Appendix A: Chapter 18

[Editor's note: Chapter 18 of my 2008 NaNoWriMo entry.]

“What I am about to tell you,” Dalton began, speaking slowly and deliberately, “is not to leave this room under any circumstances. You are not to repeat anything that we discuss here to anybody. If you do, you will be spending the rest of your life in a cell much less comfortable than these, and that’s if I happen to be feeling charitable. Do I make myself clear?”

Roland nodded.

“Body language isn’t going to cut it. I need your explicit verbal agreement before we proceed.”

Roland swallowed uncomfortably. He was hardly planning to go against his word, but Dalton’s degree of caution, if not outright paranoia, indicated that whatever Dalton was going to tell him, he thought it was very serious indeed. “I agree not to speak of this with anybody,” he reluctantly said, not knowing just what he was getting himself into.

“Good. Under better circumstances, I would have been content to leave you out of this entirely, but it seems you’ve managed to work your way into this far deeper than you realize, and fate has not seen fit to give me much time. But it seems now you need to know just what it is that’s at stake if we can’t regain control over the boy.”

Roland watched Dalton as he slowly paced back and forth, wishing he would get on with whatever he was going to say.

“You are no doubt aware,” Dalton continued, “of the increasingly strained relations between ourselves and Lantaria.”

“I am,” Roland said.

“And it would probably not surprise you to learn that the Lantarians are preparing for a war with us that they increasingly see to be inevitable.”

“Correct.”

“But you are probably not aware that we have reason to believe that Lantarian agents have been infiltrating the smuggling networks that have grown to reach most parts of the kingdom. We believe Lantaria has been able to place its agents in nearly every single village in the kingdom.”

“To what end?”

“We believe it is to strike at us quickly and decisively if, or more likely when, war is declared. Their goal would be to deal the kingdom a fatal blow before our armies ever engage one another on the battlefield, forcing us to focus on maintaining order and stability behind our borders instead of battling the external threat.”

“What sort of attacks would they be planning?”

“We have not yet been able to get conclusive evidence on that. However, many of us believe that the Doomhammer incident may have been meant as a warning to us of what they are capable of.”

“You think Doomhammer was arson?” Roland asked, dumbfounded.

“We were hesitant at first to attribute it to Lantaria. However, the information you provided us upon arrival here as helped to bolster the case. We now know, thanks to you, that there was activity in the black market there when the fire started. More importantly, though, there was also the fire the night you met Anna, and we know she was tracing the connections of the smuggling network trying to find her brother. That fire may have been started to destroy evidence, thinking Anna was somehow working for us. It could also have been a second warning to us, that they are also capable of striking against villages that are indisputably in our control.”

“That’s it?” Roland asked skeptically. “It sounds to me like a lot of guesswork trying to link together two events that might have just been coincidences.”

“That’s precisely what we’d expect if their agents are as skilled as we believe they are,” Dalton countered. “If they made it too clear they were behind the indicidents, we’d be able to accuse them of it openly, which would let us shift the balance of power in our favor. They need to let us have just enough evidence so that we suspect them, but not enough to call them out on it.”

Roland shook his head. “Even if you’re right about all this, I don’t see what any of it has to do with what happened here.”

“Isn’t it obvious?” Dalton replied. “The boy is powerful, and he has spent extended time with elements associated with the smuggling network, in particular with the one called Mattias. The kid was vulnerable and impressionable; he must’ve been turned to their side while he was being held at Helioth. He would be a valuable asset to them, and since he was acting alone when he escaped, he obviously wants to return to them of his own accord.”

“That doesn’t make sense, though. The way Mattias talked, it sounded like he didn’t much care for us or the Lantarians. Why would he be working for them?”

“And admit to a paladin serving the kingdom of Telerand that he’s secretly plotting the downfall of our kingdom?” Dalton asked, incredulous. “Please. You youself said you couldn’t trust what he said. You’re going to take him at his word now?”

Roland had to agree there was at least some logic to what Dalton was saying, but it still didn’t seem quite right. “So you believe that Derek will be pressed into service into Lantaria’s armies, and you’re trying to get him back so that won’t happen?”

“No, not at all! You’re not listening to what I’m saying. They’re not going to want to use him against our knights.”

“Why not?”

“Because they don’t want to fight our knights at all! Everyone knows our armies are about equally matched, so what is going to happen when they fight each other? Lots of bloodshed, lots of death, and no gains by either side. One individual isn’t going to change that, and putting a kid on the battlefield is just giving your enemy an easy target. Even your Order understood that, back before they lost their stomach for recruiting orphans.”

Roland kept silent.

“Armies clashing on the battlefield is all well and good if you’re trying to tell an epic story, but as an actual strategy it’s terrible unless you have an overwhelming advantage, which we don’t, and neither do they. That’s what everyone did back before the Demon War, and what was the result? Nothing! Kingdoms would fight, exhaust their resources with nothing to show for it except a pile of corpses, agree to a truce, and do it all over again in a year or two. It didn’t work then, and it certainly won’t work now.”

Roland noticed that Dalton’s speech was growing more and more emphatic as he went on.

“So what do you do instead?” Dalton continued. “Attack behind their lines, while their forces are off expecting to fight you directly! Wreck their economy, burn down their villages, and soon the peasants will revolt, demanding the king put a stop to it. And left with the choice of accepting the enemy’s demands or trying to fight both an advancing army and a revolution, what you do think he’s going to do?”

“What makes you so sure this is what’s going to happen?” Roland countered. “All you have is a handful of rumors and a couple coincidences!”

“Because it’s exactly what we’re going to do to them!” Dalton shouted.

Roland and Dalton stared at each other, silent.

“We’ve been working our people into Lantaria’s underground economy for a year now,” Dalton continued, his voice once again relatively calm. “The King doesn’t want to lose half his army fighting over Doomhammer, so we gave him a way to defeat Lantaria if they ever try to press the issue. We’d be naive to assume they aren’t smart enough to figure out the strategy we’re using themselves.”

“Who’s ‘we’?” Roland asked. “The Order would never stand for that, and I doubt the Royal Knights would either.”

“Which is why I’m not with either. The King established the Advance Guard a few years ago to handle these sorts of issues. The Knights here are merely providing me assistance with the less sensitive aspects of my job here.”

“I’ve never heard of any ‘Advance Guard.’”

“Yes, that’s the idea. And you still wouldn’t, if you didn’t need to understand how the future of the kingdom could be at stake if we don’t get Derek back, or at the very least know for certain precisely what he is capable of doing to us.”

Roland took a couple steps back. “You can’t expect me to stand for this. It goes against every ideal the Order is founded on!”

“And is it any wonder why the last time your Order did anything besides ministering shrines was during the Demon War? You are all very noble and idealistic, and I respect that, but the fact of the matter is, the world is neither noble nor idealistic. How many times have you actually led an army to fight evil on the battlefield like you were trained to do? The Order was always really about being the symbol of good leading the way, but with nothing to lead, all that’s left is the symbol. That still has its place, but it’s no longer on the front lines, because ‘the front lines’ today is more a metaphor than anything else.”

Roland fixed his eyes on Dalton. As terrible as what he was saying was, the worst of it was that part of Roland recognized it to be true. The only official duty he could remember ever having in the Order was to go on recruiting trips. Maybe the chronic lack of recruits was a sign that Dalton’s perspective had somehow become rooted in the general consciousness. Maybe the Order really was on the way to being obsolete.

“Where’s Anna?” Roland finally asked, wanting to think about something, anything, less distressing.

“She’s stopped even pretending to be cooperative ever since her brother’s escape. No doubt she knows how he did it, but she refuses to speak to us. We’ve had her moved down to the bottom level until she changes her mind, or in case her brother tries to come and rescue her. I believe we’re done here,” Dalton added as an afterthought.

Roland stood for a few moments, then silently turned and began walking back down the hall towards the entrance.

“If you do still want to help,” Dalton called after him, “you can try talking some sense into the girl. And remember our little agreement.”

Chapter word count: 1,720 (according to wc)
Total word count: 33,076 / 50,000 (66.152% complete)

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