There was a time, before the fall of the Commonwealth, when travel throughout the lands of the Anthrinic was safe from bandits, when horsemen patrols were a common sight and large peasant crews worked to keep trails free of overgrowth and debris. It was a time of prosperity when the inconveniences of travel were bad weather and annoying insects, and you rarely had to worry about someone trying to stick an oversized blade into your back.
“Aric, watch your back!”
The young warrior spun around, bringing his shield up to block the clumsy stroke aimed at his skull. His opponent’s blade struck the edge of the shield and bounced harmlessly to the left; Aric pushed forward, striking his opponent in the chest with a shield-punch, knocking the man off-balance. His blade followed his foe to the ground and he felt it slice through the black leather shoulder padding and bite flesh beneath, even before the screams of pain erupted from the bandit’s lips.
“It’s almost like fighting a group of first season squires,” Aric called back, looking for another foe to vanquish.
“They’re bandits,” his companion responded flatly, stepping toward the carriages that they had been ordered to protect. The older knight stood nearly a full head taller than Aric, with hair that was as dark as fired coals and eyes the color of tree bark. “Did you really expect them to be a match for sons of Calidon?”
Aric spun around and sighed; the youthful blue of his eyes seemed saddened when he realized that no foe remained standing, and the banded muscles on his arms visibly relaxed beneath the weight of his armor. A tuft of sandy brown hair stood on end, billowing in the cool breeze blowing off the nearby hills, and large drops of sweat rolled through the stubbled growth that would one day become a beard. Sheathing his sword, he knelt to check his most recently fallen foe. “I suppose your right, Tam,” he admitted, “but it’s not what I expected of the dreaded Black Troll Bandits.”
Blood seeped through the shoulder padding of his opponent’s sword arm, not a life threatening injury, but a disabling one that would keep him honest until he can be taken back to Calidon to be tried for his crimes befo re the Chief of the Moors.
“Once again, the facts slay the legends,” Tam said, his full goatee framing a charming smile, but when he opened the door to the carriage and glanced in, his face was grim, set as if in stone. When he spoke his voice dropped a few octaves, sounding much deeper than normal. “We’ve dispatched with the bandits and will be moving on shortly.”
“That was quick,” the fat dwarven merchant called Dranin announced sounding almost surprised.
“Efficient,” Tam corrected in that same deep tone, though he was unable to keep the humor out of his eyes, and winked at the other occupants of the carriage.
Dranin’s two daughters giggled at that, and it was all Tam could do to keep the smile off his face. He nodded to the two girls, then to the rest of the carriage occupants before stepping back and securing the door once more. When he turned around Aric was standing in front of him.
“Must you always make a show of it?” Aric asked, standing with his arms crossed over his armored chest, his own amusement showing at the corners of his lips.
Tam shrugged. “That’s what these people want. The Knights of Calidon are legendary protectors who never falter in the face of danger; we have a reputation to consider whenever we speak with commoners.”
“So that the facts do not again slay the legend?”
“Come on,” Tam said, his expression stony once more, “I must speak with the merchants in the other two carriages, while you assess the damage to us and our opponents.” He stalked off, leaving the younger warrior with a giggle on his tongue that never made it past his lips.
Less than an hour later they were on their way once more. The four bandits who could walk were disarmed, bound, and tied to the carriage; this would be their last view of the lush forests and prairies of the Anthrinic. The other three were disarmed, bound, and tossed into one of the open carts so that they might enjoy the beauty of the sky on their journey back to Calidon.
The lucky ones would die before they arrived.
Bandits were among the most hated enemies of all the Shattered Kingdoms because they preyed upon the weak and were not known to leave witnesses; in that regard, they were dealt with harshly when captured. The Chief of the Moors was the lead combat instructor and the Arbitrator of Justice in Calidon, and he was not known for kindness, leniency, or mercy, especially in regard to bandits. The more vicious and bloodthirsty of them would be executed in public, an example for any that might consider the banditry trade. The others would be either imprisoned for an indefinite period of time, which, more often than not, was but a slower form of execution, or would be given the option of joining the city’s infantry.
Infantrymen, especially those forced into the role, rarely made it out of training, and those that did would never again consider banditry as a viable trade.
Aric would rather have killed them all himself and save the trouble of taking them back, but he was trained to be a warrior, a Knight of Calidon, not an executioner. It was easy to tell himself that none of these were old enough to be among the bandits who killed his parents when he was but an infant, but that still didn’t make it easy to hold back. In battle he could feel the rage boiling in the back of his mind, only his training kept him from losing control.
“Why aren’t you smiling?” Tam asked, slapping at his friend’s horse.
Aric’s steed jumped slightly and the unexpected movement almost threw the young warrior from the saddle. It took him only a moment to regain control, but he’d looked awkward enough to make Tam put his head back and laugh.
“What were you saying back there about first season squires?” Tam shouted, through fits of laughter.
Aric had to bite his tongue to keep from lashing back with words; at this point he would only look the more foolish. Rage continued to boil in the back of his mind, but he suppressed it and rode on, looking for something to take his mind off the bandits.
Glancing over at his companion was almost enough.
Tam was laughing so hard he almost toppled backwards off his own horse, and that seemed to make him laugh all the more.
While watching this ridiculous fit, Aric thought back to his day of graduation, he was one of three to be granted Knighthood in the Moors and he had stepped onto the Knight’s compound with a chip on his shoulder the size of an adult troll. It was inevitable that he, a focussed and determined warrior, would be paired up with a gifted and charismatic swordsman who possessed a flare for the dramatic and a style that bordered on rebellious. Although Tam was more than half a decade older and had far more combat experience, like Aric, he had been granted knighthood immediately upon graduation, while most others went on to be swordsmen or horsemen seeking their knighthood in other kingdoms; this kinship brought them together.
Their differing personalities kept them together, one seeming to complete the other.
“Now then,” Tam began, after finally laughing himself out, “I’ll ask again, why aren’t you smiling? It was a grand victory against more than three to one odds and not only did we not suffer a single loss among or troupe, no one so much as received a scratch.”
Aric shook his head. “It was a swift battle, hardly one that challenged our skills, and barely worthy of mentioning.” Four knights rode escort with the small caravan, he and Tam in the front, Derin and Jak behind, neither of whom had had the opportunity to dismount, let alone participate, in the battle. It was disappointing, both were veterans, each with more than two decades of combat experience and, when Aric looked into their eyes, he could still see the warrior’s fire blazing bright. While some at that age might have put down their swords and sought peace, their thirst for battle hadn’t seemed to ebb at all. Though he hadn’t an opportunity to see it today, he knew well that in combat, both were confident and in control of their actions, true warrior’s worthy of Tiratti’s light. Aric hoped that one day he would be that good and swore that he would not let his fire for battle be extinguished until the fires of his own pyre burned themselves out.
“The ease of battle,” Tam was saying, bringing Aric out of his reverie, “is a testament to our skill, not their incompetence.”
“I suppose,” he said absently, his thoughts once more turning back to the two knights they traveled with. He had only been a member of the Knights of Calidon for most of three seasons and still hadn’t gotten over the hero worship he held for most of his companions.
“The crimson sun begins to drop towards the horizon, and the golden sun follows close behind, we should make camp soon.”
Aric shook his head. “Does everyone from Joniir talk the way you do Tam, or is this still a part of the act?”
“I see that your education begins and ends with the sword,” Tam responded in that deep voice. “Have you no taste for literature and drama, those are the opening lines from Vlan’chote‘s sonnet, The Harbinger.”
“Not that it’ll make any difference to you, but I did grow up on Alcom’s works. I guess I just don’t have a taste for elven literature, like you.”
“Alcom,” Tam said with a deep bass laugh, “his work is barely fit for children.”
Aric was going to retort with a nasty comment about Vlan’chote, but he did respect many of the elf’s philosophies, especially those involving the Circle—while most believed that life was a war and that peace could only be found in the womb and in death, Vlan’chote proposed the philosophy that peace was a state of mind. Most every civilized land from the far Southern Kingdoms to Joniir followed the beliefs set forth by the Circle, and at the center of it, Tiratti, the Lord of Creation. While Vlan’chote’s words hadn’t brought those beliefs to question, they had fractured the interpretation of those beliefs, and soon after, the churches.
Most elves had embraced Vlan’chote’s philosophy, but in general, humans and dwarves held onto the old ways, but as in all things there were exceptions, and Aric was among them.
“Is there another topic we can discuss?” Aric said with a sigh. Tam was the more educated of them and Aric often found himself quickly slain and burned when they debated literature or philosophy.
“I’m versatile,” the other said with a tone of confidence that verged on cocky, but Aric knew how to bring him back down to reality.
“I bet you really miss your wife and son,” he said, watching the impudent smirk drop from his friend’s face. “Are they still in Eizly with her parents?”
“Yeah,” Tam responded flatly, “Karin thinks that Calidon is too dangerous a place to raise a boy and she still doesn’t like the idea of living in Calidor.”
“Too many religious fanatics,” they chortled in unison, and started laughing.
The laughs subsided and they rode on in silence for a moment. “You grew up in Calidor, didn’t you?” Tam asked.
“Not really, my parents were from Calidor, but after they were killed I went to live with my uncle in Calidon.” Aric felt the rage rekindled in his mind as he remembered those years alone in his uncle’s house, never quite feeling as if he were home.
“Ah, sorry, I didn’t mean to bring that up,” Tam said, quietly. “Anyway,” he quickly continued, “she won’t even visit Calidor, so unless I want to resign my knighthood from Calidon, I have to travel for a week through these bandit infested lands just to see my son.”
“Have you considered going south to Ivory City in the Kingdom of Light? I hear Calyn Whitestarr is seeking skilled warriors for some quest or other.”
Tam snorted. “Quests are fine, but there’s not much notoriety in it, as Knights of Calidon we have only to walk into a place and our enemies begin to quake.”
“But there is almost no challenge in it,” Aric countered. “I’d like a challenge, some adventure, something that contests my skills as a warrior and my heart as a knight.”
“I used to think like that, its amazing how having a child changes you. I want to watch my son grow up to be a man, I want to help him along the way, give him choices, opportunities I never had. Maybe I should just move to Eizly.”
Aric couldn’t think of a response to that, and so they rode for a while in silence.
The red sun had reached the horizon and the larger yellow sun was falling fast when Tam finally broke the silence. “What’s that up ahead?” His question was followed by the soft sound his sword made when being unsheathed.
Aric peered ahead looking for substance in the late evening shadows. “I don’t see anything,” Aric finally said, smoothly pulling his own sword free of its sheath. The shadows on the land had begun to run long with the dawning suns and their shape could often play tricks on a man’s eyes, but Tam wasn’t known for unfounded speculation; Aric readied himself for whatever might be out there.
“Hang your sword off your left side and don’t make any quick movements,” Tam whispered, allowing his head to turn from side to side, as if riding with a bored gaze.
“What is it?” Aric asked, trying to mimic the action, but feeling as if he were acting anything but natural.
Tam hesitated a moment before responding. “Take a casual glance at the tree line to your right up ahead.” Leaning forward a little to adjust his grip on the reins, Aric turned his head as if stretching tired muscles and let his eyes wander over the tree line. “See how the leaves create a rough outline against the amber sky,” he continued after a moment. Aric nodded. “Now look down the path, where it disappears with the curve of the forest.”
The younger warrior looked hard where he was directed, but he couldn’t see anything out of the ordinary and after a moment managed a slight shrug. “I don’t see it.”
“One thing you should remember,” Tam said, shifting his weight to allow for a quick dismount if it proved necessary, “there are no corners in nature.”
That was when he saw it, the bottom edge of some type of carriage or wagon sitting just beyond the border of the tree line, one corner of it exposed by the same rough outline of leaves that concealed it. “I see it,” he murmured a little louder than he had meant to.
The carriage driver seeing their drawn swords had begun slowing, giving the two protectors more room to maneuver if the need arose and at the same time signaling the two knights behind of potential trouble. Aric and Tam were about to charge forward, better to ride hard into a trap you knew about than to trot into one that you didn’t, when a lone figure stepped out into the road.
Aric glanced at Tam hoping for a signal of some sort, but the older warrior’s posture had not changed.
“If you are bandits prepare yourselves for strife-filled oblivion!”
It was a female voice that floated to them, her tone distinctly of Joniir. Tam wasted no time in his response. “And if we are not?”
“In that case you are welcome to a bite of the buck we are preparing.”
Aric wasn’t sure, but he thought he heard a smile in her voice and immediately began to wonder what she looked like. He envisioned the long red hair and sharp features so common to Joniir women, with creamy white skin, sturdy limbs, and a voluptuous figure that begged to be held. Of course, that vision was based far more in a young man’s fantasy than in reality, but he could always hope.
As they approached, he found it odd that instead of wearing a standard mail coat beneath her piece-mail strappings of plate, she was wearing a sleeveless mail tunic. While the design gave her arms more free movement, she was certainly not a Knight, no king would allow his protectors to dress so shabbily. He saw that she still wore the classic upper cannon to protect the area of arm just below the shoulder and above the elbow, and a slightly modified lower cannon that protected her forearm down to the gauntlet, but beneath there was only slightly tanned flesh.
For a reason known only to his young hormones, Aric found that vision of warm flesh surrounded by cold steel oddly seductive, and though the temperature was quite comfortable, if not cooling a little, he began to sweat.
“I am Sir Tam Sylak of Calidon,” he started, introducing himself in the same deep voice he’d used earlier, “this is my companion, Sir Aric of Calidon, we are escorting this caravan of merchants back to our fair city. Now, who might you be?”
Aric was really glad Tam took the lead and introduced them both, he had a lump in his throat that he couldn’t force down. Between that and the sweat pouring off him, he was sure that he’d come down with a fever or some other vile malady.
It got worse when she took off her helmet, exposing short-cropped red hair above a sharp featured face that beheld a smile that rivaled the beauty of the setting suns. Aric nearly tumbled off his horse at the sight of her, she was almost exactly as he had pictured, at least in the face, time would tell if the rest of his vision of her held true.
“I am Protector Karin Conica of the trading house Wer, out of Joniir,” she nodded slightly, acknowledging Tam and Aric as fellow warriors. “I have heard of the Knight’s of Calidon, that is a mighty reputation to live up to.”
Tam laughed out loud for a moment then stopped abruptly. Turning a cold gaze on her, he whispered to Aric. “Have you ever heard me say that a woman with a sword is at least as dangerous as a troll in a bathhouse?” Aric shook his head slightly, wondering how such a person would become involved with the mercenary trading houses, and managed to grunt something that sounded like an answer. “Well you have now, don’t forget it. A reputation,” he continued, now speaking toward the lone female warrior, “is something for bandits and whores.”
She smiled at that; Aric felt sure he was going to fall from his mount.
“Now, I believe you offered us a bite of some freshly cooked meat, we’ve had only dried meats for the past three days, it will be a welcome indulgence,” Tam said, still holding on to that deep tone. She nodded, but didn’t move. “But first, perhaps you can recall the four archers you have hidden to my right and the three warriors behind the cart to your left, then perchance we can join your camp. In these lands, there is safety in numbers.”
Aric tore his gaze from the woman protector and glanced into the wood to his right. It took him a moment to spot the four archers; while they were well camouflaged, the distinctive contour of the human head was another shape, like corners, that was not found in nature. “I’m glad one of us is awake,” he mumbled to himself. If Tam heard him, he didn’t acknowledge it.
“Perhaps there is something to the reputation after all,” she said, holding up her hand with the fingers splayed.
Aric watched the archers relinquish their positions and step out of the wood with their bows pointed downward, but the strings still drawn. Three swordsmen, another female and two male, all dressed in the same type of piece-mail armor as Karin, stepped from behind the wagon to her left, their swords drawn but also pointed at the ground. “You can never be too careful in these lands,” she retorted with a grin. “There’s plenty of room in the clearing for your caravan, by the time you get settled, we should have the first buck skinned and cooked.”
With authority, she turned and walked away, the three swordsmen sheathing their blades and falling in line behind her. The archers stowed their bows, dropping loose arrows back into tightly packed quivers, and stepped up to lead the way.
The next hour was spent rubbing down the horses and preparing the campsite. This had been their fourth night out from Gamesly, and so it went much more smoothly this night than it had any of the previous three. Introductions were made between the two groups; while some of the merchants began doing business over the undercooked buck, the warriors took turns watching the perimeter of the camp and swapping stories between chewing and swallowing.
Karin was not fond of titles and so bade them all to call her by her first name without any unnecessary displays of respect; Tam continued to call her Protector. By the time she had removed her piece-mail armor, Aric was sweating, her arms and legs held a supple strength that he found very attractive, and it was only through the discipline of his training that he kept his eyes from wandering down towards her navel, though they did follow her as she moved around the camp. Tam seemed to make a point of staying close to her throughout they’re off time, swapping stories of battle, most of simple tasks that he exaggerated into unbelievably grand adventures, but he had her ear, and that was something that Aric wanted.
When Karin had at last left him to take her turn on the watch, the young warrior strolled over to his friend and sat down so that their mail coats, now sans the plates of armor, rubbed loudly together. “So, how’s the wife and kid?”
Tam turned to him, looking as if he’d been slapped. “What?”
“Oh, sorry, am I messing something up, you wouldn’t want her to know that you have a wife and kid, would you?”
“Aric . . . ” Tam’s face contorted into something between rage and confusion, “why would you ask me such a thing?” then realization struck him. “You think I’m pursuing her?”
“It’s so obvious, you’ve been practically on her hip all night.”
Words sputtered out of his mouth for a moment, his face a shifting mask of disbelief and rage. He finally stood up and turned away, pausing only long enough to say, “I’m going over to talk to some of the adults, you stay here until you grow up.”
Aric was on his feet as Tam’s long strides began to carry him away. “Is it because she has the same name, is that how you are justifying this attempt at adultery?”
That made Tam stop, and brought the rest of the camp to a sudden silence, all eyes turning toward the two knights. Aric’s fists were shaking, and Tam had dropped his right hand to the hilt of his sword, still sheathed at his side. “I’ll give you one opportunity to apologize, then, friend or not, you will be forced to defend yourself.” His words held a detached calm that was far more deadly in tone than any amount of rage.
Aric stood silently, waiting for the other to make the first move.
Someone in the crowd coughed, the sound seemed to echo back on itself, adding to the quiet noise of popping fire and sizzling meat. That much tension could not last; one of them would have to make a move soon.
Tam dropped his hand away from the hilt and stepped up face-to-face with the younger warrior, a slight smile pushing at the corners of his mouth. “You’re jealous.”
“I am not,” Aric answered, much more defensively than he had meant to.
“You are, that’s the only reason you would say such things to me, and the worst part of it is that you needn’t be.” He laughed out loud, using that same mocking tone that he had used earlier with Karin, stopping as suddenly as he started. “And to think that I spoke favorably of you when she asked.”
Aric stepped backwards, looking as if he would fall over. “She asked about me?” His voice was meek and he was suddenly aware of all the eyes on him.
Tam laughed aloud once again, but this laugh held much more humor than the last. “Yes, she did, right after I finished bragging about my handsome son and beautiful wife that happens to share her first name,” he finished, his tone moving towards rage.
It was Aric’s turn to sputter. He had no idea what to say, and it seemed that he had lost the capacity for speech. Someone snickered, and his eyes ran over the forest of faces staring up at him. Their glares seemed to mock him; he felt fear, guilt, and shame all in the same moment.
Turning with the grace of a three-legged dog, the young warrior stumbled away from the camp, feeling those mocking glares on his back as he first trotted and then ran toward the perimeter of the caravan. He slumped down against one of the far carriage wheels feeling humiliated and wondering how he would ever again face Tam, let alone all those merchants, and when Karin found out, she would laugh at him, no matter how many good things she might have been told.
He was torn by his duty to protect the caravan and his desire to run away, though he knew he could not do the latter, no matter how much he wanted to. That frustration slowly built into rage, and it was all he could do to keep from sobbing like a child.
Tam had watched his young friend go, feeling a certain amount of victory and guilt. He wanted to follow, but he knew that would only lead to another uncomfortable confrontation, and might possibly bring them to blows. That was the last thing either of them needed. As much as he hated to admit it, he understood the young warrior’s outburst. Tam had enjoyed spending time with Karin, talking with her and yes, he would admit to a little flirting, but her name, if nothing else, reminded him of his wife and he would do nothing to dishonor her or his own knighthood.
But that wasn’t the way Aric saw it. He had probably been infatuated with her from the moment he saw her, but where his passions for life ran strong, his confidence in affairs of the heart was weak, and he could not bear the thought of someone he knew being that close to her. Aric’s passions were one of his strengths, but Tam wondered if that passion had ever before been turned from battle toward the fairer sex.
He doubted it.
While he could not go and speak with Aric himself, there was someone who could. He hurried to the rear perimeter, hoping that she would not be too difficult to find.
Aric stared off into the small moons-lit field, wondering what overly dramatic verse Tam would pull out of his educated mind with which to describe it. “Probably something from Vlan’chote,” he whispered to himself.
“I’ve always been rather partial to Alcom,” a voice said from his right, a female voice that was all too familiar. He turned to face her, his hand unconsciously dropping to the hilt of his sword. There were a hundred things he wanted to say, but he barely managed to push a grunt of acknowledgment past his lips.
Karin looked down at him, an amused smile writ across her face, and in that moment he knew that she knew how he felt for her.
It was not a comfortable sensation.
“Do you mind if I sit with you,” she said, her voice soft and pleasant, “I think we have something to talk about.”
Again, Aric barely managed a grunt of acknowledgement and shifted over so that she would be able to prop herself against the wheel of the carriage. They had both been quiet while she settled herself, and then remained so while she gazed into the open field.
“It reminds me of something from Alcom’s Wonderland,” she finally said.
“Yeah, I was thinking the same thing,” Aric affirmed, amazed that he had been able to speak at all. “I wish I could shrink to a brownie’s height and explore those woodlands now,” he added after a moment.
He felt her eyes on him. “After that little fiasco in camp, I can understand why,” she said, her friendly tone turning cold.
Aric stuttered for words, afraid, but finally managing to meet her gaze. He didn’t find the anger or hatred he would have expected, instead she still wore that amused smile. On another, he would have felt mocked, but on her it looked so right. “How much did you hear?” he finally asked.
“Tam told me everything.”
Again, he stuttered for words, his face turning red not in embarrassment but in anger.
“Don’t be angry with him,” she said, an unmistakable command in her voice, “he did it for you.”
“He did it to humiliate me.” Aric started to push himself to his feet, wanting to knock a couple of his friends teeth out.
She put a strong hand on his shoulder and pulled him back to the ground. “If he hadn’t, would you have had the courage to even approach me?”
“Does it matter?” he responded flatly, wishing for an outlet for the pent up rage that seemed to permeate his mind.
“To me it does,” she said, putting two fingers on his chin and pulling his gaze to her. The corners of her lips were pushed up into a slight smile, but he could still see the amusement in her eyes.
“What are you doing to me?” he whispered, wanting to feel the touch of her lips as much as he wanted to push her away.
“I’m distracting you,” she whispered, pushing her lips to his.
It worked. By the time their lips parted, he had completely forgotten about his anger and Tam and the carriages full of scared merchants and most everything else of relevance.
“Do you still want to be shrunk to the size of a brownie and explore the wondrous world of tree sized grasses and talking insects?” she asked, her eyes gazing deeply into his.
Aric slowly shook his head. “I’d only wanted a place to run and hide, but I don’t want to hide from you.” He had never felt so warm inside, so content with himself or the world, and he began to understand the pain that Tam felt while away from his wife.
Her smile broadened, and Aric felt his stomach flip.
Their lips came together again.
When they separated, Aric turned and gazed into the field. He had never much cared for the prattles of poetry, but even so, he felt that there was a poem in all of this screaming to be written. He might have composed it himself had the world not turned itself upside-down with sudden screams and the unmistakable sound of metal clashing against metal.
“Bandits!” he cried, pushing himself to his feet and reaching for the hilt of his sword. When he glanced back down, Karin was still sitting with her back to the carriage wheel, staring into the moons-lit field. “Come on,” he urged, reaching a hand out to her, “we are needed.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, her gaze not leaving the field.
“It seemed like such a good idea at the time,” she said in quiet reverie. “We signed on as mercenary protector’s, no one questioned us or even asked about the trading house of Wer. It was so easy.”
Realization struck him all at once; she was out here distracting him, but not for the reasons he’d thought. “You . . . you’re bandits?”
Karin turned to him, a tear in her eye that she would not allow to fall. There was no answer in her face, at least not one that he could accept. She was a bandit; he should have drawn his weapon and killed her on the spot, but instead, he turned and ran toward the camp and the sounds of battle, drawing his blade and wiping his cheek at the same time.
Passing the carriages, he saw hanging manacles where the Black Trolls they had fought earlier should have been.
Rounding that carriage, he came upon an archer at the edge of the clearing. His first thought was to ask him of the progress of the battle, but when the man released the taut bowstring, the cocked arrow shot outward, almost immediately striking Jak in the shoulder of his sword-arm. The veteran knight was spun backwards by the force of the blow, dropping his weapon as he crashed into the ground.
One of the warriors whom had accompanied Karin and a hobbled Black Troll leapt on top of him and put an end to Jak’s noble life.
The scream that erupted from Aric’s lips startled the archer, but before he could either turn around or finish drawing the arrow from a quiver set on the ground at his feet, he was screaming himself. Aric’s sword sliced down through the archers unprotected shoulder, nearly cleaving the other’s arm off.
All eyes momentarily turned toward the screaming archer, then to Aric as he stepped up from behind, entering the ring of firelight.
Tam stood toward the edge of the camp, standing over three prone forms, with an arrow embedded into his mail coat just below the ribs on his left side. The links sparkled crimson in the firelight where they had been punctured. He nodded toward Aric and dropped to one knee, a look of agony playing across his face.
Derin was engaged in combat with two of the Black Trolls with two other prone figures at his feet, and seemed to have been holding his own pretty well. By his count, that left two archers and Karin out there somewhere. As if on cue, and arrow struck a carriage behind him, he turned to see the direction from which it came, and saw the shaft of it quivering at exactly his eye level. A little to the right and this battle would no longer be his concern.
Following the angle of the arrow, Aric was able to pinpoint its source across the camp. The archer was already knocking a second arrow, obviously frustrated at himself for missing an opportunity at showing off his skills, at the same time, crushing the dramatic entrance Aric had made.
The young warrior had no intention of giving him a chance to rectify that error.
The camp was littered with small tents, racks to hold armor and weapons (the plate strappings of his own armor were mounted upon one of them), and chests that held the various personal and business artifacts of those in the two caravans. Aric ducked and dodged his way between many of these things in his scramble toward the third archer. In the back of his mind, he hoped that the fourth would not get a clean shot at him and at the same time, wondered where he was.
An arrow zipped past his head and disappeared into the side of a tent.
Someone howled in pain from behind; Aric didn’t immediately recognize the voice, and took that to be a good sign. Even as he was putting the noise out of his mind, he saw that his opponent either did not have enough discipline to keep his mind on his opponent, or else recognized the howl of pain, either way, it gave him an opening.
Leaping over one of the small tents, a feat he would not have been able to perform had he been in full armor, he ran hard at the archer. Catching a flash of motion out of his peripheral vision, he instinctively hesitated and glanced in that direction.
An arrow cut through the air just in front of him, he’d found the fourth archer.
Aric had an immediate respect for the man, it had taken him only a moment to judge his speed and send an arrow to where he would be instead of firing at where he was. It was the label of an excellent marksman, and someone who had plenty of practice with moving targets.
Another howl of pain ripped through the night air, this one a woman’s. Aric knew the voice didn’t belong to Karin, though part of him wished it did.
He had no time for thoughts of her; the Chief of the Moors would deal with her.
Stepping onto an old fallen log, Aric launched himself at the archer, crushing his bow on impact and sending them both flying hard at the ground. His opponent had regained enough of his composure to knock an arrow during Aric’s charge, that arrow pierced the mail covering his left arm, digging painfully into the flesh. His weapon slipped from his grip on impact and disappeared into the foliage.
Despite the pain, he used the momentum of the impact to roll himself on top and threw a succession of quick punches to his opponent’s head. The body beneath him had gone limp, but his pent up rage had finally found a release, and more. With each punch, Karin’s betrayal burned his heart, and the shame of the thing’s he’d said to Tam burned his spirit.
When he recovered himself, the archer was a bloodied mess and a new guilt came over him.
Pushing himself up, he glanced over toward the position of the other archer; almost hoping that a well placed arrow might put an end to the emotional turmoil that had taken hold of him. Instead, he saw Tam’s blade chop down and expose his opponent’s brains to the world.
Glancing back around, he saw that the merchants were beginning to come out of the places that they had hidden when the battle erupted, and that Derin had indeed dropped his two opponents and was busily tending to Jak. From his body language, Aric guessed that they’d be soon be building a pyre and grieving the loss of a companion.
Tam turned and started back towards the camp. He moved as if he were exhausted from the battle, and a mask of agony played across his features. Though his muscles ached from the sudden strain of combat, Aric found himself running hard back through the camp, avoiding many of the obstacles he had before used as cover.
He arrived in time to catch his friend falling forward, and gently reversed his direction, laying him down on his back. Tam had not lost consciousness, but neither was he very talkative, it seemed to take all of his concentration just to keep from dropping into the black world of dreams and nightmares.
“You’ll be fine,” Aric muttered, studying the wound. The shaft of the arrow was broken about a third of the way from where it had penetrated his mail coat and looked like it slid into his flesh just below the ribs. With luck it would not have penetrated deep enough to damage any organs, but with it broken, he could not easily tell how deep it had gone.
“It hurts,” Tam finally managed, “but a whole lot less now that I’m not swinging my sword around.” He tried to laugh, but the pain wouldn’t let him. Aric smiled down at him. “Did we get them all?” he asked between breaths.
“All but Karin,” Aric responded, quickly pulling the arrow free, and covering the bleeding wound with a scrap of cloth. He breathed a sigh of relief, the arrow had not penetrated far, his friend would be sore for a while, but he would be fine.
Tam grunted and a slight whimper slipped past his lips, but he did not cry out. After a moment he opened his eyes, and there was a grim set to his face that held no amusement. “Remember what I told you about a woman with a sword?” Aric nodded. “You can’t let her get away.”
Aric opened his mouth to argue.
“Its your duty,” Tam snapped, his face a mask of pain and determination. He took a deep breath, “I’ll be fine here, go.”
Aric hesitated, sitting back on his knees, he felt like he was burning up from within.
“Go!” Tam screamed with all of the strength that was left in him, and Aric was up and moving back towards the carriages, where he had left her.
He’d heard a startled whinny and the quick thunder of galloping hooves before he saw its silhouette riding hard down the trail. Aric swore to himself and started running, mentally calculating how long it would take him to saddle up his horse with his injured arm. Karin had been the one who suggested that they leave all their horses unsaddled for the night. In retrospect it was so easy to see how she had expertly set them up.
If he didn’t find a saddled horse, he would never catch her. “You idiot,” he mumbled to himself as he rounded the corner of the carriage, glancing down at the place where he had last seen her, the place where his lips met hers. “All of it had been a distraction, she never cared for you.” The words passed his lips as a hushed whisper, but his mind was screaming.
Staring down the trail, he could hear the fading sound the hooves made as they beat the dry ground, but the darkness between the trees was complete. It would be impossible for him to navigate the trails in that darkness, let alone track anyone.
The cloud of rage that filled his mind lasted only a moment, and was quickly dispersed by a feeling of relief—relief at not having to face her again, relief at not having to take her back to Calidon and see the pain in her eyes as she stood before the Chief of the Moors and judgement was passed.
A guilty smile touched the corners of his lips, the mystery of her appearance and disappearance would leave a lasting memory—each time he looked into a moons-lit field he would think of her. At first his gaze passed over the figure standing waist high in the grasses, an arrow knocked in a shortbow.
She fired, striking him in the right shoulder.
The force of the arrow spun him and knocked him to the ground, but pierced the mail only enough to draw blood. “Why are you here?” he called from the ground. “You can’t be here, you escaped,” an edge of panic slipped into his voice as he pushed himself up to his knees.
She already had another arrow knocked and ready.
“I’m not going to let you take me to Calidon,” she said, her voice was cold, emotionless. “If I don’t get the gallows I’ll go crazy in prison, either way, its not the way I intend to die.”
Aric pushed himself to his feet, wishing he had a sword, but knowing this second injury to his arm would make him far less effective in combat. “I . . .I’m a Knight,” his voice was shaky, but the words were strong, “not a judge or an executioner; you’re a bandit. Now, I have to take you back.”
He stepped forward, expecting her to fire another arrow.
She hesitated, and turned, her features catching the light of the moon; Aric had never seen anything so beautiful. Their eyes met and, for just a moment they were back sitting against the wagon wheel, locked in a passionate embrace. The aim of the shortbow dropped. “Karin . . . ”
Aric heard the snap of the bowstring at the same moment the arrow penetrated the armor of his left leg, and once again he found himself on the ground, this time struggling against pain. His initial surprise left the echo of a cry across the night sky; he had to actually touch the arrow to believe that she had shot him again.
That reality had not yet set in when a shadowy figure hovered over him, the bow dropped in favor of a blade.
“Tam told me that he didn’t think you had ever been in love before, is that true?”
Aric nodded, watching as she shifted her weight, bracing herself to swing. He wondered if she would really strike him, at the same time knowing that she would never have the opportunity.
She shook her head. “That’s a shame; in another time or place I think we both could have learned a little about love.” With that she stepped forward her blade cocking back to strike. Aric never took his eyes off her; not betraying Derin as he stepped up behind her and prepared to strike; not even when the bloodied tip of his companion’s blade pushed through the front of her piece-mail armor. She fell forward onto her knees, the look of surprise writ across her face falling into a sad smile. “I could have loved you.”
She died that way, sitting on her knees, looking almost as if she were begging his forgiveness.
“I could never have loved a bandit,” he whispered to himself, as her lifeless body slumped over onto the ground.
Later, after his and the other’s injuries had been tended to, and the merchant’s fears had been allayed; after he had fulfilled his obligations to the living, he would construct a small pyre and lay Karin’s body upon it. Before lighting it, he would recite to her the story of Alcom’s Wonderland.
Her small pyre would stand alone in the great field, surrounded by trees and flowers, and he alone in front of it, watching the suns crest the horizon.