Two bandits were guarding the mouth of the canyon. From my hiding spot in the bushes nearby, I could see that they weren’t taking their duties seriously. They did, however, have a clear view of the road leading up to the canyon, so it was clear I wasn’t going to be able to get into the camp that way.
I shrank back into the foliage, pondering my next move. In the four or five hours, I had been watching the guards I had not seen anything that would allow me to carry out the goal I had come for. Besides the two guards on the ground, there were two short, stubby watchtowers on top of the rocky walls that formed the canyon’s entrance. Beyond that, I had made out maybe a dozen other bandits moving about, going about whatever their business was.
This was not going to be easy.
I had arrived in the small village of Longsaddle a few days ago. Beyond a small temple dedicated to Helm, an inn and a festival hall, there wasn’t that much there. Most of the population lived in the farmsteads surrounding the village – on a clear day; one could see horses, cattle and other livestock stretching far into the distance. After a couple of years of travelling on the road, hunting the odd goblin or finding the unusual unguarded treasure, I could do with somewhere quiet.
Longsaddle had long had a reputation for being a relatively safe place. Bandits, monsters and other interlopers gave the village a wide berth due to the family of wizards that lived close by. The Harpells, in their vast Ivy Mansion, had protected Longsaddle for many decades. It seemed that protection had failed as a band of bandits – slavers more like – had been kidnapping locals as they travelled to and from their farms and ranches, well outside the boundaries of the village.
I had been approached by one of the priests at the temple. A human male, maybe in his mid-twenties, had come to me with a request.
“Pardon me, but you look like you can handle yourself in a fight. We’ve had a number of our people going missing recently.” He seemed calm, but it looked like he was anxious. “If you can help us find them, you will be well rewarded.”
“Why me?” I asked, “Wouldn’t someone from your temple be better suited?”
The priest shook his head. “A member of the Order of the Gauntlet went to investigate a possible location for their camp, but he never came back. I have no one else to turn to.”
I accepted, of course, and spent the next day or two searching the nearby countryside for any possible leads. I happened upon two thugs carrying pig carcasses and sacks that looked like they were full of coins. I followed them to a canyon a few miles away. As I approached, I saw more bandits – it was the right place. Now the question was how to get in.
I was shaken from my thoughts by a low rumbling. Three covered wagons, pulled by oxen, rolled up the track. The guards stopped them at the entry while other bandits performed a brief search. As one of the covers was lifted, I saw a glimpse of what looked like a cage. Eventually, the guards waved them in, and they passed through into the camp.
Maybe this could be my way in. I couldn’t hide in a wagon as they were being searched, but maybe there were other options. I waited until darkness fell then carefully made my way back to Longsaddle, making sure not to be seen by the next shift of guards. Tomorrow I would find a way to hitch a lift on one of the wagons.
Fortune – or maybe Helm itself – appeared to be smiling on me, as that night there was a great storm. The next day, as I walked along the road towards the camp, I saw that a tree had been uprooted and was now blocking the way.
In front of the tree were two wagons, their oxen lowing, the drivers struggling to clear the road. It was my best chance. Making sure to keep out of sight, I crept up silently behind the rearmost wagon, ducked down and pulled myself under the vehicle. I managed to find handholds and footholds on the bottom of the cart. I gripped them as tightly as I could and waited.
Presently the bandits cleared the tree from the road and resumed their journey. I held on as the ground passed beneath me. The wagon shook and bucked every time it passed over what seemed like the smallest stone. Once or twice I nearly lost my grip, but I managed to keep hold. My cloak dragged in the dust and gravel, but I had no time to worry about that now. I tried to see where we were going, but I couldn’t make anything out other than the ground immediately beneath me.
After what seemed like hours, the wagons came to a stop, and I heard voices. They were too far away for me to make out precisely what they were saying, but it seemed like we had reached the canyon. I saw feet move around the wagon and held my breath. Fortunately, no-one looked underneath. After a few minutes, the wagons started moving again. Judging by the noises, I could hear we had entered the camp.
The wagon finally came to a stop, and I heard the drivers get down from it. I waited for them to leave and then waited a few minutes more. I let go of the underside of the wagon and rolled out to the side. Seeing no-one in the immediate area, I got up to a crouch and hid behind some crates. Poking my head up slightly, I was finally able to survey the bandit camp.
It was fairly typical – as bandit and brigand camps went. Tents were dotted throughout, and here and there I could see small fires burning. The part I was in was a holding bay for the wagons that came to and from the camp. A couple of dozen feet from me were a small group of about four cages – and I could see figures inside them. That was where my objective lay; I was sure of it. The only real question now was how to get over there without being seen.
I turned my attention back to the wagons. There was no guard. Either the bandits had unjustifiably high confidence in their security, or they were just lazy. I strongly suspected the latter. Between the wagons and the cages was a small area of open ground. It looked like my best option. However, it was not without risk. I could see at least one guard at the cages – there may have been more. All it would take would be one of the brigands to turn their head at the wrong time, and I would be in a cage myself if I were lucky.
I crept as close to the edge of cover as I could. The open space before me was only a few yards, but it might as well have been a few miles. I waited until the bandit guarding the cages turned away, then sprinted forward. It only took a few moments, but it felt a lot longer. I crouched behind a rocky outcropping just a few feet away from the nearest cage, and not a moment too soon as the guard came back. They looked to be human, although it was difficult to tell under the leather armour and helmet. I looked towards the cages, able to see the occupants now. My jaw dropped in surprise. One of the cages held a great green hulking brute of a humanoid. My first thought was that it was an orc; however, the front teeth were not as prominent. A half-orc then. It was scarred and pitted with dents. Whatever else it was, it was a fighter. That could be useful.
The next cage I looked towards seemed to contain a child. A small form was lying prone on the cage bottom. At first, I thought they might be dead, but then I saw their chest rise and fall. Still alive, just unconscious. The other two cages contained villagers – their clothes indicated as much. Near the cages was a small pile of weapons and armour. On top was a great axe – obviously the half-orc’s – and a little suit of armour emblazoned with the closed-fist crest of Helm. I recalled the priest at Longsaddle telling me of the knight who had gone missing. Could that armour belong to them?
Regardless of whose armour it was, I had to move quickly. The guard was still looking away from me, out towards the main camp. I saw humans, dwarves and the odd tiefling milling around, some sitting near campfires, some sparring with each other. I had to move fast before anyone saw me. Drawing a dagger, I crept up behind the guard and swiftly clamped my free hand around their mouth while slitting their throat. They died messily but quietly. I laid the body on the ground and set about removing their armour. As I pulled off the helmet, a wave of long dark hair came out. The guard had been a woman, only a year or two older than myself. For a moment, I had a sudden flashback to a memory from a long time ago, of another person with long dark hair, then it was gone. She didn’t have the keys to the cages on her, but that didn’t matter. I would be able to open them quickly.
I started with the half-orc. The creature started snorting as I worked on the lock.
“Who are you?” it said in a deep voice.
I lifted a finger to my lips. “I’m here to rescue you and the others,” I said quietly.
The half-orc nodded. “Good. I was getting cramped in here.” He smiled, showing his teeth. “My name is Siebun. I am a gladiator. If you can find my weapon, I will tear this camp apart.”
“Is that it over there?” I asked, pointing to the great axe I had seen. The half-orc – Siebun – smiled even wider.
“Be quick, human,” he said impatiently.
I finished picking the lock but paused before I opened the door. “Listen,” I said to him, “I need to open the other cages as well. Will you wait until I give you the word?”
Siebun frowned but nodded. “I have waited for a tenday. I can wait a little longer.” I retrieved his great axe, passing it through the bars of his cage, before turning my attention to the other cages.
The second cage contained the unconscious child. Now I was closer; I could see that it wasn’t a child, but a halfling with bushy red hair. It was likely the armour belonged to him. He didn’t stir as I made short work of the lock. I doubted he would be much help to me. The other two cages similarly yielded quickly, and before long, I had equipped the two villagers with some shortswords from the pile of weapons. I didn’t expect them to be able to hold their own in a fight, but I was hoping Siebun would be able to take care of that part.
Hoisting the halfling over my back, I nodded to Siebun that we were ready. He nodded back and closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened them, he had the most feral look I had ever seen. He opened his mouth wide and roared in rage. The sound echoed from the walls of the canyon. He burst out of his cage, swinging his great axe with abandon, heading straight towards the biggest group of bandits. It didn’t take long for the alarm to be raised, and soon the entire camp was converging on him. He laughed loudly as his axe swung back and forth, cutting into armour and flesh alike.
I tore my eyes away from the carnage and motioned the villagers to follow me. We made our way slowly towards the entrance, not looking back. We made it with no interruption. I led the villagers to the same bushes I had hidden in the previous day and set the halfling down at their feet. “Look after him,” I said, “I’m going back for Siebun.”
“He’s a wild beast!” One of them objected, “Just leave him!”
I shook my head. “He helped us. I owe him that much at least. Wait here.” With that, I turned and headed back into the camp.
Siebun was strong and experienced, but he wouldn’t be able to last long against a dozen or better-armed bandits. I had the advantage though as all their attention was fixed on him. A bandit was backing up towards me. I took the opportunity to insert one of my daggers into his back. As he fell, I saw another bandit start to turn towards me. I threw another dagger, which landed straight through his eye. He also fell backwards without a sound. I made my way silently around the bandits, killing them one by one, while Siebun continued to attack with wild abandon. Eventually, I had reached him and quickly ducked as his great axe sailed above my head. “Siebun! It’s me!” I shouted.
For a moment the rage in Siebun’s eyes flared, then he threw his head back and laughed. “Oh, my friend, that was glorious!” he said.
“I’m glad you enjoyed it,” I replied a touch sharply, “But we need to go. Now.” I pointed towards the entrance. Siebun nodded and took off with great long strides. I started to move after him, then had a thought. I turned back and ran in the opposite direction, towards the cages.
The halfling’s armour was still there. I picked it up and slung it across my back. As I started to make my way towards the camp gates, a new figure stepped in front of me.
“Well, well, well, looks like you’ve caused me a lot of trouble.” A voice said. I looked up. A large humanoid – about seven foot tall – stood in front of me. I had heard of Goliaths but had never seen one. This one was well armoured, and his helmet was adorned with great horns. In his hands, he held two massive war hammers. He swung one of them at me, and I barely managed to jump back out of the way. I dropped the armour I was carrying and drew my shortswords, unsure what use they would be.
The giant pressed his attack. “Don’t worry; I’m not going to kill you. You deserve to suffer for what you’ve done to my slave operation.” He swung again, and I ducked just in time. I stabbed out with my blades, but they bounced harmlessly off his armour plates. I span around and moved closer in, stabbing upwards into what I hoped was a weak spot, only to once again hit his armour. He laughed, a deep booming sound. “You are a funny little man. But now it’s time to stop playing.” He kicked out with one of his feet and caught me on the chest. I flew backwards and landed on the floor; the wind knocked out of me. He stood over me, raising the warhammers above his head, intending to bring them crashing down onto me. I braced myself, knowing it would not help.
Then his body grew rigid. His mouth opened in surprise and a choking sound came from his throat. He fell forwards, just missing me, and landed hard on the ground. Buried in his back – which I now saw was not protected – was Siebun’s great axe. The half-orc towered over me.
“You took too long,” he said and reached down with his hand. I took it and allowed him to help me up. It took me a few moments to steady myself.
“Are the others okay?” I asked.
Siebun sneered. “The halfling is still asleep. There was no sign of the other two.”
I shook my head. They must have run back to the village themselves. No matter. I had done my job, and now it was time to get paid. We went back to the halfling. Siebun offered to carry him, and I agreed. I had retrieved his armour, and right now, that was more than enough weight.
We made our way back along the dusty path to the village as the sunset in the distance.
Night had fallen by the time we reached Longsaddle. I could see the lights from the windows as we approached. To look at them, one would hardly believe that anything had been wrong.
Siebun stopped. “I should leave,” he said as he gently lowered the halfling to the ground, “I’m not usually welcome in towns.” He turned to me. “My friend, thank you for helping me. I hope we meet again someday.” He offered his heavy hand to me.
I took it and shook it firmly. “Talon… my name is Talon,” I said.
Siebun nodded, “Until next time, Talon.” With that, he turned and strode away into the darkness.
I looked back towards the village. I saw the movement as some of the villagers started to come out towards me. As their outlines became more apparent, I recognised the priest of Helm at their head. He rushed towards me, holding his robes up with his hands. No sooner had he reached me than he dropped to his knees, cradling the body of the halfling.
The halfling’s eyes cracked open. “Bro… brother? Is that you?”
The priest smiled, tears glistening in his eyes. “Yes, Merrick. It’s me. You’re safe now.” He turned towards me. “You’ve done a great thing. You’ve rescued my brother, and I can’t thank you enough. I… we… Helm owes you a boon for your services.”
I stood still. A boon? A thought began to form in my mind. It was a big ask, but I had to try. “Actually,” I said slowly, “There is something I’d like you to do for me…”
The inside of the temple was silent. Around the altar stood myself, the priest and other clerics who had been summoned from nearby villages. It had taken a few days for preparations to be made, but we were finally ready. We all held candles. The light from them shone onto the altar. As if in response, the diamonds I had been given by Captain Corvus, and had been carrying around for many years, glittered and sparkled. The priests and clerics were chanting. I closed my eyes.
This had to work. Astrid had to come back. I thought of her face… her hair… the cracked glasses she used to wear… I just wanted her back. The captain had said I would know what the diamonds were for. This had to be the reason.
I felt something around us. Some form of magic or power building up. I cracked open an eye. The diamonds were shining brighter, and not just from the candles we were holding. In the shadows, I thought I saw something shifting, like wings or feathers. The chanting grew louder and louder until finally, there was a burst of light, almost blinding in its radiance.
When my vision cleared, I saw the altar. It was bare. The diamonds had disappeared, consumed by the light.
Astrid wasn’t there.
I quickly turned to look at the priest. He looked at me with sadness in his eyes. “What happened? Where is she? What…” The words tumbled from me.
The priest shook his head. “I’m sorry. She… she is at peace. Content. She forgives you. And she wants you to forgive yourself.” He put a hand on my shoulder. “We will still give you the boon. We owe you that much at least.”
I said nothing. My shoulders were slumped. I felt tears run down my cheek. So that was it. She was gone. I turned and made my way out of the temple. It felt like I was leaving my heart behind.
I didn’t know if I would ever be whole again. I didn’t know if I would ever find anything or anyone to fight for again.