Brydon sat up with a start and peered into the darkness, alert for any movement or sound. Typical forest noises greeted his apprehension—the chirp of crickets and the buzz of insects around his guttering fire. Nevertheless, something had awakened him. He slipped from his makeshift bed as quietly as possible and buckled his sword around his hips.
Utilizing his clothing and other items, he quickly made his former bed into the semblance of a sleeping figure and then picked up his bow. He slung the quiver of arrows over his shoulder and eased into the trees.
After long minutes his initial tension faded into impatience. The night seemed perfectly normal. Brydon suppressed a sigh and leaned back against the trunk of a tree. His left hand curved around the leather grip of his longbow and his right lay idly across the string. His thumb brushed the line in a tuneless rhythm though his palm silenced the twang caused by the movement. He held an arrow loosely between his index and center fingers. The red and brown fletching appeared as two shades of gray in the faint starlight.
After nearly an hour he wished they would attack; the chill had seeped into his bones until he shivered from it. Winter was not long past, but it was plenty cold enough to numb his extremities. He half-hoped his premonition was wrong and he could continue his journey without senseless bloodshed—possibly his own—but he knew no Redolian would pass up the opportunity to slay a lone Falaran. They most likely knew his business and his route. He hoped they were relatively few in number, although he was confident of his skill and assumed he could take on four, possibly five.
A breeze drifted by and ruffled his blond hair, carrying the scent of pine, forest mulch and wood smoke from the dying flicker of his campfire in the clearing before him. His eyes went from his makeshift bed back to the forest, alert for movement. The area was thick with shadows. He wished briefly for a moon and the light it would shed as the breeze sprang up again, more insistently. As if the wind had been a signal, four of the shadows came to life. Steel glinted in the starlight as the figures crossed the clearing and leaped upon the blankets. He felt a flash of satisfaction even as he scowled. Honorless bastards, trying to kill me in my sleep.
He pulled the string taut as the first man stabbed his dagger into the bedding. The arrow hissed before it plunged into the man’s throat. Brydon smoothly nocked another arrow and the second man halted his knife in mid-swing to turn toward him. Brydon’s second shaft drove into the man’s chest. Simmering anger drove the chill from Brydon’s blood. He had no hatred for these men, but their cowardly behavior earned them no mercy. The third man was faster. He threw a dagger as Brydon pulled another arrow from his quiver—it whizzed by his ear and caromed off into the trees. Brydon’s shaft pierced the assassin’s chest and he fell with a loud cry.
The fourth man stopped and stood his ground, peering into the trees where Brydon stood. He had not leapt forward with the same enthusiasm of the others. Brydon wondered why he had hung back when the others had attacked, but perhaps he had no liking for the job. Brydon stayed his hand and relaxed his hold on the bowstring. The would-be killer raised his sword defiantly. The blade reflected the orange glow from the fire for a moment as it moved.
“Well, Falaran,” the man snarled. “What are you waiting for? Are you hoping I’ll run?” Brydon drew back on the string as the man took another step forward. The firelight caught his features for a moment and the sight deflated Brydon’s anger in a rush of astonishment.
“Kellyn?” he breathed. But it was impossible! Kellyn was two years dead. Brydon had lit the torch at his funeral. He banished the image and released the arrow. The fourth man lurched at the impact and crumpled into the dust.
Brydon stepped forward into the circle of fallen men. He walked over to his final assailant and kicked the sword away. The man did not stir. Brydon unsheathed a dagger and knelt close to the man to feel for a pulse. It beat strongly. He tipped the man’s head and nodded in satisfaction. His arrow had grazed a nasty furrow in the man’s scalp just above his left ear. He touched a hand to the blood there and wondered if he should bandage it, even though it was unlikely he would die from such a small wound.
Up close he bore little resemblance to Kellyn. It had obviously been an odd trick of the light. Still, the incident left Brydon uneasy. Kellyn had been his best friend. Was it an omen that had caused him spare the man’s life, or simply a strange coincidence? Brydon pondered the wisdom of allowing the man to live, but he was no cold-blooded murderer. He had killed to defend himself and felt some remorse for lying in wait for them in the darkness. It seemed dishonorable, even though he would have stood no chance against them in honest combat.
Brydon had no doubt the other three were dead. He had expected an attack since leaving his escort three days ago, but he had hoped to avoid it. His attackers were definitely Redolian; their appearance confirmed it. Their hostility came as no surprise—Falara had been at war with them for decades.
He removed the survivor’s hidden weapons before stoking the fire and heating some water. He dragged the man to the nearest tree and tied him securely using strips cut from his damaged and bloodstained cloak, and then washed and bandaged the man’s arrow wound. The laceration still bled, but not enough for concern.
When that task was completed, Brydon turned his attention to the fallen men. He grimaced and dragged the first corpse into the trees before returning for the second. The arrow had been true, piercing the man’s heart, but Brydon took no satisfaction from his marksmanship. Killing a man was a far cry from loosing arrows at targets or hunting game. It was disturbing to know that these men would never go home to their loved ones. He spared a moment of pity for the grief of those unknown Redolians. What a useless waste. He sighed.
Once he had dealt with the bodies, he returned to camp and knelt briefly before the fire. He said a quick prayer of thanks that his body was not cooling in the earth and then he wrapped himself in his cloak. He spared one final look at the unconscious man before sinking into sleep.
Brydon roused early to the sound of loud cursing. It took him a moment to recognize his surroundings; once he did he sat up and blinked at the bound man, who was fully conscious and apparently raving mad.
“You Falaran cur!” The man strained at the ropes that held him. “Why didn’t you kill me like the others? Do you plan to torture me? I would sooner die than beg a Falaran for mercy!”
Brydon rubbed the night’s fog from his eyes and peered more closely at the tied man. He looked to be Brydon’s age, or not far from it. His black hair was long and pulled back into an intricate braid after the manner of his people, although Brydon had been forced to loosen it somewhat during his ministrations. Several strands had come undone and threatened to cover eyes that were green and showed all the warmth of winter ice.
Brydon got to his feet, raked a hand through his own unruly hair, and approached the man while he stretched the kinks out of his muscles. He had only been away from home for a few days, but already he was tired of sleeping on the ground.
“I suppose you hail from Redol?” The man’s face flamed at Brydon’s calm, somewhat amused tone.
“You’ll get nothing from me except a length of steel in your gut!” The would-be assassin’s voice was surprisingly level even as it rang with suppressed rage.
“I will take that as a yea.” Brydon looked more closely at the man who had tried to kill him. “So, is your animosity directed toward me, specifically, or was the attack prompted by general feelings of spite toward all Falarans?”
“Every Falaran deserves to die!”
“I see.” Brydon felt some relief. If every Redolian raider knew his mission, he was doomed to failure before he even began. “Then it is because I’m Falaran. Why do you insist on this warlike behavior? Falara has not invaded Redol for more than a century. Don’t you think our countries could exist in peace if Redol stopped raiding our borders?”
“Your borders? That’s typical Falaran arrogance! The land west of the Stonepeaks should belong to us, as it did before you stole it! You think of it as raiding, but we are only trying to reclaim our lands. Since your people never listen to reason, maybe killing a potential Falaran king will draw some attention.”
Brydon frowned at the Redolian’s logic and quickly revised his opinion. They apparently had known of Brydon’s mission. He had expected a Redolian attack, but he had not anticipated that they would have a political agenda. He generally thought of Redolians as uneducated barbarians, lying in wait for unsuspecting travelers like common bandits. “Why court trouble? If you kill every Falaran you see and continue raiding our borders, you’ll only give our current king a reason to invade.”
“I don’t think we have much to fear from that quarter. It is known that your king is not far from his deathbed.” Brydon grimaced, but looked away from the surprisingly lucid gaze. He said nothing more and stoked the fire in order to break his fast, ignoring the renewed sounds of indignation coming from his prisoner. Brydon had no fear of the bonds giving way. If anything, the Redolian had only tightened the knots with his struggles.
“Are your ropes tight enough?” he asked. His chuckles set off a round of expletives from his unwilling guest, who insulted every facet of Brydon’s birth and upbringing. He ignored the angry man and performed his morning rituals before frying some duck eggs he had carefully packed along. He added his meager supply of spiced ham.
“Would you like to break fast?” Brydon asked, affecting a companionable mien. Although tired, he felt quite cheerful, largely due to the fact that he had survived the previous night’s confrontation.
“Go to Sheol.”
“I made some for you, anyway.”
He took the pan over to the assassin and held a forkful of food to his lips. The cold green gaze did not waver and the Redolian’s mouth compressed tightly.
“It’s not poisoned. If I wanted to kill you I would have done so already.”
If possible, the glare grew more frigid. “Fine,” the Redolian snapped. He reluctantly ate as Brydon spooned the meal to his lips.
“What is your name?” Brydon asked as he sat back on his haunches and devoured what was left in the pan.
“As I said before, I will not tell you anything.”
Brydon shrugged. “Suit yourself. Since I need to call you something, I think I’ll use Failed Killer. Or how about Weaponless? Or Bested by a Falaran. That one has a nice ring to it, although it is a bit long.”
The Redolian looked fairly apoplectic. “My name is Toryn.”
“Toryn. I suppose it will do. I would that we had met under more pleasant circumstances, of course. I am Brydon Redwing, although you probably know that. Or did you just stumble upon me and hope I was the man you sought?”
“I know you’re a damned Falaran on a quest!” the Redolian snapped. “And if I have another chance, you’ll not finish it!”
“I will bear that in mind.” The previous night’s attack had apparently been meant for him alone and was not part of some deeper plot, but he would like to know if there were others nearby seeking his blood. He had no idea how to pry such information from his angry captive.
He cleaned the pan with a handful of gravel and rinsed it in the nearby stream before he repacked his belongings. He had divested Toryn and his dead comrades of useful items, including two daggers; two short swords; a hand axe; one soft leather cloak; and small personal effects, mostly consisting of beaded jewelry and braided leather. He tossed the weapons into a pile, but stowed the cloak and personal items. After he tied the leather pack shut, he slung it upon his back and picked up Toryn’s sword. The metal was wet with dew. Bits of dried grass, dirt, and pine needles clung to it until he knocked the flat of the blade against his boot heel. He used the sword to cut the bonds around Toryn’s legs as well as those holding him to the tree. He left Toryn’s hands bound behind his back, of course. The sword had a fine edge on it and excellent balance, though it appeared well used. Brydon swished it approvingly.
The Redolian climbed to his feet and eyed Brydon balefully. Brydon noticed they were almost of a height, though Toryn was slightly taller. He used the sword to gesture to the trail that skirted his campsite. It meandered back to the road.
“After you,” Brydon said. Toryn paused. He looked decidedly uncomfortable. Brydon wondered what he would do if Toryn refused to move. His code of honor would not allow him to cold-bloodedly kill the Redolian. Nor would it be humane to leave him tied to a tree and hope he managed to free himself.
“One question, if you will,” Toryn requested, almost politely. Brydon nodded, sensing the man’s difficulty in swallowing his pride. “I would know what you have done with my fallen comrades.”
Brydon’s brows lifted in surprise. “It is rumored that Redolians put their dead into the ground.” Toryn nodded briefly and Brydon said, “I laid them in a nearby ditch and covered them with dirt and rocks. I’m lacking the means to dig graves at the moment. Their bodies should be safe enough from wolves. I said what I could to speed their spirits on their journey, even though the words were Falaran. I marked the spot, should you care to return to it one day.”
Toryn looked at him strangely. “I thank you. I had feared you too much a heathen to properly care for the dead, especially Redolian dead.” Sadness touched his face. “May their souls find swift path to Adona.”
Brydon stared and countered his shock with a question. “What do you know of Adona? You who leap out of the darkness with knives? Does your god teach you to murder?”
Toryn actually looked chagrined. “I would have killed you more honorably--Falaran though you are--but Galyn and Veed were in charge of this mission, and my elders.”
“They were not your elders by much,” Brydon said, for none of the dead men had looked older than five and twenty.
“No, and they were cowards also, or they would have followed my suggestion and ambushed you yesterday while you drank from the stream.”
“That sounds honorable.”
“It’s more than a Falaran deserves.”
“Walk,” Brydon commanded. Toryn started down the trail, obviously too proud to ask where Brydon was taking him, or why.
In truth, Brydon had no answer to either question.