Friday, July 31, 2009

"The Game Chapter 4, Part 3"

Make sure you read yesterday's post first....

"You're gonna what?!? Valinor, this is insane!"

Teserk and the others stood in a small knot off to one side of the camp. While Broadbent's call to fight the archer had been unexpected, it was of little true consequence. Teserk was undisputedly the most skilled fighter in the group, but Valinor was nearly a match for him when he wielded his twin short swords together. The ranger would have made short work of the fight, in spite of the claymore's longer reach, but....

"YOU get choice of weapons and you choose single - SINGLE - short swords? Have you lost your mind?"

Teserk glanced across the clearing where Broadbent stood with his men, flexing his substantial muscles and swing the short sword about with practiced ease. He threw up his arms and grunted in exasperation.

Valinor looked at him, his visage calm. "This has got to be as fair as possible, Teserk. Broadbent is an honorable man at heart, but the respect of his men means everything to him. If he lost too easily, he might be tempted to renege on the deal."

"Besides," he added looking at the big man, "Have you SEEN the reach on that guy? I'd have had a hard time getting close to him if he'd have fought with that claymore. Now, at least, we're on more even footing.

Teserk didn't agree and was about to say so again when Broadbent's voice rang across the camp.

"Enough chatter. Let's do this. My supper's getting cold."

The outlaw leader strode to a clear area and Valinor moved to meet him. The other outlaws and the small company moved back to give them plenty of room.

Teserk was struck again by the size difference between the two. While Valinor was not a small man - standing about 6 feet tall and well toned - Broadbent towered over him and was easily twice his mass. This could get really ugly really fast.

"To first blood," Valinor said.

"Till the weaker concedes," the big man countered.

Teserk wanted to scream at Valinor to say no - the original agreement had been to first blood and a prolonged fight would certainly favor the outlaw leader - but he remained silent as the ranger saluted with his sword in acceptance.

The two men began circling each other warily. Broadbent attacked first - a simple, straightforward lunge that Valinor easily parried. The ranger riposted and Broadbent parried the counterattack. They continued in this way for over two minutes, each man testing the strengths and speed of the other. It became clear to Teserk that Valinor's speed and agility countered Broadbent's reach and sheer strength. The two looked evenly matched. That bothered the fighter more than a little.

Teserk's attention was refocused on the fight as Broadbent launched into a more complex attack sequence. Valinor parried each strike, giving ground until the sequence was finished, then stepped forward with an attack of his own. Broadbent held his ground and the two broke apart briefly.

Broadbent smiled grimly. "Now it begins in earnest."

He came in faster than before, his sword swinging in a downward crosscut. Valinor pivoted back on his left foot and swung up his blade, deflecting the attack to his right. Broadbent, expecting the maneuver, spun with the movement launching a vicious backfist at the ranger's face. Valinor ducked the punch and brought his blade across in a slice at the big man's exposed flank. Broadbent's sword caught the weapon and threw it out wide. Valinor responded in a diving roll that took him away from the outlaw, his follow up slash passing harmlessly over the ranger's head.

Valinor came to his feet and Broadbent was on him in an instant. The ranger barely managed to put his sword in place so furious was the outlaw leader's advance. Though he succeeded in blocking each attack, the blocks came at a high price. Valinor's arm was starting to go numb from the sheer force of the blows.

Broadbent seemed to sense this and he stepped up the intensity of his strikes. Valinor sidestepped an overhead blow that surely would have cut him in two had it connected. His counter was batted aside and he was forced to retreat a step.

Teserk began to worry. Broadbent was really pressing now and his friend was giving ground too easily. The outlaw was steadily forcing Valinor into a corner - a small group of tightly packed trees at the edge of the camp - and without the needed room to maneuver, Broadbent would finish the fight in short order.

Valinor was about five feet from the trees now, frantically trying to halt his retreat, but Broadbent would have none of it. His pace increased yet again, knowing that this fight was almost over.

In a sudden movement, Valinor blocked a strike out wide, spun and placed a boot firmly on the closest tree trunk. Broadbent lunged, intending to skewer the ranger against the tree. Using the tree as a base, Valinor reversed his momentum and flipped backward over the thrust. He landed lightly on his feet behind the surprised outlaw and launched a devastating spinning sidekick into the man's back.

Broadbent crashed head first into the tree. The force of the impact dazed him and he stumbled, his free hand touching the ground to keep him on his feet. Valinor kicked the hand away and the big man fell to the ground.

It only took Broadbent a moment to recover, but by that time, Valinor had one foot pinning his sword, his own blade leveled at the outlaw's face.

"Do you yield?"

Broadbent sighed in frustration, a large purple bruise forming on his cheek from the collision with the tree. "Aye. I yield."

Valinor withdrew his blade and offered the outlaw his hand. "Come, then. I'm getting hungry."


There was an uneasy truce in the camp, as Broadbent kept his word and offered his hospitality to the party. The stew was watery, but palatable, and when everyone had a full stomach the tension eased a bit. The men on guard duty were rounded up, their pride hurting more than their wounds and they listened appreciatively as Colin gave them some tips on how they could improve the effectiveness of their watch.

Broadbent returned the stolen gold, albeit reluctantly. He apologized for the theft, explaining that his band had to eat. When Theadina pointed out that his band had killed Mort's companion, he claimed self defense.

"The guy launched himself at poor Dawson there, practically impaled himself on Dawson's sword."

"Ah, spit," the accused outlaw said, "I never meaned t' hurt 'im."

"But what about your man who chased Mort through the forest," Teserk pointed out, "Surely THAT wasn't self defense."

Broadbent looked hard at the swordsman. "Silent was not 'my man'. He wandered in on us maybe a week ago looking for work. We said we'd put him up, but he couldn't join until he'd proven himself. His actions in this case just go to prove that he wasn't Broadbent's Band material."

Teserk looked dubious, but Broadbent forestalled further comments by asking Mort to tell his story.

"I've heard of this Nefarious," he said when Mort had finished, "Mean old wizard who lives in a disserted manor house down the road a bit. We avoid his place - bad things happen to those who wander to close."

"We don't really have a choice in the matter," Theadina said. "If we want to get Mort's daughter back, we have to face the wizard."

"Well, if you mean to go, let me give you a few pointers. First - directions. There's a road that leads straight to the manor - cuts right off the North road. That's the fastest route, and Nefarious is sure to have it watched. Course, he's expecting company, so that's not really an issue. You could try to cut through the woods, but that leads to point number two: the Knobby Gnolls."

"Gnolls?" Mort asked.

Broadbent nodded grimly. "Nasty creatures, dog-like, but walk upright like men. Strong and quick, but not so intelligent. More clever than anything. Favor the axe and ambush tactics."

"We know what Gnolls are," Teserk said shortly.

"He asked," Broadbent retorted. "The Knobby Gnolls live up under Knobby Ridge - not too far from Nefarious' place. Rumor says the wizard has a deal with the beasts. They keep trespassers away and he throws them a bone from time to time."

"A b-bone?" stuttered Mort.

"Nefarious releases defenseless souls out into the woods so the Gnolls can have a hunt."

Mort blanched, thinking of his daughter.

"And third," Teserk prompted.

"What makes you think there's a third?"

"Things like this always come in threes."

Broadbent laughed. "So they do. Third, then. The manor is one big trap."

"And you know this, how?" Teserk inquired.

"Common knowledge. Anyone who gets in, whether the wizard is home or not, is not coming out in one piece - unless it's as the fox for the Gnoll hunters. Nefarious has made sure that everyone round these parts knows it. It's his house and he likes his privacy."

"So let me recap," Teserk said, standing. "In order to get Lucinde back we've got a choice of traveling down a well-watched road - alerting the man to our approach - or cut through the woods and take our chances with these Knobby Gnolls. We then have to enter a trapped house - from which no one ever leaves alive - bypass the defenses and then confront this very private wizard - who knows we're coming - in his own domain."

"Sounds about right," said Broadbent.

"Sounds insane!" Teserk corrected.

"And yet, we go," Valinor said firmly. "For the sake of Lucinde, we go."

Thursday, July 30, 2009

"The Game - Chapter 4, Part 2"

If you haven't read Chapter 4, Part 1, read that first.

Harmon Broadbent was enjoying a nice cup of tea when he heard a commotion outside his tent.

"What is it now?" he thought. The wood groaned as he rose from his chair. Broadbent was a very large man, standing six foot five with the build of an ox. He had spent most of his life in the military; being drafted when he was sixteen and then staying on when his term was done. He had been a scrawny lay-about as a kid, but the rigors of army life had toughened him up, given him a purpose. He had served admirably through the Hobgoblin War, a tough sergeant of a solid unit. Things had fallen apart when the son of a rich baron had been appointed as his commanding officer. The boy had no training, but had thrown orders about with the cockiness bred into most of the nobility. The critical confrontation occurred when the young dandy had ordered Broadbent's unit into a useless, no-win situation. Broadbent had refused. He wasn't about to lead his men to their deaths on the foolish whim of an untrained boy.

The boy's father had seen to it that Broadbent was court-marshaled for his disobedience. The Baron wanted him hung - but the judge was sympathetic to Broadbent's situation and settled on discharging him without pension. Broadbent found himself on the street, penniless and without the only job he had ever known.

He had turned mercenary after that, then outlaw. He found he liked the life of an outlaw leader. He was in complete control. At the beginning, he had run his camp with military precision, but as time went on things had slipped a bit. He himself had put on a little weight, but he retained the musculature that had made him the army's wrestling champion ten years in a row. He still carried the two-handed claymore he had used in battle - and he still knew how to use it.

Broadbent retrieved the sword from its place and exited the tent.

"What's going on…?" he began, but stopped short at the sight. Silent's horse was standing in the middle of the camp, saddle-less. Two men stood next to her, deeply involved in an animated discussion.

"You said the horse would lead us back to its home!"

"Well we ain't jest standin' in the middle o' the woods!"

"You're saying THIS is her home?!?"

The shorter of the two - a man with massive bulk, despite his short, almost dwarven stature - seemed to notice where they were standing for the first time.

"Yer right," he said after appraising the men that now formed a ring around the pair, swords drawn. "This cannae be her home. She's too good fer the likes o' these."

The comment drew murmurs of disapproval from the seven members of Broadbent's band that encircled the two intruders. Broadbent was less concerned with the insult than he was with how two armed men had walked unaccosted into the heart of his camp.

"What are you doing here?" he demanded. The two looked vaguely familiar, but he couldn't place them.

"Using this horse to find the location of your secret hideaway," the taller one answered. He bent the first two fingers of each hand in time with the words 'secret hideaway'. Broadbent didn't like his tone.

"Well that was foolish. For what purpose?"

"So we could tickle your little tosies?"

"Wrong answer." Broadbent was in no mood for games. "String them up by their ankles. Perhaps they'll be more willing to cooperate after they've cured in the sun for a while."

Four of the outlaws moved in to secure the prisoners. The two men didn't seem very worried over their fates. In a moment, he saw why.

As the first of the band reached the two, the taller one moved liked lightning. He caught the outlaw's sword hand in a wrist lock and wrenched it in a simple maneuver that caused the man to drop his sword and howl in pain. He then shoved the man into one of the others, sending them both stumbling to the ground.

The shorter one used the confusion to rush the other two outlaws. He caught them both in the stomach with a massive arm. The resulting impact caused the two to fall to the ground, gasping for air.

Broadbent and the remaining members of the band drew their weapons. "Kill them," he ordered.

The intruders drew their own weapons with practiced ease. There was a short standoff as the four who had been taken by surprise got to their feet and spread out warily, joined by their companions.


An arrow and a crossbow bolt impacted the ground just inches from Broadbent's boots. He held up a hand to forestall his men.

"Oh, yeah," said the taller of the two intruders, "We've got friends."

Broadbent searched the trees around the camp, but saw no sign of the hidden archers.

"The way I see it," the man continued, "We've got you right where we want you. We can do this one of three ways. One: we can fight this out. You might succeed in getting one of us, but I can guarantee you that we'll win."

The man twirled his bastard sword about in a complicated pattern. It reminded Broadbent of the way that the army's drummers had twirled their drumsticks across the knuckles of their hands. The maneuver was subconscious and spoke of great skill.

"Two: you can surrender here and now. That wouldn't be much fun, and I just can't see you giving up so easily, being ex-military like you are."

"Three: you can fight one of us in an honorable duel to first blood. If you win, we walk away and leave you alone. If we win, you give us the hospitality of your camp and the money you stole from that poor traveler earlier in the day."

So that's what this is all about, Broadbent thought. They want the money back. He evaluated the situation. Two against eight, with a couple of archers in the background. Those odds weren't so bad. Of course, he could save a few of his men if he was willing to give one of these two a lesson in combat. Which one would he choose…The tall one with the big mouth or the shorter one with the big muscles? Or maybe both at once!

"Time's a-wasting," the man said brightly, "I don't think I can hold old Colin here back much longer.

Colin? It suddenly struck Broadbent where he had seen these men before. It was back when he was in the army. He had had the occasion to work a mission with the Duke's elite forces. Their names came into his mind in a rush. The shorter of the two was Colin de Trenchmar, ex-commander of the Elite unit. The man was as ornery as a bulldog and ten times as dangerous. That would mean the other was Teserk Deseau, master swordsman and all around pain in the arse. Either one of these men could clean his clock, he knew. The eight to two odds suddenly didn't look so good.

Broadbent was at a loss as to how he should proceed. He would lose if he fought the duel and he really wanted to keep that money - it would feed his band for several months. Most, if not all, of his band would be killed if they attacked the deadly pair. That was unacceptable. He was responsible for these men and he wouldn't see their lives wasted. But his pride wouldn't let him surrender. Then he saw his way out.

"A duel it is!" he said suddenly and pointed to the direction from which the arrow had come. "I'll fight your archer."

Broadbent could see that Deseau had not expected that response. Good. Maybe that would teach him for not thinking his challenges through thoroughly. Archers were notorious for being less than able with the blade.

Then Deseau smiled.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009


This was for a Challenge on Discovery. It's written to be in the same world as the FFF entries.

"Mm-bagh-mm, treasuree-tresh. Secretee-place of the megarie Bresh."

The little monkey-like creature moved carefully across the roof of the Sanctum, using its arms to assist in pulling it forward. It stopped suddenly, its eyes darting from side to side as it scented the air. Apparently satisfied, it continued its shuffle to the far side of the roof.

"Must be careful, Bresh must. Nosy youngees seek treasuree. Pesky youngees."

The creature grabbed the gargoyle at the edge of the roof and, in contrast to its somewhat awkward walking gait, swung gracefully out over the edge and disappeared from sight.

"Is it gone?"

Fatima poked her head around the corner of one of the stone chimneys. "Yeah, he's gone."

Silas edged around the chimney, eyes wary. "Megaries give me the creeps."

"Bresh isn't so bad," Fatima said, joining Silas in the open. "He's dirty and smelly and I'm sure he has fleas, but he'd never hurt anyone."

"It's too smart for a megarie. Megaries aren't supposed to be able to talk like that. And it wears clothes. It's not natural."

Bresh was special, it was true. While megaries possessed a rudimentary intelligence, Master Horvinnt had somehow managed to increase that capacity sufficiently to allow Bresh to speak. Fatima found the whole thing fascinating.

"His talking has never bothered me much."

"That because you're a mage. You're used to all that weird stuff."

Fatima grinned. She wasn't really a mage, not yet anyway, but Silas was right. The strange, sometimes bizarre aspects of magic that so unsettled the martial cadets like Silas were second nature to her by now. She was touched by a sense of pride that the larger, stronger Silas was somewhat intimidated by a simple megarie, while she felt no such unease.

Silas broke her train of thought. "Let's get moving. His stash has to be up here somewhere."

Fatima nodded. They quickly began their search. It was common knowledge that megaries were pack rats. They loved stuff - especially shiny stuff. Troops of megaries had been known to enter the camps of travelers and even occasionally raid small farmsteads in search of treasures. Megarie nests had been uncovered with everything from kitchen implements and plows, to clothing and toys, to weapons and gold. The megaries weren't intelligent enough to realize the value of the things they stole, they simply had the impulse to collect, and so they did.

This made Bresh a very interesting topic of discussion among the cadets of the academy. That he was a megarie meant that he would collect things. That he was an intelligent megarie - relatively speaking - meant he would be more selective of the things he collected. Bresh's treasure would be just that: treasure. Bresh had been at the academy for years. The cadets could only imagine how extensive the megarie's collection would be.

The lure of riches had led to academy-wide searches. It had become a game for the cadets, looking for Bresh's treasure. Teams of cadets would canvas the academy grounds in their spare time, hoping to find the elusive stash. The trouble was, Bresh was intelligent enough to recognize what the cadets were doing. When one enterprising group of students had conspired to follow the megarie over the course of several days, Bresh had led them on one wild goose chase after another until the group was forced concede defeat. Other groups had conveniently left tempting items out for Bresh to steal, hoping to follow him back to the nest, only to have Bresh pass them by almost contemptuously. One cadet had even threatened Bresh physically if he didn't reveal the treasure's location. A week in the infirmary had reminded that student that megaries were stronger than they looked.

It was about that time that Silas hit upon an ingenious solution. Enlist the aid of one of the magi. Fatima was in her third year of study as a mage and had known Silas from childhood. She hadn't been so interested in the treasure, as she was in testing her growing skills. With Silas's encouragement, Fatima had agreed to watch Bresh with her magic.

What they discovered was intriguing. Despite their resemblance to monkeys, megaries were not arboreal. They made their nests underground. Because of this, the cadets had focused their searches on the academy's grounds - in the basements and under shrubbery. What Fatima found was that when he was unobserved, Bresh would frequent the TOPS of the buildings. It was so out of character for a megarie that the cadets had never even considered the possibility.

Fatima's magic had only been able to do so much. They narrowed the location down to three buildings. In the end, they knew it had to be the Sanctum. It was the one building the cadets needed permission to enter, and they certainly couldn't access get to the roof without some help from a mage. Fatima to the rescue again.

It only took a few moments to find the nest. On the far corner of the roof, the pair discovered an old pigeon coop, probably abandoned some years earlier when the Sanctum had expanded from a magic school to a full Seeker academy. Silas moved as if he would enter, and then stepped aside instead.

"Ladies first."

Fatima hid a smirk. Brave cadet, indeed. She moved aside a loose board and stepped into the dilapidated coop. Light filtered in from cracks in the rotting wood planking. She gasped at what she saw. Silas heard and pushed his way past her.

The nest was filled with stuff, years worth of accumulated scavenging. There were scarves and hats, boots and gloves, dishes and cutlery, pottery, rope, horseshoes, dog collars, broken flasks, torn scraps of vellum; all manner of odds and ends. All of it worthless.

Because of exposure to the elements, mold, mildew and rust had taken it's toll. Even things that would have been worth something had depreciated to nothing in the years of abuse.

"You've got to be kidding me," Silas moaned, the thrill of discovery overpowered by disappointment. "This can't be it."

"A true blue megarie to the core," Fatima said. "I guess an increase in intelligence doesn't necessarily mean a change in one's tastes."

"The other guys are going to be so disappointed."

"Why tell them?" Fatima said. "They have no idea Bresh keeps his nest up here. Let them keep on looking. Every time they hatch a new scheme you can simply smile and lord it over them, knowing they're chasing wild geese."

Silas slowly smiled. Fatima could almost see the wheels turning in his head.

"Yeah," he said, "It's like I'll be playing a joke on them over and over again."

They left the coop and made their way to the trap door into the building, Silas blabbering the whole way.

Bresh watched from behind a gargoyle as the two humans opened the hole leading back into the building. Before entering the female caught his eye. Bresh nodded. Fatie winked.

Bresh made his way across the roof to his nest. Fatie and the youngee had disturbed very little. Not that Bresh minded. He hardly cared for this mess. It was just a ruse. With care, he moved aside some of the junk to reveal a small trapdoor in the floor. He lifted the lid and peered inside. Gold glittered, silver flashed, and jewels sparkled in the filtered sunlight.

"Treasuree-tresh, treasure of Bresh," Bresh sang, and he smiled.

Monday, July 27, 2009

"The Game - Chapter 4, Part 1"

If you haven't read Chapter 3, read that first.


Valinor Trollslayer grabbed Mort by the shoulder to keep him from continuing. The other party members stopped.

"What is it?" Teserk asked.

Valinor didn't respond. He moved in front of Mort, crouched down and examined something. He gently pulled some of the forest fauna aside and pointed to a thin string that stretched across the cart trail.

"What's that?" Mort asked.

Valinor motioned Mort back a few feet, ducked low to the ground and pulled on the wire with a finger.



Three supple branches tore through the air above the ranger's head. Knives lashed to the end of each branch sunk hilt deep into a nearby tree. Had Valinor been standing when the wire was tripped....

Mort swallowed and visibly paled. "Oh. Never mind."

"We must be getting close to the outlaw camp."

Teserk grinned. "Nothing like a few death traps to warmly welcome your visitors."

"What, you think there are more of those things?"

Valinor look askance at the now trembling farmer. "You can count on it. You stay here. I'll scout ahead a bit to see what we're up against.

"Sure. No problem. I'll just wait right here."

Valinor moved off into the woods. Mort took a few steps back into an area clear of the trees. He unintentionally stepped on a dry branch.


The farmer shot three feet into the air and fell hard on his rump. His hand landed on top of an anthill. Little red fire ants acted quickly to defend their nest and Mort leapt to his feet, squealing in pain.

Teserk laughed uncontrollably as Theadina helped the poor farmer remove the fearsome ants and treated the multitude of angry red welts that began to form on his hand.

"Now THAT was well worth this whole ordeal."


Valinor had discovered and disabled four more traps - another spring trap, a covered pit and two nooses - and bypassed two lazy sentinels before he came to the outskirts of the outlaw camp. Though he possessed ample skill, he had needed very little of it to circumvent the band's defenses. This told him two important things: first, the thieves had only marginal skill in woodcraft and second, they really didn't expect anyone to find them this deep into the woods. They were fools.

At the moment, the ranger was crouched in the shadow of a large elm at the eastern edge of the clearing that was the outlaw camp. The clearing was circular, approximately 200 feet in diameter and was dominated by a large tent towards the center. A semicircle of six smaller tents, lean-tos really, lined the forest edge close to where Valinor hid. The band's horses and cart were stationed on the western side of the open space along with the camp's latrine. The cart trail, which led to the southern point of the camp, was blocked off by a large pile of dead brush. A small stream meandered past about a hundred feet to Valinor's rear and provided the outlaws with a fresh water supply.

Valinor counted seven men in the clearing. Two, gathered close to a fire in the exact center of the camp, were in the process of preparing supper. Two of the others were tending to the horses. The remaining three were gathered in a circle on a space of clear ground tossing dice. All had the look of bullies. They were above average in size, well muscled, and their faces were heavily lined and scarred. There was no clear leader among those he could see, so Valinor made several educated assumptions. There were more men than tents, so every tent had to be shared. By their size, the ranger estimated two men per tent. The leader, of course, would get the luxury of the large center tent to himself. That made a total of thirteen: twelve outlaws and one leader.

Valinor made some quick mental calculations. He saw seven men currently, had passed two sentinels and had killed one in the form of the assassin earlier in the day. That made ten. Valinor counted horses. There were twelve he assumed belonged to the band, plus a giant of a horse that must have been Mort's 'Mammoth'. Add the horse they had recovered in the forest and the number matched up with his estimate of the band's strength. Given that the leader was relaxing in his tent, that still left two of the outlaws unaccounted for.

A small rustle of branches behind him was all the warning Valinor got. He hit the ground and held his breath, not daring to move. Two pair of well-worn leather boots walked to the edge of the clearing from deeper in the forest, stopping not five feet from where the ranger lay.

"Aw, spit! They done started the game without us."

"Well, what did you expect, Dawson? They weren't going wait for our patrol shift to end."

The man called Dawson turned his head and spat to the ground. The spittle hit Valinor's arm. He resisted the urge to wipe the foul fluid away.

"What's with these stupid patrols anyway? We already got two sentries posted, an' they sleep most o' the time anyway. What do we need to be walkin' around fer? Broadbent's getting' paranoid!"

"Stop your complaining, Dawson. It's just a two-hour shift. Dinner will still be hot when we get done. Broadbent knows what he's doing. Do you want those gnolls to come upon us unawares?"

"Aw, spit! We ain't seen hide nor hair o' them things for weeks. I says we chased 'em off for good last time. Broadbent's wastin' my time."

"Better watch your tongue, Dawson, or Broadbent will sic Silent on you when he gets back."

Dawson shifted his feet uneasily. "I d-didn't mean nuthin' by it. Honest. Aw, spit, Luther. Let's get movin'."

The two men moved back into the woods and were soon gone. Valinor breathed a sigh of relief and got back to his feet. He quietly moved away from the camp and headed back to where the others waited.


"So there are just twelve of them? That should be a breeze."

Mort stared at Teserk incredulously. "You can't be serious! We're talking about twelve - TWELVE - armed and vicious thugs! And you think it'll be like a stroll through the meadow? You're crazy!"

Valinor stifled a smile. "We won't be fighting all of them at once. In fact, if we're lucky, we won't have to fight many of them at all."

"An just how do ye plan t' do that, lad?" Colin asked.

"I've heard of this Broadbent," Valinor replied. "He's ex-military. Honorable in his own way. I'm sure he'd be open to a challenge for the hospitality of his camp. I've got a plan."


Clive Conners sat sleepily at his watch ten feet up in an old elm tree. The wooden platform was hard, but Clive had managed to arrange himself comfortably enough. Unlike some of his band brothers, Clive didn't mind watch duty. Since nothing ever happened out this far into the woods, he was able to use the time to catch up on his sleep.

He was almost asleep when he heard a voice. A female voice.

Clive blinked back the sleep and came to his feet. He listened carefully for a few minutes, but heard nothing else. He was just about to dismiss the episode as a dream when he heard the voice again, closer this time. It was definitely a female voice. And the woman seemed to be crying.

Ignoring protocol, Clive clambered down the rope ladder and made his way toward the source voice. He found it two minutes later.

The woman was sitting on a fallen log. She was beautiful. The skin of her face was a creamy white. Her eyes were a dark liquid brown. Rich brown hair was gathered into a braid that fell over her left shoulder. A long royal blue cloak was draped about her, making it difficult to see the details of her clothing. The woman had one boot off and was in the process of massaging a dainty foot.

"Stupid blister," she muttered. Her full lips made an "O" shape as she noticed Clive.

Clive raised his hands in a calming gesture.

"S'all right, miss," he said, "I ain't fixin' ta hurt ya."

"I should hope not," the woman replied. "I've suffered quite enough for one day."

She held the offending boot up to show him. "Can you imagine having to walk for miles, alone, in a boot of such shoddy workmanship?"

Clive's eyes widened at the word 'alone'. He was beginning to see some possibilities.

"Let me help ya, there, miss."

"Oh, would you? I'm simply too weak to manage it myself."

The woman held her foot out in his direction.

Clive made a beeline for the woman. In his haste he failed to notice the man concealed behind the bush next to the fallen log.

There was a crack as Mort swung a thick branch across the back of the Clive's head. The guard collapsed unconscious at Theadina's feet.

"Well done, Mort," the Knight said as she pulled first her stocking, then her boot back onto her foot. "Let's hope the others have it so easy."


Valinor could clearly see the guard on the platform, though he himself was well hidden. The ranger reached into his pack and retrieved a small black pouch. This he carefully affixed to the end of a blunt-tipped arrow. His weapon ready, Valinor nocked the arrow and took careful aim.

The shaft flew true, striking the tree a scant two inches from the guard's face. The black pouch exploded upon impact, enveloping the startled guard in a cloud of powered herbs. The guard inhaled deeply in his surprise, an action that caused him to gag, then cough uncontrollably. His eyes rolled suddenly up into his head and he collapsed to the floor of the platform.

"Sweet dreams," Valinor said, moving on toward the camp.


"What's this, now?"

Dawson had stopped abruptly, causing Luther to run into him.

"Looky there," Dawson said, pointing in the direction of the stream. Tied to a tree near the bank was a sleek black horse. The horse was unsaddled.

"That's Silent's mount."

Dawson gulped, remembering his complaining from earlier and Luther's threat of Silent's retribution.

"Aw, spit! What's she doin' out 'ere? An' without no saddle?"

"I have no idea," replied Luther, "But I reckon we'd better check it out."

"Aw, spit!" Dawson muttered, but he followed Luther over to the mare.

"She looks all right," Luther said after a brief inspection of the horse. "Let's take her back to camp.

Before Dawson could answer a flying shadow descended from a tree branch above, knocking both men to the ground. Dawson rolled with the impact, coming up into a crouch a few feet away. He was quickly leveled by a well-placed kick to the side of his head.

Luther got only a cursory glance at his attacker before the man's fist connected solidly with his jaw.

Colin helped Teserk off the unconscious Luther then untied the black mare from the tree.

"Come on, lass," he said, "Your job's not finished yet."