The man was crawling away from him, bleeding rivers from his wounds. He was the last one, Theodas knew. The three other brigands had already died by his hand. However, Theodas Loracaryn felt strangely calm and resigned.
He did not want to do this, nor did he want to start this fight.
The brigands had surrounded him on the road, sure of their strategy and number. But Theodas had noticed them hours ago. He knew all he needed to know about them.
Four brigands. Three on the road, one in the tree, all armed with cheap steel and armoured in overused boiled leather. They were not prepared for a battle, that was certain. And they actually didn’t need to go into battle, Theodas knew. They would demand him to give up his belongings and then kill him.
And indeed they did. Theodas did not answer to them, he knew the sort of people they were. Bad seeds, troublemakers, like his younger brother but lacking Laucian’s moral values and kindness. Theodas had an advantage, however, despite being outnumbered. He was on horseback and prepared. They were not.
Theodas flung an ice knife towards the young one in the tree. He did not look to see if he had hit or not but heard the screams of pain and surprise coming from behind the leaves. Theodas unsheathed his scimitar and sent his horse into a gallop, riding down the man in front of him. He heard the crunch sound of the man’s skull under his horse’s hooves and turned to the brigand on his right. With one powerful downcut, he slashed the man’s arm up to the elbow. Blood gushed out in torrents as the man began to fall.
Before the man was out of range on the ground, Theodas slashed a backhand cut to his throat, just above the weak spot of the brigand’s armour. The sword cut cleanly through flesh, bones and muscles as the head fell clean off the shoulders of the man.
Theodas turned his horse to the last brigand who was already running for his life. He sheathed his scimitar and took his bow in hand. He nocked an arrow and glanced at the man running away. Should he let him go, Theodas thought. Should he spare this man…
Theodas imagined the man turning away from evil. Turning away from killing and destroying, maybe becoming a farmer or a trader, getting married to a nice woman, becoming a father… But those thoughts immediately tampered with the image of the man entering another killers band. These men were evil… And evil could not be saved. Evil was to be put down for the greater good, he remembered his father saying.
Theodas drew his bow and shot without hesitation. The man had almost reached the trees on the far side of the road, but Theodas knew he would never get there in time. The arrow sank into the man’s neck, killing him instantly.
Theodas looked at the man’s corpse at the end of the road and felt tired. He did not enjoy this, he knew, but they had been no way around it. After a few seconds of deadly silence, Theodas heard a moan and noticed movement on his left. Someone was crawling… The boy in the tree, he knew instantly.
Theodas dismounted and walked to the sound. The man was crawling away from him, clutching to the roots of the trees to get more distance. Theodas looked at the man’s wounds. The ice knife had missed him, but the shards had cut through him like a dagger through a cake. He was bleeding heavily from a dozen wounds, and the blood he was leaving behind was already turning black. Theodas walked calmly to the man. The brigand turned his face towards him.
He was a boy really. No older than seventeen with dirty brown hair and a pug nose. He was not the most beautiful of people, but he was indeed young. Too young to die like that.
Theodas drew his scimitar out of his sheath and looked at the boy. The brigand raised his head to him and opened his mouth. Blood gushed from it instantly and formed a puddle on the ground under his chin, drowning dead leaves and flowers into a dark liquid of death.
“Please…”, he moaned quietly.
Theodas raised his sword and, using all of his strength, brought it down between the boy’s shoulder, in the middle of his back. His a flesh made sickening crunch sound as the sword went through him. The boy whispered something that Theodas never heard. The light in his eyes disappeared, and his head fell back on the ground, forever still.
It had been a sweltering day of summer, and the sun was still rising high in the sky. Theodas knew that soon, wolves and bears would come prowling here to feast on the flesh of the slain. He did not have time to dig a grave for every one of them, so he decided to dig one hole for all.
It took him three good hours to dig a hole deep enough for them. By then, Theodas was covered in dust and dirt and was pushing the corpses into the grave. He did not feel any kind of guilt, they had chosen their path. He knew what he was.
“Promise me…”, Drusillia had said. He remembered her tears on her cheeks and her voice, trembling from fear. “Promise me…”
Theodas began filling the grave with dirt again. It was slow work, and the sun was baking him under his layers of wool, leather and silk. But Theodas was a cautious person, he would not unfasten his armour, nor take his weapons off of his belt.
He was tired. Tired of being tired as well… Tired of being on the road, away from home, apart from those he loved. But what he was doing was to get back to them, he knew. Even this tomb was part of that process.
One step after another, he would come back home. But first, he had to find them. The road was going on and on and was far from being at its end.
Dusk fell quickly as the first howls of wolves echoed through the woods. Theodas was riding out of the forest’s shade into a bright field of wheat and barley. Fields meant farms. Farms meant people. People meant food, shelter, protection… But Theodas learnt on the road that it could also mean theft, betrayal and death. He didn’t know on which one to bet, yet. He would have to see for himself.
Less than a mile later, Theodas saw a small white cottage. The roof was thatched hay with a brick chimney rising from the far end of the small house. Smoke was rising from it, and a light was pouring from the windows. He heard laughter coming from inside, a woman’s laughter was full of joy and happiness.
Theodas continued to examine the cottage. There was a small barn on the side with what looked like pigs running around inside. He could see hens and a rooster as well as a big yellow dog in the courtyard. A cart was next to the entrance of the cottage, old wood, probably to transport the goods to the village or back.
Theodas sniffed the air. He smelled the scent of pines and earth coming from the woods but also perceived a small scent of olives and cooked meat. His stomach rumbled. It had been days since he had even a good meal… His food rations were running low so he had skipped meals in order to save as much as he could.
His senses and experiences were telling him to continue on his way and not approach the house, but he found himself riding towards it. As he entered the courtyard, the dog came running at him, snarling and barking fiercely. Theodas ignored it but calmed his horse with a few quiet words. The door of the house flung open almost immediately, and a tall, middle-aged woman came out of the house, holding a loaded crossbow that she raised immediately, aiming right at Theodas’ face.
Theodas raised his hands slowly before talking, trying to remain as calm as possible.
“I am very sorry madam. I do not wish to harm, nor disturb your peace.”, Theodas said with a reassuring smile.
“Who are ye, what do ye want?!”, the woman answered in a sharp and cold tone.
“My name is Theodas Loracaryn. I am a traveller, and I merely wanted to ask for your hospitality for this night, if you please. I have gold and can pay for a meal and a bed.”, he said calmly.
The woman seemed to hesitate for a moment but kept the crossbow aimed at him. A bit too high, however, Theodas noticed. She isn’t used to defending her home, he understood. If she were to shoot right now, the bolt would go past up his head, and she would be defenceless. Crossbows took too long to reload he knew. He would have time to draw his sword and cut her down before she could do anything about it.
“Lemme see a taste o’ yer gold!”, she suddenly said.
Theodas slowly took a couple of coins out of his purse and threw them at the wench. The coins fell on the ground with a joyful metallic sound. The sound of money, Theodas thought to himself. It worked marvels on people sometimes and there again, it did. The woman dropped the crossbow to the floor and went on all fours to pick the coins into her hands.
Theodas decided that he was not in imminent danger anymore and dismounted. The dog came towards him, snarling and growling, but Theodas knelt in front of him and presented him with a small cube of salted beef. The dog sniffed at it before approaching then licked the meat and took it right off Theodas fingers to eat it on the spot. Theodas smiled and stood back up.
The wench was counting her money already, eyes shining with delight as she was looking at the gold. She seemed old with short brown hair turning grey and white and pale green eyes. Her face was a mask of emotions as years of hard labour, fears and joys made marks on it. She was tall however and seemed well-fed, which was a good sign.
Theodas turned to her and cleared his throat to get her attention.
“Where can I bring my horse to?”, he asked gently.
She pointed at the barn with an old wrinkled finger. Theodas took the reins of his horse in his hand and walked him towards the barn.
It was a barn only in name. Theodas would have named it an oversized cabin, and still, he thought he was being generous with the term. The red paint was leaking and cracking off the walls, the beams were rotten, and a horrible stench of dung overwhelmed the place. Theodas remembered how clean Sumnes kept the barn back at home and imagined how horrified she would have been at seeing this one. The thought amused him for a second and a smile appeared on his face, but soon sadness overtook him again. He missed her… He missed them all…
“Promise me…”, Drusillia had said on the pier that night. “Promise me…”
Theodas led the horse into the barn and found a somewhat clean box to put him in. He spent a few more minutes to brush his coat, water him and fed him some oat before leaving the barn. This horse was one of his most precious possession now, he meant to keep it in good shape. The journey was far from over, he knew.
The inside of the house was small but warm. A big fireplace occupied the back of the room before a long wooden trestle table with benches that were taking most of the space. A big cupboard occupied the east side of the room. Theodas could see through the glass panes a collection of plates, goblets, forks and knives. Some were even in gold and silver, he noticed. Probably an heirloom as it seemed unlikely to him that those people would be able to buy that kind of items.
Over the roaring fire, a massive piece of meat was turning on the spit. Blood dripped from it into the fire causing small sparkles to emerge from the flames. The smell was making Theodas’ stomach rumble even more. It had been days since he had eaten freshly cooked meat. Or even a hot meal. Berries and salt beef could only get you this far, Theodas thought, looking at the meat.
The woman had introduced herself as Gaya Mirktongue. Her distrust gone after the sight of gold, she became almost amiable. Theodas had been seated at the table and offered a cup of brown ale. As Theodas took a sip of it, the warmth spread into his chest and arms right up to his fingers. It soothed him much more than he thought it would. He had not realised that the cold had been in him on the road and that he had forgotten what it was to be warm.
Mirktongue had then started setting the table for Theodas. He quickly noticed that she was setting four plates instead of just two.
“I hope I won’t be an inconvenience to your family.”, said Theodas warmly.
“Nonsense, young elf. Ye are a guest now! Me son should be back from hunting soon, and I have another traveller staying here.”, Mirktongue replied mildly.
“How old is your son?”, Theodas asked.
“Fifteen! Almost a man grown, he is!”, she answered with a certain pride as she turned to face the fireplace, removing the meat from the spit. “Sit down, elf and gimme yer plate. Hot meat’s good meat!”
Theodas handed over his plate and looked as she placed a generous piece of roasted boar on it. She handed the plate back to him and turned to the staircase in the next room to call the other guest to dinner.
Theodas’ mouth began to water, and his stomach rumbled, even more, begging him to devour his food. However, he held on. His mother had taught him to wait for everyone in the house to be served before eating, he would not disobey her in his hostess’ home.
Mirktongue did not have the same opinions it seemed as she began tearing the meat into bits and gulping it down with loud noises. Theodas looked at her in an amused surprise. He had never seen a woman eat that fast before.
It almost made him miss the entrance of the other guest, but a movement on the side of his vision made him turn his head. A young beautiful Human woman dressed in a studded leather jerkin over a long blue wool shirt, dark brown breeches and matching leather boots entered the room. She moved gracefully like a feline creature, and she had light brown, almost golden eyes that turned to Theodas immediately.
He rose to his feet and bowed his head in a respectful salute. She smiled gently and returned the favour before sitting down. Mirktongue did not notice anything around her as she was too busy eating her food. Theodas sat back down and handed the newcomer a plate of meat.
“Thank you kindly, sir.”, said the woman with a jolly voice.
Theodas did not reply but looked at her with interest. She was beautiful indeed, but there was something more about this person. Theodas noticed a few scars on her right arm as she leant over to catch a goblet, then he glimpsed the glimmer of steel in her belt, probably a dagger of a sort. A fighter, he thought, or an assassin…
The woman noticed him and smiled.
“I always carry a weapon on me. You never know when you might need it on the road.”, she said with the same jolly tone.
“Unfortunately what you say is true. I have been attacked many times on the road or in villages.”, answered Theodas softly. “My steel has been sharp enough to get me out of tricky situations so far.”
He hoped she had gotten his meaning. He did not mean to threaten her, but he would make sure she would not try to rob him or kill him. Her smile grew more substantial, and Theodas knew that she understood and took no offence of it. They were both speaking the same language.
Mirktongue turned to Theodas, having finished her food, finally.
“Say elf… You haven’t told me yer name.”
“I am called Theodas Loracaryn.”
“You’re not from here.”, said the woman in front of Theodas. “Your accent is not from somewhere I can’t place.”
“I am from over the sea. Evermeet…”, Theodas admitted.
“Heard of the place. Never been there yet. The cost of the travel is almost a fortune I hear!”, she continued as she ate.
“And what is your name, milady?”, asked Theodas politely.
“Milady? Been called many things and not often nice but milady is a first!”, the woman said in a chuckle. “My name is Jehan Isemberd. I am an explorer of a sort.”
“Of a sort?”
“I am looking for my adventure! Roaming the countryside in the hopes of becoming someone.”, Jehan said with a smile. “Like you I suppose.”
“I haven’t looked for this adventure, but it found me anyway.”, Theodas answered in a low voice.
Jehan looked at him with curious eyes but did not insist. Silence fell on the table as the guests finished their plates slowly. The food had been good, the wine fine and Theodas felt ready for a good night’s sleep.
For dessert, Mirktongue brought a plate of hard cheese and olive pies. Theodas took a bit of each and savoured every moment of it. They tasted wonderful.
“What is your adventure, master Loracaryn?”, asked Jehan suddenly. “What are you looking for?”
“I am looking for someone. Close to me.”, Theodas answered with a cold tone.
“Your wife?”, Jehan insisted.
Theodas did not reply and took a sip of ale, looking right to Jehan. She nodded slightly.
“I see… Maybe our hostess could help. She has the sight!”, Jehan said in a soft voice.
“The… sight…?”, said Theodas half surprised, half amused.
Mirktongue turned her head to him. The woman looked at Theodas, right into his eyes and it seemed to him that she was seeing beyond them, into his very soul.
“I have seen many things. Dreams o’blood and despair. I have dreamt o’the unseen and the unheard. Past, present, future… They’re all one in me mind. I dreamt o’a castle falling from a sea o’clouds. I dreamt o’a city o’sleeping stars, but only nine shone with pure light. I dreamt o’a stone woman wearing a shinin’ ring. I dreamt o’a bride that was Light and a groom that was Death becoming one o’er a battlefield. I dreamt o’an elf cursed with sight fightin’a shadow… I have seen many things, young elf.”, Mirktongue said in a hushed and faint voice, almost a whisper.
Theodas felt uncomfortable. He was not sure if they were playing a trick on him or not, but the sense of security and comfort of the home had vanished. He realised this woman was scaring him. Or was it what she had just said?
“I doubt your dreams could help me find what I am looking for.”, said Theodas politely. “But I thank you.”
Theodas rose and excused himself to leave the room. He went outside in the fresh cold night air. He was shivering and not from the cold. He did not know what it had been, but something in Mirktongue’s eyes had made him flee. He tried to think about what he had seen in her eyes as they had looked into his. He remembered feeling sick and frightened. He felt like he was gorging on fear and… sadness…
Theodas looked at the starry sky when a movement in the darkness caught his attention. Theodas drew his scimitar in a swift motion, ready for an attack when he saw it again. A raven flew near him and perched itself on top of a lantern post next to the cottage’s door. The raven cawed at him, tilting its head sideways in a curious glance.
Theodas sighed in relief and sheathed his weapon. He looked to the raven with amusement. It was unusual for that kind of bird to be that curious. The raven cawed again, still looking at him.
Theodas waved a hand to scare off the raven, but it did not move an inch. Theodas frowned… That was really unusual.
After another caw, the raven took wing and disappeared into the night. Theodas tried to look at where it might have been going to, but it had vanished almost completely. Suddenly aware of how chilly the night was, Theodas went back inside.
A small fire was burning in the fireplace of his room. Theodas was lying down on the small bed. It was built for a child, but it would do for him. His back was feeling much better now that it was resting on a featherbed.
Theodas closed his eyes and listened to the sounds of the night. An owl was flying somewhere in the distance, the wind was rustling in the leaves, and a small rain was starting to fall outside. He was content to be here and not on the road. Otherwise, he would have been in store for another wet night on the hard cold ground.
Theodas slowed the pace of his heartbeat and breathed deeply, relaxing every muscle of his body as he slowly entered his meditation state. He liked that feeling, it was one of the only moments of the day that he felt in total harmony with his own body and the world around it.