Rashad and Bethany continue their mission.
" Alright then, let's get to it," Rashad said, removing the strap of javelins.
Rashad placed them and his battle-axe in the back of one of the three wagons. Yan'dai and Ahs'er quickly began to give out assignments to everyone except the Sorceror. Ly'nel went over to a tree and laid back against it. He was snoring softly within moments.
Rashad and Tai'sher worked quickly to repair one of the axles on a wagon.
The taller warrior nodded over at the Sorceror," What's his story? He doesn't have to help? "
Tai'sher grinned at him," You sure must not know nothing about life on the High Plains. No, he didn't have to help and probably the only reason he did is because he knows us, and owes us a few small favors. If it had been another Sorceror, he would have took the gold and maybe killed us all to make sure there were no witnesses. He's not helping because this wasn't his contract in the first place. " the young man smiled again, " Besides, someone has to keep lookout, and it wouldn't do to acknowledge that he's doing us a favor. "
Rashad's eyebrows raise," He's keeping watch? "
Tai'sher chuckled as he stood and the two of them began putting away tools," Yeah, I've only ever seen him do it once before, and he looked asleep that time too. But when someone tried to knife him the man was incinerated in the blink of an eye. "
Rashad nodded and asked no more questions, thanking whatever gods he used to pray to that he had resisted the urge to lash out at the Sorceror.
Rashad and Tai'sher made sure all the yar'rill were ready for the trip. The yar'rill resembled nothing so much as incredibly huge spiders with a thin coating of bristly hair covering their armored bodies. They would eat almost anything, the wild ones were known to even eat people, as Tai'sher told it anyway. The ones Rashad met were sweet though and smelled slightly spicy but not any worse than horses. Rashad lightly brushed the outside of a mandible because Tai'sher said they enjoyed it and the yar'rill, which was easily a quarter meter taller than the Wraith-Knight, mewled in pleasure.
Finally the preparations were made and everyone was ready to leave. Rashad took a wagon with Bethany in the rear, Yan'dai and Ahs'er were up front, and Tai'sher and Ly'nel were in the middle. With a wordless gesture, Ahs'er signaled for everyone to move out. The yar'rill had excellent night vision and were trained to manuever in darkness when their rider could't see very well. The ride was deceptively smooth and the forest tranquil, but Rashad's nerves were still slightly on edge.
The Wraith-Knight turned to look at Bethany and was pleased to find that she was calm and almost relaxed. Her eyes only seemed to glow every now and then in the bright moonlight. Rashad hoped that one of the others wouldn't turn around and see them when they did.'
"Hey, Beth," Rashad called to her softly," I'm a little foggy on a few things. "
The Wraith-Knight kept his eyes, which were seeing pretty well through the darkness, on the road. He heard Bethany shift slightly as she turned to him.
" Ask away. It's part of my duty to you to answer any questions," she told him and waited for a question.
" What did Tai'sher mean by the Battle of the High Plains? Did he mean the plain back there? Tai'sher talked like it was a kingdom or something. "
" The High Plains is a kingdom while at the same time it is the land that you're in. " Beth cleared her throat and her voice assumed an oddly lecturing tone," There are three "Plains", as people call them. The Lower, the Middle and the High. As you might infer from the names, the High Plain is the highest above sea level. The Middle Plain is only slightly above sea level and the Lower Plain is slightly below sea level. The Lower Plain is mostly savanna. The Middle Plains has the largest true plain. The High Plains are mostly hills and highland forest.
The Lower Plain is bordered to the east by a swamp where giant, saltwater lizards live. An endless desert to the west, and the Cliffs of the Gods to the south.
The Middle Plain is bordered by the Lake of Mists on the east and the BearGod's Gorge to the west. The south is blocked by cliffs with few passes to get to the Lower Plains.
Passing from the Middle Plain to the High Plain is easier than going to the Lower from the Middle. The boundary is marked by the River Guildos, which flows from the Serpent Spine Mountains in the west to the Lake of Mists in the east. As I just said the mountains are to the west and to the east and north are the Forests of the Lijuak, a powerful tribe of people. There are only more unpassable mountains to the north. "
She paused briefly before continuing," At times each Plain has been made into an Empire or something of that nature, but these usually don't last very long. The Plains are usually broken up into scattered kingdoms or city-states. "
Rashad nodded slowly as he digested the information." So tell me more about the recent events," he told Bethany," I feel as though I knew and respected a King and I suspect that this new King is not that one judging by how enraged I get at the thought of him. "
Bethany nodded at him," The current King, Griystal, was a WereLord in the Middle Plains. From what I can gather, he and his army of lizard-men and fierce Pliyian tribesmen tore a wide swath through the Middle Plain kingdoms. There was some kind of mass exodus of the Pliyian, a nomadic people from a small province of the lower southeastern Middle Plains. People say that the foul spells they cast to give their warriors such prowess in battle caused their god to blight their lands and abandon the tribes. Griystal was chosen as their WereLord and granted all the powers of two powerful WereLords at once. Some say the ordeal drove him mad. He immediately began carving a path through the Middle Kingdoms to Loriea, the kingdom that you stand in now. Loriea is on the far southeastern border, nestled right up against the Forests, and beneath the Kingdom of Domhu, which has been trying to take over Loriea for the last two centuries. Between raids from clans in the forest and sudden and vicious campaigns from the Domhu, Loriea was unprepared for an attack by such a formidable force as Griystal's. "
Bethany grew quiet and the silence was thick as Rashad felt her eyes on him.
" The Great Battle of the High Plains, as everyone seems to be calling it now, saw the destruction of the vaunted Wraith-Knights of Loriea as well as its army. Griystal was quick in proclaiming himself King and corraling his tribesmen into the Kingdom. He quickly secured his new-won borders against any raids by the clans and incursions by the Domhu. I know because I had a hard time finding my way into Loriea past the border forces. "
" Griystal is a shrewd manipulator of people and events. He has somehow managed to convince an alarming number of commoners that the Will of Fate caused him to come to Loriea to save it from its enemies. He has convinced most of Loriea to war on first the Domhu and then the rest of the High Plains. There is no doubt in my mind that he plans to create some kind of Pliyian Empire with himself as the First Emperor. "
" There have been several Empires that have stretched for almost entire Plains, and one that even encompassed two. The Kingdom of Mikaol is the largest on the Middle Plains, I know because I grew up in a small village there, and almost large enough to be called an Empire by default. I've heard that there are several City-States on the Lower Plains that could give Mikaol a run for its money. Many of the WereLords that rule small Kingdoms or City-States aspire to become an Emperor, but most aren't as disciplined as Griystal is. I believe that if left unopposed he may succeed in forging his empire. "
" Tell me about Mikaol, Bethany," he requested," About where you grew up. "
Her voice lost the lecturing tone and became filled with fondness," Mikaol has a beautiful lake at its center. On bright, sunny days the light hits the water and makes it shine like the biggest jewel in the world. I grew up in a tiny village on the eastern shore of the lake. It wasn't much, just a few buildings in town, and a bunch of farms around the region. The lord could be strict sometimes, but he rarely exerted his influence. I used to love running through the fields of wheat and barley in the summer. The winters, when the snow would pile up deeply, I would play outside with my friends for hours. My parents were loving and protective, but gave me plenty of space to grow. When I was ten, we learned that I had the gift for Necromancy and the lord sent me to the capital to learn in exchange for serving him for five years. "
Bethany paused then and finally continued in a hoarse voice," I completed my studies by the time I was twenty-five," Rashad could hardly believe she was that old," -and returned to my village..., but-"
Rashad finished for her in a quiet voice," -Griystal and his horde had already been there? "
" Yes," she hissed," Not a single person was left alive. Not a man or child, and the women looked to have been left for the human warriors and lizard-men to have fun with, before they had their throats slit..."
" I found my parents in their bedroom, locked in a last embrace, with both their heads smashed in. " she told the tale in a voice devoid of emotion.
Rashad stayed silent as words of comfort fail to come to him. He can't help but wonder if he had been an uncaring person... before.
Beth surprised him by not crying, instead she spoke in the same dead voice," This is not a mission merely of revenge, Rashad. Though it does help to motivate me. The King ordered most of his Necromancers and a few of his most powerful Sorcerors, to see to the destruction of Griystal before the WereLord could raise a large enough army to crush Mikoal. At the time Mikoal's army wasn't large enough, and was spread too thinly about the kingdom to stop the Pliyian's march. The King feared that Griystal would return with a larger, more powerful army, to invade Mikoal permanently. That was two years ago. I don't know what the armies of Mikoal are like now. "
The Wraith-Knight stayed silent again and the moon quickly began to set. At least it seemed that way to him. The sun began to rise to the west, bathing the land in the odd faded light, as though its flames were waking from a long slumber.
Rashad turned to look at Bethany in the light and was shocked to discover that she looked even thinner and frailer than before. Her hair, which seemed so clean in the moonlight, was actually quite dirty. He wondered how brightly it would shine if it were clean. Her clothes were very wrinkled and there were several stains, obviously embarrassing as she seemed to unconsciously cover them, on her shirt. She looked at Rashad and smiled tightly. He surprised himself by flashing her a wide grin and shrugging. He nodded at his own blood-stained, vagabondish appearance. Bethany smiled genuinely this time and nodded in turn.
Rashad was almost thrown from his seat as the yar'rill stopped. The warrior looked up to find that the other three had stopped at an almost circular clearing in the road. The other two wagons quickly formed a defensive triangle with Rashad's wagon. The yar'rill hunkered down and folded their limbs and head up until they resembled nothing so much as balls of chitin. Rashad watched as the others threw back the odd lever on the side of the drivers seat. He was impressed at the wedges that dropped into place in front of each wheel and the thick boards that dropped down to cover the large spaces beneath the wagons.
" Let's get into the yard, Bethany," he said, grabbing the strap of javelins and the battleaxe from the seat.
Rashad hopped out after Bethany and hunkered down with the others behind the fragile safety of the wagons.
" What's going on? " Rashad asked, gripping and releasing the axe handle in anticipation.
" Ly'nel senses a number of men in the woods ahead of us. He says that they are in a perfect position to ambush us there and the auras he's reading aren't friendly ones. " Ahs'er explained, spitting on the ground and stringing his bow.
Ahs'er brown eyes locked with Rashad's as he pursed his lips in thought," Ly'nel, do they have a large number of archers? "
The tall Sorceror sighed and rubbed the bridge of his angular nose," I can't tell, Ahs'er, that's not how it works. "
Ahs'er spit again," Okay. We can't try to make a run for it. If they have archers we'll be dead before we make it passed them. We'll wait for them to make their move. It won't be long now. They're impatient bastards and will likely charge us sometime soon. Rashad, can you use a bow? "
Rashad thought he could," I think so. "
" Tai'sher, get him Yolo's old bow. He's strong enough to draw it. " Ahs'er ordered his little brother.
" What are we going to do, Ahs'er? " Yan'dai asked, his large, black eyes completely calm.
Rashad assumed that the merchant had employed the mercenaries a number of times to have such faith in their abilities.
" When they charge us Ly'nel can do his stuff. Remember the time we were over Yuili's Bluff, Ly'nel? "
The Sorceror's eyes narrowed," What makes you think I'll risk my life for you scum? "
Rashad growled at the Sorceror and was rewarded with a smirk.
" He's just being contrary Rashad. He knows that his fee has already been agreed on and that his services until we reach Tyj are assured. " Ahs'er explained, his eyes fixed on the Sorceror.
Ly'nel grinned at Rashad," Our new companion needs to learn how to take a joke, Ahs'er. "
Tai'sher returned with an enormous longbow made of an unfamiliar wood," Here you go," he said, handing Rashad the oddly light weapon and a full quiver of penetrators.
Rashad began familiarizing himself with the longbow as the others talked.
" Yeah, I remember Ahs'er," Ly'nel said," I've improved since then. I can roast a few of their asses and heat up the area to make the rest think they're next. That should really scatter them to the wind. "
" Good. I want everyone right up against their wagons when the time comes. Once I give the order. We ride like demons have latched themselves on our asses. Is that clear? " Ahs'er fixed all of them with an intense gaze.
Rashad nodded as he drew a penetrator, named for its ability to penetrate heavy cavalry armor at a distance, back to his cheek. He sighted a distant tree and loosed. The arrow closed the distance in the blink of an eye and buried itself for almost half its length inside the tree.
" Perfectly clear," he said with a small smile.
" Take your places then," Ahs'er said, taking his own order and hauling Yan'dai by the sleeve to the side of their own wagon.
Rashad nodded to Bethany and the two of them went to their assigned wagon. Tai'sher pounded the Wraith-Knight on his battered shoulderplate as the mercenary passed him," Let's give 'em hell, Rashad! " he said with an infectious grin.
Rashad grinned back at him and nodded sharply.
The Wraith-Knight settled into place beside Beth after placing his bladed weapons beneath the wooden bench, the bow in his lap, and the quiver resting against his left hip.
" Tai'sher seems to have taken a liking to you, Rashad," Beth said, her voice quiet.
" What do you expect? I saved he and his brother from probably dying bloody. He sees me as a great fighter. Everything he hopes to be someday. I imagine that's why his brother keeps looking at me so strangely. " Rashad told her, while his ears strained for some sign of the attack.
" Do you think they'll ask you to join them? " she asked, her voice even lower.
" The thought never crossed my mind. Let's think on it once we reach safety, okay? "
" O- " her voice was drowned out by the battlecry of what sounded like a hundred men.
There was a sudden gust of brutally hot wind, followed by the loud roar of something catching fire and then the cries of many men in agony.
" Now! " Ahs'er roared.
Rashad was oddly pleased when Bethany reacted almost as quickly as he did in scrambling into the seat.
" Take the reins! " he shouted at her over the screams of dying men.
Bandits in little better armor than the ones they had fought before were running around the wagons in a frenzied panic. Rashad could see another group of maybe half a dozen standing uncertainly at the end of the clearing. In a motion too fast to follow, the yar'rill unrolled from their balls, and broke into what could be considered a gallop if they were physically capable of it. The speed was right though. Rashad loosed an arrow through the chest of a man with a battered pike that looked like he was going to run Beth through. The man was thrown backward by the force of the arrow and writhed horribly on the ground as their wagon rumbled pass. The men blocking the way out of the clearing scrambled out of the way as Ahs'er and Yan'dai flew passed them. Tai'sher and Ly'nel passed through-
Something whizzed from one side of the clearing and into Tai'sher's head. Rashad saw a bandit in a tree with a sling and quickly dispatched him with an arrow to the groin. The bandit howled in mixed horror and pain and fell from the tree. The wagon passed the unconscious form of Tai'sher quickly and Rashad knew that the bandits would make quick work of him.
" Stop! " he shouted to be heard over the roar of flames and the screams of dying men.
The wagon came to a complete stop almost instantly, nearly throwing Rashad from the seat, but the Wraith-Knight maintained his balance and hopped nimbly from the seat. Rashad nocked an arrow as he sprinted as quickly as he could to Tai'sher. His feet seemed to barely touch the earth as the warrior raced to Tai'sher. No matter how fast he was capable of running though the bandits had much less distance to cover. Rashad was a mere fifteen meters away from Tai'sher when three of the bandits reached the unconscious mercenary. Three pockets of intensely hot air passed over Rashad's head as three tumbling balls of fire streaked towards the bandits. The poor fools tried to run and were still engulfed in flames.
So the Sorceror didn't abandon his friend, Rashad thougt, his opinion of the Sorceror rising quickly.
Rashad quickly loosed an arrow at a huge, berserk looking bandit who raced towards Tai'sher with a blood-stained axe in his hands. The penetrator took the man high in the collar, but he kept coming. There was no time to draw another as the two were on a collision course. Rashad dropped the bow and drew his shortsword. The bandit swung his axe in a move that could have left a nasty gash in Rashad's chest. The Wraith-Knight leaned almost casually to the left, marvelling at his flexibility, and brought his shortsword up into the mans lower belly. The bandit, who was much heavier than Rashad, retained his hold on his axe, and brought the butt of it across the Wraith-Knights jaw. There was a dull breaking sensation in Rashad's face, but he ignored it and brought the heel of his foot into the bandit's kneecap. The bandit howled as Rashad tripped him with the same foot. The shortsword into his eyesocket quieted him quickly.
Tai'sher was moaning and showing signs of life as he feebly reached to draw his sword. Rashad hauled the young mercenary to his feet and got him over one shoulder. Rashad held his legs together to balance him and immediately sprinted back to Bethany. On the way he bent down to snatch up the longbow. Rashad looked up to see Bethany waving at him frantically. Without looking back the warrior stepped up his pace. Ly'nel stood beside his wagon with his glowing fists raised in the air. Rashad could see his face as though he were right next to the Sorceror and the man looked tired.
Finally he reached the wagon.
Rashad threw Tai'sher into the seat first and then jumped up himself. Beth snapped the reins and the yar'rill were off again. Rashad looked forward and saw that Ly'nel was making good his escape as well. Ahs'er and Yan'dai weren't too far ahead and he assumed that they had been ready to rescue Tai'sher as well.
Now Rashad looked back over the side of the wagon and grinned widely. At least twenty of the bandits were chasing after the wagons and waving their weapons in fury.
The victorius warrior couldn't help but raise a victory cry and twirl the shortsword over his head.
Rashad rode in the wagon for most of the day at a pace no horse, let alone a man, could have sustained for long. The forest was far behind him as Ahs'er called a halt in a small trough between two hills. The veteran mercenary immediately pounced onto his younger brother as Rashad, Beth, and Tai'sher exited the seat. The younger mercenary was clearly embarrassed as his older brother led him away to examine him for serious injuries. Rashad would have told him it wasn't necessary because he had already done that on the way over, another useful skill that he seemed to possess, but Yan'dai interposed himself.
Yan'dai quickly let Rashad, Beth, and Ly'nel know how to set up the camp. Ly'nel grumbled about being paid extra for physical labor, but the camp was set up in a short time.
Rashad was sitting next to Bethany on one of the three strangely soft logs that Yan'dai had stored in the wagons, cleaning and sharpening his weapons, when Ahs'er walked over to them. To the Wraith-Knight's surprise the mercenary knelt on the ground and bowed low to him.
" I must thank you and apologize to you at the same time," he said, talking into the ground," I was thinking about turning you in at the small barracks at Tyj. You wear the armor and have the bearing of a Wraith-Knight, even if you do have the coloring of a Low Plainer, and there is a large bounty on the head of any surviving Wraith-Knight. But you have shown great honor and courage in saving my little brother. I swear that I will never betray you, not even think of it, as long as I breath. "
The hardened mercenary bowed twice more before returning to his feet. Ahs'er held out the bundle of clothing he'd carried with him. Rashad took the clothes and nodded at him.
" These are spare clothes of the Marauders. They will think you are one of us. It is the least I can do," Ahs'er told Rashad, his face anxious, as though he doubted if the warrior would accept his apology and gifts.
Rashad nodded in what he hoped was a stately gesture," Your truth and your gifts are appreciated. "
Ahs'er bowed once more at the waist before walking back to the other side of the fire to sit with his brother. Rashad glanced at his hand and for the first time noticed that his skin was light brown in coloration. He put the realization out of his mind as Ahs'er was replaced by Ly'nel.
The tall Sorceror studied both Rashad and Bethany as the Wraith-Knight might have studied an enemy fortification that he planned to take.
" You sure are fast on your feet," he said, tapping his chin with a long fingernail.
The warrior nodded as he began honing the edges of his shortsword. Ly'nel watched the quick, sure strokes of the whetstone against the blade, and was probably thinking of the speed which Rashad wielded the blade. It was most likely why he chose his next words with care.
" One can't help wonder where you learned to move like that? "
" I wasn't fast enough," Rashad told him," If it weren't for you, Sorceror, Tai'sher would be a corpse right now. You truly are a mighty wielder of magic. "
Lyn'el grinned widely, his eyes fairly sparkling," Yes, well, it was nothing. One of my weakest spells. Let me tell you about the time that I- "
" Ly'nel, we don't have time for another one of your night long tales," Ash'er interrupted the Sorceror," Time for sleep, everybody, we move out at first light. Who'll take the first watch? "
Ly'nel sniffed as he walked away grumbling," People nowadays have no respect..."
" I'll stand watch," Rashad volunteered, figuring that he was the least likely to fall asleep.
The others, except Bethany, looked at him strangely.
" Aren't you tired? " Tai'sher asked, already looking as though he wanted nothing more than to curl up and sleep at that moment.
Rashad shrugged," Not really. I must still have a bit of battle-fever in my blood. If I tire, I'll wake my relief, I promise. "
Ahs'er nodded," I'll take the second watch and Ly'nel will take the third. "
Lynel groaned loudly," Why do I have to stand watch? "
" Because you weren't injured today," Ahs'er answered with a grimace," You should be rested enough by then to be able to at least warn us when trouble comes. "
" Yeah, maybe," Ly'nel mumbled, quite clearly to Rashad's ears, but Ahs'er acted like he didn't hear.
" Alright, let's get some sleep, we've got to get an early start if we want to make it to Tyj tomorrow. "
Rashad waited until the others were asleep before changing into the garments that Ahs'er had given him.
The Wraith-Knight left the hard leather, steel-toed boots on, and donned the billowy tan pants. He placed the spiked knee plates over the pants for better protection. Next he removed the damaged chainmail shirt, shoulderpads and sleeveless cotton undershirt. He put on the black, woolen shirt under the leather jerkin. The left shoulderpad wasn't too badly damaged and he decided to keep it. The chainmail that he cinched to his arm would better protect it from injury.
The clothes fit comfortably on Rashad and he thought they would do until he could come upon better armor in the shops of Tyj.
Taking his battle-axe, shortsword, and lizard-man dagger, the sentry dutifully walked the small perimeter of the camp for awhile. Then he sat on the log that Yan'dai had left for just that purpose. The watch was spent doing either one or the other.
Rashad had repeated the steps for most of the night when Ahs'er climbed down from the back of the wagon he was sharing with his brother. The mercenary squinted up at the sky and frowned at Rashad.
" It'll be dawn in a couple hours, Rashad. Did you fall asleep out here? " he asked the Wraith-Knight.
Oh no, he thought, I didn't realize how late it was. Better to pretend I did fall asleep.
Rashad nodded slightly, his eyes downcast, in what he hoped was a shamed manner. Ahs'er surprised him by laughing and sitting on the log beside him.
" Don't worry," the veteran mercenary said, his voice low," I've done it myself a few times. I'm sure we gave those bandits a terrible fright today. As much as it pains me to say, between you and Ly'nel, I figure those cowards are halfway to the border by now. "
Rashad nodded at Ahs'er and smiled slightly.
" Now get some sleep," he ordered, with a chuckle," I'm sure Ly'nel will be happy he didn't have to interrupt his sleep. We'll let you sleep in. Your shapely friend seems to be able to handle the yar'rill well. "
Rashad nodded at the man and trod, wearily, to the wagon. He discarded the weapons and whatever else might accidentally injure himself or Bethany while he slept. Rashad wasn't tired as he climbed into the narrow space between the soft packaging materials. He settled next to Bethany with the idea of trying to rummage through his fuzzy memories for information about his life....before.
" Closer," Bethany mumbled, and snuggled closer to Rashad, even though it was quite warm in the wagon.
When her arm draped over him, a sudden lethargy overcame the seemingly inexhaustible warrior, and darkness fell instantly.