I’m really excited about where this story’s headed. It’s getting to the point which I’ve had planned out for a long time, and I think it’s gonna be good. Just you guys wait and see. I bet you’ll enjoy it. Regardless, this was a chapter I’d actually written right after seven, but I only just got around to editing it. Enjoy. 🙂
Grommel, lead guard, eyed the horizon uneasily. He had a bad feeling in his gut, and the last time he’d felt like this, he’d lost three fingers and an eye. His horse sensed its master’s discomfort and shifted hesitantly.
“Aaht issit?” Navar, one of the merchants in the caravan, asked, pulling up beside the soldier.
It had taken Grommel a full week to get used to Navar’s slurred sibilants and his disturbing lack of lips, but the soldier answered fairly readily now. “Just a bad feeling, probably nothing.”
“You don’t think issnothing.”
Navar’s uncanny intuition, that Grommel had not grown accustomed to. For a while, the two men sat in silence, both peering out at the distant line where earth met sky. Then, he saw it: a threatening cloud of dust on the horizon.
Navar apparently saw it too because he drew his wickedly curved sword.
“Stop the caravan!” Grommel yelled over his shoulder. “Defensive formation! Bandits are coming!”
There was a brief moment of chaos at this information, but all the merchants in the caravan were veterans — Grommel had made sure of that — and it didn’t take them long to follow his orders.
“How many are there?” Maville, one of the “over-weights” as Gromel termed them, puffed as he rode up.
“More than enough,” Grommel said grimly, eyeing the dust cloud which had tripled in size.
“Oh dear,” Maville said, then he turned to Navar. “Put that thing away. It makes me nervous.”
Navar and Maville fitted with each other as well as a knife under fingernails. The two had rubbed against each other the entire journey, and now was no exception.
Navar turned to look at Maville, and Grommel had the disturbing impression that the lipless merchant was smiling. “Noh.”
Grommel cut in before Maville could splutter back. “We don’t have time for this. We have a hundred soldiers in our caravan, and there are at least three hundred bandits out there. Ordinarily, this would not be a problem, but judging by our location, these are no common bandits. Likely as not, they’re led by the famed Ta’vich, and he has defeated guard forces twice our size.”
Maville went pale, and Grommel decided that Navar must have stopped smiling as he gave his sword a few practice swings. Something Grommel had carefully omitted in his brief biography of Ta’vich was that most of what he said came from personal experience. He’d led one of the guard forces he spoke of in his early caravan guarding days, and his missing fingers now adorned the necklace the bandit king wore.
The guard drew his sword and flicked it experimentally. Maville wordlessly slunk into cover, and the rest of Grommel’s team filled the gaps. Grommel eyed his men. He could see the fear in their faces; he could even feel it in the air, but he knew none of them would abandon him. To most, the situation would have appeared hopeless, but Grommel had a trick up his sleeve: Each of his men was a well-trained archer and could put an arrow into a man at forty cords.
“Steady men!” Grommel called out with confidence he didn’t feel. Someone told him a long time ago that kissing one’s sword granted good luck.
“Nock arrows!” It was just silly superstition.
“Take aim!” Had to be.
Grommel glanced quickly at his men. They were all focused on the enemy, beads of perspiration dripping from their faces. He kissed his sword. “Fire!”
A hundred arrows flew into the air, straight and true, before turning and flying down into the dust cloud. Cries of pain and confusion echoed across the flatlands. For a moment, Grommel celebrated; it would only take a few more rounds like those to rout the bandits. But his was only a brief moment. Then the counter volley came.
Grommel instinctively ducked as artificial screams spread through the air. If there had been any doubt before, there was none now. Only Ta’vich had his archers make arrows that screamed as they flew. “Screamers,” the men had called them. Seconds later, real screams replaced the artificial ones as men went down all around Grommel. Navar fell off his horse beside Grommel, an arrow having knocked out his teeth and penetrated his throat.
“Fire at will!” Grommel shouted, desperately hoping there were still men left to fire.
He heard galloping. No doubt the merchants had decided to run. But it is only one horse, Grommel’s ears told him, And it’s coming towards you. Grommel looked back over his shoulder in time to see a cloaked man gallop past him on a black horse.
Ryke rode straight at the dust cloud that was the bandits. He was counting the beat of his horse’s gallop. One. The bandits would have heard the horse. Two. They’d seen him. Three. He imagined them drawing their bows. Four. They were taking aim. Five.
Ryke stood in the saddle and flipped off backwards, letting the horse continue its course. Just as he did, a volley of arrows whizzed through the air above his head. He swung the shield from his back and started counting his breaths. One. The archers nocked more arrows. Two. Ryke started running. Three. They drew their bows. Four. He felt their eyes on him. Five.
He brought the shield up in front of his face as a dozen arrows thudded into it. Swinging his arm, he tossed the shield off to his left. Still running, Ryke drew his swords before disappearing into the dust.
Grommel sat there stunned as he watched a lone man cross the battlefield and disappear into the enemy. When he heard the screams and shouts of what was definitely more than one man, he came to his senses.
What remained of his unit galloped forward into the dust to help their mysterious savior.
“You have to tell me where he went.”
“Like I said, he returned to the city after staying the night here.”
“And I’m telling you that he can’t have done that.”
Kyr-lya sat up groggily in an unfamiliar bed. The cracked floorboards continued to leak the argument taking place below her.
“There was only one man who came here last night, and after he dropped off a girl, he went back to the city.”
“I just told you, old man. He did not go back to the— Wait. What girl?”
Kyr-lya stepped into the barroom. A tall, red-haired woman stood, arguing with a man whose beard looked longer than his lifespan.
Ignoring the woman, who carried a crossbow on her back and a pair of daggers in her belt, Kyr-lya faced the man.
“Are you the keeper of this establishment?”
“That I am.”
“What happened to the man who brought me in?”
“Like I’ve been explaining to this lady over here, he went back to the city.”
“I have a hard time believing that,” Kyr-lya said. “He seemed bent on going away from the city the last I remember”
“By Kar!” the old man shouted, losing his temper. He raised his hand, palm out, and his eyes flashed purple. In a rising crescendo, he spoke, “Tova su liet ha no liet su tova ha no su liet tova ha no!”
The doors flew open behind the two women and they were sent flying out onto the road. Kyr-lya, still catching her breath, watched as the red-haired Human stood up with a grim look on her face.
“You made a very bad mistake, old man,” the woman said, as she stalked back into the inn, knife in hand.
“What are you doing?” Kyr-lya managed to say.
The woman stood over the innkeeper who had fallen back in a chair from the mental exertion. She looked at Kyr-lya. “Ridding the world of evil.”
The Ash girl watched in horror as the woman slashed with her knife and an all-too-familiar red line appeared across the old man’s throat.
“So, where are you headed?” Grommel asked, turning a spit.
Everyone around the campfire looked expectantly at Ryke as he sharpened his sword. “That’s my business.”
There was a moment of silence as Grommel continued to turn the spit. “Fair enough. Regardless, after what you did today, you’re welcome to ride with us.”
Ryke looked up from his work. “Thank you.”
“I disagree, captain,” Maville interrupted. “This man is a killer, and he has the evil eye I tell you. He won’t have any problems alone in the desert.”
Grommel looked at Maville wearily. “And what if the “killer” decides that leaving him alone in the desert displays conduct equal to that of the bandits he killed?”
Maville’s eyes went wide and he gulped.
“Here,” Grommel handed Ryke a slice of the meat, before picking up a bottle of alcohol. “To our rescuer.”
“To our rescuer,” everyone repeated.
Ryke studied Grommel carefully as the soldier gulped down his drink. The man was burly with the extra pounds that came from caravan duty, but he could hold his own in a fight. Tattoos decorated his thick upper arms, and his hair hung in a black braid down between his shoulder blades. His left hand was missing three fingers, and an eyepatch covered his right eye.
“You’re a captain?” Ryke asked.
“Former military,” Grommel said, mouth full of meat. “I fought in the Great War. Near the end of it though. Bad times all round. It was mostly butchering and clean-up at that point. I got lucky and was assigned to guarding an outpost. Fended off an attack from a band of Aelves big enough to promote me from sergeant to captain. What about you? What’s your story?”
“I’m a nobody.”
“Some kind of nobody,” Grommel snorted. “You killed at least ten of them back there. A person like you isn’t nobody.”
“What do you think a person like me is, then?”
Grommel quieted down and looked inquisitively at Ryke. “Well, you’re no stranger to killing. You’re also no stranger to battlefield and guerilla tactics too, what with the way you approached those bandits. I’d say you’re a military man too, and you must’ve been in leadership like me. I’d say the only difference between you and me is that you’re from a special squad of some kind. Elite forces, assassin corps, something like that.”
Ryke was silent.
“Well, how close was I?” Grommel demanded, stuffing his mouth again.
“Pretty close I think. Pretty close indeed.”