Lucien – Linda Mooney

“Keep your head up, Luc! Keep your eyes on your opponent!” “I am!” The wooden sword grazed the top of his head as it swung above him. If it had been a real sword, it would have shorn away some of his hair. Lucien retaliated with a side lunge, but Mattox was quicker. As his older brother slapped aside Luc’s weapon, the vibration jolted painfully up his arm. Immediately, Lucien lunged forward, aiming for Mattox’s legs. Again, the older man managed to deflect the practice sword, arcing it at the last split-second to strike Lucien on the hip. “Point, Mattox. Score three to one. Game to Mattox,” Reasoner announced. Both men backed away to stare at each other, one breathing more heavily than the other. Lucien narrowed his eyes at his adversary who outgunned him by four inches in height and twenty more pounds in muscle. “Sloppy work, Luc. Your lack of concentration will get you killed one day,” his brother remarked with a noticeably derisive tone. Lucien gritted his teeth. These past couple of years, ever since he’d joined the ranks of the guards, Mattox rarely ever praised him for anything.

If the man spoke to him, it was almost always some form of criticism, and he was getting tired of it. “It’s not my fault I don’t have your superiority,” he snapped back. Mattox’s red eyes went slightly lighter in color. “You bear the same genes as I do. Quit using that paltry excuse for your failings.” “I may have the same genes, but anyone can see the ones that give you and Misty your edge are missing in me. And you can’t deny that fact!” His side ached where Mattox’s sword had struck him. By tomorrow he’d be covered in bruises where he’d taken hit after hit during their practice. But for now he refused to let his sibling know of his discomfort. “Your abilities are there, little brother,” Mattox rebuked him.

“They’re waiting to come out, but you won’t let them. I’m just trying to help you become the warrior you were born to be.” “By constantly deriding me?” Lucien shot back. “Hold it! Hold it. No one’s deriding anyone,” a beloved voice intervened. Both men turned to see their mother striding toward them. He noticed she wasn’t carrying a weapon other than the ballock she always wore the way other women wore jewelry. Because she had no bow or sword, that meant she hadn’t been practicing, which was the main reason why the soldiers left the safety of the barricaded walls. Lucien wondered why she was here. When she reached the couple, they bowed their heads for her kiss to their cheeks.

Straightening, Lucien watched as she eyed him from top to bottom, then turned to Mattox. “Your father is needing you in the main hall.” “What for?” Atty raised an eyebrow, and Lucien secretly smiled. It wasn’t often that their mother gave them that look. It was as close to a scolding as they’d get. “Take it up with your father,” she responded. “Now go!” Handing his practice sword to the next soldier waiting his turn, Mattox took off at a trot. Atty remained with Lucien and watched her eldest hurry away. Lucien tossed his mock weapon to another nearby soldier. “How about me? Should I also go?” In reply, she waved for him to follow, and together they headed back toward the compound.

“I wanted to speak to you alone,” she admitted. “That’s why I sent Mattox ahead.” She gave him another glance. Her worry reflected in her blue-gray eyes. “I’ve been hearing gossip that bothers me, so I decided to come straight to the source.” He frowned. “What kind of gossip? I haven’t told anyone about anything. You know me better than that. I would never betray your or Dad’s trust.” She gave a little shake of her head.

The setting sun glinted off her deep blue hair, reminding him once again how her special abilities were evident by her outward appearance. Just like they were with Matt and Misty. “This has nothing to do with betraying our trust. Your father and I believe in you explicitly. No, when I said you were the source, I didn’t mean you were the instigator. I meant you were the topic.” She slipped an arm around his, and they matched strides. “Lucien, I hear you’ve been demeaning yourself for some time now.” He kept silent as he tried to find the words to respond with, when Atty came to a sudden stop and tugged on his arm to make him face her. “I know you’re concerned about your lack of skills on the battlefield.

You think it’s because you don’t show any outward mark that proves your Mutah heritage. But you are half Mutah, the same as your brother and sister. You also know there are full-blooded Mutah who don’t show any outward mark. Your grandmother, my mother, didn’t have one. And Tory’s isn’t visible for all to see, either.” She pressed a hand to his chest. “Yours is inside you. Believe me. I would never lie to you.” He clasped her hand and held it there.

He was constantly amazed by how small and fragile his mother’s hands appeared to be, when in actuality they were the exact opposite. No man or woman, or soldier, Normal or Mutah, could match Atrilan D’Jacques’ skill when it came to the bow or knife. “Mom, I know. You’ve told me all this before.” “But you don’t listen,” she curtly responded with a tiny smile. “When you least expect it, your specialness will show forth. You must be patient and have faith.” She patted his chest. “You already have your father’s tenacity and bravery. My half will eventually shine through.

” “I’ll be twenty-one in three months. I have practiced daily, sometimes twice a day, with the sword, the bow, and the knife ever since I was old enough to hold them, but I am no better than the average soldier. I certainly can’t compete against Matt or Misty.” Atty glanced over her shoulder for a moment, then turned back to him. “Has it ever occurred to you that maybe your weapon of expertise isn’t one of those?” “You and Dad have already suggested that, remember? I’ve also tried the crossbow and the pike. Hell, I’ve even worked with the mace. There’s not much else I can choose from.” Atty sighed, and they resumed their walk through the compound gates. “Please try to be a bit more patient. Trust in yourself, Lucien.

It’ll eventually come. I promise you.” If only I was as certain as you are, Mom. As much as her reassurances managed to soothe his ruffled feathers, he couldn’t help the feelings of inadequacy that burned through him whenever he witnessed his brother’s skill with the sword, or his sister’s precision with knives. And yet, he believed her. His mother had that uncanny knack of knowing things that somehow managed to come true. I just gotta be patient and trust it’ll reveal itself, but it’s damn hard. Still frowning, he opened the side door leading into the main hall and ushered her in ahead of him. Chapter Two Plea A wall of delicious smells assailed them as they entered the main dining hall. Dinner was being prepared, and his stomach growled in anticipation.

Lucien immediately spotted his father standing among the group of people gathered at a table near the low-burning fireplace. One of the kitchen help was piling logs in the nearby bin. During the day, there wasn’t much need for heat. But come dinner and nighttime, when the temperature dropped with the setting sun, the embers were stoked back to life. Yulen appeared to be listening to one man in particular as he explained something Lucien couldn’t hear. By the strangers’ appearance, he could tell they weren’t from the compound. Neither were they from any compound in this area. Among the small cadre of the battle lord’s soldiers surrounding them were Yulen’s cabinet of advisors, including the two seconds, Warren Paxton and Cole Mastin. Mattox and Mistelle were also in attendance. He followed Atty, stopping beside his brother as she went straight to her husband’s side.

The man who’d been speaking paused when she appeared. “Gentlemen, this is my wife, the Battle Lady of Alta Novis. Atty, this is Harank Pechard, an emissary from the compound of Green River.” Pechard smiled and bobbed his head in salutation. “Madam.” Atty gave him a quick smile. “I’ve never heard of that compound. Where’s it located?” “To the west, in the Newmex territories.” “Who’s your battle lord?” “Siman Veers.” “Green River.

Veers. I’ve never heard those names before,” Atty commented. “But there is a lot to the west that I’m not familiar with.” “Yet, we have heard of you,” Pechard remarked with a wan smile. Lucien saw his father take notice of his arrival, and the battle lord motioned toward him. “And this is my other son, Lucien.” Lucien and Pechard exchanged a brief salutation. Yulen informed Atty as to the situation. “Veers is seeking help. His compound is being attacked by Damaged.

” “How long have they been under siege?” she questioned. “By the time we managed to escape, it had been three weeks, madam,” Pechard replied for Yulen. “Why have you come to us?” Mattox broke in. “Surely there are other compounds closer to you where you could seek help.” Lucien eyed the three newcomers. Pechard and his two accompanying guards looked like they were on their last legs. Splattered with mud and blood, it was obvious they had been through sheer hell to get here. Pechard himself wobbled slightly, signaling he was about to collapse. He started to comment when Atty intervened. “These men are beyond exhausted.

Sit, gentlemen, sit. Holden, go fetch someone from the kitchen and have them bring water for these men.” A soldier saluted. “Fetching someone to bring them water, my lady,” he repeated, and hurried off. Pechard gave her a grateful look. “We appreciate the hospitality, madam.” He turned his attention to Mattox, but Lucien discerned the man didn’t quite look his brother in the eyes. The affect was not lost on Mattox, either, but it wasn’t the first time people tried not to make eye contact with the half-Mutah. Not when the entirety of Mattox’s eyes were a bright scarlet, emphasizing his Mutah heritage. “We managed to make it to Tarkington, the next compound over, but it had already fallen.

Same for Schutz Ridge. By then we were at a loss where we could go to seek help. If those two heavily-guarded compounds were gone, then we knew the Damaged must have advanced from the east and were heading west. So we turned north and prayed for luck.” “Go on,” Yulen urged. Before Pechard could continue, a servant from the kitchen arrived with a tray bearing three large mugs of water and a full pitcher. Setting the tray on the table, he turned to Yulen. “Would sir want us to bring our guests something to eat?” “I’ll let you know. Thank you, Brally.” Mastin stepped forward.

“Please continue. You went north and?” “After four days, we came across a Mutah compound called Lost Traces.” Atty brightened. “I know where that’s at!” She turned to her husband. “They’re part of the southern chain.” “Isn’t the Mutah compound of Weller the hub of that chain?” “Exactly.” Pechard looked from the battle lord to the lady and back in confusion. “Southern chain?” Yulen momentarily ignored the question. “Were you directed to a Mutah compound named Weller?” “Uhh, yes. Yes, we were.

” “And that’s how you found out about us,” Atty concluded. Pechard gave a slight nod. “We’d already heard of the Battle Lord and Lady of Alta Novis. Most people believe that what they’ve heard and read are mere fantasies, or overblown accounts of your exploits. But it was the main council there in Weller who directed us to come here and ask for your assistance. They assured us the tales of your exploits were not fiction.” The man glanced at the two soldiers flanking him. “They told us you’d defeated a Damaged army four years ago, and they haven’t come back. Any help, anything you can give us…” The man appeared ready to break down. He looked totally defeated.

What’s more, Lucien got the impression there was more to this story than what they were hearing. “How many of you originally left Green River to seek help?” he impulsively asked. The question surprised him. He had not thought of what he was going to say beforehand. It just popped into his head from out of nowhere. Pechard gave him a weary eye. “There were twelve of us. We three are all that are left.” “Are you ill? Did any of you catch the virus?” Mattox demanded. “Are all of you Normals?” Lucien added.

The emissary glanced from one to the other before settling on the battle lord. “No, we didn’t catch the virus. That’s why Veers sent us. Because we were among the few who were still healthy enough to undertake this mission. And, yes, we are all Normals.” “How long has it been since you managed to escape your compound and make it to here?” Atty inquired. “It’s been…” The man silently counted the days. “Eight da- No, nine. Nine days…I think. Nine?” He turned to one of his companions.

The soldier gave a slow nod. “Nine,” the man confirmed. “If it’s been nine days, then the compound’s probably fallen by now,” Mistelle remarked. “Not necessarily,” Yulen countered. He gestured to one of his men. “Show these gentlemen to the rooms at the other end of the hall. Finster, go find out why it’s taking Fergus so long—” “Never fear. The doctor is here,” a voice said from behind. Everyone turned around to see Iain MaGrath striding toward them, medical bag in hand. “Father summoned Fergus,” Mattox noted.

Setting his satchel on the table, Iain looked at Pechard, but his response was for all of them. “Dr. Thrasher is down with a case of shingles and has been placed under quarantine. Because he’s unable to tend to his duties, he sent me in his stead.” Atty waved a hand at the strangers. “Emissary Pechard assures us he and his men did not suffer the virus, but I’d like you to verify that.” She faced Pechard. “I’m not calling you a liar, sir, but we need more than your word to reassure us.” “No offense taken, madam. I totally understand.

” “Sir, I’m going to need for you to put these swabs in your mouth so I can test for the virus. Have you or any of your men sustained injuries?” He removed several sterile pieces of cloth from his bag as his eyes roved over their outward appearance. One man stepped forward. “I took a knife in my left leg.” Iain patted the table. “Sit up here and let me examine it. How about you two?” “We’re intact, but we’re tired and in need of food,” Pechard admitted. He faced Yulen again. “Will you be able to give us an answer soon?” “Tomorrow,” the battle lord promised. “Tonight, you and your men should rest.

Food and water will be brought to you. Iain, when you’re done, come to the lodge and give me a report.” Iain nodded but didn’t reply as he cut away the bloodied makeshift bandage the man had wrapped around his injury. “Cole, set up sentries. Guards, you’re dismissed. Everyone else, let’s meet at the lodge where we can discuss this further in private. Pechard, if Dr. MaGrath gives you his blessing, you’re welcome to join us for dinner. Otherwise, a tray will be sent to your rooms.” Lucien watched as their guests were shown the two spare rooms at the other end of the main hall.

Mastin ordered four guards to stand duty at their doors. During the night, other guards would relieve them. It was a measure not so much to protect the strangers, but to ensure that the strangers didn’t have a nefarious intent. Seeing the others filing out of the hall, he fell into step and followed them over to the dwelling the battle lord and lady called home. Chapter Three Meeting When he entered the lodge, Lucien noticed that his father had taken the overstuffed chair closest to the fireplace. Instead of taking another chair, his mother sat on the cold hearth, right next to her husband, drawing up her legs and wrapping her arms around them. Mattox leaned with his arms crossed in the doorway leading to the kitchen and rear bedrooms. And Mistelle had chosen to park herself on the iron staircase that spiraled up to the overhead bedroom. Seeing that all the good places were already taken, he went over to stand behind his father and rest against the chair’s tall, padded back. Yulen barely glanced at him.

There were only a handful of people the battle lord would allow to take that position, and his family made for four of them. The noise inside the lodge was minimal. Everyone kept their voices low as they conversed while they waited for the battle lord to speak. “Echo, please close the door.” The warrior woman shut the front door, then resumed her stance next to it. Lucien realized she had taken a position to guard it, and he shot Mattox a puzzled look. His brother shrugged. He didn’t understand it, either. “I called you here to discuss something that’s been brought to my attention. Whatever decision I make about it will affect every one of you, including this compound.

But it will impact you first and foremost. Therefore, I feel it’s only fair I let you know of my thoughts ahead of time, and you can give me your opinions on the matter before I decide my next course of action. “There is a compound far to the west, in the Newmex territories, called Green River. They’ve been under siege by Damaged for the past four weeks. The battle lord there sent an emissary to seek help, but the compounds they encountered had already fallen. By chance they happened upon a Mutah compound, which directed them to us.” Paas raised her hand. “Why us?” “Because they were told we fought the Damaged and defeated them four years ago.” “But it also took a heavy toll on us,” Fortune Kalich reminded him. “That virus did enormous damage to us.

Maybe more than their army did.” “He’s right,” Warren Paxton added. “That army carried that virus with them, and it spread through our ranks and the population like a wildfire.” “That’s their modus operandi,” Atty remarked. “As an army, they’re not well-trained. Mutah aren’t trained to be warriors. We’re trained to be hunters. That’s why they used that virus against us, lobbing contaminated clothing that was saturated in puke and feces over our walls. Once we succumbed, and our forces were weakened as we contracted the disease, they thought they could storm us and overwhelm us by sheer numbers.” “But we managed to defeat them anyway,” Lucien spoke up.

“Even when we were ill, we were still better fighters than they were.” “Precisely,” Yulen agreed. “And we were lucky in that aspect.” Garet Renken added his thoughts, directing them at Yulen. “You’re seriously considering taking a battalion to this Green River compound to defeat the Damaged? What if we sicken again?” “Might I say something about that?” Iain MaGrath commented. The battle lord gave him a nod, and the young man rose to his feet to face the others. “You all know I assisted my father and Dr. Thrasher during the malaise. I witnessed firsthand what this virus can do to both Mutah and Normals. So I know how differently it affects both sides.

At the same time, we learned how the Mutah who survived it became carriers.” A hand in the back went up, and Iain called on the young man. “What, Nevo?” “I caught that virus, but I’m not Mutah. Am I carrier?” Iain nodded. “Maybe. Maybe not. We’re not sure. But one thing you definitely are is inoculated. That means you can’t get it again.” The young physician looked around the room at all of them.

“All Normals who suffered through the virus and survived cannot get it again.” “You’re sure of that?” Yulen questioned. Iain hesitated. “Nothing is ever one hundred percent certain. But history has shown that that is generally the case.” “What’s inoculated?” Mistelle spoke up. “It means the virus is still in your system, but only in minute bits and pieces. It’s harmless to you in that form, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t powerful. You see, if you get exposed to the virus again, those little bits and pieces come together and form a protective barrier to keep the virus from taking over. They become extremely territorial, driving out or killing the new virus, and preventing it from sickening you.

” “But that’s not true for Mutah, right?” Fortune countered. “Right, and that’s because of your uniqueness. Dad is still trying to find a way to determine whether or not an infected Mutah will become Damaged, but right now it’s still a crap shoot.” “But the Mutah who caught it, and survived, and didn’t become Damaged as a result, are we inoculated, too?” Fortune queried. “It’s very possible. It’s harder to tell with your kind because there are so many variations to your recovery. With Normals, we either died or survived without any aftereffects. But with Mutah, those who survived either resumed their normal lives—” “Or became deranged maniacs,” Mattox drawled from the doorway. “And that’s what scares the crap out of me,” Mistelle added. “Remember that Mutah family that was seeking sanctuary soon afterwards? Remember what that mother did?” She gave a shudder as the memory swept through the group.

Lucien bowed his head. Four years ago he hadn’t been able to fight alongside his family and the others. He’d been an untried kid who’d been forced to stay inside the lodge, along with several others, as the rest of his family waged that terrible war. True, he’d been given the task of protecting his Aunt Keelor and his cousin, Surisam. But it had been a long, bloody, and disgusting nine days. And what followed afterwards had dire consequences for the entire compound for years. “Let me get this straight.” Renken adjusted his stance and cleared his throat. “If we go help this compound, and we engage these Damaged, the chances are very low that we could become infected again. Is that what you’re saying?” “That’s exactly what I’m saying,” Iain confirmed.

“However, let me add that if by some slim chance you do catch the virus again, it won’t be as overwhelming as it was the first time.” “Because all those little bitty leftover pieces of it in your body are protecting you,” Mattox intoned. “Yes.” Yulen nodded. “That information helps tremendously with my decision. Cole, Warren, survey our troops. Pick out two hundred of our best who have already survived this virus. We leave tomorrow morning.” The two seconds hurried out of the lodge, leaving the others to await their individual orders. After the men were gone, the battle lord surveyed those remaining.

Lucien also noticed his mother eyeing the small gathering, which consisted now of mostly family members, and people who were considered family. “I am not ordering or requesting any of you to go with us,” Yulen said softly. “Talk about it among yourselves and with your families. Anyone willing to take this risk, be at the front of the main lodge, ready to go, right after breakfast. Please leave now so that Atty and I can discuss our own arrangements with our children before dinner.” The others quietly filed out of the lodge. As he watched them go, Lucien already knew who would be there come morning. What he wasn’t expecting were his father’s next words. “Mattox, you and Mistelle are staying here. Lucien, you’re coming with your mother and me to Green River.

.

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