Benedict watched the woman stand. She was beautiful - blonde hair, high rosy cheeks, good body. Very beautiful indeed. But there was something about her that made him uneasy. Frightened him even. Perhaps it was her eyes. They were almost silver. Inhuman.
He exchanged a quick glance with Lucijan Markelj. The chief of security looked equally frightened.
The woman spoke in a high clear voice. She held up a sheet of paper. “What are these names?” she asked Damen.
“Those are people who are being executed,” the High Priest said.
“What are their crimes?”
Damen barely glanced at the paper. “Heretics. Blasphemers. People who have resisted and spat in the face of the Scarlet Church.”
“There are forty of them,” she said, as if this surprised her. “That is a lot people.”
“We do it to teach them a lesson. Do you want us to stop the executions?”
C’thla shook her head. Benedict felt another chill go up his spine. There was a glint in her eyes he didn’t like. “No by all means keep them going. Do people watch these executions?”
“But not all?”
“Some people hide inside or at work. As long as enough people see what’s happening and get the message I don’t really care about a few stragglers.”
“Well I do,” said C’thla. “These people go against the Scarlet Church and in turn myself. They will bend the knee and swear fealty to us one way or another.” She looked to Lucijan Markelj. “You are in charge of Fruimont’s security, yes?”
“I am.” Benedict was impressed the man was able to keep his voice steady. He even looked C’thla in the eye.
“Good. Everyone is to watch these executions. I don’t care if they are in their homes or at work. They are to bear witness to those who disrespect the Scarlet Church and its High Priest. You are to take every Red Wraith, every man on security detail and comb through the streets. Kick down every door, I don’t care what you have to do. Pull out every man, woman, and child at first light tomorrow.”
“I will have it done,” said Lucijan.
C’thla beamed, looking very pleased.
Later that night, two hours before curfew, Benedict and Sheathia took a cab to the poor district of Fruimont. They got out in the middle of Shrieden Avenue and took a back alley to an abandoned warehouse had been shut down for some time. Benedict had to pick the lock to get inside.
“You’re sure this is where Lucijan said to meet him?” Sheathia asked. Even though there was no one around but Benedict who could have heard her, she kept her voice down to a whisper. She hugged her coat around her as if it could ward off evil.
“I’m sure,” he said, handing his wife a flashlight.
Walking down a hallway, they came to a door with a shattered window at the top. Benedict had to shove at the door several times to get it open. The hinges squealed like a tortured animal, setting off his nerves. Despite the fact Lucijan had ensured him earlier that security would not be near this sector of the district, Benedict was frightened. He would have felt better if Sheathia had stayed at the apartment where it was safer but she had insisted on coming along.
There was broken glass on the floor. Judging from the clear, dust-free look of it, the window appeared to have been shattered recently. Taking Sheathia’s clammy hand they walked around it. It was pointless really. Anyone who was already here would have heard them come in. I’m too old to be getting this scared, Benedict thought.
The inside of the warehouse smelled of mold and mice feces. In the center of the warehouse he could see a cluster of people grouped together; their faces were lit in the ghostly glow of oil lamps.
When Benedict, Lucijan, and Sheathia had convened to form a resistance he knew there would be people - just not this many.There were at least fifty people here: men, women, and children Nicholas’s age. He felt a lump form in his throat. All of these people have come here to fight - and possibly to die. And I'll be the one leading them. By the Light how did Loras do this. I wish she was here to give me her advice, her courage.
But she's not here. I have to do this on my own. At least Nicholas, Elise, and Tilde are safe, and Sheathia is with me.
Several faces turned to face him and his wife as he guided her to the center of the room. They looked like somber ghosts, their faces hollowed out with a mixture of shadow and light. Their silence was eerie. Lucijan stood at a table with another man; both were hunched over a table, talking. Next to the table there were several crates stacked neatly on top of each other. Lucijan looked up at Benedict. The man didn’t look good: There were dark circles around his eyes from lack of sleep and his face was pale.
“Ah, Benedict,” he said, “good to see you. I was worried you wouldn’t make it.” He nodded at Sheathia. “Ma’am. This here is Rufus Lemvolt...” He gestured to the man standing next to him. The man was tall and broad-shouldered with close-cropped blonde hair. He nodded at Benedict but did not offer a greeting. He looked like a hard man, the kind of person who would shoot first and ask questions later. Maybe that’s a good thing, Benedict thought.
“Rufus Lemvolt has been working with me for years. I wouldn’t have approached him about what we’re planning to do if I didn’t trust him or think he had anything to offer. He has experience in combat and tactics.”
“If you trust him I trust him,” said Benedict. He glanced at the circle of people that had crowded around the table. “How long has everyone been here?”
“Not long. We’ve just been waiting for you to show up,” said Lucijan. “Rufus has been sharing information about what’s supposed to be happening tomorrow which he learned while working with the Red Wraiths.”
Benedict nodded his approval. “Good, we can share it with everyone here. Gather around people, and listen closely.”
Everyone closed around the table as best they could. Benedict looked over the map. His shoulder touched Sheathia’s shoulder. “So what do we know so far?”
“I’ll let Rufus here do the explaining,” said Lucijan.
Rufus cleared his throat, his hands clasped behind his back in a posture that was military. He spoke in a clear voice, his face emotionless. “From what we know - and do note this could change at any point - everyone will be gathered in the square.” He pointed at the spot on the map marked square. “Damen Orlys will be on the stage, as will the new woman he brought with him. I’m not sure what her name is.”
“She called herself C’thla at the meeting.”
“C’thla. They will be sitting at the center of the stage - front row seats to the show if you will.” There was no emotion in Rufus’s voice, not even a hint of disgust. Benedict wondered what the man’s motivation was for being here. Why was he betraying his superiors? Technically I am his superior, he reminded himself.
“Benedict, Lucijan, and your wife here -”
“Sheathia, forgive me - will be seated on the stage as well. There will be guards. Lots of them. They will be armed.”
“Any idea how many?” Sheathia asked.
“All of them,” Rufus said. “Enough to outnumber all of us. Really it’s futile, us trying to resist.”
“So then why are you resisting?” Benedict asked, his voice hard. He glared at the man.
“Because something has to be done,” said Rufus.
For the first time since Benedict and Sheathia had entered the room there were murmurs of agreement from the other people.
“These people have taken control of our city,” Rufus said once silence had fallen once more. “The number of possessions are rising with each day.”
“And you’ve waited until now to stand up and do something?” Benedict demanded.
“Yes. But so have you.”
Benedict could say nothing to this. Rufus had made a valid point - and the truth hurt like a punch to the gut. For a month Benedict had done nothing but keep his head low for the sake of his wife and children while others lost their loved ones. So many people had died. Who are you to demand explanations? You are just as much the culprit. You’ve had your own part to play in all this, he told himself.
“So what are we actually going to do?” a man towards the front of the group demanded gruffly, his voice starting to break. “I don’t care if we die doing this. It’s time someone did something. They’ve killed my wife because she refused to bend the knee to their cause. They crucified her in the square. I watched her hang there for three days, slowly - slowly bleeding out and freezing to death.” He looked at Benedict, a stocky man with broad shoulders and big hands, hands that trembled in grief and anger. “You did nothing. It’s your job to protect this city and you’ve done nothing.”
There were nods of agreement from every direction. Sheathia’s fingers tightened around Benedict’s. He held his breath, his legs trembling.
“The only reason why I’m not strangling you right now is because I’m saving my rage for that bastard, Damen Orlys,” said the man.
This time there were cheers. All at once the room was filled with auras of grief and rage, and yearning for retribution. Even the younger resistance fighters seemed overcome with bloodlust. Benedict’s heart plummeted at the tragedy of it all yet he felt the same hunger for revenge they did.
Benedict looked to Rufus. When the group had quieted down once more, he said, “Your the tactician. What are your thoughts?”
Rufus looked over the map once more, frowning thoughtfully. “The square will be very crowded,” he said. “Everyone will be close together so it will be difficult for the Red Wraiths to spot resistance fighters. Obviously we don’t have the numbers to take on everyone so we need to focus on the High Priest and the woman. That could be your job, Benedict, since Sheathia and yourself will be closest to them. The rest of you” - Rufus glanced around the room - “can get as close to the stage as you can and spread out. Everyone’s focus will be on the stage and nothing more. We don’t have the resources for anything else.”
“Do we have weapons?” Benedict asked.
Rufus nodded and for the first time, something like a smile crossed his face. “We do.”
He and two other men - one of them was the stocky man who had challenged Benedict earlier - began unstacking the crates, setting them on the ground. The crates must have been heavy, for even Rufus strained to lift them. They removed the tops of the crates. Slowly people gathered around the crates as if afraid something dangerous and alive would pop out and attack them.
Inside were guns, knives, and ammo. Most of the guns were smaller, meant to be easily concealed. Benedict supposed it made sense but he still didn’t like the odds. There are fifty of us and hundreds of them. They have training - most of us have never fired a gun let alone held one. We’re practically walking into our deaths.
But what else was there to do? Nothing. Perhaps if he had acted sooner, if he had actually tried to put a stop to Damen Orly’s plans then things never would have gotten to this point.
It’s your own damn fault.
Rufus lifted his hands, gesturing for everyone to wait. “For the rest of the evening I will be demonstrating to you how to hold a gun. We do not have time for actual training - just demonstration.” He continued to explain what they would be doing. The rest of his words were lost on Benedict. He knew how to fire a gun.
He did his best not to sink into his own despair. It was clear in this meeting he was not the leader and this was fine with him. He’d always been a politician, not a fighter. Rufus on the other hand seemed like he was made to kill. Intimidating, both in physique and demeanor, he drew everyone’s attention. All eyes were on him. The only time anyone spoke was to ask questions. No one interrupted the speaker.
For the next several hours Rufus went through demonstrations of how to hold a gun, load it, and switch off the safety, and how to hold and use a knife and the signals Rufus would give when it was time to act. Everyone, including Benedict and Sheathia and Lucijan went through the demonstrations. The severity of the situation was driven home further when Benedict watched as Rufus showed a boy not much older than Nicholas how to remove the safety on his gun. It made Benedict feel sick to his stomach. He was just glad Nicholas and Elise were out of Fruimont, safe. Nothing else mattered to him.
Three times more Rufus took the group through the plan. It wasn’t much but Benedict felt slightly better knowing they wouldn’t be going in completely blind. They had a goal. Having a goal, a reason to fight, was better than just sitting around waiting for the nightmare to end.
With only a few hours left before daylight, Rufus passed out the weapons and ammo: everyone would have two clips, no more no less. Every shot would have to count.