He gulped down the chill air as he ran, leaping over roots and batting branches aside. The needles on the ground crunched softly beneath his feet. He couldn’t hear them, but he knew that they were close… the ones who hunted him… who sought to drag him back to the farm and the chains… the “enlightened” elves.
He looked ahead and saw that the trees were clearing. Crude rooftops of thatched wood came into sight. He began to slow his pace, pulling his hat low and his scarf high, then headed into the village.
He crested another of the small, rolling hills that were prevalent in this area. He had left his tribe a few days ago, to set off into the world on a Spirit Quest. He hunted wisdom so that he may one day take the Oath of Faith and honor the Guarding Hunter.
He looked out across the lands from the top of the hill and saw a small cluster of buildings huddled near the edge of a large pinewood forest. He sniffed the air and thought, ‘Humans.’ He started his way down the hill, heading towards the village, loping on four strong paws and feeling the breeze in his fur.
He walked down a dusty road. A day’s journey behind him laid the Void Temple that he was born and raised in. On the horizon was a village. He was heading there to complete the final task in his education. His task was to deliver a Memory Tablet to the deceased human’s daughter. After this was complete, he was free to find his own way in the world.
He glanced up and saw Edromyn, the sun, directly overhead, as it always was. Nostiarna, the largest Celestial in the sky, was just finishing slipping below the horizon. In about six hours, it would rise from the opposite horizon until it covered the sun. He estimated that it would take another hour or so to reach the village. He felt a breeze stir the frills which protruded from the sides of his head and reached up with his hand to check the greatsword strapped to his back. He knew that one should always be vigilant while traveling.
He was kicked awake by one of the other men in the camp. “Come on,” the man said, “Wake up. Boss says it’s time to move. Today’s the day. Gear up for raiding.”
He sighed and gathered his things, donning his leather armor and checking his rapier. He wondered how he had ever gotten involved with this lot. Life back in Rivers’ Crossing had been easier. Get some people’s attention, say some distracting words, and divide the take with your pickpocket friends afterwards. Out here in the countryside, near the edge of the Bittercold, it was all threats of violence… and violence when the threats failed. A man’s got to eat, though, and there’s no turning back to Rivers’ Crossing after getting seen by the guards.
He had been running this route for many years. ‘I am getting too old for this,’ he thought. It seemed to get colder each time he came up this far north. ‘Either my skin is getting thinner or the cold is biting deeper.’ The wind was quite chilly on this otherwise pleasant late-summer day. It was blowing from the Bittercold, the lands of snow and ice that encircled the Sun Blessed Lands.
’I’ve no right to complain, though,’ he thought, ‘I just travel here on occasion. I can’t imagine what it must be like to live out here. So close to the ice… and to the elves. The edge of civilization… no wonder they call it Edgeville. We humans are always so creative with our names. I imagine they’ll be glad to see me and the wares I bring.’
He walked into the village, pulling his cloak tighter to cover the dead elf’s armor. His escape back at the farms had been a bit hectic. He was bundled so thoroughly that only his eyes were showing. Not that there was anyone nearby at the moment. Everyone was either already out in the fields or inside. He glanced back at the forest, hoping his pursuers would give up the chase.
The door to one of the rough wooden houses opened and a man stepped outside. “Hello. Where’d you spring from,” the man asked. “Bet you’re here to see Rognvald, eh? We’ve had word that he’s getting here today. Should have plenty of wares. What’s your name?”
He hesitated then said, “Dan,” figuring it best to go under an alias for now.
“Well met, Dan, I’m Thorfinn Carter. I’d best be getting to my brother. He’s on guard duty today and he been pestering me about his spear haft. Keeps giving ’im splinters, got to smooth it out.”
Thorfinn headed off towards the west side of the village. Dan wondered if one of the villagers could spare some food. It had been several days since he had eaten.
He was nearing the village now. He could see two humans up ahead, standing nearby each other. One had a spear in hand and was carving its haft with a small knife. The other one suddenly grabbed the spear and brandished it, saying, “Oy! You there! Be you warg or wolfos?”
He approached the man with the spear cautiously, lifting a front paw and bowing his head in the traditional formal greeting, then said in accented common, “I am wolfos, sir. I was named Blind Seer by the elders of my tribe, the Sagesnouts.”
The man quickly stopped brandishing the spear, returned the bow, and said, “Forgive me, Blind Seer. Can’t be too cautious out here. I am Hallfred Carter and this here is my brother, Thorfinn,” he said, gesturing to the man who had been carving the spear haft. “Welcome to Edgeville.”
As he neared the village, he saw two humans and a wolfos conversing amongst themselves. They turned as he approached and one of the humans called out a greeting, “Hail, sir! It seems we are to have no end of visitors today. I am Hallfred Carter. My companions here are my brother Thorfinn and my new friend Blind Seer. You here to see Rognvald? He should be arriving soon.”
‘Hallfred Carter human male, Thorfinn Carter human male, Blind Seer wolfos male,’ he thought, filing away the information in his mind. He waved a frill in greeting and replied, “I am called Ku. My purpose here is not to see Rognvald. I am here to deliver a memory tablet to Katrin Silverkin.”
Hallfred’s face grew solemn. “Ah. She will be glad to have it. She lives right up there,” he said, pointing to one of the houses up the road.
“Thank you, Hallfred,” said Ku, then headed towards the house. When he got there, he knocked on the door. A woman called from within, “Come in,” so he entered. Inside was a rough table at which a man sat eating some bread. A woman was searching through a cupboard nearby with her back turned. “We have a visitor here today. This fellow here is Dan,” she said. The man at the table nodded. The woman turned around and realized that Ku was not one of her fellow villagers. “Oh,” she said, her face growing solemn as she deduced what Ku must be here for, “You must be here about my father.”
“Yes,” said Ku, pulling out the memory tablet from his pack, “Your father will always be remembered.” He handed the tablet to her.
“Thank you,” she said.
He reigned in his horse, drawing up behind the other men. The horses shuffled as the men discussed. “Mohmar is back from scouting ahead. Says the merchant is nearly in town now,” Glum was saying to the boss, Selim.
“Good,” Selim said, grinning with a savage hunger in his eyes, “We’ll be eating good tonight, boys.”
He brought his rumbling cart to a stop in the middle of the village. Villagers were beginning to gather around, coming out of houses and walking in from the fields, all eager for much needed supplies. “Hail, Rognvald! What have you brought us this time old friend,” one of the villagers called out. Rognvald recognized him as Thorfinn Carter. His brother, Hallfred, and a wolfos were with him. Rognvald spied a few more new faces, an enieto and a heavily clothed man stepping out from a house. Rognvald replied to Thorfinn, “Many fine things my friend. Come have a look.”
At that moment, the frightened yell of a child split the air. Rognvald looked around and saw the mother asking what was wrong. The child whimpered and pointed north towards the forest. Three figures stood there, with deep green cloaks, slender longbows, and wooden masks that covered all but their eyes. “Molroito! Elves!” one of the villagers yelled. The crowd of villagers began to frantically look around for tools to defend themselves. One of the elves held up a hand and said, “Calm yourselves. We are not here for you today. We seek a murderer who we believe has entered this village. Give him to us and we will leave your village in peace.”
The villagers paused to look around. Their eyes settled on the newcomers. Just as a few villagers stepped nervously forward, the galloping of many horses hooves was heard. From the west, a company of nine men rode into town with weapons drawn. They reigned in their horses and one of them, an ugly fellow with a mean look in his eyes, called out, “Hand over the goods and everyone walks away alive!”
Rognvald surveyed the scene. The villagers were shuffling nervously. The elves were looking around and nocking arrows on their bows. The bandits looked hungry and some were holding their weapons halfheartedly. Rognvald called out, “I can see that you haven’t eaten well in a while. Some of you look like you were once good men. I’m no stranger to hard times. We’ve got elves here and they won’t be picky about who they take. Should any of you take up your blades to defend me, I’ll keep you on as guards. Honest work and steady food.”
As soon as the bandits had rode into town and the villagers had stopped looking at him, he ducked his head and started moving towards a gap between the houses, just past the merchant’s cart. His heart had been pounding since he had seen the elves. ‘Fool,’ he thought to himself, ‘You should not have stopped. The Molroito have caught up to you!’
The merchant was speaking to the bandits as he neared the cart. He was easing his way past it when an arrow slammed into the house behind him, shattering the wood with its blunt tip, the kind the elves used to knock out potential slaves. He ducked behind the cart with his stomach in his throat. The merchant was yelling above him, “Weapons! Take them!” A battered old short sword was thrust into his hands. He glanced over the top of the cart and saw that chaos had erupted. The villagers were running in all directions. Some of the bandits had turned on the rest of their crew. The elves had taken up positions behind houses and were firing arrows from behind cover. Another one slammed into the merchant’s cart, sending splinters flying.
He gripped the short sword tight and took a few quick breaths, then ran for the gap between the houses.
Blind Seer saw the merchant hurriedly handing out weapons. The elves started moving in, firing arrows as they went. Blind Seer growled to himself at the sight of them. The elves of the Cold Forest had caused the Sagesnout tribe trouble for as long as he could remember. Blind Seer closed his eyes and blocked out the chaos around him, focusing on the still part of his mind, the part that held a well of knowledge and innate power. Drawing on this, he opened his eyes and focused his mind on one of the elves, stabbing at him with mental energy. The elf stumbled and fell to the ground.
Blind Seer saw the heavily clothed man that had been with the enieto move from behind the merchant’s cart and into a gap between houses. Blind Seer moved to follow him, figuring he would need aid against the remaining elves.
Before the merchant had finished speaking, Ku had ripped the greatsword from his back and charged towards the bandits. As he got over to them, he saw that they had begun fighting amongst themselves. Their apparent leader, the one that had spoken, still had his greedy eyes on the merchant. As he began moving his horse towards the cart, Ku reached up and dragged him out of the saddle. The man cursed and spat, rolling away and getting to his feet as Ku tried to bring his blade down on him. The man had a cruel looking blade and a dagger that had appeared from somewhere. Ku swung in a wide arc, keeping the man at bay. They began to circle each other, looking for an opening. The man came in with his blade. Ku knocked it aside easily, but in doing so allowed the man to get too close. Ku felt a sharp pain as the man’s knife was slammed into his side. The man backed off quickly as Ku swung again, then began circling again with a gleeful look in his eyes.
Ku slowed his breathing and cleared his mind, becoming still and focusing all his attention on the man. At the edge of his mind, Ku could hear the whisperings of the man’s thoughts, so when the man lunged again with the blade, Ku was ready. In one fluid motion, he sidestepped the attack and brought up his greatsword, the tip slicing upwards from the man’s belly to his head. Blood flew. The man dropped. Ku looked for his next opponent.
“Honest work and steady food,” the merchant finished his speech. Some of the men looked around at their fellow outlaws. He looked around and saw the decisions in their eyes. The group was split about half and half. ‘Gate Warden take this lot,’ he thought, ’They’d have cut my throat in the night before too long. Selim gives me the creeps anyways. Likes to hurt people, that one. I’ll try to let them live if I can, anyways. They’ll serve the Deepguard well.’
He stabbed at Thorkell, Selim’s right-hand man, aiming for his thigh. The attack hit home and Thorkell swore, turning to swing his club. He slashed at Thorkell’s arm with his rapier, then reached over and shoved him off his horse. He looked around and saw Selim fighting a big enieto. He felt his horse stumble under him and saw that Thorkell had found his feet and had whacked one of the horse’s legs. He kicked at Thorkell and hopped off his horse. Thorkell kept swinging his club clumsily. Easily evading the club, he slashed at Thorkell’s legs until he collapsed. He finished Thorkell off with a sharp kick to the head.
He made it into the gap between the houses. He heard full battle erupting behind him. He moved towards the other end of the house, edging towards the corner to peek out and check the position of the elves. As he neared the corner, an elf suddenly moved out from behind it. They eyed each other with a moment of surprise, then fell to with a flurry of fighting. The Molroito were often trained in hand-to-hand combat. This one easily knocked his blade aside as he made a frantic stab. The elf punched and kicked him. He slashed with his short sword and gave the elf a shallow cut on the arm. The elf backed off for a moment. ‘I will not go back,’ he thought, ‘I cannot go back.’
He felt the power welling up in his soul, the same power that had helped him escape back at the farms. He lowered his sword and raised his other hand, pointing towards the elf. “I am your slave no more,” he said as a flash of light burst forth from his hand. The elf fell to the ground, incapacitated and groaning in pain.
Blind Seer moved in between the houses and found the heavily clothed man standing over an incapacitated elf. “Ah good, you got one,” said Blind Seer, “There’s only one left out there.” The man nodded and moved towards the back of the house. Blind Seer felt a sudden spike of dread and knew that if the man stepped out from behind the house that he would be hit by an arrow. Blind Seer grabbed the man’s scarf in his mouth and tugged backwards. The man fell back against the house, dislodging his hat. Blind Seer looked on with shock, seeing pointed ears and dark red hair. “You are elfkind,” Blind Seer growled at the man, “Is it true what the other elves said? Are you a murderer?”
The man pulled the hat down over his ears again and said, “I killed an elf in my escape, but I am no murderer. I was a slave to them. I am not like them. I am not an enlightened elf.”
As Blind Seer was considering the man’s words, the last of the Molroito stepped out from behind the corner with bow drawn. Before Blind Seer could act, the arrow was released, slamming into his side. Blind Seer yelped at the impact of the blunt tip. He tried to focus his mind, but the pain distracted him. The Molroito easily batted aside his mental assault. The heavily clothed man swung at the elf bowman. The elf dodged, but it was his bow that was the target. It clattered out of his hands as the short sword struck it. Blind Seer rallied himself and rushed forward, biting at the elf’s leg. Hot blood filled his mouth as the elf stumbled. The heavily clothed man struck out with his short sword again, stabbing the elf in the throat.
“Thanks,” said Blind Seer, “I believe you. You do not smell the same as the other elves and I have never seen one with red hair. Let’s bring these two out.”
It was over as quickly as it had started. Five of the bandits had turned on their group. Three bandits had been subdued. Their leader had been killed by the enieto. Rognvald saw one of the elves fall to the ground near the beginning of the fight, but the elf had gotten back up and retreated into the forest after the wolfos had run in between the houses. The wolfos reappeared now with the heavily clothed man, dragging two elves out. One was dead, the other just incapacitated.
Rognvald looked around and said, “You all fight well. I’ve got food and coin for any who will guard me on the road back home. What say you? What are your names?”
“Ku,” said the enieto with the greatsword, “I shall begin my world education with you. I will join you.”
“Blind Seer,” said the wolfos, “I hunt wisdom for the honor of the Guarding Hunter. I will defend you.”
“Gale,” said the heavily clothed man, letting his real name slip after the adrenaline of the fight, “If you’ve got food, sure.”
“Barry,” said one of the bandits, stepping forward and flicking blood off his rapier, “I shall join you, sir.”
The other bandits joined as well. Rognvald spent the rest of the day bartering with the villagers, selling off his wares. Then they loaded up their prisoners, the three bandits and the elf. “We’ll get a nice bounty for this lot I imagine… and the Deepguard will get fresh recruits,” said Rognvald, “Rest tonight. In the morning, we make for Lakeside.”