Writing Distracted

Troll War

The Worst Betrayal

 

“There was a time before the fall of the Commonwealth, when travel in the Anthrinic was safe from bandits; when horsemen patrols were a common sight and rangers worked to keep trails free of overgrowth; it was a time of prosperity when the inconveniences of travel were bad weather and annoying insects, not someone trying to stab you in the back.”

Calyn Whitestarr.
“Reforging the Commonwealth”
Speaking before the Circle of Seven
Tower of Magic, Calidon C671

 *     *     *

“Aric, watch your back!”

The young warrior pivoted to his left, instinctively bringing his shield up to block the clumsy stroke; his opponent’s blade struck the reinforced edge of it and bounced harmlessly away. A shield-punch knocked the man to the ground and Aric’s blade followed his foe down, feeling it slice through the black leather shoulder padding and bite into the flesh beneath.

A pain filled scream erupted from the bandit’s lips, telling the warrior just how much of an amateur he was fighting.

“They’re like first season squires,” Aric called back, looking for another combatant.

“They’re bandits,” his companion, Tam Sylak, responded flatly as he stepped toward the carriages they’d been sworn to protect; he could see curious eyes peeking from behind the curtained windows. Relaxing his stance, the older knight scanned the area; standing up straight he was almost a full head taller than Aric, with hair as black as fired coal and eyes the brown of tree bark.

“They could have at least practiced.”

Tam laughed, it was a hearty laugh meant more for the people in the carriages than the younger knight. “Did you really expect them to be a match for sons of Calidon?”

Aric looked around and sighed; his youthful blue eyes turned towards his companion and the banded muscles of 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 on his most recently fallen foe. “I suppose your right,” 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, it was not a life threatening injury, but a disabling one that would keep him subdued until he could be taken back to Calidon to be tried for his crimes before the Chief of the Moors.

“Once again, the facts slay the legends,” Tam said, the small, pointed beard on his chin framing a charming smile. As he turned to open the door to the carriage and glance in, that smile became a grim countenance that might have been carved in stone; when he spoke his voice dropped to a much deeper tone. “We’ve dispatched with the bandits and will be moving on shortly.”

“That was quick,” the fat dwarven merchant announced, one hand twisting at a braid in his beard.

“Efficient, master Dranin,” 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 and it was all Tam could do to keep the smile off his face. He nodded to the two girls, and then to the other three occupants before stepping back and securing the door once more. When he turned, the younger knight was standing before him.

“Must you always make a show of it?” Aric asked, standing with his arms crossed over his armored chest, the corners of his lips turned up slightly.

Tam shrugged and started walking. “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?”

“Yes,” Tam said, glancing at his companion, his expression stony once more, “Go assess the damage to us and our foes while I speak with the merchants in the other carriages.” He stalked off, leaving the younger warrior with a chuckle that never quite made it past his lips.

  *     *     *

An hour later the small caravan was on its way once more. The four bandits who could walk were disarmed, bound, and tied in a chain to the rear carriage; this would likely be their last view of the lush forests and prairies of the Anthrinic. The two who were unable to walk were bound and tossed into one of the open carts for the journey back to Calidon.

The lucky ones would die before they arrived.

Bandits were despised in the Shattered Kingdoms because they preyed upon the weak and were not known to leave survivors—as a result, they were dealt with harshly when captured. The Chief of the Moors served as both the master combat instructor and arbitrator of justice in Calidon; among his pupils he was not known for kindness, leniency, or mercy. As for 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 was just a slower form of execution, or would be given the option of joining the city’s infantry.

After six weeks of training those that survived would never again consider banditry.

Had it been up to Aric, he would have killed them all and saved them the trouble of taking the bandits back to Calidon, but he was trained to be a knight, not an executioner. It was easy to tell himself that none of them were old enough to be among the bandits who killed his parents when he was but an infant, but that was little comfort. He’d always struggled with his anger, and in battle he could feel the rage boiling in the back of his mind; it was only his training that kept him from losing control.

“Why aren’t you smiling?” Tam asked, slapping the young knight’s horse on the neck.

Aric’s steed jumped slightly and the unexpected movement almost threw him from the saddle. It took only a moment to regain control, but it was an awkward enough moment to make Tam throw his head back and laugh.

“What were you saying back there about first season squires?” Tam spat, still laughing.

Aric had to bite his tongue to keep from lashing back; he wasn’t good with words and would only end up looking more the fool. He took a deep breath, trying to put the put that familiar anger away as he sought some way to take his mind off the bandits.

Glancing over at his companion was almost distraction enough.

Tam was laughing so hard that he almost toppled off his own horse, which made him laugh all the more.

Feeling the corners of his mouth turn up, Aric shook his head and looked towards the path ahead, while his mind drifted back to the day of his day of graduation. He was one of three to have earned his Knighthood that season, and when he stepped into the Knight’s compound, he did it knowing the Honor Code by heart and feeling the need to prove to all those he had so long looked up to that he was worthy of the honor of Knighthood. It was inevitable then that he would be paired with a gifted and charismatic swordsman who possessed a flare for the dramatic and a style that bordered on rebellious. Tam was more than half a decade older and had far more combat experience, but like Aric, he had been one of the few granted Knighthood immediately upon graduation several years before, while most who graduated were forced to seek their Knighthood in other kingdoms. It provided them a kinship that had grown into a strong friendship.

Their differing personalities kept them together and brought them prominence, each complementing the other.

“Now then,” Tam began, after laughing himself out, though still smirking, “I’ll ask again, why aren’t you smiling? It was a grand victory against more than three to one odds; not only did we not suffer a single loss, we did not so much as receive a scratch.”

Aric frowned. “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. Both were veterans, each with more than two decades of combat experience, and the warrior’s fire still blazed bright in their eyes. While some at that age might have put down their swords and sought peace, their thirst for battle hadn’t ebbed at all. Though he hadn’t an opportunity to see it today, he knew well that both were confident and in control of their actions in combat, true warrior’s worthy of Tiratti’s light. Aric hoped that one day he would be worthy of it, and swore to himself 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 replied absently, his thoughts once more turning back to the two knights they traveled with. He’d only been a member of the Knights of Calidon for three seasons and still hadn’t gotten over his hero worship.

“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, again with that exaggerated deep laugh, “his work is barely fit for children.”

Aric wanted to retort with a nasty comment about Vlan’chote, but he couldn’t think of one and 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 civilized lands, from the far Southern Kingdoms to Joniir followed 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 their interpretation, which had in turn fractured the churches.

Most elves had embraced Vlan’chote’s philosophy, but men and dwarves generally held to the old ways—as in all things there are exceptions, and Aric was among them.

“Is there another topic we can discuss?” Aric replied, with a sigh. Tam was more educated, putting him at a disadvantage when they debated literature or philosophy.

“I’m versatile,” the other said, with a dismissive wave, but Aric knew how to bring him back down to reality.

“I bet you really miss your wife and son,” he started, 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 over in Calidor.”

“Too many religious fanatics,” they chortled in unison, laughing.

The laughs subsided and they rode on in silence for a moment; seeing the loneliness on the other’s features, Aric regretted bringing up his family.

After several long moments of listening to hooves fall on the hard packed path, Tam finally broke the silence. “You grew up in Calidor, didn’t you?” he asked.

“Not really, my parents were from Calidor, but after they were murdered I went to live with my uncle in Calidon.” Aric felt the rage rekindle in his mind as he remembered those years alone in his uncle’s house, never quite feeling at 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 them in Eizly.”

“Have you thought about going down to Ivory City in the Kingdom of Light? I’ve heard rumors that Calyn Whitestarr is looking for good people to help him clear the trails and reunite Shattered Kingdoms.”

Tam snorted. “That’s a noble goal and all, but none of the Kingdoms are going to give up their autonomy; besides as Knights of Calidon we have all of the notoriety and none of the politics.”

“But there’s almost no challenge in it,” Aric countered. “I’d like to take on a new challenge, some adventure, something that tests my skills as a warrior and my heart as a knight.”

“I used to think like that,” he turned to Aric, his brow furled. “It’s 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 the choices, the opportunities I never had.” Twisting his lips in thought, he turned back to the trail and sighed. “Maybe I should just move to Eizly.”

Aric couldn’t think of a response and so they rode awhile 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 smooth sound of his sword being unsheathed.

Aric peered ahead looking for substance in the late evening shadows. “I don’t see anything,” he responded, 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, slowly turning his head from side to side with a bored expression on his face.

“What is it?” Aric asked, trying to mimic the other’s bored expression, but it felt unnatural and forced.

Tam hesitated a moment before replying. “Take a casual glance at the tree-line up ahead and to your right.” 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 knight looked hard, but couldn’t see anything out of the ordinary; after a moment he shrugged. “I don’t see it.”

“One thing you should always remember,” Tam said, shifting his weight to allow for a quick dismount, “there are no corners in nature.”

That was when he saw it, the bottom edge of a carriage or wagon sitting just beyond 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 meant.

Behind them the carriage driver, having seen his protectors draw their swords, had begun to slow, giving them room to maneuver while also 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 than to trot into one you didn’t, when a lone figure stepped into the road. The younger knight glanced at Tam hoping for a signal of some sort, but the older warrior’s posture had not changed.

The figure shouted at them. “If you’re bandits prepare yourselves for strife-filled oblivion!”

It was a female voice, her tone distinctly of Joniir. Tam wasted no time in his response. “And if we are not?”

“Then you’re welcome to a bite of the buck we’re roasting.”

Aric wasn’t sure, but he thought he heard a smile in her voice and tried to imagine her face. He envisioned the long red hair and sharp features common to Joniir women, with creamy white skin, sturdy limbs, and a voluptuous figure that begged to be held. Logically, he knew that vision was largely based on a fantasy, but he could always hope.

Studying her appearance he they approached, he found it odd that she wore a standard mail coat beneath piece-mail strappings of plate, with a sleeveless mail tunic. She was most certainly not a Knight; no king would allow his representatives to dress so shabbily. Seeming to dress more for style than substance, she 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 her 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,” his friend started as they neared, 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 seem to force down, and sweat stood out on his forehead. His condition worsened 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 leaned forward at the sight of her; she was almost exactly as he had pictured. Tam had to reach over and grab the reigns to keep Aric’s horse from walking into her. The chastising look the older knight shot at him caused Aric to stammer and look away.

“I am Protector Karin Conica of the Trading House Wer, out of Joniir,” she nodded slightly, ignoring their exchange. “I’ve heard of the Knights of Calidon; that’s a mighty reputation to live up to.”

A deep, false laugh erupted from Tam’s lips, then stopped abruptly. Leveling 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 beautiful woman had become involved with one the mercenary trading houses, and managed to grunt something to the negative. To her Tam said, “A reputation is something for bandits and whores.”

She smiled at that, her eyes flicking towards Aric; the young knight felt sure he was going to fall from his horse.

“I believe you offered us a bite of some freshly cooked meat,” Tam continued, still using that deep voice, “we’ve had only old bread and dried meats for the past two days, it will be a welcome indulgence.” She nodded. “But first, perhaps you would be kind enough to signal the four archers you have hidden to my right and the three warriors behind the cart to your left to stand down; then we will all happily join you. 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 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 replied, holding up her hand with the fingers splayed and lowering it slowly.

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 woman and two men, 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. “We’re a small group, only one carriage, a wagon, and a handful of pack animals, so there’s plenty of room in the clearing for your caravan. By the time you get settled the first buck should be well cooked.”

She turned her back and walked away; the three swordsmen sheathed their blades and fell in line behind her, while the archers stowed their bows, placing loose arrows back into tightly packed quivers.

  *     *     *

The next hour was spent rubbing down the horses and preparing the camp. It was their fourth night out from Gamesly, so it went more smoothly this night than it had during any of the previous three. Introductions were made and a handful of the merchants took the opportunity to talk business over the roasting buck, while the knights took turns watching the perimeter and swapping stories with the Protectors between chewing and swallowing.

Tam had asked to see her rank symbol from the Trading House; after inspecting it, he’d tossed it back to her. “A Dein Protector, that’s impressive.” He turned to Aric. “Technically, she outranks you.” Turning back to her, he continued. “Why so far from home Dein Conica?”

“You can drop the title, and just call me Karin” she replied.

With a grin, “Of course, Protector.”

She sighed through her own grin, and started removing her piece-mail armor. “We're heading for the Southern Kingdoms…” she began, detailing their trip thus far and their destination.

Aric tried to look anywhere but at her; she caught him staring twice before he finally excused himself and walked over to the horses, trying not to glance back and failing. Her arms and legs held a supple strength that he found very alluring, and it was only through the discipline of his training that he kept his eyes from wandering down towards her navel, but he couldn’t help following her movements as she spoke—she had the grace of a talented swordsman, but spoke and moved with an energy that was almost infectious. While pretending to check the feedbags, he noted that Tam seemed to make a point of staying close to her, detailing their own journey, exaggerating simple aspects of it into unbelievably grand adventures. He had her ear and that was something that he desperately wanted, but he couldn’t seem to find his voice when he looked at her.

The more he watched them…watched him and his charming smile and poetical words, that anger that he’d always struggled to control stewed.

When Karin had at last left to take her turn on the watch, the young warrior strolled over to his companion and sat down so that their mail coats, now sans the plates of armor, rubbed loudly together. “So, how’s the wife and child?”

Tam turned to him, his eyes wide and mouth hanging open. “What?”

“Oh, sorry, am I messing something up here?” he asked rhetorically. “You wouldn’t want her to know that you have a wife and child now would you?”

“Aric…” Tam’s brow furled and a snarl touched his lip, “why would you ask me such…” He looked away as realization struck and let out a small laugh. “You think I’m pursuing her?”

“It’s so obvious, you’ve been practically on her hip all night.”

The older knight shook his head and let out a small laugh, but there was no humor in it. Standing up and turning away, he paused only long enough to say, “I’m going over there to talk to some of the adults, you stay here until you grow up.”

“Is it because she has the same name,” Aric shouted, getting to his feet, “is that how you’re justifying this?”

Tam stopped as the rest of the camp fell suddenly silent, all eyes turning toward the two knights. Aric stood there, his fist’s shaking, while Tam’s hand dropped to the hilt of the sword 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 shouts of rage.

Aric stood silently, waiting for the older knight 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.

Taking a deep breath and releasing it slowly, Tam dropped his hand to his side and stepped up close, looking down at the younger knight with the hint of a grin pushing at the corners of his mouth. “You’re jealous.”

“I am not,” Aric’s words sounded far more defensively than he’d wanted, even to his own ears.

“You are, that’s the only reason you would say these things, and the worst part of it is that you needn’t be.” A humorless laugh fell between them, and his tone turned mocking. “And to think that I spoke favorably of you when she asked.”

Aric stepped back. “She asked about me?” His voice cracked and he was suddenly aware that all the eyes in the camp were on him.

That deep laugh erupted into the night. “Yes, she did, right after I finished bragging about my handsome son and beautiful wife, who happens to share her first name!”

The younger knight’s jaw worked, but no sound came out.

In the background someone snickered and noise began to return to the camp.

A stunned breath pushed out of his open mouth. Unable to face Tam any longer, Aric turned with the grace of a three-legged dog, and stumbled back towards the wagons, feeling the glares of people who were laughing at him on his back. Jogging to the rear of the clearing, which faced a thickly overgrown field, he slumped down against one of the carriage wheels. He felt stupid and childish; he wondered how he would ever again face Tam, let alone all those merchants…and when Karin found out. He put his head between his knees, thinking about how she would laugh at him.

Regardless of his oath, he was torn by his duty to protect the caravan and his desire to run away. In his heart he would die before doing the latter, no matter how much he wanted to, but that didn’t keep the thoughts away. Unable to do anything else, he beat at the ground with his fists, pitting the soft grassland.

  *     *     *

Tam had watched his friend go, feeling both victory and guilt. He wanted to follow, but he knew that would only lead to another uncomfortable confrontation that might actually bring them to blows. With all that was going on here, it was the last thing either of them needed. As much as he hated to admit it, he understood the young knight’s outburst. Tam had enjoyed spending time with the Protector from Joniir, 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, especially with a woman such as Karin.

Of course, that wasn’t the way Aric saw it. He’d probably been infatuated with this Karin from the moment he saw her, but where his passions for combat ran strong, his confidence in affairs of the heart was weak. Tam knew well how the thought of someone being close to one he coveted could make one irrational; there was man who had long sought his Karin’s hand in marriage in Eizly. He trusted his wife implicitly, but he didn’t trust him and the thoughts of that other man being so close was maddening at times.

Aric’s passions ran hot, hotter than anyone expected; he couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if the young knight lost control.

The thought scared him.

While he couldn’t go and speak with Aric himself, there was someone who could. As he hurried to the front perimeter, he hoped that this would be a better idea than it seemed.

  *     *     *

With his knees pulled up to his chest, Aric stared into the moons-lit field that was overgrown with grasses and foliage around a series of small trees. Drained of anger, he was left with shame and humiliation, and in avoiding those feelings he tried to find some distraction in nature. Both moons were near full, bathing it in a light that darkened the colors and accentuated the shadows, making it look like something from a painters canvas. Idly he wondering what dramatic verse Tam might quote in trying to describe it. “Probably something from Vlan’chote,” he whispered to himself.

“I’ve always been partial to Alcom.” The familiar female voice came from his right; when he turned to face her, his hand unconsciously dropped 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, but in her eyes he saw pity. She knew. His breath caught in his throat. She knew what he and Tam had argued about; it was like being kicked in the stomach.

“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 couldn’t find his voice, so nodded and shifted over so she would be able to prop herself against the wheel of the carriage. Neither spoke while she settled herself; Aric stared into the field and she followed his gaze, staring into it herself.

They shared a quiet, peaceful moment.

“It reminds me of something from Alcom’s Wonderland,” she finally said.

Finding his voice, Aric nodded. “Yeah, I was thinking the same thing.” He paused. “When I was a child I spent a lot of time in the high grasses around Calidon, wishing I could put a flower petal on my tongue and shrink down to ride ants into battle against grasshoppers.” He left out the part about hiding in the long grasses after losing his temper and breaking something in his uncle’s house. After another pause, a humorless laugh slipped past his lips, and he whispered. “I wish I could do that now.”

He felt her eyes on him.

“After what happened in the camp,” she said, her tone turning cold, “I can understand why.”

Aric struggled to look her in the eye, but stopped at her shoulder. He opened his mouth, wanting to say something and again words escaped him. Forcing himself to meet her gaze, he looking into her eyes expecting to find anger or mockery, but what he found there was understanding.

A sigh of relief escaped his lips and as he stared into her face, he began to notice the imperfections. A scar that ran through an eyebrow, trail dirt in her hair, a small piece of her right ear missing; little things that made her seem more real, more intriguing, and more beautiful. His mind finally caught up with her words. “How much did you overhear?” He wondered if she noticed the note of panic in his voice.

“Tam told me everything.”

A red blush that was far more anger than embarrassment crossed his face; his hands balled into fists, but this time instead of punching the ground, he wanted to punch Tam.

“Don’t be angry with him,” Karin said, as she watched his change in temperament; there was an unmistakable command in her voice, “he did it for you.”

“He did it to humiliate me.” Aric snapped, beginning to push himself to his feet.

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 talk to me?”

“Does it matter?” he replied flatly, his arms trembling with the need to hit something.

“To me it does,” she said, putting two fingers on his chin and pulling his gaze to her. His desire to hit something dissipated as the corners of her lips pushed up into a slight smile.

“What are you doing?” he whispered, wanting desperately to feel the touch of her lips.

“I’m distracting you,” she whispered, pushing her lips to his.

It worked. By the time their lips parted, he’d completely forgotten about his anger, Tam, the carriages, and his responsibilities…

“Do you still want put a flower petal on your tongue and shrink down to explore the wondrous world of tree sized grasses and talking insects?” she asked, their eyes locked in a lustful gaze.

Aric slowly shook his head, but his eyes never left hers. “I…I don’t want to hide from you.” He had never felt so warm inside, so content with himself and his place in the world; part of him began to understand the pain Tam felt being away from his wife.

Her smile broadened; Aric felt his stomach flip.

Their lips came together again.

When they parted, Aric turned his gaze back to the overgrown field. He’d never much cared for the prattles of poetry, but even so, he felt that there was a poem in all of this that was desperate to be written. He might have tried to compose 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 overgrown moons-lit field. “Come on,” he urged, reaching a hand out to her, “we’re needed.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, her gaze not leaving the field.

“What?”

“It seemed like such a good idea at the time,” she ignored him, speaking in an even tone. “When we signed on as mercenary protector’s, no one questioned us or even asked about the trading house of Wer. It was so…easy.”

One of the few things his instructors on the Moors had criticized was Aric’s ability to quickly pick up and connect subtle clues. When he finally did, the realization hurt; she was distracting him, but not for the reasons he’d thought. “You’re bandits?” The words were barely a whisper.

Karin turned to him, a tear in her eye that she refused to let fall. The answer was in her face. 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 noted that there were hanging manacles where the Black Troll bandits they’d fought earlier should have been.

Sprinting towards the smell of roasted meat, he came upon a bowman at the edge of the clearing. His first thought was to ask him about the battle, but when the taut bowstring was released, the cocked arrow shot outward and struck Jak in the shoulder of his sword-arm. The veteran knight grunted, bearing the pain, but could not hold onto his weapon.

One of the soldiers they’d met swung a mace at Jak; the knight managed to step into the strike, somehow overcoming the pain in his shoulder and throwing his armored forearm up to block the others wrist, and landing a gauntleted uppercut to his opponent’s chin with the other hand. Even as the soldier’s knees buckled, the freed Black Troll bandit behind him thrust a spear into his back and put an end to Jak’s noble life.

The roar that erupted from Aric’s mouth caused both bowman and bandit to turn, but before getting his head around, Aric’s sword sliced down through the bowman’s unprotected shoulder, nearly cleaving the arm off. Agonized screams filled the air as Aric moved past the downed man and entered the ring of firelight.

The young knight assessed the situation.

Tam was at the north edge of the camp near a group of merchants standing over three prone forms; there was an arrow embedded in his mail coat just below the ribs on his left side. The links sparkled crimson in the firelight where they had been punctured. Aric watched him take a step and drop to one knee, a look of agony playing across his face as he tried to push himself back up. Near the west side of the camp, Derin was engaged 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 other bowmen and Karin out there somewhere. As if on cue, an arrow struck a carriage behind him, he turned to determine from which direction it it had come and saw the shaft 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 saw its source across the camp, just beyond the ring of firelight. The shadowy form looked to be knocking another arrow.

The young knight set his jaw and moved.

Ten steps brought him to the bandit who had killed Jak. The man set the bloody spear to absorb the charge; had he held it up to thrust, he might have stood a chance, but Aric stopped, taking a wide, powerful swing that severed the spear handle and opened his stomach from hip to hip. Spinning with the motion, he aimed at the soldier Jak had knocked down with the uppercut, driving the point into his thigh and through the bone. He pulled the sword free amid screams of pain, wondering at such a show of weakness.

Another arrow streaked past his head.

Glancing at the shadowy figure, Aric started moving again; in the back of his mind he wondered where the last bowman was hiding. Small tents littered the camp, with racks of armor and weapons set up between—the plate strappings of his own armor were mounted upon one of them. The young knight ducked and dodged his way between them as he closed the distance. Running between two of the armor racks, an arrow embedded itself in the wood between the helmet and chest piece. As he maneuvered through the camp, the young knight had been keeping a wary eye on his opponent; instead of reaching for another arrow, the undisciplined bowman seemed to be chastising himself for missing. Reacting immediately to the opportunity, Aric sprinted towards his foe and leapt over one of the smaller tents—a feat he wouldn’t have been able to perform in full armor—and ran hard at the bowman.

Hearing a bowstring twang and catching a flash of motion, he glanced to his right, and narrowly avoided another arrow.

He’d just found the last bowman.

There was only one bandit left unaccounted for…Karin.

He had no time for thoughts of her, the bowman in front of him was drawing his bowstring.

Stepping onto an old fallen log, Aric launched himself at his foe, knocking the bow away and sending them both flying hard at the ground. The twang of the bowstring coincided with biting pain as an arrow pierced the mail covering his left arm, digging painfully into the flesh of his bicep. His sword slipped away when they hit the ground, disappearing into the shadows. Despite the pain, he used the momentum of the impact to roll himself on top of his opponent and started throwing punches to his head. The flesh of his knuckles broke against the others face, and though the body beneath him went limp, his pent up rage had finally found a release. With each punch, Karin’s betrayal burned in his heart, and the shame over his words to Tam aggrieved his spirit.

When the pain in his bicep finally became too insistent to ignore, he stopped; the bowman’s face was a bloodied mess and as he gazed at it, he found another reason for shame.

Shaking his head, he glanced toward the last bowman, seeing Tam’s blade chop the man down.

Pushing himself up and looking around, Aric saw that the merchants were beginning to come out from hiding; in the ring of firelight, Derin was busily tending to Jak, with his two foes lying face down to the west. Between the wound he’d seen inflicted upon Jak and Derin’s body language, he guessed that they’d be soon be building a pyre and grieving the loss of a companion.

Away to his right, Tam turned and started back towards the camp, doing his best to hide the agony playing across his features. Watching Tam’s steps slow and grow erratic Aric sprinted towards him, arriving in time to catch his friend as he fell forward. Gently reversing his direction, he helped Tam to lie down on his back. The older knight 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 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 replied, pulling the arrow free and covering the bleeding wound with a scrap of cloth. Holding it up, 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. “House of Wer...there was a group of bandits that operated out of the hills called Nowher," he closed his eyes again, "I should have known; the clues were there, I missed them.”

“We both did.”

He opened his eyes and stared hard at the young knight. “Remember what I told you about a woman with a sword?”

Aric nodded.

“You can’t let her get away.”

The young knight opened his mouth to argue.

“It’s 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, the sudden pain in his stomach radiated up into his chest and down into his groin.

“Go!” Tam ordered, throwing all that was left of his strength into that one word; before he realized what was happening, Aric was up and moving back towards the carriages.

A startled whinny and the quick thunder of galloping hooves sounded to his right, he turned and saw its silhouette moving quickly down the trail. Aric swore to himself and started running, calculating how long it would take him to saddle up his horse with his injured arm, then he remembered that the tack and harness was over by the fire. Karin had suggested that they have the leatherworker who rode with them check over their equipment in case they ran into bandits on the road—in retrospect it was easy to see how she had so expertly set them up.

His only hope was to find a saddled horse, if he didn’t he would never catch her.

“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.” The words passed his lips in a hushed whisper, but screamed in his mind.

As he suspected, none of the remaining horses were saddled. The young knight turned and stared down the trail. The fading sound of hooves beating packed trail echoed back to him, but the darkness between the trees was complete.

She’d escaped.

The shadow of rage that filled his mind passed quickly, and was followed by the relief of not having to face her again, of not having to take her back to Calidon and watch as she stood before the Chief of the Moors and judgment was passed. The corners of his lips turned up in a guilty smile. 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. His gaze settled on the figure standing waist high in the grasses, an arrow knocked in her a short bow.

She fired, striking him in the right shoulder.

The force of the arrow forced him to step back, but pierced the mail only enough to draw blood; he ignored the pain. “Why are you here?” he shouted at her. She did not respond. “You can’t be here, you escaped,” an edge of panic slipped into his voice as he took a step forward.

Another arrow was knocked and ready.

“I’m not going to let you take me to Calidon,” she said, her voice cold, emotionless. “If I don’t get the gallows I’ll go crazy in prison, either way, it’s not how I’m going to die.”

Aric took another step forward, wishing he had a sword. “I…I’m a Knight,” his voice was shaky, but the words were strong, “and you’re a bandit; it’s my duty take you back to Calidon.”

Taking another step, he expected her to fire that arrow.

She hesitated, turning her face away from him, her features catching the moons light; Aric had never seen anything so beautiful.

“Karin.” She turned back; their eyes met and for just a moment they were back sitting against the wagon wheel, locked in a passionate embrace. The aim of her bow dropped. “I have to…” He heard the twang of the bowstring and felt the arrow penetrate the armor of his left leg; a roar gurgled up from his stomach, but he held it down as he struggled to remain on his feet. Aric had to actually touch the arrow to believe that she'd shot him again.

That reality had not yet set in when that familiar figure moved towards him, her bow discarded in favor of a blade.

She was out of reach and her stance was aggressive, but she paused to ask him a question. “Tam told me that he didn’t think you’d ever been in love before, is that true?”

Not seeing any reason to lie, Aric nodded, watching as she shifted her weight, bracing herself to swing. He wondered if she would really strike him, 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; not even when the bloodied tip of his companion’s blade pushed through the front of her piece-mail armor. She dropped onto her knees, the look of surprise writ across her face falling into a sad smile as she looked up at him. “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, as her lifeless body slumped over onto the ground.

Later, after their injuries had been tended to and the merchant’s fears had been allayed, after he’d 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 overgrown field, surrounded by trees and flowers, and he alone in front of it, watching the suns crest the horizon.