“You could do something about this.” Cadwalader’s eyes flashed as they shot to Malach.
The boy’s dissentient nature had surfaced over the last few months, a trait Malach noticed was common among seven year olds. They stood together at the far edge of a wheat field bordering a village of rock huts and swarming with agitated people.
“You know I cannot reveal my true identity.”
Malach remained still, which allowed him to hide in plain sight. Any who glanced in his direction perceived the illusion of a boulder or sheared tree trunk. But the villagers before him weren’t curious about a lad lingering beside a landmark that didn’t exist earlier. And the Roman soldiers were only interested in their booty.
Earlier today he’d brought Cadwalader here to investigate what other trades the boy might decide to learn beyond the art of war. The village, although poor, abounded with talented craftsmen. But shortly after their arrival, where they were viewed as an old man and grandson travelling together, he learned why they were impoverished.
Today was tribute day, when the local centurion arrived with troops to pillage their goods in exchange for protection … more so from the soldiers themselves than roving bandits. Not content enough with larder and weapons and tools, the commander also claimed a young woman, barely more than a girl, to haul away with them.
“You said evil wins when good does nothing.” Cadwalader thrust a hand toward the debacle. “It is winning now.”
The boy had already grumbled about the pilfering of materials. But the sight of the lass, weeping and pleading, being dragged away from parents who were beaten back by sword-wielding soldiers, made his protestations more insistent.
“I never claimed to be good.”
“Nor are you evil.” The boy’s gaze locked on his face even though it was partially concealed by the shadow of the hood over Malach’s head. “At least I didn’t think so.”
The lad knew him better than any other mere human on this earth, and yet still knew so little.
“If I engage those troops, my identity will be exposed. That will place both of us in grave danger.”
“Are you a coward?”
That question was a challenge, but Malach was too many centuries old to be ruffled by it, even though he had spent only the last couple of decades trying to lead a different life.
“Unless you can provide an alternative, we must allow these events to unfold.”
Cadwalader stared at him for a few seconds. Then he turned on his heel and darted into the wheat field.
Well … Malach didn’t expect that. Adults usually proved to be predictable, fitting within dozens of personality traits that could be exploited. But children with psyches still developing could sometimes be confounding … at least, this one did.
Before he took on the responsibility of rearing the lad over four years ago, decisions had been easy. But then events unfolded that sent him into unfamiliar territory, literally and figuratively. Cadwalader added another layer of complications. The boy’s flight was to something, not away from it, and Malach might have to intervene … if he chose to do so.
The child understood he was too small to take on a troop of soldiers, but just what did he believe he was capable of accomplishing? Malach had taught him to be self-sufficient – sometimes inadvertently – but the boy’s judgment was still questionable.
More than the parents tried to step in for the girl, some even peacefully, but all were struck and kicked and berated. She was slapped around for resisting the centurion binding her wrists together with the end of a rope.
Movement around the Romans’ steeds drew his gaze from the center of attention. There was no mistaking Cadwalader’s lithe form as he ducked from horse to horse, hesitating at each just long enough to slip something beneath the blankets, directly below the saddles.
Ah … the lad might actually be up to something clever.
He’d started at the rear of the ranks, where a soldier standing guard beside the commander’s charger didn’t notice him. But the boy drew closer to the horses up front as the commotion began to settle. He was in the midst of pushing something beneath the blanket when the guard glanced back in his direction – and sprang toward him.
“Hold it!” The invader barked in Latin, probably figuring his tone could be understood in any language.
He might as well have hollered Run for it in Cymraeg. Cadwalader darted away like a hare flushed from its briar, the guard lunging after him with the enthusiasm of any baying hound. A couple of the mounts spooked as the boy dashed beneath their bellies to evade him, but the Roman cut him off before he reached the adjoining edge of the wheat field.
He grabbed Cadwalader’s wrist and jerked the boy to one side. Malach twitched as the lad bit back a bleat of pain.
The Roman smacked the child’s right cheek with the back of his hand.
Malach’s hand slid to the grip of the sword concealed beneath his cloak.
Cadwalader crooked his arm to the side and twisted it free, an escape maneuver Malach taught soon after he took in the child. The Roman managed to cuff him as he darted for the wheat again, but this time allowed his escape because the centurion ordered it. They were ready to leave.
The guard returned to the horse where he’d spotted the boy, and investigated the fittings of the saddle as his comrades returned with their booty. He must not have seen where Cadwalader’s hand had actually been, and returned to his own mount at the front.
During that time the commander fastened the other end of the rope to one of the front pommels on the saddle. The girl, still weeping, pulled against it. Her parents, and other youngsters who must be siblings, held out their hands and wailed back to her. The centurion yanked on the rope, throwing her off balance, and then barked to the soldiers to mount.
Although nothing more than bandits in metal and leather, this troop of Roman soldiers swung up on their steeds in unison. After all, it would show off how superior they were.
The chargers’ reactions were not so synchronous, but each horse’s revolt erupted like bubbles breaking the water’s surface as it began to boil. The more seasoned mounts crab-stepped and reared, but the greener horses bucked and more than a few squealed. In a matter of seconds most of the troop was in disarray, and soldiers either dismounted or were thrown as the centurion hollered at them.
In those few seconds, Cadwalader darted from the wheat and through flailing hooves. With the centurion distracted by the fiasco, the boy pulled a knife from his belt and slashed the rope near the girl’s hands. He grabbed one of her arms and they scrambled back into the wheat.
The corners of Malach’s mouth twitched. The lad was proving to be quite resourceful even if he was still foolhardy. Humanity had been promised that thistles would grow among their crops….
He removed his hand from the sword and shifted in his stance.
That was enough movement to break the illusion, and the centurion must have glanced toward his direction at that instant.
“You there!” he barked in Latin, and spurred his horse toward Malach.
In no mood to be either trampled or beheaded, Malach released a long exhale as he drew his sword. Despite his appearance as an old man to these people, they would still believe he maintained proficiency with a blade. He wouldn’t have to cut down the commander—
The Roman turned his steed to the side mere paces from Malach. As it halted, his gaze locked on Malach’s face, or at least what he’d be able to see of it….
There was no mistaking the recognition that rippled through the man’s expression.
A chill coursed through Malach. How? There could be only one way the Roman would know what he was.
Hoping he was wrong, Malach pushed his consciousness into the mind of the commander. He entered easily, and that fact confirmed his suspicion.
Only those who consorted with beings like him, who in their lust for power allowed such creatures to break into their innermost faculties, were forever consigned to have their thoughts invaded by pure will.
And in those few seconds of access to the centurion’s mind, Malach learned the name of the other being this Roman was in league with.
The name meant nothing to him. Like him, this other he had been aware of was also wandering these lands, and could also be going by a more native moniker. Unlike him, this one was sticking to their original purpose. This one wandered among humanity and encouraged them to destroy each other … until there would be nothing left of the race.
Thus far Malach had maintained his secrecy, and this other knew nothing of his presence. But this commander would most likely tell that being how another like him roved in these mountains.
There was no immediate danger … but if this other realized that Malach had strayed from the original purpose – the proof lay in the fact he had taken on the care of an orphan – then he might decide Malach … and Cadwalader … needed to be destroyed.
So much for keeping his true identity concealed.
The centurion grumbled something that Malach didn’t catch, and urged his steed to gallop back to the soldiers. Killing the Roman wouldn’t solve his dilemma. He’d have to slaughter all the troops … and the villagers … to keep rumor from spreading about a pwca, as the local tribes would call him, who travelled with a boy.
The thorny thistles discovered beneath the blankets were promptly discarded, although the soldiers seemed disappointed their commander ordered them to ride out instead of wreaking further havoc on the village. The Roman knew they stood little chance against Malach….
No sooner were the troops gone from sight than the girl, her hands unbound, sprinted from the wheat and to her family. With shouts of praise to their gods, they embraced her tightly and kissed her about the head.
And then Cadwalader stepped out from where he’d ducked into the field originally.
“Reckless idea.” Malach turned to face him, and the red mark on the boy’s right cheek annoyed him more than he would have anticipated. “But also effective.”
“She is back with her family. That is what matters.” Count on an orphan to make such an observation. “I was surprised they did not come looking for us, however.”
There was no need to tell the lad about his discovery, at least not yet.
“They decided she was not worth the effort.”
“We should help them learn to fight. We should help them end this tribute.”
Such lofty aspirations for a boy so young … what awaited him when he would actually be capable of trying to attain such goals?
Malach placed a hand on Cadwalader’s shoulder. “First, you need to learn a craft.”
So that was this month’s contribution to #BlogBattle, and this time the prompt word was Tribute. Be sure you don’t miss out on the other stories that get submitted!
9 thoughts on “Battle of Wills”
Very nicely done–lots of tension and you kept it ratcheted up the whole time. And I loved Cadwalader’s solution–clever, and just barely possible for a boy to accomplish. And I didn’t have a single line-edit quibble. Go you! : )
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Thank you! This one did prove to be one of the trickier stories to put together.
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Yeah, there were some tricky plot maneuvers you had to work your way through. But you pulled it off with aplomb–like a duck, paddling furiously underneath, but everything looks smooth on top. : )
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[…] “Battle of Wills” by A. E. Branson […]
I was so pleased to see you continue the story from last month. These two make a great due.
“He might as well have hollered Run for it in Cymraeg.” I found that funny, which made me picture the scene in more detail. Isn’t it amazing how certain things can be communicated to people who normally wouldn’t understand us?
The move of Malach to touch the sword when he thought the boy might be in danger, and then to take his hand off the sword showed the amazing parenting/mentoring job Malach was doing. We want to protect the weaker ones, but sometimes we just have to let them conquer the world on their own.
This is funny, yet dark and would make for a great TV series. You should contact Netflix.
(P.S. “But children with psyches still developing could sometimes be confounding … at least, this one did.” Should the last word be changed to something else to fit correctly, like ‘was?’)
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Thank you … although Netflix and I might have creative disagreements. 🙂 The children developing psyches sentence is one I reworked more than once, and you have a good suggestion. I might think about it some more and come back later to tweak it again.
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I’m really glad we got to see this pair again! I really do like the odd couple of a young boy and ancient — beast? demon? Quite dark, especially with the implied intentions of the Roman soliders. I really enjoyed the morality conversation, and Cadwalader’s clear goodness — perhaps naive, but it shines through wonderfully. I also thought the action was top-notch (as yours always is) — quick, to the point, and detailed enough so that I understand where all the key players are perfectly.
I really hope we get to see more of these two, as I’ve fallen in love with these characters already — only after two BB entries!
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Thank you! And I have a feeling these two will turn up every now and then. 🙂