A brigand with a large gap between his teeth handed the lance to the young knight on his horse. “He’s giving you a chance to die fighting, but if you win, the rest of us will kill you.” He smiled savagely. “You went after the wrong people, boy.”
The knight backhanded the brigand and brought the lance up over the saddle. “I see I killed the wrong three. Get out of my way or I’ll skewer you.”
Another brigand drew his sword. “You be careful what you say or you may have to fight without a tongue.”
The knight lowered the tip of his lance to point at the speaker. “If I die here today, more will come. Your kind will _not_ rule this land.” He thrust the lance forward, hitting the brigand in the chest hard enough to knock him over. “If I die today, I will do so for a good cause and people will remember my name.”
“Now, now, Sir Arvel,” someone said behind the knight and he turned to face a man dressed in full plate made of bronze, sitting atop a night black mount. “Enough of this bragging,” the rider went on. “I am giving you this chance because you did earn the chain you wear and I wish to remove it from you the same way you earned it — in combat.”
“Quinn,” Arvel answered, “killing me won’t make your life easier. You are still an outlaw.”
“Until I am removed by a tribunal, you will refer to me as Sir Garwood Quinn.”
“Baron Bankroft already revoked your knighthood!”
“Baron Bankroft is dead!”
Arvel glared at the man in the bronze armor.
“Are the peasants ready?” Quinn asked one of his men.
“They are all in the field, Sir.”
“Good. If you will, Sir Arvel,” Quinn turned to his opponent. “My men will escort you to your starting position.”
The gap-toothed brigand took the reins of the horse and lead it away. Quinn kicked his horse to a gallop, going to the other side of the meadow.
Arvel’s horse was led to a red marker on the edge of the field and turned to face in Sir Garwood’s direction. The brigand walked away and Arvel raised his head to the sky in a silent prayer. As the first horn sounded, he leveled his lance. On the second he kicked the horse into a trot. Across the field Sir Garwood did the same. The two horses gained speed on their charges and the knights collided with a clash. Arvel’s shield received a great dent in its face. He was not sure if it could take another hit like that, but he suspected he did at least as much damage to Quinn. He turned his horse and looked to find Quinn. The renegade knight adjusted his shield and charged back. Arvel shifted his weight in the saddle and urged his own horse forward. Once again the two knights collided, but this time Arvel fell from his saddle to the ground and Quinn rode back. He dismounted and knelt beside the fallen man.
“See how combat before the gods works?” he asked and took the chain of knighthood into his hand. Arvel gasped at the force with which the chain was torn off. “You’re no knight,” Quinn declared and slit the fallen man’s throat.
Rien embraced Kera one last time and whispered “Have a safe journey,” in her ear. Kera pressed harder against him. “I’ll miss you.”
After a minute or so they released each other and Kera remounted her horse. Rien watched her ride away until she reached the curve in the road, where she turned back and waved. He waved back and soon she disappeared from sight.
Rien got back on his horse and kicked it into motion. There was a month long trip ahead of him to do a job that should have been taken care of months ago. It was to bring to justice, one way or another, Sir Garwood Quinn, one of the knights of Baron Bankroft, or rather the late Baron Bankroft, who was murdered in cold blood by the said renegade a few days before the Melrin festival. Quinn, in his festive, pre-holiday spirit, took a few of his men and went out to pillage and plunder his baron’s lands and set up camp somewhere near the village of Phedra, after permanently relieving the local constable.
That was the report Rien received three weeks ago at the inn, telling of something that took place almost two months before that. Now Rien’s task was to find the renegade knight in the lands he’s been despoiling and one way or another to take care of him and his dozen or so men. Of course by the time Rien arrived, it would be well over three months since the initial event and in that time anything could have happened. The problem might have already been resolved by the local authorities, which was doubtful, as any organized process in the Duchy of Quinnat would be unlikely at best. On the other hand, the problem also had had a chance to grow, which was the more likely event. Rien only hoped it had not grown too much.
He sent Kera to Sharks’ Cove specifically for that reason — what he was about to do was going to be very dangerous. She would be much safer on the road than in a fight. She was to go to Armand and take a boat to Sharks’ Cove to deliver his message that said he had finally gotten around to the job. The note also requested his horse and equipment and a mount for Kera. Rien had initially left his horse and gear behind to assure his co-workers that he would indeed take a break this time. All he ended up proving was that he did not need anything extra to run into more problems. The vacation became nothing more than a disorganized job, but no one would ever hear about that. Rien was more restless than Kera showed herself to be in their week long stay at the inn in Dargon, but he controlled it better than she. Being forced to “relax” and do nothing was sheer torture for him.
Instead of dying of boredom, Rien managed to obtain an obligation to the High Mage (who hopefully still knew nothing of the troubleshooters), get a witches coven upset with him (upset enough to try and kill him), anger the provincial Dargon mob (which hired an assassin to hunt him down) and on top of that, get himself an apprentice! Apprentice for what? He worked alone! His association with Kera made him wonder about their relationship now that he was finally alone and had the chance to think. Was it because he felt sorry for her? Was it because he felt responsible for the disease? And why has their relationship turned sexual of all things? She didn’t even have a drop of elven blood. His mate…ex-mate was at least an elf.
One thing was for sure, Kera lead the type of lifestyle he lead. Despite this tie between them there was still a problem. He was more than seven times her age and would easily live to see ten times that amount. She, at best, would live to the end of the century. In fifteen or twenty years she would be on the decline, no longer as strong or as agile…and twenty years past that, the same would start happening to her mind. Rien was not happy about human mortality. It was the cause of the initial conflict between his people and the human race. In a matter of two centuries, a few millenia ago, elves almost became an extinct race because of their inability to die a natural death. They were virtual pacifists back then, permitting themselves to be slaughtered almost to the last.
To date, Rien knew of only four tribes in existence, all living in the same place, Wildwood, in the valley of the Windbourne mountains, or Charnelwood — Darkling Forest — as the superstitious humans in the area preferred to call it. Two of the tribes were Ljosalfar. The one he was from and another, of which his ex-mate was a member. The other two were Dopkalfar and Rien knew little of them. He could find them if he wanted to, but there was never a reason to. The Dopkalfar were the ones who insisted that the human lust for elven blood should be repaid in kind and it was this desire to survive that almost singlehandedly saved the entire race. It was this desire that separated the two groups into the broken race they now were. One remained peaceful and the other became warriors. The conflict lay in the issue of revenge and question of superiority. Did a more civilized race have the right to condemn another?
For the most part Ljosalfar strongly believed that they should not fight a war and should simply be ready to leave if the humans ever come again. The philosophy of the Dopkalfar was to be ready at all times to take on the challenge of a war and win. There were naturally all sides to the issue in each of the tribes and this was a source of great debates for many centuries.
To Rien it was all ancient history, now no more than a racial conflict he believed to be wrong. There were less than two hundred elves that he knew existed and their growth was stunted by humans on the outside and internal conflicts at home. If Ljosalfar and Dopkalfar ever met for reasons other than to decide their future, it was to have as big a fight as they could, although no elf ever died by another elf’s hand.
There were some human tribes in the mountains and in the forest that did not hate elves and some that even revered them, but on the whole, Makdiar was now a human world and the elves could no longer lay any claim.
Rien left his tribe to see the world his father was from, the world no elf had visited for over two millenia. Most in the tribe were against it, but Rien managed to convince a good portion of them that it would be good to know where they stood in the minds of the humans and that he, of mixed heritage, was the best person to find out. To his surprise, he learned that his species was a thing of legends and most, save scholars and mages, did not realize that these legends were often based on facts. Elves were as forgotten as the empires that rose to defeat them.
During his time in the human dominated places, Rien learned that humans feared things they did not understand and often tended to rid themselves of these inconveniences any way they could. Maari and Terell were both in this category, but many others were not. Perhaps because time erased the memories of the wars, perhaps because now people were more tolerant. Those like Marcellon and Taishent and Connall, who had no problems with what he was.
And neither did Kera, a fact that, oddly enough, pleased him. On his fourth day in Dargon, just three days after they came to an uneasy truce, she saved his life. Perhaps she realized he was not human then, perhaps not. She certainly had the opportunity, but more importantly, she had no reason in the world to save a man who could just as easily have turned her over to the town guard. She could have abandoned him or killed him or given him to Liriss, but instead killed for him and remained at his side. That was the type of people who could live peacefully side by side with elves and that’s why he developed respect for her…
Rien could not tell if that was the reason for the growth of their physical relationship and did not assume that he would find out soon. For now he was glad she had decided to stay with him and more so that she agreed not to face the dangers he expected to encounter. Their plan was, that since Kera would reach Sharks’ Cove a lot quicker by ship, she would pick up the equipment and travel on to Phedra, a week long journey, where she would meet up with him again. By then he would have had a good week to take care of the job … or not.
Rien caught sight of Phedra in early morning. It lay in a shallow valley, backed by a forest on one side and open to farming fields on the other. In spite of the hour, there was no evidence of life either in the village or in the fields.
Rien stopped his horse on the hillside and scanned the area. The village appeared well cared for, but still empty. The fields were also in good shape, but like the town, there were no indications of life. Rien encouraged his horse forward. Up ahead on his left he noticed some motion behind a large bush, whose leaves were beginning to turn brown from lack of water.
Unhooking his foot from the stirrup, Rien placed it on the arc of the crossbow, which hung off the saddle to his right. He bent down and grabbing hold of one of the two strings, pulled it back. Not an action that should be done while riding, but better than not being prepared at all.
Rien looked ahead again. The bush was still. Across from it was an old tree with branches extending over the road with too many leaves to betray anyone hiding in it.
The horse was now about twenty feet away from the tree. At the current rate he would be passing under it in a few moments. Rien looked at the crossbow, but it was impossible to place a bolt in it, not only because of lack of cover, but also because it was pointing straight down and would not hold the missile. Rien grumbled silently for a second and with his left hand undid the strap binding the hilt of his sword.
He was passing under the first branches of the tree and looked up just in time to see a net falling onto him. The horse stopped and with a yell someone leaped down. Rien caught the man with his long dagger in mid-air and his assailant landed on the ground with a thud, the weapon lost somewhere under him. Rien was also in a bad position. The horse would not move while the net was around it and he could not draw his sword to cut himself out. As he considered his situation, an arrow from behind the bush penetrated his leg with enough force to secure it to the horse’s body. The animal reared up in surprise and pain, breaking the arrow and throwing Rien off, as a second arrow hit it in the shoulder, right were Rien’s head had been a moment before.
The net caught on the horse and the saddle and Rien more slid than fell to the ground. He grabbed the dagger on the ground and cut the net open. When he finally struggled free, he encountered a man with a drawn sword. The first swing would have surely made contact with his head, except he timely realized that his left leg could no longer support him and collapsed to his knees. The sword went barely over his head and he hit the swordsman with his dagger.
The man staggered back and Rien awkwardly drew his sword. His eyes were now silver-grey with anger, matching the color of the steel. Before the brigand could recover for the next attack, Rien swung, slicing his opponent’s stomach open. The brigand dropped his weapon and collapsed on top of it, a pool of blood spreading under him.
Rien staggered up, the pain in his leg becoming unbearable, but went on to face the two new challengers who appeared from beyond the bush. He parried both their strikes, then attacked one man’s weapon, sending it to the ground. The second man swung at Rien, connecting loosely with his side. Rien returned the favor, but instead of pulling his sword back, forced it forward. Panicking, the brigand dropped his weapon and tried grabbing his sword, but Rien pulled it back, leaving bloody streaks on the man’s hands.
Rien turned on his second opponent, again knocking his sword to the ground. The brigand tried punching him, but Rien swung again, cutting his forearm off. The man stared in shock and horror and Rien put the sword through him for the last time.
When Rien turned to face the last man, the brigand was sitting on the ground, nursing his hands and side, the sword laying a few feet away, where it had landed. The brigand yielded and Rien put his own weapon away. He leaned on his horse, still covered by the net, for support. A dark pool of red appeared where he stood and his leg was soaked with blood from the calf down. He pulled out a dagger from the saddle bag to cut the net off when hoof beats sounded up ahead on the road. Rien looked up.
Riding towards him were three men. The one in the lead rode a black stallion and wore bronze plate armor. The other two rode at his sides and were dressed in chain. Each man wielded a cocked and loaded crossbow. They stopped less than twenty feet away from Rien and the man in the middle surveyed the scene with calculated interest. The brigand sitting on the ground rose, holding on to his injured side. His effort was rewarded with a crossbow bolt in his chest and collapsed to the ground, probably dead.
“Is this your doing?” the man asked in an aristocratic voice.
Rien nodded, studying the man silently. He believed himself to be speaking with Sir Garwood Quinn.
“Those were my men,” Quinn motioned to the four bodies. “I think it’d be best if you joined them…” A new bolt was inserted into the crossbow.