the church that has erred in its ways, not what it supposedly stands for or the descry that represents that ideal," he replied. "I'm speaking of the Ten Tenets, of course. I hold this mace because I still hold to those ideals." He smirked. "After all, we can't have the wayward church deciding what is the true path of our religion."

Amplisa asked, "What caused the divide between you and the church? Surely you still mostly hold to its ideals, or I'd imagine it would be hard to stay a believer."

Roland smirked. "You'd be surprised how tenaciously people can cling to their faiths even if those faiths teach things that go contrary to what they believe to be true. Did you know, the cat-peoples out east subscribe to the teachings of the infidels? Whose religion, which in many ways is similar to ours, also emphasizes the superiority of humans to all the other races. Cat-people, believing humans are superior to their own kind, what idiocy… As for the actual difference in beliefs… Plenty, come to think of it." He pointed at Ryann. "Fourth Tenet: To help those in need. Ryann needed help, so I provided it."

Art took a moment to memorize that. How would he like it when Art threw it in his face to try to get him to come to the aid of the sisterhood? For that matter… "Just curious, what are the rest of the Ten Tenets? To be clear, the ones that you hold, not the church's."

"They're the same ten, mine and the church's. It's just that they're not holding to them. Oh, some of them they stick with, like the First Tenet: To believe in God. Maybe a little too zealous, in fact, what with them inquisitioning purported nonbelievers wherever they think they can get away with it, and them going on Holy Quests. All that bloodshed, and for what?"

"The last Holy Quest was thirty years ago," Art pointed out. -- "Well they're preparing for another one. Have been for some years now, and still are. I would know, I keep in contact with some of my brothers of the faith in the church." -- "Good grief. How large is this one going to be?" -- "Who knows? Last one saw fifty thousand march, fifteen thousand of whom died, and perhaps as many of the purported infidels out in Aranoch. You know about it, don't you?" he asked, turning to Amplisa. "The sisterhood stood complicit. They marched right through the monastery's pass on their way there."

"You can hardly fault us for that," Amplisa retorted. "It was stand aside or be denounced as infidels, excommunicated, besieged, and wiped from the face of the earth. And for a religious matter which didn't even involve us, they just wanted right of passage. And even if you could, I wasn't the one making the decision at the time. I was what? Only a toddler? Back then."

"The road to hell is paved with excuses. On the day of reckoning, I wonder if God would be so interested in hearing you out. Or Tyrael, for that matter. Oh that's right, your sisterhood doesn't even really believe, do they? Like so many others, the sisters merely pay lip service to our God. Guess they don't believe either way, do they?" he finished, looking quite riled up.

"We do believe in God," said Amplisa. "But understand the monastery's position, and situation. The sisterhood doesn't command much in the way of taxes, since most of the surrounding highlands are almost completely non-arable. If we went and publicly denounced the Aranochians as infidels, how long would it take before the sultan of Lut Gholein declares use of our pass forbidden? How quickly would trade dry up then? How quickly would the sisterhood fall, and be replaced by some other group that, seeing how suicidal it would be to take a religious stance, would proclaim no official stance, as we have been doing? And then we would have come full circle, having accomplished nothing to show for the sacrifice. What would you have us do, Roland?"

Roland fell silent for a few seconds, then muttered, "Guess I hadn't thought of it that way."

"Is that why you didn't want to help the sisterhood?" Art asked.

"Ah yes, thank you for reminding me, Art. Roland, I think I speak on behalf of the majority of the sisters when I say it would be a pleasure to have you standing with us. Even if nothing else, your way of channeled vigor could easily save lives over the next few weeks. I know we have very little that we can give you at the moment, but rest assured, your assistance will be greatly appreciated. Once we get the monastery back--"

"It's going to always be 'once we get the monastery back' now, isn't it?" Roland interrupted. "I'm sorry, but you can't be confident that's even possible. We've all heard about the beast. So long as it's there, you can't really even attempt to reclaim it, can you? All it has to do is stay there, and you'll be stuck indefinitely. Now I'm asking this because you seemed to open up to Art earlier and provide some actual good information, but: I want you to be honest with us. Is this a fight you can even win?"

"Of course we will. Why, I wage Bow-mother Kashya is making the arrangements to storm the monastery even as we speak, and it's only a matter of time before we retake the position," she retorted with confidence.

"Really now? Is that why the sisterhood has dispatched two dozen sisters out west, when the monastery lies to the east?"

"Warriv had requested that we escorted the caravaners to Tristram. Surely you understand we have a responsibility to do as much? And besides, we still need to gather much needed supplies before we return east. War can't be fought on an empty stomach, Roland."

"Course I know that. But you're not fooling me in the slightest, Amplisa. You must be aware that with each passing day the sisterhood's position grows weaker, and the redskins gain that much more time to consolidate their hold over the monastery. The proper course, then, would have been to regroup at the nearest hamlet and immediately launch a counterattack to retake it. But you aren't confident that you can win, are you? I heard the descriptions of what the beast is like, and it doesn't seem like your bows stand much of a chance in getting past its carapace. Do correct me if I misread your sisterhood on this, but I can't help but notice when during your conversation with Art earlier, you seemed to dance around the fact that the sisterhood still has to deal with the beast that's holed up there. You don't even want to talk about it, do you? You don't want your fellow sisters here to realize that all you can do right now is bide your time and hope the beast just ups and leaves."

Amplisa looked downcast and offered no response. Blaise, Ryann, and the other sisters turned to Amplisa with a look of concern.

"Didn't think so," Roland continued. "I think it's high time you told us the all of it, Amplisa. Art here made a strategic victory on the sisterhood's behalf, and I've helped restore some vigor back to Ryann. I think you owe us at least that much. Out with it: What kind of troop forces are we working with? What kind of enemy forces are we dealing with? What have you encountered, or expect we will encounter, that you haven't told us about yet?" He looked at the other sisters in the room as well. "And don't think you're above this. Chances are she, Liene, Kashya and others haven't been straightforward with you either." They looked at Roland, uncertain. He turned back to Amplisa. "And by the looks of it, you've been keeping your fellow sisters in the dark too, haven't you?"

Art shook his head at Roland with urgency, hoping to get him to stop, but doing it without making any sound so the sisters wouldn't notice his attempt. But Roland didn't seem to notice, or if he did, ignored him entirely.

"You know it's critical that we keep such information secret," Amplisa retorted.

"Why? Because the truth is far worse than you've been making it out to be? Because you've been understating the number of sisters who'd failed to make it safely to Thistledown, you've been understating reported sightings of enemy troop movements, you've been overstating the resources at your disposal, or all three? Or worse?"

"What? I--" -- "Don't deny it," Roland warned. "Besides, now that the cat's out of the bag I think it's better you told us everything. Or do you want your sisters to wonder just what you're still keeping a secret from them? Make them doubt if you'll just throw their lives away on a lost cause?"

Amplisa looked caught, between Roland's glare and the concerned looks on the faces of her younger sisters. "Alright, you got us. But what can we do? Would you rather the sisterhood's leadership roll over and admit defeat? Because that's how you'll get routs and deserters on your hands, and if we had that then the sisterhood could very well collapse."

"What haven't you been telling us?" asked Blaise, clutching Amplisa's gambeson by the hem. When Amplisa looked away, She shook her. "Please, sister! Answer me!"

Amplisa sighed. "Guess it can't be helped. It is as you said, Roland, we are caught in a bad situation, and we are outnumbered. But it isn't as bad as you make it out to be. The redskins, it's only the twelve villages of the nearest tribe that is a threat to us, and even they had suffered catastrophic losses in their recent battles against the other redskin tribes further north, which is why they are forced to send their runts and their elders to fight us. So long as the case, one of our archers is worth ten of theirs."

"Wait," said Art in disbelief. "I thought you were just calling the midgets that but you're actually implying they're redskin children? You mean to tell me we've been fighting children all this time?"

The sisters all stared at him with mouths agape. -- "Wait… really? Are you daft, Art?" Roland shot back. "What the hell did you think they were, dwarves? Of course they're their young."

Oh my god, thought Art, as memories came, of him slaughtering his way through scores of the midgets that night at the monastery. How he'd pursued them back to the atrium gates even as they fled in panic, even as they screamed in what must have been cries of mercy. So small, so unskilled, so undisciplined, so under-protected. To them he must have been a demon in his own right, butchering his way through them without compunction. So many lives he'd ended that day, and to think that they'd been but child warriors, forced to fight out of desperation… He stared at his remaining hand and imagined the horrified red visages of the midgets that he'd slain, their red blood staining his hands. "What have I done?" he whispered to himself.

Then he remembered how they'd swung their scimitars at him as they came, forcing him to defend himself. The three adepts, who fought on almost equal terms with him when he'd still been whole and who could certainly slaughter him now. That wasn't the behavior of innocent children. He remembered how the midget warriors had carved a screaming caravaner into slabs of meat and jeered and cheered over his death. When their elders carved patterns into the captive sister's flesh, where were the children pleading for them to be spared? When dozens of captives were chained in the cells, where were the children spiriting them away into the safety of the night?

No, he thought to himself; he wouldn't spare them any mercy simply for their youth. Not with all the blood they'd spilled. They would slaughter humans just as easily as any redskin adult, if given the opportunity, and he had people in Thistledown that he wanted to protect. He'd be damned if they died because he had felt a morsel of pity for his enemies.

He brought himself out of his thoughts to hear the others still discussing the situation. "And their numbers?" Roland was asking.

"Numbers aren't everything," Amplisa retorted. "They lack the armor to fight us on even footing. Their young lack the training, and their old lack the strength, to truly fight us. And they can't spare sending what's left of their forces against us for much longer, they need people to provide supplies for their warriors."

"The numbers," Roland insisted. "What are the numbers?"

"Probably no more than we've encountered already. A hundred, two hundred. They can't possibly field much more. Like I said, they're on their last legs already, what with them sending their child warriors against us."

"Amplisa, do I have to wring every last drop of the truth out of you?" He turned to the other sisters. "Let me read between the lines for you. They're already sending their children to fight us. That shows they're desperate, but more than that, it shows they're determined. Despite how poor their situation, they aren't about to surrender. Maybe they can't -- maybe the tribe they've been fighting against, which it seems had annihilated their adult forces, had been slaughtering everyone in the villages they've captured."

"That can't be right," said Blaise. "If they've been devastated by their war against another tribe, then why are they fighting us? And they have the beast on their side, why don't they just have the beast defend their village?"

"The beast can't well defend all twelve villages at the same time, can it? It's only in one location at a time. And given the power of that beast, I don't think it answers to any redskin. I wouldn't, if I had that kind of power. It's probably the other way around -- the redskins are getting dragged into a two front war by the beast, if it's as intelligent as I think, or they're using it to attack the monastery. And the redskins are taking to the monastery because they think taking that place will break the back of the sisterhood -- even if it means more pain in the short term. Not to mention all the loot they've claimed for themselves. What happened at the markets this morning -- They could probably be looking to sell all their misbegotten silver for a leg up in their war. What that means, is that they're committed. They are literally fighting for their lives right now, all of them. They won't back down, and if it comes down to it, they'll send more child warriors at us."

He took the map off the table and set it on the floor so everyone could see as he indicated. "These twelve villages probably have a hundred or so redskins apiece, if they're anything like our villages, which they probably are. We're looking at fifty of their elders, perhaps, and we've encountered maybe a hundred or so of their younglings, but there's probably another hundred of their younglings in reserve, plus five hundred of their females that they could send into the fray if things got that desperate for them."

He looked up at the sisters. "And you have what, a hundred sisters left?" -- Ryann winced. -- "Oh we have far more than that," Amplisa remarked. "Don't underestimate our order." -- "Maybe. But how many of them actually know how to fight? Probably not even half, am I right?"

If their expressions were anything to go by, the sisters had grown more and more concerned and desperate with each passing minute.

"And let me guess, that's not the only problem the sisterhood has. Losing the monastery means you don't have much to work with now either. Since they attacked in the dead of night and took you by surprise, the only things you have are what you managed to retrieve at the time. Which probably didn't include the sisterhood's treasury. So tell me, how much money did you bring with you to Tristram, in order to buy all the arrows, javelins, and other supplies you'll need? What do we have to work with?"

"It is true we don't have much silver. Hence, why Liene will be meeting with the count this afternoon."

"You're avoiding the question."

Amplisa threw her hands up in surrender. "Oh all right. We have fourteen sing three." One thousand, three hundred and eighty pennies.

Everyone gaped. My god, thought Art, was the sisterhood really attempting to fight a war with just that?

"That's… not even a quarter of a talent," said Roland. "Not even a half a quarter quarter of one."

"Please tell me that's not true," asked Blaise, looking at Amplisa with a desperate look on her face. "Please tell me that's not true…" -- "How are we supposed to keep fighting? How can we possibly win?" asked another sister. -- Ryann buried her face in her hands and sobbed.

Art did some quick mental calculation. Assuming the sisterhood had two hundred sisters to support, even on peasant's food, which was by no means sustainable for a warrior's build but would be all they could afford, that was still over a singleton[denarii] a day. Maybe half the sisters could find some work to do to earn their keep, and reduce the cost to the sisterhood to four seg two a day, but that was the bare minimum and the actual cost was going to be more like a singleton a day. They'd exhaust their reserves in just two weeks. Maybe the sisterhood had more silver back in Thistledown, but with them sending as many as two dozen sisters here, enough to keep it safe, and bringing only that little silver with them? They probably had very little left. Once those two weeks were up, they'd be forced to disband.

"It's true," said Amplisa, resigned. "But you're forgetting about the count."

"So you're telling me that your vaunted sisterhood's future is essentially in the hands of Count Traben, is that what you're saying? What, are you going to have her beg for money? Is there some connection between the two of them that I'm not aware of? Heavens, could Liene be his secret lover?"

"What! How could you insinuate such a despicable thing?"

"Heh, if that were actually the case it would go a long way toward solving our problems. Why else would Count Traben even consider giving you men or money to fight your war for you?"

"Because he stands to lose all traffic through the pass if he doesn't and the monastery remains in the hands of the redskins. All the merchant traffic will route through the Tamoe pass, two hundred miles to the south, and then Tristram's economy will collapse."

Roland mused on this point. "Hmm, I guess you do have as much going for you, but I still can't imagine it will come with no strings attached. For him to have stayed in power as long as he has, he can't be some bleeding-heart philanthropist. Well? What if he puts in terms that you can't quite swallow? Say, that he insists his men also take part in the monastery's forces thereafter, or that they tax the sisterhood's earnings? What I'm saying is, if it came down to it and all the sisterhood has to rely on was the resources it already has, how much silver do you have to spend on the bare necessities?"

"That's enough, Roland," she glared at him.

"Why? I expected that you, as a sergeant under Kashya, would face the situation for what it is. I wasn't expecting you to resort to telling me to shut up."

Amplisa sighed. "Yes, our situation is quite dire, as you've clearly managed to get out of me. I don't suppose you're saying all this out of a desire for us to do some soul-searching. You have some kind of solution, I take it?"

"No," said Roland. "I just wanted you to go into this war with both eyes open."

"Actually, there is something you could do," said Art, causing the other sisters to perk up. "You are former templar. Speak with the bishop here. Ask them for assistance on behalf of the sisterhood. That way just in case Liene's meeting with Traben goes south, we'll still have some recourse."

"Humph. As if a bishop would like to meet with someone who's been excommunicated."

"But he doesn't know that, does he? I recall you mentioned you'd been excommunicated farther out west… or was it south? But certainly not in Tristram. And I doubt they go around visiting all the churches and cathedrals across Khanduras with logs of who's been kicked out and what not. You know enough of the templars' ways to pass yourself off as someone who's still in the order, someone who speaks to them as if a brother. You have a mace with the templars' descry on it. Show it to them, and I doubt they'll turn you aside."

Roland seemed taken aback by the request, but didn't have a retort right away.

"Please Roland," asked Amplisa. "You've seen now how humbled our sisterhood has become. And since we've been keeping to our own Sightless Eye School and not the Church of Light School, the bishop may take quite averse to any of us trying to get them to do anything. You're our best hope. If there's any chance you'd be able to convince him on the matter, won't you do so?"

"Besides," said Art, "You're the one who was making a point about how the sisterhood needed whatever help it can get."

Roland looked between the sisters and Art, seeing himself outnumbered on the matter but still looking unconvinced.

Amplisa knelt before him. "Please, Roland. I'm begging you."

Looking aghast, Blaise and several other sisters rushed to Amplisa. She took a hold of Amplisa's shoulder, looking distraught. "Sister Amplisa, we can't have you kneeling before a man! You can't!"

Amplisa made no move to stand up, but shot them a look. Blaise looked mortified. "Please Roland, I can't bear to see our sister Amplisa on her knees like this, this is sacrilege to us! If my doing so would convince you…" Blaise fell on her knees right beside her, tears forming in her eyes. -- The other sisters knelt down beside them, saying "We're begging you" as they did so. Ryann made to move as well, but Blaise gestured for her to stay put. -- "And Ryann would as well."

Roland shot Art a look of pure loathing, as if to say, you got me into this mess.

Art knelt down before Roland as well, right beside Amplisa. Now let's see him refuse, he thought, holding back a chuckle.

Roland's mouth hung open for a moment. "Oh all right, I'll ask to speak to the bishop. But no promises. Like you said, your order claims to be believers but with so little fervor you might as well be agnostics, so I doubt he'll display much zeal in the matter. And even if he agreed, the bishop will most certainly not be providing us with much in the way of silver. Unlike with the count, who keeps his own treasury, the monies tithed to the church are the property of the church itself, and the bishop would have no authority to handle extraordinary expenses of this kind, not without the approval of the Archbishop of Khanduras. All we can hope to get from the bishop any time soon would be the aid of the local templar branch. But I'll ask anyway."

Amplisa looked relieved. "That's all we can ask of you," she said, before kowtowing to him. Blaise, Art, and the other sisters did likewise.

"I shall go make the arrangements," said Roland with a bow before leaving. -- "I have someone I need to meet," said Art, leaving right after.

He caught up to Roland as they exited the inn into the busy afternoon street. "Roland, can you walk with me for a moment," Art asked, and Roland did. "I have to ask you -- why did you have to corner Amplisa like that? Now look what you've done."

"I got her to speak the truth."

"You forced her to reveal the dismal truth. Something the order can ill afford to acknowledge. Was it really necessary to hurt and shame them so?"

"Do not mistake my intentions, Art. I did so because it was right. I may be no templar, but I am a warrior of the light no less, and mine is the light that shall reveal all lies and deceptions."

"But you knew the truth already, didn't you? From what I gathered during your conversation with them, you knew that well before you started asking such probing questions."

"It wasn't just for me, Art. God knows her sisters had suffered enough in ignorance. They deserved no less," Roland retorted through gritted teeth.

"What they deserved was a fair chance at winning this war, which you've denied them. Don't you see? The sisterhood is standing on its last legs. They can't afford any further morale loss, or they will really start to come apart at the seams, bonds of sistership or no. A person can only take so much bad news before they abandon a cause, Roland; who knows how many sisters will fall into despair because of the revelations you've brought? Who knows, you could have done more harm to their cause than any redskin could hope to accomplish."

"You think I don't know that? But to keep such matters secret, that would be an even greater sin. Seventh Tenet: Speak the truth, for the truth shall set you free."

"Stop living by your ideals, Roland! Haven't you heard, 'knowing the truth changes it'? A heedless pursuit of the truth will only succeed in hurting those whom you care for."

"To the contrary, Art. I care for the Ten Tenets and the universal ideals which they stand for. I couldn't care less what happens to the sisterhood. If they all die, I wouldn't bat an eye. But we can't say the same about you, now can we? You are only trying to defend the sisterhood's secrecy because you want them to win, and you are willing to compromise on your ideals in order to come out ahead. But I won't."

"And you think your ideals are more worthy than the goals you seek to accomplish? Don't fool yourself, Roland. If you were to truly follow your ideals you'd be a beggar on the streets right now."

"Better a beggar than a knave," Roland said with an air of finality before striding away.

"Where do you think you're going?" Art called out after him. "Off to speak to the bishop, are you? Will you be speaking to him as a templar, or as a hypocrite?"

That got Roland to stop in his tracks. "The two situations are not alike. One is a question of doing more good or speaking the truth--" -- "And the other is a question of doing more good or speaking the truth. I don't see the difference." -- Roland glared at him. "You would rather me not talk to the bishop, then?" -- "I would rather you pursue the right goals, no matter the means." -- "You would make a fine zealot," said Roland, before walking off.

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