“He’s not dead!” Kera looked defiantly at the farmer. “He can’t be!”
“I saw it with my own eyes, Miss. They jousted and then Sir Quinn cut his throat. He’s not the first one either. Knights and bounty hunters from all over have been coming to collect the reward on his head.”
“Trust me, Miss, he’s dead. I can take you to his grave, if you want.”
“All right,” Kera said. Seeing Rien’s grave would not help her, but maybe it would let her know one way or the other for certain. If what the farmer said was true, she would finish the job Rien started. Quinn would become the target of her revenge.
Kera looked up, a single tear coursing down her cheek.
“Are you all right? I’m sorry about your friend. Sir Quinn is a renegade, you know. Come, it’s not safe here. Those brigands are always on the lookout for new blood.”
Kera felt another tear run down her cheek and tried to hide it. Rien was all she’d ever had, the only one who ever cared and now she was on her own. “I’m fine,” she wiped her eyes. “Show me the grave.”
“This way,” the farmer led her towards the cluster of huts at the edge of the field and she followed blindly. Nothing seemed to matter, not even as she realized that this might be a trap. She could not imagine what to do next. It was as if all control and ability to make decisions suddenly escaped her.
“It’s right here,” the farmer stopped short of a cleared patch of land, not far from the edge of the road leading to the village. It contained seven wooden markers, representing the men Quinn killed. “Your friend is on the edge there,” the farmer pointed. “He was the last killed.”
Kera walked over and sank to her knees. `And yet another knight lies buried here, slain by Sir Garwood Quinn on 20 Seber 1013,’ read the marker. This time Kera forced herself not to cry and made a decision. She was going to get revenge, no matter what stood in her way.
“They’re coming, Miss! You’d better hide!” She heard the frantic words of the farmer and turned. On the road at the edge of the village were three mounted men. As the farmer began to run, the one in the middle pointed at him and one of his companions charged after the running man, drawing his sword on the charge. The other two rode slowly up to Kera and she gasped. The one who appeared to be in charge was Rien.
“You’re not from this village,” Rien declared. “What is your business here?”
“I-I…” Kera stuttered and saw Rien wink. “I was looking for someone…”
“One of them, perhaps?” he pointed at the graves.
“This one, I think…” Kera pointed to the last grave. “It’s not marked.”
“But it is marked,” Rien insisted. “Some fool knight who lost to Sir Quinn. He got all the honors he deserved.”
At that moment the brigand who had charged off into the field after the farmer came riding back alone. “I struck him down, but he’s still alive. He’s from the village.”
“Get the village healer to take care of him and I want him brought to me when he can talk,” Rien said and the man rode off towards the village.
“I hope your find was satisfactory, as you won’t have much satisfaction from now on.” Rien winked again. “Come here, wench.”
Kera walked over to him and he pulled her up on his horse and quickly removed the two daggers in her belt. Kera was suddenly too scared to move.
“Here,” Rien handed the blades to his companion. “Remain here. I will send someone to replace me, so you may complete the patrol.”
“Yes, Sir,” the man answered and Rien galloped off.
A safe distance away Rien slowed his horse. Kera still could not move. She did not know what happened to Rien, what he was after or even who was buried in the grave. More than anything else, she wanted to embrace Rien, but could not permit herself to do so.
“I am glad you’re here,” she finally heard Rien’s voice and felt his arm tighten around her waist. “It’s a lot worse than I thought. Quinn is holed up here as if he was born in this place. He has plenty of men, too. I managed to become his lieutenant after killing the man who originally held the job, but I needed you. When I kill him, this place won’t be safe for anyone. We’ll need to be together. For now I need you to pretend you’d rather be anywhere else but here.”
“I love you,” Kera said almost inaudibly and Rien realized that she was crying.
The horse came to a dead stop and Rien’s grip on Kera’s waist tightened. “No. Not here and not now. Please.”
Kera nodded through her tears and Rien kicked the horse into motion again. “Did you get everything at Sharks’ Cove?”
“It’s a few leagues out of town,” Kera answered. “I tied the horses to a tree away from the road.”
“Good,” Rien approved. “I’ll check on them in the morning.”
They rode through the village which appeared to be deserted. Rien stopped the horse before the largest building in sight and helped Kera down, then jumped off himself. Kera noticed that he had a limp, but he pushed her ahead of himself before she could say anything.
The building was a tavern and an inn. Inside four men lounged around drinking and a bartender stood behind the bar. Kera noticed there was a metal chain around his neck which led up to the rafters.
Rien kicked the chair out from one of the drunker looking men. “How often do I have to keep telling you not to drink if you can’t hold your booze?”
The man groaned, rising his hands to his head and Rien, having picked up a half full goblet off the table, threw it at the man. “Go get Quinn and clean up this mess when you get back!”
The man stumbled up to his feet and staggered off as the other three straightened themselves out. Rien shoved Kera into a chair and picking up the jug on the table took a few deep swallows from it, then sat down himself. A few moments later a tall dark haired man dressed in a fashionable red tunic and grey pants came down the stairs. Rien immediately stood back up.
“And what have you brought me this time, Sir Keegan?” the man looked over at Kera.
“With all due respect, Sir Quinn,” Rien answered, “I brought her for myself. You told me I might select a woman for my own.”
“So I did,” the man kept appraising Kera, “but you said none in the village suited your interest.”
“None did, Sir, but she is not from the village. She came looking for one of the knights you jousted. I request her for my own.”
Quinn thought for a moment. “Having found her, you may have her for tonight, Sir Keegan, but I want her tomorrow and then I shall decide. She is rather young. The rest of the men might appreciate her as well. They need something new.”
“As you wish, Lord,” Rien answered.
“It’s always as I wish, Sir Keegan,” Quin laughed and went over to the bar. “Give me a drink, man!”
The man Rien kicked out of his chair came back to clean up the floor. “After you’re done here, go take up my patrol with Kritner and Breault,” Rien told him. “Kritner will be in charge.”
“Right away, Sir,” the man answered.
Rien took Kera by her arm and led her up the stairs, showing her into a luxurious room. “Sit,” he let go of her and locked the door.
Kera sat down on the bed. The way Rien acted reminded her too much of the men working for Liriss. She noticed him doing everything he said he was against and it was beginning to frighten her more and more.
“Are you all right?” he finally asked her.
“Fine,” Kera answered, wiping the tears off her cheeks.
Rien knelt in front of her. “You sure?”
“Why are you limping?” Kera asked.
“I got hurt proving to Quinn I’m as good as any four of his men,” Rien said. “It’s fine now. I ride most of the time anyway.”
He and Kera embraced and remained that way for a long time. It was dark in the room by the time they let go of each other.
“How are your eyes?” Rien asked.
“As good as ever,” Kera said. “I think my sense of smell improved too.”
“It’s not the disease?”
“No, no. That’s all passed. I guess I was so concerned, I just didn’t notice the change at first. How are you?”
Rien smiled. “A little worse for wear, but fine. I am glad you’re back,” and he embraced her again.
This time they let each other go a lot sooner. “Are you hungry?” Rien asked and without waiting for an answer went to the door. “Let me get us some food.” He put the key in the lock and remained motionless for a moment.
“What’s wrong?” Kera asked.
Rien waited a moment longer, then turned to Kera. “Scream.”
Kera did and her yell was followed by laughter from the corridor. She smiled and screamed again and Rien pushed a chair so it fell over with a thud. More laughter could be heard outside and Kera bit down on her lip to prevent herself from doing the same.
Rien placed his index finger to his lips and made a shushing sound, then quickly unlocked the door and stepped out.
“What are you doing here?” Kera heard Rien demanding.
“Talking, Sir,” someone answered.
“Not at my door!”
“Bring dinner for me and my friend and then get lost.”
Kera heard footsteps hurrying away and Rien stepped back into the room, holding a candle. He was smiling. “I have a well earned reputation.”
Kera smiled also, in spite of being concerned over how Rien was acting. The nagging thoughts of how he could have earned that reputation were shoved to the back of her mind, where she would not have to think about it.
Rien placed the candle in a stand on the table and returned to Kera. “Give me your cloak.”
Kera fumbled with the strings at her neck and handed it to him.
Rien turned it over, shook it, then carelessly tossed it on the floor in the middle of the room. He then bent down and unlaced Kera’s tunic, pulling it partially off of one shoulder.
“What are you doing?” she asked him, but instead of answering, Rien kissed her and roughed up her hair.
A knock sounded at the door, “Yes?” Rien stood up and turned, one hand resting possessively on Kera’s shoulder.
The door opened and a man walked in carrying a tray. He stepped over the cloak on the floor to place the food on the table, then stepped back and threw a quick glance over at Kera, who lowered her eyes. “Will there be anything else, Sir?” he asked Rien.
“When’s your patrol?”
“Stay away from my door.”
The man bowed and quickly retreated from the room, pulling the door closed after himself. Rien hurried to relock it.
“Come,” Rien called to Kera and she came over to the table. “You can fix your tunic now,” he motioned.
“I was hoping I would be removing it later,” she answered cautiously.
Rien smirked. “As you wish. I won’t make you sleep dressed.”
Kera hurried through dinner, even though it was much better than the trail rations she had been enduring for the last couple of weeks. She found herself thinking of the things she saw and heard. Listening to Rien she understood that he did his best to fit in with the rest of the cut-throats around, but the environment greatly reminded her of Liriss’ organization, something she thought was well behind her.
“How did you join them?” Kera asked when she finished eating.
“Here?” Rien asked and she nodded. “I was ambushed on the road. I realized it was an ambush, but there was nothing I could do when I was attacked, other than be ready. So I got hurt, but I did win the fight.”
Kera smiled. Somehow she’d expected that.
“That’s when Quinn showed up,” Rien went on. “He had a couple of his men with him and all had crossbows, so I decided to talk my way out of a conflict…or rather into a job. A couple of praises of his skill and fame and a boast or two about my own abilities got me challenged to a sword fight. Quinn’s pretty good, but I let him win anyway. Told him I’m a knight.
“That got him interested enough to keep me around and a week ago I arranged for a mishap to take his lieutenant. Being the only other knight around, Quinn gave the position to me.”
“Why haven’t you killed him yet?” Kera asked. “Sounds like you’ve had plenty of opportunities.”
“He has men,” Rien said, “and I cannot outfight all of them should they learn that I either attempted or succeeded in the assassination. I also promised you I would meet you here. I don’t expect to stay long now. Just a few days so I can finish the job.”
There was some commotion and Rien got up to look out the window. He saw two men pushing another one around in the dark. “The guards must have gotten a hold of another villager,” he sighed.
Kera took a look too after putting out the candle. “Aren’t you going to stop them before they kill him?”
“No. There are only so many good things that I can do and not have anyone wonder,” Rien said. “Don’t worry, they won’t kill him. There are so few villagers left that Quinn will have their heads if they do.”
“Rien,” Kera said, “Quinn told you he wants to bed me tomorrow.”
“He won’t,” Rien promised and put his arms around Kera. “Tell me about your trip. What happened in Sharks’ Cove?”
Kera woke up alone, realizing that her arms had fallen asleep and to her surprise found that both her hands were tightly tied behind her back. She struggled against the rope, which was looped somewhere beneath the bed, but could not break or loosen it. With difficulty she sat up on the bed and looked around. Her clothing was still scattered on the floor, but Rien’s were gone, as were the dishes on the table. She tried to bend over, to see what the rope was attached to, but it was too short to give her that much freedom of movement. She kicked at the floor in anger and threw herself back on the bed.
“Son of a …!” She couldn’t think of a good derogatory word for an elf. `What am I going to do? Run away?’ She rolled over to look at the window a few feet away. All she could see was a clear sky and a ray of sunlight filling the room. It must be late morning. Kera tossed a bit longer, making herself comfortable. It made sense to her that a prisoner could not roam free, but couldn’t Rien just lock her in or at least tie her more comfortably? She wondered if the door was unlocked and maneuvered herself under the blanket. `He wouldn’t dare…’
The street was reasonably quiet and occasionally voices and footsteps could be heard in the corridor. After what seemed like an eternity of staring at the same spot on the wall, Kera decided that her only course of action was to wait and, anyhow, the bed was the most comfortable place in the room and she could not get free of the rope anyway.
It was well past noon when Kera heard a key click in the lock and quickly slid further under the blanket.
Rien walked in. She glared at him.
“I’m sorry,” Rien shut the door and walked over. He sat down and untied the rope.
Kera felt like strangling him, but instead placed her arms in front of herself and dropped her head in them.
“If you are to appear as my captive, it has to be full time.”
“Who’s going to see me?”
“Quinn has keys to all doors. Most other men could pick the lock.”
“And you were going to leave me tied up for them?!”
Rien stroked her back. “If you were free to roam about, could you pick it?”
“Why didn’t you warn me?”
“I didn’t think of it last night and did not want to wake you up this morning. You tend to sleep late, so you would have been spared most of the anxiety.”
Kera sighed. “If you keep this up long enough, I’ll forgive you.”
Rien smiled and continued running his fingers along her spine. “How long?”
“Long,” she answered and brushed the blanket back.
Rien looked up to avoid meeting Kera’s gaze and then moved behind her, so she would not see him. “I moved the horses to a box canyon on the other side of the hills to the south,” Rien said after a while. “It’s secluded and has good grass.”
Kera moaned in response.
“Are you paying attention?”
“I left one of the healing potions we took from Terell on your horse. I am leaving another one in the room so you can be close to it. The third is on my riding horse here. I’ve got the poison here too. You’ll administer it to Quinn tonight.”
Kera turned over and Rien pulled his arms back. “What do you mean I’ll administer it?” She looked down at his hands. “Keep going, I haven’t forgiven you yet.”
“Quinn wants to see you tonight,” Rien reminded her. “You will have the opportunity. I will be taking care of his men.” He reached out towards Kera and a second later she jumped up with a burst of laughter.
“Cut it out!”
“That sounded pretty final,” Rien said. “I guess I’m done.”
Kera covered her stomach with her arms. “How are we going to do that?”
“You will take…”
A knock on the door interrupted Rien. He looked at Kera, then stood up. She instinctively took the rope and placed her hands behind her back.
“Come,” Rien turned to the door.
The guard whom Kera met in the field the day before entered. “The old man is conscious, but the healer says he is not to be moved.”
Rien folded his arms and the man took the opportunity to steal a glance at Kera.
“Prepare my horse. I will be there shortly.”
The guard bowed and left.
Rien turned to Kera and she fell back on the bed. “I hate this,” she sighed.
Rien sat down on the edge of the bed. “I have to leave. You will add the poison to Quinn’s drink tonight. I will take care of as many men as I can. We’ll leave during the night.”
Kera looked up at him. His eyes were a nondescript blue-grey.
“I have to tie you.”
She turned over, placing her hands on her back and closed her eyes to hide the pain.
Rien secured her hands and left without a word, locking the door after himself.
Rien and Breault dismounted on the neat lawn in front of the healer’s hut. The healer, Sherestha, a plump old woman, scornfully muttered that these two could not walk the fifty yards from the tavern to her house.
“How is he?” Rien asked.
“He’ll die if he’s lucky,” the woman answered.
Rien took the healing potion from the saddle bag and went inside. The old farmer lay on his stomach on a pile of blankets and skins. Across his back were leaves and herbs covering a foot long gash. Rien knelt down next to him.
“He is not conscious,” the woman said. “He’s too old.”
Rien stood up and handed her the potion. “Make him drink it.”
“What is this?” Sherestha asked.
“Does it matter? He’ll die if he’s lucky.”
Breault chuckled and the woman glared at him.
“What is this?”
“It will heal the wound,” Rien said.
The healer opened the vial and smelled the contents, then turned the wounded man on his side and began pouring the liquid into his mouth.
The smile on Breault’s face diminished as the wound started healing over. He looked at Rien.
“Come, we need to talk, Breault.”
They walked out back with Rien saying no more.
“Why are you healing him?” Breault finally asked. “What good is he to us?”
“Are you questioning my authority?”
Breault drew himself to his full six-four height. “Yes, Sir Keegan, I am.”
Rien calmly walked past him. “Don’t you think I know better?”
“I think something is wrong.”
Rien stopped. “Like what?”
“There’s something wrong with you.”
Rien remained with his back to Breault, but his hand all ready held the hilt of his long dagger. “Like what, Breault?”
“You like life,” the man made the accusation and started after Rien. “I’ve never seen you take it.”
Rien waited for Breault to be directly behind him, then turned, putting the dagger in his stomach. “Don’t you like life, Breault? Given the choice, do you want to live?” He held the man still and forced it up under his rib cage. “I am taking a life, Breault. Do you like it?”
Red foam began appearing at the brigand’s mouth and he started slipping down.
Rien let the body drop to the ground. “Now you’ve seen it all.” He wiped the blade on the dead man’s tunic and returned to the house after stopping by his horse. He noticed the wound on the farmer’s back was almost gone and the old woman was looking it over.
“He will never be able to repay you,” she looked up.
“You will,” Rien said.
“What do you want of me?”
Rien held up the dark green stalk he had retrieved from his saddle bag. “This is Wolfbane. I want you to make me the strongest poison you can with it.”
“Why?” the woman asked.
“I will free this village of its plague,” he answered.
“What’s in it for you?”
“Peace of mind. Revenge.”
“One of the graves out there belongs to a friend. My lover is a prisoner at the tavern. Is that reason enough? …And,” he added more carefully, as if the healer was one of Quinn’s people, “I just killed a man for trying to stop me.”
The old woman took the stalk from Rien’s hands and carefully studied him. “I will help you,” she said finally.
Kera lay on her back, staring at the wooden planks in the ceiling when she heard a key turn in the lock. `About time,’ she thought to herself and turned over. The door creaked open and Garwood Quinn walked in. Kera’s eyes immediately snapped shut and she pretended to be asleep. She heard Quinn walk up to her and immediately wished she was better covered by the blanket. He stood over her for a bit, then walked away. A chair was shoved aside and the shutters on the window were pushed open. Quinn came back to the bed and kicked it solidly with this boot. Kera bolted upright, looking at him with startled eyes. The knight smiled and she looked down.
“Has Sir Keegan been a gentleman with you?” Quinn laughed.
Kera didn’t answer.
Quinn grabbed her chin and forced her to face him. “Well?”
Tears formed in her eyes.
“He wasn’t!” Quinn laughed with delight. “Well, I won’t be either!”
Kera tried to pull her head back, but Quinn tightened his grip on her jaw until she screamed in pain.
“So you can talk…”
Kera continued looking at him emptily. It was the only thing she could do.
Quinn pushed her down and untied the rope from the bed, retying the lose end around her neck. “Come on,” he pulled the rope. “My room’s bigger.”
Kera resisted and Quinn jerked hard on the rope, making her fall to the floor. The loop around her neck tightened and constrained her breathing and as she began to to cough, Quinn stepped on the rope near her neck. In her coughing fit, Kera tightened the loop more and started gasping for air.
Quinn lazily bent down and loosened the loop, then pulled her up. “See what can happen if you don’t follow my lead?” He checked the knots at her neck and hands and then pushed Kera ahead of himself to the door. By the time they reached it, he was all ready ahead of her and pulling her by the rope. “You make this good and I may even let you enjoy yourself.”
In the corridor they were stopped by a guard. “Sir Quinn, a wagon was just brought to the inn. The men say they have prisoners.”
Quinn looked at the guard with annoyance in his eyes, then shoved Kera into him. “Take her to my room and keep her there.”
Rien returned near dusk, his vial refilled with a potent poison. He watched the off duty men roll two barrels into the bar from a wagon in the street. He asked where it had come from and was told that a merchant and his daughter were captured and were currently being questioned by Quinn. The wagon was being unloaded at his order. The two casks contained wine.
Rien proceeded upstairs to his room only to find the door unlocked and the room empty. He scanned the area for any signs of struggle. There were none and he returned to the corridor where he saw a guard standing by Quinn’s door.
“Where is the girl who was in my room?”
“Here,” the man said. “Sir Quinn asked me to guard her.”
“Did she try to escape?”
“I don’t know, Sir. I was only told to bring her here and guard her.”
Rien opened the door and walked in. The guard followed him. Kera sat inside in a chair, her hands still tied behind her and a rope around her neck.
“She looks nice, Sir,” the guard smiled lecherously and Kera glared up at him.
“Did anyone hurt you?” Rien asked.
Kera shook her head.
“How long ago did Quinn leave?” Rien asked the guard.
“Not long. Shortly after sunset, when the wagon was brought. He went to talk to the prisoners.”
“Good,” Rien said. As the guard turned back to gawk at Kera, Rien forced his dagger into the man’s back and carefully lowered him to the floor.
“Are you sure you’re all right?” Rien asked Kera again, cutting her loose with the bloody knife. “They didn’t do anything to you?”
“I’m fine, really. He didn’t have the time.”
Rien helped Kera up and put his free arm around her. “Return to my room and get dressed. Come down in a bit. Be ready for a fight.” He picked up an empty glass and walked out with Kera.
She took a turn down the side corridor to Rien’s room and he proceeded to the top of the stairs. Below he saw Quinn’s collection of thugs and cutthroats gathering together for dinner. Behind the bar he noticed the two barrels that were brought in from the wagon. He smiled and poured the poison the healer made for him into the empty glass and proceeded down the stairs.
A few of the men greeted him on his way to the bar and he responded in kind. “Where’s Quinn?” he asked the barman.
“There,” he was directed to the back room.
“Make my dinner,” Rien ordered and the man left, the chain clanking up above him as he walked. Rien went around the bar to the barrels, opened one with a mallet and dumped the poison in. The men in the common room quieted down hearing the bang and looked over. Some even came up. A couple more hits and Rien removed all the portions of the splintered lid. “A little good fortune that we can all share in!” he announced. “Help yourselves.”
The men cheered and Rien, picking up a pitcher and scooping up some of the dark red liquid, left.
Making his way past the mob that gathered around the barrel, Rien stopped in the corridor before the back room door and and emptied the vial of poison he obtained from Terell into the pitcher. He opened the door and entered. A guard stepped out of his way and Quinn, sitting with his back to the door looked over his shoulder. Across from Quinn sat a middle aged man and a girl not yet out of her teens.
“Good, Sir Keegan. I am glad you could join us. You should see how this fool is trying to make a deal!”
Rien smiled and placed the pitcher before Quinn. “Compliments of our guest.”
Quinn released a laugh as Rien reached up to a shelf to get a goblet. “Get me two,” Quinn instructed.
Rien placed both glasses before the knight and remained standing behind him.
Quinn poured wine into both goblets and moved one to the man across from him. “Let me remind you I have you, your property and your daughter. Offer me something I don’t all ready have, otherwise you wanting to go free is merely wishful thinking. Drink a little of my wine. Let it not be said I am not a hospitable man.”
Rien looked down. There was no way to stop the merchant from poisoning himself. Quinn was about to have his last taste of wine.
“No matter how badly I want my daughter and myself to to be free, I can give you nothing more than what you’ve all ready taken from me. I will not drink stolen wine!” The goblet bounced to the floor with a pronounced clank.
Rien looked at Quinn, whose eyebrows went up. “Then why did you ask me to make a deal, you old fool?”
The man did not respond and Quinn took a swallow from his goblet. “I will let my men practice with you tonight and your daughter can try and stay alive with me.” He turned back to Rien. “That bitch of yours is in my room. You may have her back.”
“May the gods strike you down for what you are doing!” the merchant exclaimed, glaring at the three rogues.
“If they haven’t yet, I doubt they will. Worry about yourself for now,” Quinn said, taking a second, larger swallow from the goblet. “And tomorrow your worries may be over.”
Deep inside Rien smiled at the irony of the merchant’s statement. If he identified Terell’s poison correctly, Quinn would not have a pleasant death.
Quinn coughed as he put the goblet down and again turned to Rien. “Good wine. Have the men break open a barrel.”
“All ready have, Sir. I knew you’d be in a good mood.” As he spoke, Rien noticed Quinn’s face beginning to redden and his arm was curled under his stomach.
Quinn struggled to get up, holding onto the table, trying to maintain his facing. A look of horror spread on his face. “Let them go, Rien…” and with those words Quinn collapsed to the floor. Blood flowed out of his open mouth.
“Get a healer!” Rien turned to the startled guard and the man made for the door, impaling himself on Rien’s long dagger. Rien pushed the dying man down on top of Quinn. He waited for a moment for the man to die, then looked up at the merchant who was as white as a sheet.
“In a few minutes you will leave by this door and turn left down the corridor. The passage leads to the stables out back. There will be no guards. Take your horses and wagon, nothing else, and go. The left fork of the road is not guarded.”
Not giving the merchant a chance to recover from his death sentence and its subsequent favorable resolution, Rien left the room, proceeding to the stables. He killed the man standing guard in the doorway and then another one outside the barn door. He took a little more time to compensate the merchant with some of Quinn’s lootings and after dumping a bag in the wagon bed, circled around the building to the front entrance. The first thing to catch his attention were the two guards lying at the door. `The healer’s poison must be quick,’ he thought, walking past them. Inside a good half of the men were sprawled out on the floor and furniture and another dozen or so were merrily drinking away.
“Look!” Rien noticed someone get up behind the bar. “Seli is dead!” The man pulled the bartender up and shoved him over the bar, collapsing after him. Neither got up.
Rien remained at the door, watching as two or three other men quietly passed out in front of him. There was a commotion upstairs. A male voice said something and a moment later a body hit the railing and broke through, falling into the common room. The man had a deep wound in his chest. Kera appeared at the top of the stairs looking down. Besides her clothing she wore Quinn’s red cloak and scabbard. A bloodied sword was in her hands. She looked around the common room, surprised that no one had reacted and, after spotting Rien, went down stairs.
As Kera passed one of the tables, a man at it got up, took one step towards her and collapsed. She stood in awe, looking at Rien. “What did you do?”
Rien shrugged. “I asked the village healer to make me the strongest poison she could with a stalk of Wolfbane I took from Maari. Wolfbane, also known as Monk’s Hood, is an aphrodisiac and hallucinogen in small quantities, but too much of it will burn a person out…or make them go mad. She must have added something else. They don’t even realize what’s happening to them.”
Another man fell out of his chair as Kera stepped over the one that had fallen in front of her. “I didn’t ask for a lecture. What about Quinn?”
“I gave him the poison I took from Terell’s shop. He’s dead too.”
Only three of Quinn’s men remained upright and it was obvious they would not last long. Nineteen other bodies lay on the floor. A job well done…if well could in any way be associated with death.
“Come,” Rien took Kera’s hand. “There are still patrols out there. We’d better leave.”
“Shouldn’t they be killed too?”
“There are less than ten men total, all back alley thugs. The villagers can take care of them if they don’t flee on their own.”
Distant thunder rolled through the skies as they stepped outside the tavern. Rien walked past the stables towards the forest.
“Aren’t we taking the horses? It looks like it will rain,” Kera stopped him, “and what about all your stuff?”
“We have horses waiting,” Rien answered. “They are more powerful than anything here and they carry equipment. I have no use for looted treasure. The villagers need it more.”
Kera tossed the cloak she wore to the ground. “Red is too obvious in the moonlight,” she said. “And it’s not my color.” She started unstrapping the sword when Rien stopped her.
“It’s a good blade. Keep it.”
It was well into the night when Rien and Kera reached the hilly area southwest of Phedra. Their target was a cluster of boulders with a small pass between them. On the other side, in a box in canyon, waited their two horses and escape from the remaining guards.
“I take it you didn’t bring them through here,” Kera said, looking over a passage so narrow that even she would not fit through.
“I went all the way around,” Rien answered. “Climbing over to the pass will save us three leagues of hiking. We’ll have to climb some twenty feet, though. There is a lip in the cliff face up there.”
“What’s another three leagues after the last ten?” sighed Kera. She grabbed a hold of some rocks and started climbing. Rien followed her.
“Do you smell smoke?” Kera asked when near the top.
Below her Rien took his time to finish the climb before answering. “I’ve been smelling it for a while. If there was wind, we could tell where it’s coming from.”
The step-like formation in the face of the cliff was about two feet across, wide enough to stand on, but not much more.
Rien leaned back on the wall. “Can you see the village?”
“Right there,” Kera pointed into the darkness. “It’s not very clear.”
“I’m impressed,” Rien nodded. “Much superior to other people.”
“Do I look better with grey or brown eyes?” Kera asked.
“You did notice that my eyes changed color?”
“Of course! I told you they did.”
“So which is better?”
“I’m partial to grey.”
“Took you long enough.”
Rien laughed and Kera took a step towards him.
“If we weren’t on a cliff right now, I’d give you a shove you’d remember for a while.”
“If you give me one here, I promise you I will remember it for a while as well. At least on the way down.”
Rien took Kera’s arm. “Come on. This slopes up. Watch your step.”
They made their way up the ledge into the crack in the hill side and continued at a leisurely pace for some time. They were passing an overhang which was level with the top of the hill on the other side when a loud sound of splintering wood disturbed the night and rocks started falling from above. The thunder that has been at the horizon for the duration of their walk, sounded overhead and a brilliant flash of lighting split the sky.
Kera jumped back and fell against the wall. One stone managed to bounce off her shoulder and a mass of pebbles sprayed over her back. When it was all over, she stirred and got up. Rien lay a few feet up ahead. He must have taken the brunt of the landslide. Kera made her way to him. He was alive, but unconscious. The top of the hill was no more than twenty feet away.
While thinking of what to do next, Kera heard running footsteps and went up, in hope of finding help, but instead encountered two men with swords, one of which promptly took a swing at her and missed. She backed down the slope, dodged his second attack and then swung at him with her sword. Those late night practice sessions with Rien must have helped, as the man was knocked off balance and fell past her, off the cliff. His fading scream made Kera realize how dangerous it was for her to remain on the ledge and she hurried to level ground.
The second man, apparently wiser for not taking the same risk, held a torch in one hand and a sword in the other, patiently waiting for her to come up. His first swing was with the torch and Kera instinctively jumped back, stumbling and landing on her back. With horror she realized that her head was over the edge of a fifty foot drop. The man advanced with the torch ahead of him before Kera had a chance to react. She could not move with it almost directly in her face.
“Drop the sword,” the man told her and when she hesitated, brought the flame closer in. Kera smelled singing hair and immediately let the weapon go. The man kicked it aside. “Now get up. Slowly.”
Kera did so and took a step back when the man motioned her to do so, but when he bent down to pick up the sword, she gave the torch a kick and it flew out of his hand and over the edge. Darkness descended on the small plateau. The man blindly swung his sword, but Kera had no problems avoiding the blow and remained crouched on the ground. Without light and a cloudy sky, her opponent was practically helpless and expected her to be just as lost, but was surprised by getting a dagger in his side. He swung in the proper direction, but was again too high.
Kera remained silent, watching him trying to hear her. After a while the man apparently gave up and Kera was able to put her dagger into his knee. He sank to the ground, but swung again anyway, missing Kera completely. With another thrust she finished him off and went to check on Rien. Thunder and lightning made themselves known once again and a light rain began to fall.
Kera found Rien still unconscious, laying where she left him. She took the time to examine him now. It was difficult in the rain, without light — everything was red or black or both — but it was enough to determine his condition. The most obvious wound was in his side. It was dirty and bloody and the clothing was torn. Kera, not quite sure of what to do, decided to move him to the level area up above, instead of continuing on the thin ledge. It was amazing that neither one of them had fallen off it in the first place.
While trying to move Rien, Kera found what looked like remains of a mechanism that could have caused the rock slide, but it was of little importance now. She struggled to get Rien up top and he groaned from pain in spite of being unconscious.
Locating the brigand’s camp, a small cave in the rocks, sheltered from the storm, Kera dragged Rien in and placed him on an even slab of rock towards the back of the cavern. There was a small fire to keep warm and she tore off a few strips of her tunic to make a bandage. It was only then that Kera noticed that her own shoulder was bloody where it had been hit.
After washing Rien’s wounds, Kera bandaged them. She suspected that his ribs were broken, but not being a doctor, not only did she not know how to make sure, but also how to treat it. She then took care of her own shoulder and looked over the cave. It was bare, except for the fire and two packs in the corner. Searching them she found nothing more than basic equipment. It looked like the two men had only been beginning to set up camp.
Kera returned to the cliff to pick up her sword and then looked around to see if the men brought horses. Not finding anything, Kera paused on the cliff overlooking the canyon. Through the rain she could tell it was a good mile wide and at least three long. Kera did not know where to begin looking for their own mounts and the only healing potion she could use was somewhere out there. She spent a long time looking down into the darkness, waiting for a glimmer of something other than trees. Finally giving up, Kera returned to the cave to take shelter for the night. Maybe Rien would wake up by morning and tell her where to look.
She checked the dressing on Rien’s side one more time before settling down to sleep. He was definitely weaker and this time did not even groan when she moved him. His breathing was shallow. The lesion was still oozing blood with no indication of stopping; the area around the wound was hot. Kera made the bandage as tight as she could, knowing it would probably do more damage to the broken ribs, but preferring that to having Rien bleed to death.
Upon completion of the task, Kera made herself comfortable against the wall of the cave, leaning slightly back on the step-like rock formation and wishing for Rien’s condition to improve by morning, finally fell asleep.
Kera opened her eyes and was nearly blinded by the bright lights around her. She blinked several times at the light that was as bright as day and after a minute her eyes adjusted to the brightness. She sat in a soft chair with arm rests in a large, brightly lit room. She looked up to see where the light was coming from, but saw nothing more than a uniformly glowing ceiling. In front of her sat a box, about a foot square, with a glossy black surface that reflected the ceiling, facing her. Kera reached out to touch it, but as soon as her hand made contact, the box made a noise and lit up with an orange glow. Strange symbols appeared on the smooth surface.
Startled, Kera jumped up and the chair she was sitting in swivelled and rolled back. For the first time she noticed that ten feet away, to her right, sat a young black-haired man. The clothing he was wearing Kera could not recognize as having ever seen before. He wore faded blue pants and a sky-blue tunic carefully tucked into them. She gasped and he looked up at her, no less surprised. Next to him was a box identical to the one Kera had touched — she now noticed there were quite a few of them set in rows about the room.
The young man simply stared at her for a minute, not quite sure what to say. The box next to him flickered a couple of times, but he did not look at it.
Kera straightened out as the rolling chair bumped against a table on the other side of the room. The box on that table lit up like the first. “Where am I?” Kera asked, concerned about all the magic going off around her so freely.
“En…” the young man began to say with what appeared to be reflex, making Kera believe it was a question he heard often. He picked up a frame from a pile of papers and put it on his face. It looked to be made of thin strips of metal, twisted to hold two round pieced of glass in place in front of his eyes. A wider piece of metal connected the two pieces at the bridge of his nose and two pieces extended from the other side to hook over his ears.
The man eyed Kera from head to toe and she stood there looking back at him, doing the same. “Kera?” he finally asked, taking a quick glance at his box.
Kera nodded and took an unsure step back. She felt for her dagger, but remembered she was sleeping before and did not have it on her. It was on the ground in the cave, where she had placed it after cutting bandages for Rien. “Rien?!” she spun around, realizing he was not there.
“Calm down!” the young man finally stood up. “He’s fine.”
“He’s not fine!” Kera fired back, no longer concerned for herself. “He’s alone in a cave, unconscious and bleeding! Maybe dying!”
The young man again glanced at the box next to him. “Trust me. He will be fine,” he said, not without compassion. Kera noticed that he had a slight accent that made his words softer. “Please, sit down. I need to know how you got here.”
Kera did not care one bit how she ended up in the room. All she wanted was to be back with Rien, but realizing that this man seemed to know both her and her companion, she sat down in the chair nearest to her. Just like the first one she sat in, this one was soft, swivelled and moved freely on the floor.
“I don’t bite,” Kera’s host smiled and indicated to a chair next to his own. Kera changed seats, but not to the one he pointed to. She sat down one chair away, just in case she would need to move. That seemed to satisfy him and he sat back down, again looking at his box.
Kera looked at the desk at which she was now sitting. On it was yet another of those boxes, but the glossy front of it was not lit. A rectangular pad with emphasized squares sat before it. Each of the squares had a different symbol on it. On this desk, like on some of the others, lay a pile papers, scattered around in disarray. Kera picked one sheet up. It was very smooth and thin — nothing like the parchment she had ever seen. On it were uniform proper letters which did not appear to be written by hand. Kera stealthily picked up a palm sized glossy item on the table to examine it.
“You were asleep,” the young man said. Kera was not sure if it was a question or a statement or even an order. He still looked into the glow of the box.
The door across the room opened and a slender woman with long brown hair walked in. “I got it!” she declared in a joyful voice, holding up sheets of parchment similar to those on the tables. She stopped at the door, looking at Kera. She wore a white blouse neatly tucked into a narrow grey skirt that went down to her knees and a pink belt with a butterfly buckle. The shoes on her feet were elevated so that she stood balanced on her toes. Kera could not believe that someone would ever wear clothing so impractical for everyday activities.
“Stay there,” the man said to the woman, holding up his arm. “I don’t know what’s happened.”
The woman remained standing by the door and the man turned back to his box. He quickly pressed different locations on the rectangular pad before the box and took one more look at Kera, then he turned back and deliberately pressed one of the right hand squares. Darkness so dark that Kera could no longer see at all descended on the room.
Her back hurting from where a sharp rock pressed into it forced Kera to leap up from the “steps” she was sleeping on. She looked about the cavern she was in. The fire was almost out and her night vision began supplementing her normal sight. She noticed Rien lying on the ground not far away. However much time passed, he has not moved.
Kera sat down next to him, realizing that she held something in her hand. It was the little glossy object she picked up in the brightly lit room that she believed to have been a dream. It was a thin, smooth rectangular bar, made of some material she had never seen before. A slender chain was attached to one side, ending with a silver ring. At the other end was a strange golden symbol that Kera later realized to be overlapping runic letters. A long red line ran almost the full length of the item. It was crossed by many small black lines. Down both sides of the red line were more symbols, all in black.
Kera turned the strange item over. On the back side a circle was cut away in the square. In it floated a glowing arrow and in time Kera realized that no matter how it was turned, level with the ground, the arrow always pointed in the same direction.
She put it away and took another look at Rien. His condition had not improved. Kera lay down next to him and after some tossing and turning, fell asleep again.
Kera awoke to Rien trying to turn over. She held him down for a moment, stroking his hair and he relaxed. She again examined the condition of his wounds and was surprised to find that the cut was beginning to heal over and what she originally thought were broken ribs was only a severe bruise.
Satisfied with her diagnoses, Kera started making breakfast from the supplies the men she killed had, waiting for Rien to wake up.