A contest entry for the World Weaver's Championship. My first attempt at fantasy writing.
Augustus notched an arrow into his longbow and drew. He had the man in his sights- one of the bandits that he'd been tracking for the last two days. He let loose the bolt and it struck right on point, causing its target to fall to the ground with a thud. He looked around, making sure that the impact hadn't raised any alarms. When he was sure that it hadn't, he moved forward, making sure that is tunic didn't catch on any of the branches of the thicket.
He made his way through the brush in front of him, careful to tread as quietly as possible. He'd chosen to strike at night to give himself better odds because he knew he'd be outnumbered. He didn't plan to kill all of them if he didn't have to, but nor did he have any qualms about doing so if it became a necessity. These weren't good people; they were thieves and highwaymen who robbed and murdered the good people of the country with no regard for life.
A branch snapped which caused him to pause. An animal, maybe? Coyotes were common in this area, and were noticeably more active at night. He hoped that was it because he didn't want to have to deal with anything more sinister, like perhaps a wood goblin out scavenging. Goblins weren't much of a threat any longer, but they could still be found in small bands throughout the province. They generally avoided humans if possible but you never knew. There was still a lot of hostility left over from the Wars of Expansion fought between man and goblin. When he was younger he, himself, had fought in those wars, so he knew firsthand how deadly an opponent a goblin could be.
He moved into the clearing. There were three tents set around what formerly was a campfire but had been reduced to dying embers and ash. He could hear no sounds coming from within any of the tents, so he assumed the occupants were all asleep. He knelt and listened again, but all he could hear were the occasional bird chirping and buzzing of the insects that inhabited the forest.
Good, he thought, this should be easy.
It struck him as odd that they'd just have one guard posted, so he quickly scanned the area to see if there were any signs of movement. Nothing. He crouched down and plotted his next move.
Three days ago, he'd been in the village of Redmayr collecting payment for a job he'd done for a tavern owner who had been robbed a few weeks prior by a local street kid. The idiot hadn't been very good at covering his tracks and Augustus had found him trying to steal a horse in a neighboring town. He'd gotten the money back without too much of a struggle and made sure he scared the kid enough to where he wouldn't try a stunt like that again. He'd returned the money to the tavernkeeper and collected his cut.
While he was enjoying a Dwarven ale, he was approached by an old man wearing long, dirty brown robes. He was disheveled and nervous, and reeked of desperation.
"I've lost something very important to me," he told Augustus.
"I see," Augustus responded, "I suppose you'd like me to go fetch it for you."
The old man ran his fingers through his long, grey beard. He sat down on the wooden stool next to Augustus and told him that he would and offered a bag of gold as payment.
"How big of a bag?" Augustus asked, taking a sip of his ale.
"Big enough," was his answer, "Forty gold pieces. I assume that sum would be sufficient?"
Augustus turned to face him. Even though his face was mostly obscured by his beard, he could see that the man had a sad look on his face that said what he had lost held a great deal of personal importance. His pleading eyes appeared as grey as his hair.
"What is it you want me to recover for you?"
"My daughter," was the reply.
He explained that his only child, Lydia, had been on her way into town when her caravan was attacked by a pack of thieves. They killed the driver and the merchants, taking the wares for themselves. Lydia, however, had been spared and an envoy from the bandit camp had come to him with a ransom request.
"Ransom? Can you afford to pay it?" Augustus had pointed out, which elicited a small smile from the old man.
"I assure you I have it within my means to pay this ransom, but I choose not to. I'd rather the gold go to the man who can return my child to me. And forgive me for my rudeness, my name is Lysander."
He extended his hand in greeting, and Augustus took it into his. Lysander had a firm grip indicating he was much stronger than he appeared to be.
"Augustus," he said to Lysander.
"Will you rescue my daughter?" he asked.
"I'll get her back. I need to see the gold first. Half up front and the rest on delivery. That's not negotiable."
Lysander told him that it was a reasonable request and led him from the tavern to a small hovel a few streets away. The man lived modestly, there was no doubt about that. The furniture was worn and tattered and there were books both in piles and strewn about the front room. The titles, from what he could tell, mostly had to do with magic, specifically the art of summoning which Augustus knew nothing about. He was a woodsman, and had no need of magic.
He cleared off a chair and offered it to Augustus. He took a seat and watched as Lysander moved about the room, weaving in and out of the stacks of books and eventually reached an old wooden bookshelf in the corner. He moved a few of the tomes and produced a small cloth sack, which he brought over and handed to Augustus. Inside were twenty gold coins.
"Half," he said.
Augustus nodded, took the sack and looped it around his belt.
"I can head out tomorrow. Give me as much information about these bandits as you can."
Lysander told him everything he knew, and Augustus made a mental note of all the details. He figured he'd be able to track them down without much problem, as that was his specialty. The men shook hands again and Augustus made his way back to the tavern.
He'd been right in his assessment of being able to track the bandits to their camp in the forest, about seven miles from Redmayr. It hadn't been quite as simple as he'd thought, but once he'd found them he observed them for a day to determine how many there were, their skill level, and where they were keeping Lydia. She was kept in the largest tent, which was flanked by two smaller ones that were occupied by two bandits each. The large tent seemed to belong to their leader and was under guard. They'd brought her out occasionally for what appeared to be some sort of interrogation, which struck Augustus as odd. She was bound but didn't look injured.
Augustus snuck around the campfire and examined the large tent. The flap was open, and he peered inside. His eyes adjusted to the darkness with the help of a small sliver of moonlight and he could see that she was lying on the right side, still bound but sleeping. Snoring came from the left which he assumed to be the thieves' leader. He backed away and went to check out the other two tents.
"Hold it!" a voice came from behind him. He turned to see a large man standing over him, holding a dagger.
Augustus slowly got up, hands raised. His bow was slung over his back, and there was no way to free it up before his adversary would be upon him- a second guard, whom he had somehow not noticed.
"I apologize," he told the bandit, "I was looking for my friend Bors, he was supposed to be camped around here."
"Not here," the big man replied, "Who are you?"
"Just a hunter hoping to get a head start early in the morning," Augustus lied.
The bandit obviously didn't believe him and lunged with his knife. Augustus caught his wrist with his left hand and slammed the palm of his hand into the elbow of the outstretched arm. He heard a crack and the man doubled over in pain. He easily wrestled the knife away and held it to his would-be assailant's throat.
"I'm here for the girl," Augustus said.
The large man cried out in pain, alerting the rest of the camp who slowly emerged from their tents. Four of them, armed with daggers, surrounded Augustus.
"Free the girl or I slit his throat," he told them.
One of the bandits, dressed neck to toe in red leather armor, stepped forward. Augustus recognized him as the man who had been questioning their captive during the day.
"Let's be reasonable," he said.
"I'm being reasonable. The girl goes free," Augustus snapped.
"There are four of us and one of you. You kill him, and we'll be on you like a pack of wolves. How do you think you're getting out of here? Let's talk."
"Lysander hired you, I assume, to bring her back to Redmayr claiming she's his daughter. Am I right so far?"
The man laughed, "You're a fool to believe him."
Augustus held his knife tighter against his hostage's throat.
"Fool or not, I intend to complete the task and collect my reward. So, hand her over or I'm sending your friend to meet the Creator," Augustus spat back.
"Kill him, then. He'll have died for a noble cause," said the man in red.
Augustus backed away, still holding the large bandit. He needed to get himself in position to defend against the inevitable attack. Once he was at the edge of the clearing, he quickly released his prisoner, pushing him toward the other four. The distraction gave him time enough to draw his bow, and he sent an arrow into the big man's back.
The other four came toward him. He notched another arrow and fired, striking the man in red in the chest. He fell backward, hitting the ground hard. The others descended upon him, but Augustus quickly slung his bow across his back and unsheathed the dagger hidden in his boot. He caught one of his assailants by surprise, dispatching him quickly. The other two were on top of him before he could do anything else, knocking him to the ground and pinning him there.
"Stop!" the man in red shouted, getting up from the ground. He pulled out the arrow embedded in his armor and tossed it aside.
"You haven't a clue who we are, have you?" he said, kneeling to next to where Augustus was held, "My name is Fennell. I'm not who you perceive me to be."
"I don't much care who you are," Augustus retorted, "You're holding a girl hostage. That makes you kidnappers."
Fennell shook his head and brushed his long, black hair from his eyes. He pulled out a small sheet of paper from the pouch attached to his belt and showed it to Augustus.
"We intercepted this note not long ago. It was sent by the lady in question via raven to the Village of Redmayr. It is addressed to someone named Lysander and gives the details of a meeting she has set up to plot the assassination of the Lord of this province of Farnum. We're lucky we were able to grab her before she reached him."
"Assassination?" Augustus asked.
"Yes," Fennell responded, "If I free you will you agree to listen, Augustus Woodson?"
"You know who I am?"
"Of course. Your reputation precedes you. You were something of a legend in the Wars. You rode with the best Forest Rangers in the land."
That was true. Back in the war against the goblins, he and his small group of Rangers had fought in many of the battles against the goblins in the campaign to claim the Southlands. Farnum was a part of that, being one of the first provinces established once the bloodshed had subsided.
Augustus sighed and agreed to listen and the men pinning him down let go. He sat up and asked to see the note. Fennell handed it to him.
"Are you sure this is real? It gives a lot of information for such a secret conspiracy."
"It was magically sealed, so that no lay person could gain access. Thankfully we have resources to get around that," Fennell replied, taking back the note.
Augustus got to his feet. He picked his dagger off the ground and slid it back into his boot sheath. He surveyed the group.
"You won't mind if I speak with her, then?"
Fennell nodded and opened the flap to the tent. Inside, a red-haired woman was bound and seated on a chair. Fennell removed the gag from her mouth.
"May I introduce to you your rescue party," he said, indicating Augustus.
"Thank the Creator! Get me out of here and away from these...brigands," she said, struggling in her bonds.
"Not so fast," Augustus said, "They tell me you're an assassin, a part of a plot to murder the Lord."
"Me?" she marveled, "These criminals kidnapped me, and they want my poor father to turn over his life's savings to..."
She was interrupted by the sound of a blast coming from outside of the tent. Augustus and Fennell ran outside and were greeted by the stench of sulfur and the sight of falling cinders. Standing where the campfire had once been was Lysander, arms crossed and smiling.
"Thank you, kind sir, for completing the task for which I hired you...well, not exactly the task you thought you were undertaking, but the one I needed done nonetheless. You led me right to where I needed to be."
What was left of the two men who had remained outside were lying smoldering on either side of the old wizard. Fennell stepped back, aghast, and drew his dagger. Lysander extended his finger and a bolt of lightning knocked the blade from his hand. Fennell cried out in pain and doubled over.
Augustus drew his bow, but Lysander waved, and he found himself frozen, unable to move.
He found could still speak, however. "Why?" he asked.
"The Lord is poised to do the unthinkable. He is about to make a plea for the enslavement of the elves to end when he appears before the High Council one moon from tonight. He seems to have enough support to carry it out, and I cannot let that happen."
After the First Great War nearly two centuries ago, the elvish people were taken as slaves by the humans of the land. Even though they had magical capabilities many years ago, they had been so worn down by their masters that most had either forgotten about those abilities or had been afraid to try to use them. There had been efforts in the beginning, but the uprisings had been dealt with swiftly and harshly. Over the centuries they seemed to have come to accept their fate. Only in recent years had the question of the morality of keeping slaves arisen. Humans had always thought of elves as an inferior species, much in the same way that the enemy races like goblins and orcs were viewed.
"It's the right thing to do," Fennell said, gaining his composure.
"Right for the elves, maybe," Lysander went on, "but not for those of us who need them. He will die before he can make his case."
At that moment, Lydia walked out of the tent. Tall and slender, Augustus was taken aback by her beauty. Her wavy red hair cascaded over her shoulders like a fiery waterfall.
"It's about time you got here," she said, tossing the ropes that once bound her to the ground, "Let's finish this and get on with it."
She looked at Fennell and spat, "Oh, don't look so surprised. I could have escaped any time I wanted to. I was waiting for him to arrive."
"I don't understand," Augustus said to the old man, "Why did you need me? You're a wizard of some kind, couldn't you have cast a spell to find them or something?"
"That is precisely what I did," he said, pointing at the satchel containing the gold coins that was still looped over Augustus' belt.
Lysander motioned for Lydia to join him and she stepped forward, her loose-fitting tunic rippling in the breeze. Fennell charged her, but was frozen in place, too, by a wave of Lysander's hand.
"We must now say goodbye," the old man said. A fire rose from the ground and encircled them, and rose until they were completely obscured by the flames. With a thunderous roar, they were gone and the fire dissipated leaving nothing but the same odor of sulfur.
Once they had vanished, Augustus was finally able to move. He went over to Fennell, who was clutching his burnt hand.
"I think it's time we got out of here," he said to the thief, "I'll help you bury your dead."
Fennell agreed, and their work began.
"You've gone freelance, I see," Fennell said after they had laid the fallen men to rest.
"I have to make a living somehow. The Rangers disbanded many years ago, and I'm not sure I'd have stayed with them anyway."
Fennel gave him a quizzical look, "Regrets?"
"What we did, well, we wiped out a large portion of an entire race. For what? Land?"
"That's the way of history, though, isn't it? Man wants something, and he takes it."
"It doesn't make it right," said Augustus.
Fennell put down his shovel and sat on a rock next to the fire pit. He toyed with his dagger, turning it over in his hands.
"My life's purpose has been to protect people. I'm not much of a fighter, but I've surrounded myself with those that can and do battle, and I struggle for what I believe is right. Man has committed great atrocities over the centuries, and one of them is the treatment of the elves. The Lord of Farnum is looking to make that right, and I will do what I can to protect him," he said.
Augustus joined him at the fire. To him, Fennell looked weary, like a man who'd just lost everything- which he had, thanks to him.
"I'm sorry about your men. I was tricked into thinking you were the enemy. There's no way I can repay what you've lost."
Fennell looked at him through tired eyes, "This is the nature of things. You were doing your duty and we ours. Unfortunately, our paths crossed in a regrettable manner. You could join me, though. I'd stand a better chance against that wizard with a man of your abilities by my side."
Augustus thought about that. There was no money in freedom fighting, but what the elves had been facing over the centuries was indeed disgraceful. Plus, he had killed two of Fennell's men and felt that he owed him for that.
"I'll accompany you," he finally said, "Until you can find a suitable replacement for me, that is. It's the very least I can do after what happened here."
The two men clasped hands and stood up. There was much work to be done, and if they were to track down Lysander and Lydia before they were able to reach the Lord they had to begin right away.
As they were packing up to leave, a thought occurred to Augustus: Why had they been allowed to live?