Kingmaker

Prelude

A Matter of Dates

The elf’s voice hung on the air, his song stinging and cold like the late winter breeze. Phe’lyx knew this old Sylvan tune. It was one of pain, and regret, one that spoke of old lives and sorrowful memories. What the young wizard did not know was what Valyn sang about. He had been working with the ranger for several years now but had never found an easy opportunity to ask why the elf sang on these cold days. 

The weather had finally relinquished enough to move the caravan down the road.  The two elves and their companions, a dwarf and a human, were tasked with escorting a load of weapons heading to a Swordlord in Restov. The journey had been quiet, and it had been cold; the road was well traveled with nothing but hushed rumors of troubles. The mercenaries were amateur but not inexperienced,  and perfect for the task at hand. Valyn, the elven ranger,  kept a strict lookout, strafing the party, zig-zagging the road attempting to spot an ambush, his elvish eyes darting back and forth…at least he had been doing that. The road had gotten the best of the elf and had dulled his brain with tedium and monotony.

The bridge essentially appeared from nowhere, or the elf had been simply been lost in his song. Before he was found again, the bandits were upon them. The man stepped from around the pillar with a large weapon in his hands. He spoke some words about serving the Stag Lord. Gertrude, the dwarf was leading the party on this particular day, her horse being urgent to be off the road, and the barbarian, uninterested in controlling the animal, simply barreled forward. She did not change her approach when the man appeared in the road. 

“Hail and well met, travelers! I don’t want no trouble; simply to collect for the Stag Lord,” yelled the man looking at the Dwarf. The Dwarf narrowed here eyes and spoke one word in response.

“Move.” The man laughed, gripped his weapon more tightly and smirked,

“I was hopin’ ya’d say that…BOYS!” 

Valyn was off of his horse as the first man came up over the wall, more due to the fact that the horse spooked than his own speed. The grace of his people kept him on his feet despite the hints of winter’s kiss still on the bridge. The men moved in sync; this was not the first time these bandits had played this particular scenario, and the elf needed to think quickly if he was to regain any advantage. His thoughts immediately went to Martin, the lone human in their ragtag group. The lad had become somewhat of a friend in the recent months. He was decent enough with his hand crossbow when he fought, but the winter had not been kind to his fragile state, and he was seemingly always on the mend. “Direct combat does not favor the boy,” worried the elf. “Neither he nor Phe’lyx will be evenly matched in this…this street brawl.” As if on cue Valyn heard a familiar yelp from the horse a cart’s length in front of him.
         

Phe’lyx saw the men leap atop the wall, almost as quickly as his elvish friend had, but his robes had always made it difficult to dismount a horse quickly or gracefully. Neither quickness nor grace were much of a concern to the wizard at that moment—simply safety. As the man appeared on the small stone wall guard rail, the wizard let escape a yelp and fell from his horse immediately, crawling beneath the wagon in front of him. Phe’lyx, thinking himself secure, immediately began searching around for his companion and friend…his coin purse. Having found it, he returned to his relative comfort, cursing Valyn for talking him into leaving the camp for such as this. Lost in his frustration, he was not quite aware of the curse that he heard and didnt realize it’s origin until coming face-to-face with the very bandit who had scared the wizard from atop his mount. “How peculiar,” thought the elf right before the man charged him, awkwardly brandishing a sword.

The leader was not inexperienced with a blade; he was calculated, he was tactical. Unfortunately for him, his opponent was not. The dwarf would tell that she fell head first into a roll directly from the horses back and immediately into combat with the leader. No one argued with Gertrude “the Gutbuster.” So from the horses back, the dwarf barbarian, with the rage of her ancestors pumping her blood through her arms, fell face down into a roll, screaming and screeching her battle song. The man, who had introduced himself as Toruk, had no time to strike, had no time to blink. It was only by the grace of whatever god he chose in the flash of steel that he got his sword up in time to deflect the axe of the monster he had enraged. This would be no easy quarry, thought the man, as he felt the familiar sting of a blade. He had not dodged as expertly as he had believed. The dwarf’s weapon had taken a bite, not substantial, but enough.

The man’s blood began to pool at his left leg. The weapon had made it past his defense, had found its place just above his hip. “Weeeee” squealed the dwarf in her head. “I will make quick work of this one, and we will see those elvish faces when I am wearing this fool’s as a mask!” She moved to strike again, reversed her grip and wound her axe for the killing blow. Toruk raised his sword hastily to block the well advertised attack. He had seen her hands on the axe, had thought it a mistake. It was not however; the dwarf meant for Toruk to perform this block, had hoped it would come. In one motion, the barbarian planted her left foot firmly in the ground and brought the axe around to her right. With all of her weight behind that one blow, she would rend him into two very bloody pieces. Toruk, realizing the ruse, seeing the reason for the reverse grip, seemed to live every significant moment of his life again in the flash of light reflected off the dwarf’s blade. This was it—she would separate him at the waist and he would know no more. He, as any would, closed his eyes and clenched his teeth.

Just as Gertrude spun, Ryn let loose his arrow. He was not a particularly adept shot, but today he felt a string of luck. The bow was not so difficult to pull back, the arrow did not fall out on the first try, as it usually did for Ryn,. Today, it was if the goddess herself put that arrow into her petite hands and guided it directly into the center of the spinning dwarf. The satisfying “thunk” as the shot found its target was enough to give Ryn the confidence to charge the dwarf. The lady was on his side today…nothing could stop him.

Martin had not been in the company long, nor did he think that he was going to be. He had showed up, and, from all accounts, the only thing keeping the young man’s bones from falling all over the road was the skin he was wrapped in. Leaning slightly on a cane and clearing his throat to speak, Martin Ghostcaller had come looking for adventure. No one heard what he had said to the captain, and no one could believe what the captain had said to Martin—“Welcome on, lad. Someone get the boy some Mead, put some meat on his bones!” The words were music to Martin’s ears, and he knew one or two things about music, so it pained him to hear the whistle and thud of the arrow into his lute. It did not pain him as much as the arrow into his hip had, however, and the young rogue leaped from his horse in hopes to divide his opponent’s attention. It did not work—the large highwayman took aim, and it seemed that everywhere Martin attempted to avert the man’s eyes, an arrow point followed.

“This fool has me dead to rights,” thought the wounded hero. And with his typical droll attitude, Martin, held still, lifted his hands, smirked at the man and awaited his death. The man, a large oaf named Picknair—his friends called him “Pecker” for short—leveled his bow for the kill. “I’ll take this one in the face,” thought the man. “He is far too pretty."

Suddenly, as if struck by dragon’s claw, Martin remembered his own weapon, and with the timely distraction of his elvish friend, he was able to draw his small crossbow and fire at “Pecker.” Unfortunately for the man, the elf, with a much larger bow and far nastier temper, also fired. Pecker was dead before he had finished the note. “I rather liked the song, I should say,” Martin said with a morbidly glib shrug of the shoulders.

A flash of sparks, and a purposeful grunt—that is all the man saw and heard. He had sworn that the little elf in the bathrobe was dead, his sword flying effortlessly towards his pinched face; but something had stopped it. Surely, it had not been what he thought it was. He could have sworn that the boy had simply caught the blade and turned it away, with his bare hand. This did not set well with the man—Jihanny, “The Reaper” to his friends and a nightmare to his enemies. “This is no small boy,” Jihanni suddenly knew. “This is a wizard. I must end him now!” At that realization, the man came on with a flurry, at least he tried to. For in his momentary contemplations, Jihanny failed to realize that the mage had picked up a handful of sand from the road, spoke to it and blew it across his face…

Jihanny had grown up among a field of wild flowers, but today they smelled extra fragrant and today the pretty lass who lived on the farm next to his was in the meadow with him. She was singing, and feeding him the biggest grapes that he had ever seen. Jihanny was in paradise, and Jihanny was asleep.

The dwarf spun, grinning wickedly and hungrily, tongue hanging from her mouth, ready to end this fight, longing for a warm meal and hot mead and then pain. Searing, burning, metallic pain in her shoulder. The arrow had hit a critical spot in the dwarf’s muscle and caused her to lose her momentum and her swing. The axe head thudded to the ground, and as quickly as she had thought to end Toruk’s time as one man, she was suddenly surrounded by two. The man who had shot her had charged to finish off his kill. For in the River Kingdoms, “You have what you hold.” He meant to hold this Dwarf’s head.

Gertrude, wounded, surrounded, and quickly becoming outnumbered, was never one to keep her head about her. This time was no different. Spewing blood from both the wound, and her mouth from her dismount off of the horse, Gertrude screamed in the face of Toruk.

“Come on LAD! STICK IT UP IN ME RIBS! THINK YOU CAN HIT THE BACK WALL!?” She finished her taunt with the lewdest wink that Toruk had ever seen from man or woman, dwarf or human, and he tightened his knuckles to oblige. The man who had shot the dwarf felt his luck and his energy surge through him. This would vault him to the rank of lieutenant; this would make him noticed by the Stag Lord himself, a killing blow on an enemy combatant that had wounded the great Toruk! He could hear the accolades now, the hushed whispers and the roar of the…sudden blood in his ears. There was no way a creature that squat could move as quickly as she had. The scrawny man—“Meece” to his friends—had not ever seen one like Gertrude Firebeard.

The man had approached standing too high. Gertrude, awaiting the strike from Toruk, had expected the man to charge. When he did, she lowered her head, complete with a mane of fiery red hair, and planted the top of her skull directly into the chin of the stupid and horribly outgunned Meece. Down he went, and she used her momentum to move through the air, right where Meece had been standing to avoid Toruk’s stab for her gut. Although she took a hit to do so, the danger had passed, and she came up ready to swing.

Strangely, though, the man in front of her had suddenly fallen as if he were asleep. She heard a snicker, and shuffle under the wagon. She knew Phe’lyx had “waggled his derned fingers” to make these men sleep. For once, she was moderately happy to have the elfkin around. That left just her and Toruk, warrior on warrior, no one to distract them any more.

On came the dwarf, no sense in waiting; he was bleeding and she was bleeding, maybe more. It was time to end this one way or another. As she arrived, Toruk answered her ferocity, the two trading blow after blow with their two handed weapons, no one giving ground. The man was slowing however; the first wound had taken its toll, and with each block and subsequent counter-attack, he was fading. The time was almost right, then she had her opportunity.

Another bandit back on the bridge had made it past the haze of the mage’s sleep spell and had made it to one of the drivers to put a blade at his throat. He threatened to kill the man if the young mercenaries did not surrender. Both Valyn and Martin did not have a shot, Phe’lyx did not care to make himself known for a second time—especially with a man who shook off his spell so easily—and Gertrude was in stride and in battle with this bandit’s leader. The bandit yelled, “Surrender, or the driver dies!! Toruk, I have a driver, tell that nasty beast to throw down her axe or else…”

The rest of the threat faded away, as Toruk stepped back to avoid being gutted, and swung high. The dwarf knowing the counter well, blocked it accordingly. It was part of her plan, and in one swift motion, her boot was in Toruk’s chest, a thud and a gasp of air pushed the man back five feet. Gertrude used the momentum to rock backwards and then forward violently. As she finished the step, she left fly her two handed axe, a gift from her grandfather. Toruk saw nothing but hot white light, and it was done.

Upon hearing the crunch of metal on bone, and catching a glimpse of his leader falling to the dwarf, the young man quickly realized that the bandits’ advantage was lost. Their surprise wasted, his brothers, bleeding, dying, or fast asleep, Jeery had no choice but to do what he did next. He first called for his brother, Jihanny, and he did not answer; he next called for his friend, Horati, and caught a glimpse of the man with his blade at the rear driver’s throat. “This was bargaining power,” Jeery thought, “yes, perhaps there is a way out of this yet.” As the last candle lit abruptly extinguishes itself, so did Jeery’s hopes of ending the conflict without anymore bloodshed. As he was speaking to him, Jeery saw Horati double over as if something had bitten him, or some invisbile hand had folded him like paper. Spying more, Jeery saw the culprit, an elf under the wagon had shot Horati, point blank with a longbow. “That would cripple many men,” thought the bandit. “It is time for me to go, I am truly sorry,” he said as he cut the driver’s throat to cover his escape and leapt over the wall of the bridge.

Jeery knew that this type of life was not to yield much more than pain and death. But, in these lands, there was little else to do to feed hungry mouths. If you did not work for the Stag Lord, you simply did not work. Jeery would run, he would tell the lieutenants of these four and they would have their vengeance. “Toruk the fool had given himself away too soon, did not have the advantage before pressing the attack; all of these things led to his death,” thought that man. Suddenly, he heard the whisper of death sing past his ear, and at his feet, an elven arrow, the bowman who loosed it quickly following behind.

“Stay where you are, and I will not kill you. Move and I will,” said the stern Ranger. Jeery knew that the chill in this one was not a bluff, and he lifted his hands in surrender…

As they pulled away from the scene, the bodies lined along the river bank, his own brother with them, Jeery thought of his wife and child. His wife, Johanna was not particularly ravishing or fair as the tales of women of old, but she was his, and he hers. The tough mask that Jeery put on was for his brother, Jihanny, The Reaper, and for his Captain Torik. These men had given Jeery something to strive for, had made him believe a better life was available for Johanna and his little Isabella. But, all of that meant nothing now. His brother was dead, his captain slain, and he would hang before the week is out… “Mercenaries, bandits…” Jeery spat, and stared blankly at the sky. “it is simply a matter of dates.”

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