The Adventures of William X

Chapter 1: William Arrived in Langando


The signboard “Welcome to Langando” greeted William, hanging upon a proud wooden frame, supported by a continuous wooden palisade at waist height (this palisade seemed to surround the village). Written with beautiful handwriting, it seemed to beckon to him with an allure only travellers would understand.

Interestingly, he did not see any village militia guarding the place. This could mean only two things – either the village had nothing worthy of taking (which he would hope not!), or some special arrangements had been made with someone (possibly unsavoury?) to take care of it.

Either way, there was no one around at the entrance to demand he surrender his large weapons (most large towns and cities only allowed him to keep a dagger. Or even to pay an entrance toll.

William wiped the sweat from his eyes, and wearily walked down the street.

It should be right around the corner, he thought, recalling the directions that the beggar had seen fit to give him (for a small donation, of course). It would be nice to sleep in a bed, after all those days in the wilds. It had been too long since William had known the company of other men. And women, William thought with a small smile.

Finally, William sighted his destination – the Blue Barrel. Seems like a happening joint, William thought, noting the sounds of laughter and conversation spilling from the inn. William picked up his step, and strode towards the inn. He walked in, a confident smile on his face, and surveyed the room. Excellent, he thought. It’s been too long…

The middle sized inn (strange to find one in a village – normally he would find only small taverns) looked like it had about 20 tables at a glance. The upper floor of the two-storey building seemed to be rooms for weary travellers to enjoy some basic comfort (a nice bed with a pillow – at last!). A doorway covered only by a leather hide seemed to be the entrance to the kitchen (the smoke and the smell coming from within could only mean that!).

William hesitated a moment. Curiouser and curiouser…he thought. That’s the second thing I’ve seen that looks out of place, with the lack of guards at the border, and all. There’s more to this village than meets the eye. I’d best be on my guard.

Four of the tables were filled by noisy patrons, singing some songs and enjoying themselves. Now that was possibly where all the noise was coming from! Wearing simple clothing, they looked like locals enjoying a party. Celebrating a birthday perhaps? His keen eyes continued to sweep across the room.

One man in chain mail armour sat by a table with a female companion, wearing a blue dress. A long sword laid down on the table by his side, his left hand placed on top of it. Tall and heavy built, his blue eyes topped with bushy eyebrows seemed to constantly scan the area like William’s does. The eyes met his for an instance, gauging him, then turned away. The man’s female companion was relatively attractive, with black hair and black eyes. She, too, had a long sword laid down on the table by her side.

Adventurers, Will thought. Best keep one eye on them…

Then, he saw a pretty young thing by herself at another table. Possibly in her late teens or early twenties, she had beautiful black hair cropped short just below her ears. Bits of green tinted the fringe of her head, possible some dye. The colouring of hair had indeed hung fast in Frelandia – the first he saw was in the capital Paridon before he left his mother, and he had been seeing this phenomena in his travels. Her bright pastel green outfit (top and skirt reaching just above the knees) framed her body well, and complemented the tint on her hair.

Hello! William thought, a bit wide-eyed. Love the hair…and how she puts some thought into her appearance.

William made eye contact with the pretty young girl, and could not help smiling. She smiled back, and William chuckled. Oh, yes, he thought. It’s been too long…but first things first…William walked up to the bar, and patiently waited as the barkeep finished with another customer.

“Hello,” William said, smiling, when the bartender came over to him. “Hello yourself, sir,” the bartender said, matching Will’s smile with one of his own. “What can I do for you today?”

“Well, first of all, I’m parched,” William said. “I could sure use a flagon of wine, and maybe some of that lamb and potatoes that smells so good. And a room for tonight, if you have any available…”

The barkeep grinned. “I think we might be able to accommodate you, lad. You’re new in town, right? Gonna be here a while?” William shrugged. “Perhaps. We shall see…”

He glanced at the brunette that caught his eye as he came in, then back at the bartender. “I’ll be here for a little while, at least. Tell me, would it be worth my while to buy a drink for that pretty little girl over there? Don’t want to stir up any trouble, but I wouldn’t mind getting to know HER a little better…”

The barkeep laughed. “Careful, son… Women are dangerous, dontcha know.” William laughed as well, “Isn’t that the truth? But a little danger never hurts anyone…as long as you’re careful. And I’m ALWAYS careful. Why don’t you make that TWO flagons of wine, my friend…I may as well try my luck.”

“You got it,” the barkeep said, whipping out a decanter of wine and pouring two flagons. “My name is Brono, by the way…”

William extended a hand. “Well me, Brono, I am William X. A pleasure to make your acquaintance.” With that, William scoops up the flagons, and winks at Brono, “Wish me luck…”

William sauntered towards his little honey, a smile on his face. Now THIS I’ve missed…

The girl smiled as she saw him coming. Her face had an innocent quality to it that amazed William. Would anyone just trust a stranger that smiled at him? But there again, he knew he had a natural charm in him that had people believing and trusting in easily. It had come in useful many times indeed.

When he came closer, he noticed that she wore a ring on her left hand. William could not make it out clearly, but it seemed to be a signet ring of sorts.

William walked directly up to the beauty’s table, catching and holding her eye as he did so, a small smile playing at his lips.

“I must say,” William said, his eyes twinkling mischievously, “After days of travelling alone with nothing but the sun and the stars, I long for those things that civilisation can offer: good wine, a soft pillow, and extraordinary companionship. The good man Brono has already seen fit to assist me with those first matters. Perhaps, if you’re feeling adventurous, you might assist me with the last.

“I am called William X, my lady,” William said, with a small bow. “May I request your permission to join you, and enjoy the pleasure of your company?” Will’s eyes twinkled once again. “I promise that I’ll not bore you, nor waste your precious time.”

She giggled as her eyes met his. There were no shyness in her eyes, only eagerness and inquisitiveness. “Please do – I assume you are not as boring as these people over there,” She pointed to the couple at the table, and beamed, “I love to hear stories about places far away from here. Everything here is so boring…”

Her smile was indeed very beautiful. Truly if she was his daughter, or his sister, he would find himself listening and believing her every word. If she was his lover…perhaps he might even find himself willing to die for her! The radiance and the innocence of that smile reflected a purity of heart that he had so rarely seen in this cold, hard world.

“Oh…I forgot to introduce myself,” She smiled her sweetest smile again, making William a little weak at the knees, “I am Lena Walkuski – my father is the sheriff of this place!” She winked and waved her ring at him.

With a smooth motion, William slid into the chair opposite the beautiful Lena. “Well met, my lady,” William said, smiling confidently. He pushed one of the flagons of wine in his hand towards Lena, and gestured towards her with the other. “I hope you will join me in this small libation… I hate to indulge in wine alone.”

Now that he was closer and able to size her up better, he decided she was probably only in her late teens, possibly even younger. Yes, truly her physical appearance looked mature, but her mannerism and choice of words seemed to indicate one younger.

Excellent, William thought. The fire and restlessness of youth are as sweet as spun sugar…

William caught some movement from the corner of his eye. It was the waiter, a young man in his early twenties. With sweat all over him (he kept wiping them off his face with the towel on around his neck), he looked at him, then set the lamb chop and potatoes on the table before him. Turning away, he walked off shaking his head, muttering something like “You’re in trouble”. William could not really make it out clearly as he was mumbling. What’s HIS problem, I wonder, William thought. Why is he so nervous?

Hmmm…William pondered. Looks like Lena here has something of a reputation. Fine with me. The fire that burns within the hearts of some can overwhelm those of limited spirit – I know that as well as anyone. Still, I should be alert to any hidden dangers, and remember to do my thinking with my BIG head. William chuckled softly.

“Peter!” Shouted Lena, “The food for Mr William here is on me!” She smiled and looked back at him, poking at the pieces of fruits before her.

“Thank you, Lena,” William said. “I see your kindness is only rivalled by your beauty.”

William leaned back in his chair, sipped at his wine, and looked at Lena slyly. “So your father is sheriff here? He must do an excellent job–this is a most extraordinary village, to be visibly guarded by only a wooden fence yet so peaceful and safe within. You must be very proud of him…

“So tell me of yourself, lovely Lena,” Will said. “I find myself most curious about you… How do you spend your days, besides setting the hearts of men afire with longing?” The last is said with a playful wink.

Lena winked at William as he pushed the wine towards her. The quality of the wine was good, rivalling those in some small towns. “If I am going to accept a drink from any stranger, my father would kill me!” She smiled at him. “But I guess a little would not hurt – you guys will not tell my father right?” She shouted cheerfully across to Brono and Peter. Brono started to guffaw, and Peter shook his head and continued serving the customers.

William chuckled inwardly. She’s got some fire inside, he thought. I like that.

“Yeah…my father keeps the place well indeed. I hear that he has friends in many places, and he is always having to talk business with them.” He could not help but notice a tinge of disdain and bitterness in her voice, perhaps a little sarcasm as well. She gave a pout and rested her head on her hands, elbows on the table, and looked dreamily away, “Sometimes I would be lucky if I see him once a month!”

Sounds like this little lovely is looking for a hero, William thought, with a knowing smile. Fate smiles upon me this day!

She shrugged her shoulders. “Can I call you Will? I think it sounds nicer.”

“Of course, my dear,” William said. He grinned. “Of course, you’ve got to realise that only my friends call me Will, so it’s kind of a big step.” He winked, “But I’m game if you are.”

She gave her most winsome smile at him. “Do you have any interesting stories to tell? How are your adventures like? Do you get to meet strange monsters? Dragons? Magic? I love hearing stories from you adventurers.” She beamed as if waiting for something wonderful to come to her.

William shrugged, “I like to think that most of my tale has yet to be written,” he said. He smiled, “Perhaps you will be part of that tale. But yes, I do have some minor adventures in my past. But I’ll only tell you if you promise to tell me just as much about yourself, and YOUR life, or thoughts, or even, perchance, your desires.” William looked at Lena slyly.

William’s keen eyes could not help but catch a glimpse of the couple at the other table. The man was staring at his table (or was it at him?). His face looked stern, and his eyes narrowed as he saw William push the wine to Lena. The man’s hand gripped the sword tightly. The woman seemed to notice it, and put her left hand on his hand, giving him a reassuring squeeze.

William flicked his eyes to the adventurers nearby, then back to Lena. His thoughts churned. Either bodyguards, or potential hostiles looking to get some leverage against the Sheriff. Either way, I’d better not take any chances. I’m not going to let anything ruin my encounter with Lena.

William smiled at Lena. “If you’ll just excuse me one second, I have to visit the little boy’s room. I’ll be right back.”

Will got up and walked to the bathroom. The big restroom had about six separate cubicles. A door separated each cubicle. The restroom itself was not partitioned for male and female use. A light wooden door, of the same make as those used in the cubicles, opened to allow patrons into the restroom.

William had checked all the cubicles to make sure he was alone After the only occupant of the restroom had left to join his bunch of rowdy friends (he himself being a little drunken at that too), William opened the door a crack to look at the big macho man. He seemed to be talking to the woman about some important matter. Occasionally, he would steal a glance at Lena. The woman’s back was towards him so he could not make out much of her reactions.

It had been some two to three minutes before William saw his opportunity to cast a spell (he seemed to look away from the restroom area, to glance at Lena again). Mustering the forces of mana about him, he proceeded to cast a spell he had just memorised that morning – a spell of charm.

He felt the familiar rush of mystic energies flowing around his body, twirling itself, speaking and whispering with an unexplained stirring of the emotions. Moving with precision, with the body motions taught to him so long ago by his mother, he began to feel the emotions of friendship, of a kinship that bound and tied all brethren together. He directed it at the big warrior, and felt the rush of energy draining away from him. It would be at least another day of rest before he could summon enough concentration to use mana magic again.

William noticed the warrior suddenly perk up. His companion seemed to notice it too. He muttered something to her, and shrugged his shoulders. They continued to drink.

William exited the bathroom, and returned to Lena’s table. He flashed a brilliant smile.

“There we go…” he said. “Now, where were we? I believe you were asking about my travels…”

William grinned wickedly, and shrugged. “Where would you like me to begin? Shall I talk of the many places I have seen? The waterfalls of Stony Ridge, the roiling Lava Plains of Kaldoon, the view from the tops of majestic snow-covered mountains in Marquet? Or perhaps I should discuss those extraordinary people I have been privileged to meet: the mysterious Walker in Shadow, the High Speaker of Kaladane, or the gods-touched warrior of the plains called the Silver Hand? Or even the customs of distant lands, like the Colour Festival of the Ironhoof tribesman, Midsummer’s Feast at the courts of Zon-Zor, or even the magnificent wedding of Sir Talamorin?”

As William spoke, he took occasional glances in the direction of the other table. He chanced to meet the gaze of the big man during one of these “occasional” glances. He gave a curt nod of his head, as if acknowledging respect.

William nodded back, the curt nod of acceptance amongst warriors, amongst men of honour. No silly smile, nor flighty expressions…merely a solemn look of respect.

The woman seemed to notice this, and she turned her head and stared quizzingly – first at her companion, and then at William. William nodded at her as well.

Her eyes had a kind of quizzed look, as if there was something she could not understand. She turned to speak to the man again, but he put up a hand as if to silence her. Then continued drinking again, all the while continuing to steal glances at Lena.

Now that William had a chance to notice the woman, he took the opportunity to observe her more closely. She was really attractive, now that he thought of it. Her tanned skin complemented her slim and well-toned body. Her dark eyes flashed with life and fire within, and her long black hair shone in the light of the sun streaming through the window. The blue dress she was wearing was slit at the sides up to her thighs, allowing for easy movement, but also showing off her beautiful legs.

William continued to chat with Lena, making sure to remain aware of his surroundings.

“What can you tell me about those two?” William said, gesturing with his head towards the warriors nearby. “They’ve been somewhat interested in us, since I sat down.”

She shrugged her shoulders, “Don’t really know them – I thought they were wonderful people, and they probably have lots of stories to tell, but that stupid big man just coldly ignored me.” She turned up her head at them with disdain, “The woman is nicer though, but she doesn’t talk much – just smiled at me and told me to be careful about talking to strangers! Well…I have just met a very interesting stranger here, and I am sure I can look after myself well enough!” She flicked her head, and the hair rippled just above her neck, and gave you a wink.

“After all, am I not Lena the daughter of Jeffrey Walkuski, Sheriff of Langando?” There was a sarcastic edge when she spoke this. And perhaps a tinge of sadness as well. But she seemed to cheer up immediately upon looking at you, “I would love to know more about the wedding of Sir Talamorin.” She giggled and gazed upon you with the most adorable eyes, “Do you think anyone will want me for a wife?”

William’s eyes widened. “Of course, my dear! What man wouldn’t be proud to walk into a room with you on his arm, what man wouldn’t melt when you looked at him with love in your eyes?”

“Would you mind if I asked them to join us, my dear?” William asked. “Just for a little while… They seem the kind of people it would be either to my advantage to meet, or my disadvantage to ignore, being a newcomer here and all. We adventurers need to stick together.”

William winked, and slid his hand beneath the table and gently squeezed Lena’s knee. “I promise that later, when we’re alone, you will have my undivided attentions…”

Lena’s jovial nature seemed to change slightly when she felt his hand on her knee – beneath the table of all places! She cringed a little and slid her knee away from his reach. It seemed for a moment there was some fear, but she relaxed and smiled at William. Her smile looked a little shaky, as if she was trying to reassure herself of something.

Whoops, William thought. I guess she’s not as experienced at the flirting game as I thought. Better slow down…

William then noticed Brono looking up from his accounts at the door and uttered out a greeting. This man seemed very customer oriented – he noticed everyone that came in! He gave a frown and motioned towards Peter.

William’s eyes turned to the source of his frown. Three men had just sauntered into the inn. They were all dressed in khaki shirts and pants, weather-beaten and worn. Two of them looked big and mean, and were swaggering about staring at all the patrons. The longswords they wore by their side clinked and made menacing sounds. The four tables that were so noisy before had grown quiet, and the people were seated – some trembling a little.

The one who seemed to be the leader was slimmer and taller than the rest. Studded leather armour could be seen peeking out from under his shirt (it is not easy to hide armour!). By his side, William could see a short sword and a dagger. Handsome of appearance, his long mop of brownish hair flew about in the breeze that blew in.

Chapter 2: Troubles at the Inn

The three of them took a seat by a table not far away from him One of the big men shouted harshly, “Brono! I am sure you have noticed us here. Where are the food and the drinks? Yeah – and where is Carmine? We want her to serve us!”

Brono walked nervously towards them, and William noticed Peter disappeared into the kitchen door.

William frowned. “Who are THEY?” he asked Lena. “They look like trouble, to me…”

Lena composed herself and spoke haughtily, “Those must be some riff-raffs from the parts about here.” Her eyes widened a little, and with a mischievous glee, she whispered, “Perhaps they could even be brigands! My father had little trouble with them here in the village,” For a moment William thought he heard some pride in her voice, “But I heard frequently of travellers and important shipments being robbed around this area.”

“I see…” William said slowly, “Well, whoever they are, they’re lacking in manners.”

William noticed the couple at the table tense up a little. He looked at William’s direction, first at him, then at Lena. His eyes seemed to shout out a warning to William, and they returned to the men at the other table. His hand was now having a firm grip on the weapon. The woman accompanying him had slipped the sword below the table level, and was holding on to it by the scabbard (the weapon was still sheathed.

Those two sense it also, William thought. There’s the potential for danger, here…

In the meanwhile, Brono had walked hastily over to the three men. “Welcome to my humble inn, sirs, my daughter is not around at the moment, and Peter has already called the chef to…” He was interrupted by one of the big men, who rose up from his table to his height of about 7′ and pulled Brono to him by the collar. “WHAT! YOU DARE TO TELL US SHE IS NOT AROUND! I DON’T CARE – IF I DO NOT SEE HER IN FIVE MINUTES, THIS PLACE IS GOING TO BE A MESS!”

The patrons at the four tables hastily ran out of the front door upon hearing this. They scrambled clumsily, falling over each other along the way. It was quite amusing actually, and William could see the leader actually look amused. At the same time, he noticed he too was scanning the place. His eyes rested briefly upon the couple, and then upon William. Noticing the weapon he was carrying, his eyes narrowed a little, before both person’s gaze met. For a short moment, it seemed like unseen knives were being hurled at each other, so intense was the gaze. Then, he turned and looked away to one of his companions.

With the speed of a striking cobra, William grabbed Lena’s hand and gripped it tightly. He looked into her eyes, and in a tone that brooked no arguments, and quietly said, “Lena, this might very well degenerate into fisticuffs. If so, you must run home, as fast as you can. Fetch your father, or any of his men, and bring them back here as quickly as possible. Can I count on you?”

Brono wringed his hands nervously as he said, “Please sir, the last time she served you, she cried for nights – she is still a little girl after all…” He did not finish, for the big man had sent him flying across the room with a nasty punch. Brono must have flown at least 10 feet to land on the counter, a little dazed. Blood was trickling a little down his forehead where his head landed.

The man at the other table was about to stand up when the woman put a hand on his, to stop him. She stared at him, and motioned with her head towards Lena. The man, his hand still shaking with rage, looked away from the scene before him. Lena then stood up. There was fire in her eyes.

“Hey! Nobody behaves like this in Langando! If the Sheriff is here, he would have you arrested!” She said haughtily. Her voice sounded more beautiful when she talked like this, then when she talked like a little girl. She perched her two hands on her hips as she spoke.

Damnation! William thought. I’ll have to step in…good thing my “friend” will back me up, and HIS friend will probably back HIM up. Even the odds…

William stood up as well, and gently touched Lena’s arm, “I’ll handle this,” he said.

Will stepped towards the brigands, eyes narrowed. “That will be enough, gentlemen,” William said, voice hard as steel. “Such manners are acceptable in the wilds, but have no place here. Please, allow me to buy you all a couple of rounds of drinks, and perhaps your mood will lighten. It is late, we’re all tired, and wine and a warm fire are much preferably to blood and clanging steel, is it not?”

William rested his hand on the hilt of his longsword, and looked each brigand in the eye. He showed no fear.

“Would you prefer wine or beer?” Will said. “I’m a wine man, myself, but I’m told the ale here is outstanding.”

The big burly ogre of a man turned to you and took a step towards you. He stopped when he saw the raised hand of the slim man. Glaring at you, he shouted harshly, “Stranger – if I were you, I would be on my tails running off like those people over there.” He pointed to the men thronging the exit of the inn, desperately trying to get out (32 men trying to squeeze out of a door meant for at most three abreast would find the difficulty to be daunting at the least).

William shrugged. “I guess I’m not like you, then,” he says. “I do not flee at the threat of danger.”

“Do you know who you are speaking to? Or even who is our chief sitting by the table? If I were to tell you, you will be wetting your pants! Now scram before you get injured!” He laughed menacingly, and perhaps a little maniacally as well, “Brono, go and get Carmine out!” He shouted to the dazed innkeeper.

William’s eyes met that of the “chief” again. He looked totally unperturbed by all the events about him. In fact, he was actually looking slightly amused at the turn of events. There was a haughty confidence about him, an aura strong and commanding. His fair features made him look a little unmanly, but otherwise it made him extremely handsome – perhaps even as handsome as William was, in his own way.

The breeze that blew in ruffled his hair a little, and he made no effort to tuck them into his shirt, an action normally indicative of preparation for fighting. Either he was not expecting a fight, or this man was very confident of his fighting abilities.

William looked at the “chief”. “Your men make a very good point, sir,” he said to the handsome young man. “I do NOT know who you are. We are ALL strangers to each other, at the moment. But I do know one thing–whatever it is you want from this town, you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. Must you allow your men to bully the meek? To do so shows not strength, but weakness. Please, can we not conduct ourselves with honour?”

The handsome young man raised his eyebrow upon hearing William. He smiled, “Catching more flies with honey than with vinegar indeed! Well said, stranger – and how would you think we can conduct ourselves with this honour you speak of?” His tone was raised a notch higher, and assumed a sudden cutting edge to it. His eyes bore into Williams. His confidence was unspeakable.

Lena walked up with pomp by your side, “I don’t know about honour or whatever business you are talking about! If you don’t pay Brono the compensation for hurting him, my father the Sheriff will get you!” She emphasised strongly on “my father” and “Sheriff”.

The two big men turned to look at each other – and laughed! Their evil sounding laugh seemed to fill the whole inn with an unspeakable tenseness of atmosphere. The handsome young man’s amused expression return to him again, as he turned to Lena, “So you are the daughter of Jeff Walkuski…” There was still that dangerous gleam in his eyes.

“As long as we’re making introductions,” William said, stepping in front of Lena and shooting a disapproving glance at her before locking eyes again on the brash young leader, “I am William X. And I do not intend to instruct you in the ways of honour–your own heart speaks that to you, whether you listen to it or not.”

William’s eyes narrowed, his voice firm, “I will not allow your men to bully the innocent. Nor should you. I ask you again–accept my offer of wine, and conduct yourselves with honour. And this night can end as it began–peacefully and in good spirits.”

The young man looked amused at William’s words. He gazed upon him intently, “Well…my men here are tired out after a day of keeping the peace about this village.”

William noticed Lena’s hands clenched into fists, her face red with anger, upon hearing this. By this time, the couple at the table had already come over. The woman gently put her hand on Lena’s, and shook her head. Lena by this time looked like she was about to explode.

The man who had punched the innkeeper (you noticed he was wearing gauntlets, but no other armour) shouted out, “Chief! Let’s not waste time talking with him – I am going to look for Carmine!” He had a kind of salacious look on his face. He was about to move off when the “Chief” put up his hand again. Clenching his fists, he looked first at his chief, then at William, before stopping and staying by the chief’s side. He now looked really angry.

The “Chief” continued, “Like I was saying before I was interrupted, my men here are tired out after a day of keeping the peace about this village. I would think having a woman serving them is not too out of order. Yes…” he looked upon Lena, “Perhaps the daughter of Jeff would not mind serving us. Your father and I go a long way, and we had several deals to continue for many years!” Now William heard his laughter. It was kind of eerie, echoing through the inn, which at this moment was empty except, William, Lena, Brono, the couple, and the three men.

Lena was by now in tears, perhaps in rage, perhaps even in sadness. Suddenly she picked up a knife from a table nearby and jumped towards the “Chief”. William stepped in front of Lena and instantly reached out to grab Lena by the hips from behind and yanked her back.

“Let me go! How can you say this of my father!” If her eyes could spell, William could have sworn they would be spelling murder. She kept squirming – she was not too weak – and he felt like his arms could break any moment.

Damn! William thought. She’s like a little tiger!

He again stepped in front of her, left arm still about her waist, and with a SHING, drew his longsword. “Enough of this,” William snarled, eyes flashing with anger. “You obviously have some history here, of which I am unaware. But this has gone far enough–you will cause the lady no further distress. Leave. Now.”

The “chief’s” eyes narrowed a little at William’s command. His demeanour did not change a single bit. The cool in him was un-nerving. Perhaps he feared not death? Perhaps he knew he just could not be beaten? Whatever it was, things were definitely looking like they were going to get ugly.

William felt his blood surge. His eyes seemed to focus even sharper than usual, and he felt himself entering the “zone” as he eyed his opponent. This man’s incredible confidence seemed to match William’s, and quite honestly it was somewhat disconcerting.

William smiled, like a wolf. A small part of him rose in anticipation–for in truth, while William rarely admitted it to himself, he had never truly been challenged. This man before him was gifted, obviously gifted… and for the first time, a man who might truly be Will’s equal. A worthy challenge… and Will knew he would rise to it

William heard the sound of a weapon being drawn to his side. The big man in chain mail stood beside you, and gave you a nod of respect. He looked up, his weapon gleaming off the torchlights that started to proclaim their lordship even as the greater light of the sun had set.

“I am Vernon, son of Falklund, warrior of the northern lands. For generations, my fathers have served the King in Frelandia. If there be anyone here who would desire to taste the blade of Vernon, he will continue his trouble-making here.” There were fearlessness and pride in his voice. His eyes locked on the “chief’s”.

“The man you are talking to is my friend…” William noticed the woman in blue look at Vernon, puzzled. “And his friend is mine as well. My honour will not allow you to hurt any of them. I would highly suggest you take my advice and leave, for a warrior of the northern lands fights till the death for his honour. There are three of us to three of you – you will not have any edge over us”

William’s eyes caught those of his newfound friends for just a split second. He nodded his thanks, then returned his attentions to the enemy.

The gauntleted man was about to reach for his sword when his “chief” put his hand on the hilt – strongly. It totally prevented him from drawing his weapon at all. By now his face was the expression of extreme frustration. He stomped off into the kitchen. His “chief” eyed him coolly as he stomped off. He did not attempt to stop him.

He turned back to look at Vernon, and smiled, “You have got your honour, I have got mine. Chief Foldori would have no place before his men if I were to retreat on the basis of your threats.” He smiled and swept away a strand of hair that came across his brow as the night wind started to blow in. If the situation was not so tense right now, William would have swore he could win over any lady’s heart with that gesture. Yes, he was a handsome man all right. Charming and dangerous.

That’s it, then, William thought, heart sinking. He makes his priorities clear. Only power means anything to this man–it will come to blows. Thank goodness Vernon and the woman are backing me up… I’m not the greatest of combatants. I’m quick, but these guys are twice as big as I am… My only other advantage is my Armour spell. They should have a hard time hitting me… Got to take advantage of that. Take care of threats first, but if Foldori draws his weapon, I’ve got to focus on him. He’s all mine…!

He made no attempt to even draw his weapons, and the man by his side seemed to be wiser than his other friend. In fact, William realised he was glancing occasionally at the entrance of the inn all the while the conversation was going on!

Suddenly, there was a sound of a pots and pans falling inside the kitchen, and a distressed scream. Lecherous laughter was heard as the gauntleted man left the kitchen, half dragging a struggling and crying young lady about Lena’s age, a big strong arm about her waist. The poor girl was twisting and squirming, tears rolling down her cheeks. Some marks on her wrists and arms showed signs of abuse.

Lena glared first at William, then at Vernon, and snared, “YOU WIMPS, if you are not going to do anything – at least let me go and I will save her myself!” If she was going to struggle any more, William knew that his muscles of water would have problem restraining her.

Chief Foldori still had that amused smirk on his face. He still made no attempt to touch his weapons.

“You had your chance,” William growled, his eyes narrowing. He released Lena and sprang forward, his longsword flicking out…

“Watch the door!” William cried out, as he lunged at Carmine’s attacker. “They’ve got backup coming through!”

Hopefully, they’d ignore Foldori for a second and handle the ambush first… William thought, but then he was on top of his opponent, and the time for thought was past…

The inn was transformed into a battleground. William was not the only one brandishing a weapon. By then, Brono had brought out a huge club and descended upon Carmine’s attacker. The man at Chief Foldori’s side moved straight at Lena, giving her a kick on the abdomen, which had her collapse on the floor, her breath taken out of her. Vernon’s companion stepped in, eyeing Lena’s attacker, swords drawn.

Vernon had stepped forward immediately the moment William went for Carmine’s attacker. He did not attack immediately but stared at Chief Foldori. He gazed upon Vernon, and for a moment it would seem the two were locked in an unseen exchange of words. Chief Foldori smiled and nodded his head in a sign of respect. He drew both his weapons.

A man fighting two handed weapons. William had heard about this fighting style. It originated from the land of Sharilan, and was a tricky fighting style. The fighter normally left himself open and unguarded, in the hope of taking out his opponent in one shot. The unguarded stance was actually fake, for the off-handed weapon was very capable of trapping or parrying any attacks when used by a skilled opponent.

Meanwhile, Carmine’s attacker had dropped her and drew his weapon to face both Brono and William. Blood was still trickling down Brono’s face, and anger framed his features. It was the rage of a lioness protecting her cubs, of a lion protecting his territory. Carmine’s attacker looked first at William, then at Brono – he seemed to be gauging his ability to take on both men at once.

The big man snarled and swung with great skill at William. He was not able to dodge on time. Sparks flew and a loud clap resounded throughout the room as an invisible barrier stopped his blade. For a moment he stopped, a shocked expression on his face. That was the chance William needed. With swiftness even the eyes could hardly catch, he drove a kick into the man’s face, and ran him through with his sword. The weight of the man collapsed upon the sword, pulling William down. Quickly, William pulled out his sword before the man could fall down upon him. Brono could only stare dumbfounded as the action was over before his club could be of use.

William breathed a sigh of relief. Thanks for at least teaching me the Armour spell, mother, William thought. Could be dead right now. Gotta be more careful…

William turned to Brono, “Quickly, gather Lena and Carmine… Get them out of here, but be careful! Go out the back, and avoid the front–I think Foldori has more men out there…”

From the corner of his eye, William could see Chief Foldori make a leap towards Vernon. He was fast! But not fast enough, as Vernon easily side-stepped his thrust. Sweeping his leg across Chief Foldori, he managed to make him jump to avoid being tripped. The swing of his longsword, however, did not manage to connect, as the handsome young man twisted out of the way. Seizing the opportunity, he thrusted his dagger at Vernon. He misjudged the distance, and Vernon simply took a half step to the side to avoid it.

The woman in blue stepped to the side to avoid a swing from the man. The momentum of the swing brought the man into range of her weapon, open and vulnerable. The bite of steel caught the man across his chest, opening a huge gaping gash. He stared incredulously for a moment at the woman, before collapsing, blood still spurting out of a ruptured artery.

Chief Foldori eyed Vernon, then the rest of the room, “So, are we going to make it a honourable fight, or would I be expecting to take on all four of you?” His eyes gleamed with excitement and adrenaline. He was obviously relishing the fighting.

“You don’t have the right to speak of honour, Foldori,” William said dangerously. “Throw down your weapon and surrender.”

As William spoke, he kept one eye on the door. He was sure Foldori had reinforcements, “And call off your men, or we’ll drop you where you stand,” William said, eyes flashing.

Suddenly, William noticed men running into the room. They were dressed differently from the three. In all there were already two who managed to enter the room. From the commotion, there were probably more outside. The two that entered wore leather armour, and carried a spear each. On each of their belts hung a short sword.

“I said call them off!” William snarled, eyes flashing. He waved his longsword menacingly.

Chapter 3: The Sheriff of Langando

“That would be enough!” An authoritative voice resounded about the room. Foldori gave a smirk and lowered his weapons. Without even thinking that Vernon might strike him, he turned around to face the source of the voice. Vernon did not strike but lowered his weapon as well. Lena had by now recovered somewhat, though still pretty stunned from being kneed.

What the…? William thought, confused. Then his intuition went to work. Must be the town guards, if not the Sheriff himself…

A short and stocky man, dressed in chain mail armour, walked into the inn. His balding head seemed to reflect the light off the torches like a mirror would. By his side hung a longsword, worn by years of use. A beautifully crafted hilt ornamented with two small quartz crystals completed the look of the weapon. A masterpiece of construction indeed. His black eyes looked and surveyed the destruction about the room, a look of displeasure on his face.

“Set down your weapon, stranger. ” He stared at William, “Or I may be forced to arrest you as well.” More sounds of shuffling feet and clanging weapons were heard as another dozen men entered the inn, spears at the ready. One of them carried a shield and a longsword instead of a spear and shortsword.

William shrugged, and smoothly sheathed his weapon. He intently watched what happened next…

“Foldori…I should have guessed.” He looked about the inn again with even greater displeasure. “And you’ve got two of your men dead as well this time. You are making things very difficult for me.” His eyes narrowed as he glared at Chief Foldori. “I hope you are not trying to stretch relations between Naruyama and I too much. One of these days, I may just forget about my agreement, and arrest you.” His threat sounded real.

As the Sheriff threatened Foldori, William went to check on Lena.

“Are you all right, beautiful?” William asked, as he helped her to her feet. “Looks like your this guy is bailing us out of a sticky situation… That must be your father, correct?”

Lena nodded and smiled weakly at William, still hurting a little at her abdomen. The lady in blue smiled at her, and said in a sweet voice, the first time that William had heard her speak. The voice sounded concerned and loving, with perhaps a maternal edge to it. “Let me see if I can help alleviate the pain a little, poor thing. Come, try to bend backwards a little and stretch your muscles a bit.” Lena shook her head, and stood up trying to look strong and unwavering.

William backed off, and allowed the warrior-woman to tend to Lena. He focused his attention on the exchange between Foldori and the Sheriff.

“My friend, my friend – you do have a lot of bravado there. Would you have forgotten that I probably command more men than your pitiful village guards?” Chief Foldori sat down gracefully on a bench, his weapons by his side. He folded his arms and looked with a confident smirk on his face towards the Sheriff.

“Foldori, Foldori, if you have a chance to look outside now, you would notice that all of you men are tied up and in some very uncomfortable positions. I would highly suggest you make your exit back to your den before my messenger to Naruyama bring him here. The Chief himself would not be exactly very happy to know that his men is causing trouble without his permission.” The Sheriff smiled and shook his head condescendingly.

Foldori stood up angrily and slammed his hand on the table, causing Lena to jump a little. For a moment, William really thought that the other men-at-arms inside the inn retreated a step. William’s eyes narrowed. The sheriff has the upper hand, but Foldori has buckets of pride, he thought. Hopefully he doesn’t do anything stupid…

The air was tense with a challenge between the authority of the Sheriff, and the personal magnetism of this young man. For a moment, it looked like weapons would fly again. Then Foldori smiled and shook his head, “You win again, my dear friend…”

“I am not your friend, though I may be with Naruyama.” The Sheriff interrupted him angrily. Foldori seemed to have hit a sensitive nerve there, “Now leave, before I have my guards throw you into the stocks.”

Foldori shrugged his shoulders and sauntered towards the exit. Just before he left, he turned around, “Do you really think your guards have the capability to throw me into the stocks? Even the Sheriff himself is not a match for the best fighter in Langando!” The Sheriff’s eyes narrowed as Foldori walked out, laughing loudly and mockingly.

Overconfident, Will thought. A bit of magic and a lot of cunning will overcome anyone, even the ‘best fighter in Langando’. He’ll soon see, I suppose. The chances of encountering him again are about one hundred percent, so I’ll have to think about how to handle things next time around…

The man carrying the longsword and shield came up to the Sheriff, “Sir, will we have problems once he freed the other men?” He looked at him and said, “They would not try anything while Sergeant Marho is with Naruyama. But I would suggest, Lieutenant, that you double up on the guard duty tonight. And get rid of the bodies.” Giving him a salute, the lieutenant moved off, followed by the rest of the men.

The Sheriff turned towards Brono and Carmine. She was crying bitterly on his shoulders. Pools of blood washed the place even as the soldiers dragged the bodies off. He frowned and said, “Are you OK, Brono?” Brono nodded, relieved that all this was over. The Sheriff then turned to the party.

“Vernon and Vornuna, thanks a lot for your help. I really appreciated you coming over as fast as you can.” The couple who fought alongside William nodded their heads accepting the thanks. He looked first at Lena, then at William, “Stranger, I do not know your part in this, but I think you have a lot of explanation as to why you are fighting in this place.” He held up his hand to stop Lena, who was about to speak up. He gazed intently upon William, trying to assess the man.

William met his gaze, and did not flinch. I think part of the reason I am fighting is because a certain Sheriff is willing to compromise with evil. The conversation I have heard thus far makes it virtually certain that there is some kind of deal in play here. I certainly don’t know all the details, but against the forces of darkness, there can be no compromise.

Will hesitated. Still, I’d better not piss this guy off. Of the two factions here, Foldori’s already considers me the enemy. I can’t afford to that with the Sheriff. Especially if I want to see his daughter fairly regularly…

“Sir, I am called William X,” Will said, slowly wiping his sword and sheathing it at his hip, “I am simply a traveller, who happened to be present when these thugs accosted poor Carmine. As a man of honour, I felt the need to involve myself in the matter. Weapons were drawn, things got ugly, and the rest is history. Thanks for your timely intervention, by the way… It wouldn’t have been pleasant for us to have met all of Foldori’s men. I am in your debt.”

Vernon stood next to Will, “I can vouch for it, sir. Will is a good man, and a friend of mine. Without his help, Foldori’s men would have caused more problems.” He smiled at William warmly. The smile was returned by William.

The Sheriff seemed to be considering Vernon’s words. Lena spoke, sitting on the edge of a table, “Yeah, if not for these three strangers here, all the women, including your daughter, would have become whores and pleasure women.” Her eyes flashed with anger as her voice assumed a sarcastic bite.

The Sheriff ignored Lena as he turned towards William, “Then I must thank you, Mr X, for helping me keep the peace about the place. I hope you will enjoy your stay here in Langando. Whatever damages you may have incurred in the cause of justice can be claimed at my office. Just look for the clerk.” He spoke all these in a business-like tone.

“Thank you for you generous offer, sir,” William said. “But I lost nothing in this altercation. You showed up just in time.”

He seemed to ignore William as he looked over to Lena, then to Vernon, “Thanks for coming over, Vernon. I am going to need all the help I can get.” He looked towards Vornuna, bowed slightly, and said, “And surely I appreciate greatly the help of a cleric of the Eternal One too. Thanks.”

Vernon bowed, “I have come as soon as I am summoned, sir…” He was interrupted by the Sheriff, ” Vernon! How many times have I told you not to call me, “Sir”! Just call me by my name!”

He smiled and continued, “There are many things which I would find inconvenient to talk about here. Please, come over to my place, and I will tell you why I have need of your services.” He looked briefly at Brono and William even as he said that.

William sidled alongside Lena, “You don’t mind if I stick around, do you?” He said softly, “I’m curious about what your father has to say, and besides, I want to spend some more time with you. Our conversation was rudely interrupted, after all…”

The Sheriff looked coolly at William moving alongside Lena, “If you do not mind, Mr X, there are certain business I have to settle, and it would be good if you would return to your room. You would deserve a good rest in the tavern for keeping the peace about Langando.”

William’s eyes narrowed. I am no child to be ordered to his room. He thought. He was about to make a scathing retort when Vernon spoke out.

Vernon was next to the Sheriff, “Sir…” He was given an exasperated stare from the Sheriff, “Uh…Jeffrey sir, William is my good friend, and I can vouch for him that he is completely trustworthy. Besides, you would do well to get the services of a good fighter like him.” He gave a bow to the Sheriff as he said that.

Jeffrey seemed to ponder for a while, and he spoke to William, “Mr X, as you have probably seen, I have a problem. Vernon here is helping me on the basis of a friendship. I cannot promise you any material rewards, but I can assure you my friendship if you do help me out in my problem.”

“Yeah, yeah…your problem indeed…” Lena chipped in sarcastically. “I thought only the village knows about it, now even strangers and outsiders get to know of our family’s disgrace as well!” She virtually spat out the last few words. Her eyes danced with fiery passion as she stared at her father.

The Sheriff lost his patience, “Lena – enough!”

Lena flared up, “Enough! Yes, I have enough indeed! I am sick of having to be the daughter of the Sheriff of Langando! Everyone here avoids me, and refuses to talk to me. If not for Brono and Carmine, I would have no friends here! Enough! Yes, I have enough of being the daughter of a collaborator!”

Jeffrey moved in and gave her a tight slap across her left cheek. For a moment, all was in shock. Even the Sheriff himself seemed to cringe a little at what he had done, the onlookers all frozen in time. Vornuna started to move towards the girl, but she pushed her away, and ran crying out of the door.

William shot the Sheriff a withering look, then sprinted out the door behind Lena. “Lena!” He called, “Wait…!”

Chapter 4: Lena Walkuski

Lena was a fast runner, and agile too. William had a hard time keeping her in sight – and in a big village like Langando, there were more alleys than William could familiarise himself with. Many a times, he felt like his heart could kill him, and his legs were fast turning to jelly. But just after about two minutes of running, William caught sight of her outside the doorsteps of a house, sobbing bitterly. He walked carefully towards her, trying very hard to control his panting.

“Listen, sweetheart,” William said, “Please don’t run away from me. I want to be your friend…”

Lena looked at him with tear-streaked eyes and tried to smile. She looked beautiful even with puffed-up eyes swollen from crying. Her skirt had patches where the tears had soaked through – she probably had been crying on it. If she had been his sister, he would feel like giving her bully a piece of his mind.

“Lena, I need you to tell me what’s going on here in Langando,” Will said softly, “I’m a stranger here, but I’m no fool–I’ve got eyes. There is obviously some kind of arrangement here, and Foldori and his men have more freedom here than they should. I promise you, I will not allow such an injustice to exist–I’ll do everything in my power to make things right. But please, I need to know what’s happening here. I could hear it from your father, but I’d rather hear it from you. Please Lena… Will you trust me?”

She just shook her head, and grasped hold of William’s hands. She looked with imploring eyes to him, “Will, can you take me away from this place? I hate this place, I hate my father, I hate everything I grew up with! I don’t want to be his daughter anymore!”

With these words, she took out her signet ring and threw it away. It bounced and clanked, before settling down on a small patch of lawn of the house opposite.

William shook his head, “I’m sorry sweetheart, but you can’t run from your pain, or else it will never go away. You have to face it. The only thing we can do is address the situation that makes you so ashamed of your life, and your father, and make it right.”

“I promise you,” William said softly, “I’ll fight with you every step of the way… but I won’t help you run. That is the coward’s way, and it is beneath you. But together we can right the injustice within your village, and make it a place you can be proud of again.”

“Tell me, Lena,” William said. “What has happened to your poor village?”

Perhaps she had heard him, or perhaps she was not paying attention, but she shook her head sadly and turned away from William. She spoke in a soft voice, “You are all the same. You don’t care about me at all. You don’t even want me. Nobody wants me…”

“That’s not true, Lena,” William said softly, “I want you, I care about you… and I’ll help you, if you let me.”

She shifted slightly at the steps away from William, “Go away, leave me alone – please. I just want some peace and quiet.” She buried her head in her lap, the skirt still wet from her tears.

William shook his head, “I’ll never leave you alone, sweetheart. Not when you need me like you do now.” William lightly stroked her hair and tried to hug her when William’s sharp ears picked up noises of running feet in the alley off to the end.

“Damn,” William said dangerously, “We’ve got company… Come, Lena. You must take me to safety–I don’t know this place half as well as you. Quickly, before we are discovered…”

Lena pushed William’s arms off in a symbol of defiance and rejection as she ran off towards the noises. The sounds of pattering feet stopped as she appeared outside the alley. Several voices hurriedly greeted her immediately, “Good evening, Miss Lena!”

William saw her eyes opened wide as the owners of the pattering feet came into view of William. There were three men, dressed after the manner of the town guards. Two of them were carrying a strangely burnt body. Much of the body’s arms and legs had been burnt very badly, right to the bone, and a huge gaping chest wound was visible. The body was uncovered by clothing of any kind. The face was still recognisable, showing a horrible grimace of pain and torture. It was quite obvious the man was deliberately set on fire on his extremities, before being given a merciful end to his life.

Damn, Will thought. Poor guy… Wonder if they were trying to get something from him, or just trying to send a message?

“Uncle Marho!” Lena screamed in anguish and shock. Tears began to stream out of her eyes, and she fainted on the road. The man not carrying the body gave a curse and stepped forward to pick her up. He turned and saw William. Coldly he inspected him, noticing his weapons.

William held his hands up and smiled, “Hey, easy there, fellas,” He said, “I’m a friend of Lena’s, and her father’s… I’m not here to cause any trouble.”

“What happened here, may I ask?” William said, “Anything I can do to help?”

The man nodded at William and shook his head sadly, “I am afraid there is nothing much you can do to help – look at the Sergeant.” He pointed to the body his colleagues were carrying, “I am bringing him to the Sheriff.” He gave a sigh, “Sergeant Marho was a good man – he was kind and protective over us, and was fair in giving out punishments.”

His eyes blazed with anger, “It must be those bandits up in the woods! If only the Sheriff would give me permission to hunt them down – I will personally make sure they pay for this!” He clenched his fist in anger, before relaxing as he seemed to suddenly remember William’s presence beside him. He nodded his head again, and turned towards Lena.

He walked towards her, and attempted to revive her, sitting her up and putting her head on his knee as he knelt. He turned to talk to William, “Sergeant has always dotted on her, from when she was just a little girl. I think this must have been a big blow to her.”

“Missy! Missy!” He hesitated a little and then gave her a few light slaps. Lena seemed to rouse a little, and began to bawl, crying on his chest. She seemed very agitated and overcome. The town guard looked helplessly for a while. He looked at his colleagues (who shrugged their shoulders), then at William, before speaking, “Missy, I am bringing the body to the Sheriff’s residence. Are you coming back with us?”

Lena jumped up, and still crying, screamed out, “They are going to pay for this! I am going to avenge uncle Marho!” She ran off before the guard could stop her.

“Dammit!” William swore. He vaulted after her, trying to keep up. By now William was used to her tendency to just bolt away without warning. Taking just a few steps, before she could accelerate much further, he had already caught her arm. As William expected, she began to struggle to try to break his grip on her. The town guard William spoke to came up to her and tried to speak as calmly as possible – he seemed to have seen quite a lot of her outbursts before.

“Missy – we are bringing his body to the Sheriff. Please come back with us – these parts are dangerous right now, and it would make things very difficult for us if the Sheriff knew that we have not been able to protect you…”

He did not finish his sentence, for Lena spat out, “You tell that cowardly father of mine that I can protect myself alright! I don’t need anyone or anything to tell me what to do! And you, let me go!” She screamed at William.

William shook his head and said with disappointment in his voice, “I’m sorry, Lena, I sympathise with your situation, and I want to be your friend, but you’re acting like a child, and making things worse. Not on purpose, I know, but you’re making things worse…”

William looked at the guards. “You’ll watch her from here?” He asked, raising an eyebrow. “I guess I’ll have to talk to the Sheriff to discover what I wish to know…”

William let Lena go, alert for any sudden sprinting, and made sure the guards had her in “custody”. “Goodbye, Lena,” William said sadly, “If you ever need me, all you have to do is ask.” With that, William turned to return to the town centre.

“Will…” Lena hesitated as she called out his name. Her voice was very much softer and calmer. She looked a little sad, probably close to tears as she continued, “I’m sorry…” She turned to the guard, still holding on to her arm sheepishly, and said, “Please let me go, sir – I promise I won’t run away.” The guard nodded his head and, visibly relieved, let go of her.

Will turned, eyes plaintive. Then, he smiled.

Lena looked at Will, and sighed as she pleaded, “There are many things perhaps you would find out over time, but please don’t ask me about my father. Sometimes, I really find it so difficult being his daughter.” William nodded, still smiling.

She moved pass Sergeant Marho’s body, and glanced at it, her heart heavy. Her teary eyes gazed at William. She tried to force a smile and said, “You will need me with you to enter my father’s house.” She walked on as the guards picked up the body and marched after her.

William took his small hand in hers. “Thank you, Lena,” Will said. He squeezed her hand. “Thank you…”

As she stepped next to William, she turned to him and asked with a trembling voice, “The words you spoke just now about helping the injustice in the village – were they just to make me happy?” Her beautiful eyes seemed to echo a glimmer of hope, a grasping of a straw of a chance.

William shook his head. “I would have to speak them even if they made you unhappy, my dear,” Will said. “There’s something wrong here–I’d have to be blind not to see it. And having seen, I cannot look away. I’ll do everything in my power to set things right, and only death will stop me. It is who I am–I can do nothing less.”

William squeezed her hand once again, and his eyes twinkled. “You know what I’m talking about. I sense it in you too–the fire inside, the passion for justice… We’ll be okay, sweetheart. We’ll be okay…”

Lena smiled at William, and held on to his arm as the party made its way to the Sheriff’s residence. William could hear his heart skip a beat at the closeness of this young woman, her slender arms wrapped about his own.

Such a nice feeling, Will had to admit to himself.

The smell of a very gentle perfume, made perhaps from a local flower, seemed to send tendrils out to him, enchanting him. The women of Frelandia liked to use perfume – it seemed a practice William remembered from his childhood. His mother, he remembered, loved especially strong heavy scents that bordered on the pungent (or so he felt at the age of six!) sometimes. Memories, memories…

Lena looked up at William, in his reverie. She smiled and pressed herself closer to him. William could feel the softness of her breast as she held on tighter to his arm. It seemed like she was already starting to warm up to him, in contrast to her withdrawal when he first touched her at the tavern. She was still much of a mystery, and many more things would William be wanting to know about her, indeed.

A turn about the bend, and the party came to a high 20 feet wall. Lena smiled at William and said, “This is the western wall of my house. This should be the most protected place in the village.” William could tell she was trying not to sound too acidic and biting in her words. It seemed like relations between father and daughter was very strained indeed.

“Nice place,” William commented.

She continued as the party turned to the left, “The main gate is at the eastern wall – we should be there in about five minutes’ walk.” She sighed as she said, “I also stay in the biggest residence here in Langando.”

William’s keen ears picked up the sounds of metallic clicking and scuffling about the bend. It was very faint, and even he could only hear it very faintly.

“Hmm…” William frowned, “Sounds like trouble up ahead…”

Will looked at Lena. She’ll never listen to me if I tell her to stay away, he thought. Just got to hope she’s got enough sense to stay the heck out of the way. Somehow, Will did not feel too hopeful.

Will grabbed Lena’s hand. “Come on… Someone might be in trouble,” he said, pulling Lena and trying to get her to run towards to the sounds.

Chapter 5: Fighting at the Residence of the Sheriff

Only a few steps separated William and Lena from about the corner, where the sounds had come from. The sounds of conversation and movement travelled far in the dead of night, and whoever made the noise must have heard William, because the sounds stopped, to be replaced by the drawing of weapons as they turned about the bend.

The soft moonlight of the crescent moon lit up the place with its silvery glow. The wall stretched for about two hundred yards. It was indeed a big residence. About forty yards away, William could dimly see two figures. One of them was on the top of the wall, and another on the bottom. The moonlight reflected strongly off the metal of the sword carried by the figure at the bottom. Something else also reflected off the other figure at the top. William was unable to ascertain that at this distance.

The reflection off what must be a grappling hook could also be seen at the top of the wall, where the figure crouching on top was. The sounds of pattering feet from behind were heard as the three men accompanying William and Lena hurried to catch up with them.

William turned to the Sheriff’s men, and looked at them firmly. “You,” he said, pointing at the scrawniest of them, “Alert the guards… someone is attempting to breach the walls. Lena will go with you.” I hope, William silently added.

.Williams fixed his gaze upon the other two guardsmen. “The rest of us are going to stop them right here. It’s three to two…”

William did not finish his words, for a crossbow bolt thudded into one of the guardsmen William was talking to. For a moment he looked in a daze, as the bolt just dropped off from its former lodging place in his armour. He mumbled a silent prayer to Mystari, before dropping Marho’s body and unstrapping his spear. The other guard also wasted no time in unstrapping his spear. He also took out a whistle and began to blow the sound of alarm.

The scrawny guard (the one William was talking to early in the evening) grasped hold of Lena’s hand and spoke out, “Missy, quick – come with me to a safer place!” Lena seemed a little lost, and she looked hesitantly at William.

“Go, sweetheart,” William said, quickly. “I’ll catch up with you soon, after we take care of business…” Lena nodded, before running off with the other guard.

William was able to see now about four man-sized figures lying on the ground just about one hundred yards away, sixty yards after the rope he could see dangling from the top of the wall. The man at the bottom of the rope waved his weapon menacingly. The one who fired the bolt looked like he was reloading. Meanwhile, sounds of commotion could be heard within the building, as well as the sounds of clashing steel.

William leaped and attempted to find a grip on the wall, but the wall over at that section was particularly devoid of handholds. In the meantime, the two guards had charged past him to the other man brandishing the sword. William could not see many details at that distance, but there were sounds and flashes of swishing weapons, and a cry of surprise and shock. The man on top of the wall looked like he had finished reloading.

From within the walls, there had to be more than a dozen men fighting, judging by the sounds and shouts of battle.

Again, there were swishing sounds heard from where the guards were engaged. William could hear a cry of pain as a weapon struck home. William drew an arrow and let fly at the man wielding the crossbow. By instinct, he shifted slightly to the left – as a bolt thudded on the ground where he was.

Smoothly, Will drew and prepared to fire a second arrow, but from the dim light, he could see the man on top of the wall collapsing and falling down the wall. He landed quite close to his companion, still fighting the city guards at the bottom of the wall. William could see the guards circling the man, who was breathing heavily.

Stealthily, he melted into the shadows cast by the wall, and moved towards the fight taking place. He could see no other exposed targets for his arrow, and he would risk hitting the sheriff’s men if he were to fire into the melee.

One down, William thought grimly. I’m sure they can handle that last guy…

Will decided to try and climb the wall again–he might be able to find more targets for his bow. Will dropped his bow gently to the ground, and quickly pulled free his length of rope. Good thing I kept the grapple attached from last time, William thought. William expertly swung the grapple over the wall, and pulled it tight.

With steps a cat would have been envious of, William quickly climbed up the wall, making sure to pick up his weapon and strap it behind, and rested on top. He took a glance at his back, and saw one of the guards drop to the ground, felled no doubt by the intruder’s sword. The other guard seemed to be tiring, as his weak spear thrust was parried easily by his opponent.

Inside the compound, things did not seem to be going very well. With torches lit within the compound, William could see about eight persons fighting in the uniform of the village militia. The Sheriff himself was fighting two men, and Vernon and Vornuna were engaged with a man each. In all, there must be more than a dozen of the intruders.

William saw movement just a little below him. One of the men was edging on and hiding behind a bush. William could see him readying a crossbow – and he was aiming at the Sheriff!

Oh no you don’t…Will thought. Attempting to draw his longsword as quietly as possible, William launched himself at the hidden sniper. Using the skill he had acquired from his years of mixing with the people in the streets, he made a smooth leap onto the sniper. Before he reached him, the crossbow bolt had shot out.

No! William thought, horrified. I wasn’t fast enough, I let him get the shot off! The brigand would never have the time to find out if he had hit, however, for William’s sword sank deep into his chest, and he collapsed onto the floor, a pool of blood rapidly forming.

Looking around, William could see the Sheriff despatch one of the men facing him. The other was on the floor, a crossbow bolt on his chest – no doubt the result of a misguided effort. Will breathed a sigh of relief. Thank goodness…he thought.

From the corner of his eye, William saw one brigand walk determinedly towards him. His short sword was full of blood. With the speed of a cobra, William’s hand darted into one of the pouches that hanged from his leather belt. He pulled out something wrapped with a wad of cloth–a flick of his wrist and the cloth fluttered away.

William’s opponent saw it and immediately ran at William, screaming expletives and waving his sword about. With the same movement, Will threw the square clay flask to the ground at the brigand’s feet. It landed about a feet to his right, where it shattered into a million pieces, splashing some of the oil onto his clothes. In his haste to avoid the missile thrown at him, however, the brigand had placed himself off balance, and his weapon missed William by more than a foot!

No time to muck around, William thought. He slashed out with his longsword, hoping to end this quickly. The man side-stepped his hasty slash, again putting himself off-balance, resulting in another wild thrust gone off mark. William took the opportunity to thrust at him, but the blow glanced off his armour.

There was a loud cry from off to the right which distracted William’s opponent. Glancing, he seemed to see something disheartening. He immediately begin retreating, still waving his sword half-heartedly, attempting to look threatening. William could see that the Sheriff had just despatched yet another of their number. Only about half a dozen of the intruders remain. They had stopped attacking, but were waving their weapons defensively. About half a dozen of the village militia were around, but quite a few looked like they were in a very bad shape.

William looked at his opponent with eyes of steel. “Take this moment I give you and THINK!” He barked, “Your comrades have been cut down, and you are fighting a losing battle. If you wish to survive, throw down your weapon!”

The Sheriff himself had two cuts, one across his left arm, another on his thigh. Vornuna had a bloody scarf tied on to her right lower arm. Vernon’s sword flashed against the torches lit in the compound, as another soldier, the one who was fighting an intruder outside the compound, entered. William could see that the brigands did not really feel much like fighting.

Vernon saw William and smiled, before returning his gaze to the brigands huddled against a wall. The Sheriff barked out angrily, “You have some nerve – attacking the Sheriff’s residence! Put down your weapons – now!” His finger was pointed to the ground as he said that.

The six men looked at each other, then at their fallen leader, lying where the Sheriff had cut a huge gash across his chest, before promptly dropping their weapons. Barking an order to one of the men to see to the prisoners, he turned to William and screamed at him, “Where is Lena? I thought she would be with you!” His hand, still on his weapon, was clenched with rage.

Keeping one eye on his opponent, William nodded at the Sheriff. “She is in the care of your men, who escorted her from this place once I became aware of the battle. I… There was a sniper cutting down your men, from the top of the wall. Also another in the bushes… I had to take care of them personally. I didn’t want her in harm’s way.”

William’s heart shadowed with worry. “But I’d certainly feel better if I had her by my side, now that the danger seems to have passed. I assume you have these men well in hand… I’ll check on Lena.”

The Sheriff was hurling obscenities at about everyone when he heard that, many of them words of abuse at his “wild” daughter. He was stopped only by the entry of five men, one of them the Lieutenant that William recognised at the inn. He immediately barked an order to the other four men to help with the questioning of the prisoners.

He ran over to the Sheriff and gave a salute, before continuing, “Sir, as ordered, my men and I have searched the entire village, but we did not come across Missy anywhere in the village.” He paused for a while, a little worried as he said, “We came across the dead patrol on the southern wall, and heard the sounds of fighting. We were fearing the worst – I sure am glad you are safe, sir.” He looked visibly relieved as he said that.

Dammit! William raged at himself. I should never have let her out of my sight! Now I’d bet anything that she’s in Foldori’s hands, the bastard… I’ve got to get her back!

The Sheriff looked like he was about to explode. He screamed at his officer, “You can’t find a girl in a village like Langando! What are you doing, Lieutenant! Look here – she is my only daughter, and I want her safe and sound – right now!” He turned and froze as he saw two soldiers carrying the body of Sergeant Marho.

“What the – Marho!” He ran to the body and knelt down next to it, as the soldiers lowered it. He clenched his fists angrily as he looked up at the two soldiers. “Who did this?” He demanded. One of the soldiers (who was carrying the body when William first met him) hesitated a while, before answering, “I saw something that looked like a letter sticking out from his pocket, sir…”

What? William thought with irritation. Then why the hell didn’t he mention it earlier? Sigh…

The Sheriff’s hand immediately went to the brown envelope. Quickly, he tore off the top and took out another brown piece of paper. His eyes burnt with rage as he read through the contents. He turned towards Vernon and Vornuna, and spoke with a weary voice, “I think your help is going to be needed sooner than I thought…”

He shook his head and started towards the front door of his residence, shouting out, ” Lieutenant, get your leading men to get the guards back, to be assembled here. Come with me to the hall.” He turned towards Vernon and Vornuna, and briefly to William, and said in a tired voice, “Please come with me to the hall as well – Naruyama has broken the agreement.”

“As if this assault didn’t tip us off that the treaty is forgotten…” William grumbled under his breath. Still, he fell in behind the sheriff and followed him to the war room. His eyes narrowed and he lost himself in thought, as he calculated the approach necessary to rescue Lena, the spells he would need…

Will smiled at Vernon, when he caught the warrior’s eye. Vernon gave him a nod, an acknowledgement among equals, and he turned back to keep his eye on where the Sheriff was going, a determined look on his face.

William clenched his hands impatiently. He wanted to hear what the Sheriff had to say, then get things rolling…His train of thought was interrupted by a tap on his shoulder. It was Vornuna.

There just was that interesting look in her eyes William could not place. Within the eyes wisdom and intelligence themselves seemed to speak. Yet there was a beauty, almost a gentleness, within. And yet mixed in this whirlpool was an inner strength and pride of one born in the northern lands.

She regarded William for while, before she spoke. It was almost a whisper, out of earshot of everyone else. “My brother does not trust strangers easily, and yet before he knew your name he was talking in awe and respect about you. I do not know what it is that made him befriend you so easily, but if there be foul sorcery afoot, the hand of He-Who-Has-No-Name shall surely be upon you. I will see to that.” The last sentence was spoken with an extra icy edge to it.

William shook his head, and raised a hand. “No need for such measures, miss,” William said softly, “I freely admit that I manipulated energies and ensorcelled your brother, causing him to regard me as friend. I was only trying to protect myself–when I first arrived here, the two of you studied me most carefully, and I could not be certain if you wished me harm. I only wished to prevent hostilities–I had no idea we would be spending any time together, no idea that all these terrible things would happen…”

Will shrugged. “It should wear off in a few days. I apologise if my actions were offensive. Please do me the kindness of keeping this information between yourself and Vernon–I don’t think I’m yet ready for the Sheriff to know the full extent of my abilities.”

Well, I hope they take it calmly, William thought. I may have made a mistake, but I don’t believe in deceiving one’s friends…

Her eyes seemed to be trying to read his mind, trying to ascertain the truth of that which he said. Finally, Vornuna spoke up, “I can understand that you have no evil intentions. But I think you are going to have a hard time with him once your sorceries have worn off. Maybe it would be a good idea for you to speak to him before that happens.” She smiled as she said that. Yes, it would seem that she had accepted his words, and was warming up to him as well.

“You’re right, of course,” William said. “I’ve been meaning to talk to Vernon about it, but things have been happening so fast… I’ll certainly discuss it with him as soon as possible.”

Chapter 6: The Sheriff Had a Problem

f into thinking the other has broken the agreement. If Foldori’s two greatest threats destroy each other, he can move in to pick up the pieces.”

Will looked directly at the Sheriff, meeting his eye, “Therefore, I advise you to refrain from action until you have verified from Naruyama’s lips that the agreement is void–letters are easily forged, words are less so. Our second priority must be to arrange a meeting between you and your friend, so that you may get to the bottom of this and expose Foldori’s treachery.”

“Our first priority, of course, must be to rescue Lena,” William said grimly, “Who is no doubt right now in Foldori’s clutches. My fault, of course… I should have never left her side. Therefore, I’ll be handling this personally.”

“I’ll leave first thing in the morning,” William said, meeting all eyes, one by one. “I will infiltrate the bandits territory, find Lena, and bring her back. Also, I’ll try to get to Naruyuma, maybe find out what his part is in all this.”

William settled back, and took a deep breath. “Comments, anyone?”

Vornuna nodded and smiled at William, saying, “You are astute indeed, William.” She turned her head to face the Sheriff, and continued, “I too would think there is something wrong here. I find it difficult to believe someone can change so fast – unless perhaps someone is throwing verbal daggers in the dark.”

Everybody looked at the Sheriff. William realised the Sheriff had been looking intently at William while he was speaking about Lena. The Sheriff sighed and looked at William. Somehow there seemed to be a certain gratefulness in his eyes that William could see.

The Sheriff said in a subdued voice, “I really appreciate your concern over my daughter, Mr William. Her mother and I had an affair, and I took the responsibility of raising her when she abandoned her daughter. I have always told her that her mother died when she was born.”

William nodded. “She is an extraordinary girl,” He said. “And please, call me Will.”

He shook his head as he continued, “I have been really busy these years fighting in the north, to take care of her. I had hoped she would be happier living in a village instead of a warfront, but I guess she has never forgiven me for dealing with Naruyama. I really wanted to be a good father, I really do…” His voice was choking as he said that.

William hesitated. I should take him to task for his dealings with Naruyuma, but perhaps now is not the best time, he thought.

The Lieutenant looked at him with concern. He said, “Sir, we know that Missy has a habit of hiding in weird places. There were times when she just disappeared for days, and none of us would know where she was, remember? The men are still looking for her, sir – I am sure they will find her, or she will come back.”

William frowned. “ONE of your men must know where she is…” He said, “The one that escorted her away from me when the fighting began. Lieutenant, you were with me at that time… Who was the man that Lena left with? Has he been accounted for?”

The Lieutenant nodded, and replied, “I still have one soldier unaccounted for. Perhaps he still has Missy with him. But he has yet to report in. I will wait for perhaps another half an hour, before I send some men to look for him.”

The Sheriff gave a smile at the Lieutenant. He put his hand on his shoulder and said, with a tinge of hopelessness, “I am sure you are right, Lanson. I am sure.” He turned to face William again, “But if what Mr William said here is correct, and Foldori is in this, I fear he may just have captured my daughter. I know he does have the influence and power to do that.”

“Hope for the best, plan for the worst,” William said. “I will assume Foldori has her until proven otherwise.”

The Sheriff paused a while, his thoughts interrupted by William, before continuing, “I have tried to warn Naruyama about this before. Foldori has a lot of influence over the brigands in the forests. Naruyama’s insistence on honouring his part of the deal has made many of his men unhappy. I fear that Foldori may win over the other chiefs one of these days.”

He bit his lip as he pondered. He sighed again, before speaking to William, “Your idea of meeting Naruyama is good, but I really wonder how am I going to do that without alerting Foldori.” He paused briefly, before continuing, “You see, only Marho, Lanson, and I have ever been to the stronghold of Naruyama. And even then, we were met by his men in the outskirts of the forest, where we were blindfolded and led for an hour’s journey to his place. We are in the open – they are in the dark. We have a tremendous disadvantage here.”

“Not as much a disadvantage as you might think,” William said with a grim smile. “I have certain… abilities which may help us in this situation.” William glanced at Vornuna as he said this.

“If you can arrange matters so that I can talk to one of, ANY of Naruyama’s men,” William said, “I can… make him see things my way. He will then tell us what we need to know, and help us in any way he can.”

“I’m sorry I cannot be more forthright at this time,” William said, “However, Vornuna can verify my ability to do this. If you can get me some time alone with one of Naruyama’s or Foldori’s men, we’ll be halfway to victory.”

His face showed concern and sheer frustration. He continued, “I am not too sure of what you can do William. More troops would have been helpful but I dare not ask for help from the troops of Frelandia. My position is at stake here. If the King knows of my deal with Naruyama, I may be executed for consorting with a wanted man. I am at my wit’s end, William.

William looked the Sheriff in the eye, “Is your own fate, the fate you chose for yourself in dealing with Naruyama, more important than the life of your daughter, and the lives of those you have sworn to protect? Is that the kind of man that Langando calls Sheriff?”

William allowed his words to sink in.

“You must summon the troops,” He said, finally. “You must face your King, and stand accountable for your actions. It is the only honourable way… Perhaps Lena will be then be able to say she is proud of her father, rather than ashamed.”

The Sheriff stared coldly at William as he finished his words. Everybody else at the table looked a little dazed as William finished his words. The Sheriff’s spoke, trying to sound as civil as he could, “I will decide my own fate, and not you, Mr William. I will deal with my problems with Lena. You do not know even half the truth of everything that has transpired, and you have already made your judgement. I guess I was wrong to trust an outsider.”

William rose, and met the gaze of Sheriff Walkuski with eyes of steel. “Sometimes, it takes an outsider to see the truth. If my judgement is in error, then let your words prove me wrong. If they can…”

The Sheriff raised his hand to silent Vernon, who was attempting to say something. Vernon turned to Vornuna with a frustrated look on his face. Vornuna met his gaze and shook her head. She turned her attention to hear what the Sheriff had to say.

The Sheriff continued, his voice lowered dangerously, “I assume you are not with me in this, Mr William. If you do not mind, I would need to discuss important things with my people here. Lieutenant, please see our guest out.” He showed his hand to the door.

“Good day, then,” William said, “I will continue to work alone on this matter. Perhaps one day we can speak as friends, if your honour ever becomes stronger than your pride.”

William looked at the Lieutenant. “If you please, sir, I, like Lena, have had enough of this place. Lead on…”

Vernon stood up suddenly. He seemed a little confused, as if trying to make a very difficult decision. He looked first at William, then at the Sheriff, “Sir, you are making things very difficult for me. William is my good friend, and we fought alongside each other against Foldori and his men. Foldori recognises him – he will definitely be a target. I am honour bound to be with him, to protect him – yet I am honour bound to answer to your call, too, sir. Please do not make me choose.”

The Sheriff’s face was red with rage. He screamed out, “If you are also on his side, then we have nothing to say. But hear it from me – the people will hear that the men of the northern reaches are not men of their words! You, and your sister – get out!”

William seemed to notice Vernon briefly suppressing an angry retort. Vornuna shook her head and rose from the table. The Lieutenant, looking a little disturbed, took a last glance at the fuming Sheriff, before moving to the door.

William frowned, and raised a hand. “No!” He said sharply, “This isn’t supposed to happen…”

Will stepped close to Vernon, put a hand on his shoulder and shook his head. “I’m sorry, Vernon… Please forgive me, but right now your thoughts are not your own. When I first arrived in Langando, I immediately noted you and your sister keeping a close eye on me. I thought you might be brigands who sought to do me harm, and in order to protect myself, I ensorcelled you with bonds of friendship. Those bonds will lift within a few days, but until then, your thoughts are not entirely your own.”

Vernon’s eyes flared up, and he raised his voice, “You what!?”

Will shook his head again. “Any obligations you feel towards me are false,” He said. “Your place is here, with the sheriff. Stay, and do what you can to rescue Lena and this poor village–my fate is of far

less importance, and in any case, I can care for myself.”

Vornuna rested her hand on Vernon’s shoulder, and nodded her head as Vernon turned to face her. He sat down on the chair in a stupor, seemingly trying to make sense of what was happening about him. There seemed to be a sort of ‘enlightenment’ gradually coming to his face…and possibly anger as well.

William looked at the sheriff. “Hold not Vernon’s words against him,” He said, “For he speaks under my influence. Any rifts between you are my fault, and mine alone.”

“I will take my leave now,” William said, “And all of you can pretend you never met the man called William X. Good-bye, and well met.”

Will nodded at the lieutenant. “Get me the hell out of here,” He said, wearily.

The Lieutenant nodded, gave a salute to the Sheriff (which he did not return), before moving off with William. William moved past the main hall, out the main entrance of the house. Along the way to the main gate of the perimeter walls, the Lieutenant quietly told William, “Mr X, I have worked under the Sheriff ever since he took over the running of the village. I can assure you, he may be hot tempered, and stubborn, but he is a good man.”

William shrugged. “He may treat his men well, but the man just said he was unwilling to call in the troops required to crush Foldori and Naruyama and save his daughter, because he was afraid for his position and his life. Forgive me if I find that less than honourable.”

He sighed and continued, “He has taken good care of his men, and his deal with Naruyama has brought prosperity to the village. Perhaps if you have seven men, and you come up against fifty well trained and well armed men, you would understand why he feels this is the best he could do. Our village militia has grown stronger during the deal, and we just may be able to pull off a fight, but the casualties would be horrendous.”

William looked the lieutenant in the eye. “So you’re willing to sacrifice the poor souls that the brigands raid on a regular basis, the caravans they’ve brutally destroyed, simply to bring prosperity to the village. That smacks of cowardice, not honour.”

He looked at William, a seriousness in his eyes, “He has treated us well, and my men are loyal to him as well. We would not want him to be executed, and yes – we are willing to lay down our lives for him if necessary.”

“Then I hope that when you are asked to do so,” William said, “The cause is an honourable one, rather than a selfish one.”

The Lieutenant looked sharply at William, and continued, “I am beginning to see why the Sheriff is so irritated, Mr X. Perhaps you have grown up in riches, and you do not know what it is like to have nothing. You do not know what it is like to have to live in fear of your lives each day.

Will returned the sharp stare. “I’ve had to starve plenty, Lieutenant, and I’ve faced more than my share of danger. But I never allowed innocents to suffer in my place, as Langando allows caravans to suffer in theirs. Whatever honour this village possesses is the product of rationalisation and imagination.”

The Lieutenant continued, shaking his head, “Mr X – your talk of honour irks me as well. We have to survive, and survive we will. Here we are, at the gate. I wish you good luck in whatever your endeavours may be, Mr X. The Blue Barrel should still be open to you, if you will knock, Mr X.”

Will shook his head with resignation. Oh, shut the hell up, X, he thought with disgust. Running your mouth like that is just getting you into more trouble… Gotta try to keep focused instead of just getting angry and arguing with the wrong people.

There was a commotion at the main gate, as two men brought in another body. The Lieutenant frowned and walked a little faster. The two men lay down the body for the Lieutenant to inspect. William recognised him – this was the town guard who had taken Lena away before William joined the battle.

William walked up to the men. He looked at the body, and his heart sank.

“What has happened here?” He asked.

The soldier was about to open his mouth to speak when the Lieutenant stopped him. He waved his hand towards the door, “Would you need me to see you all the way to the Blue Barrel, stranger?” His voice sounded extremely businesslike.

William waved his hand in disgust and walked out the gate. I already know what happened, he thought, and that dishonourable bastard who calls himself Sheriff will be next to useless in rescuing Lena. As usual, when the chips are down I can only depend on myself.

The night was extremely quiet, with nobody in the streets. Even the windows were tightly shut, with only the light coming out of the door-slits and window edges telling William of activity still going on, perhaps hushed talking about the evils that were about to befall the village.

Although the village looked somewhat different by night, William had familiarised himself (after chasing Lena!) enough to find his way around. After 15 minutes of brisk walking, he had arrived at the Blue Barrel. It took quite a bit of shouting and persuasion, for the innkeeper just to open a window a little to peep out. He quickly opened the door upon seeing William.

He looked tired and a little frightened. Ushering William into the room with quiet urgings, he quickly bolted the door again. When William asked for a room, he hesitated a while, before passing him a key to one of the room upstairs. Urging William up, he hurriedly went into his room, and locked himself up. William could hear Brono’s silent consoling of Carmine. He could also hear her crying, possibly from her ordeals earlier in the day.

Chapter 7: The Next Day in Langando

The night passed by without any incidents, though William was aware of the sounds of the patrols being made throughout the village. They seemed to be very intense, as if preparing for war. The rays of the morning sun broke through the window, rousing William from his sleep.

William rose, and stretched. He got dressed, and did some callisthenics to get his blood pumping and mind alert. He then sat, cross-legged, and opened his spellbook on the floor. Calling upon the lessons his mother had taught him, he focused his attention on the tendrils of mana flowing about him. The patterns of the power over the minds of men came to him, and embedded themselves in his mind.

After finishing, William focused inward. He reviewed his options, and reaffirmed that his decision from the night before was the best of them. Finally, he stood and headed downstairs.

As William stepped down the stairs, he saw two very familiar figures sitting at a table. Brono and Carmine seemed to be packing up their belongings. Vernon rose from his bench as he saw William come down. Vornuna arose after her brother.

William’s eyes widened. “What are you two doing here?” he asked.

“My friend – no way am I going to let you be alone in these times of danger! I understand what you were trying to do, but I have decided that my loyalty to you is the lesser of the evils I have to face. Men may call me one who did not abide by his word, but I know the truth in mine heart. I am standing by a friend of mine, and they will speak of this, if not more!” Vernon’s words flared with a fiery passion, almost like an oratorical.

Vornuna smiled and shook her head, “I guess if he could not be convinced by you of your sorceries, I could not do anything too. But after hearing from the Sheriff yesterday, I would think you just might have the better ideas. So, we are with you, William.”

William could not help smiling. “Really? That’s great! But Vernon…” William frowned.

Brono looked up briefly at William as he walked down. He paused for a while with his packing, and called out to William, “Mr X! Thank you for dealing with those thugs, and rescuing my daughter. I am only a humble innkeeper, and I do not have much with me – please accept a meal from me before I leave. And no, you will not need to pay for your lodgings of the night before.”

He tried to smile, wrinkling the bandage covering the top of his head a little. Carmine just quietly packed her clothes, without looking at anyone. Her eyes were puffed up – she had been doing a lot of crying indeed.

William nodded. “Thank you, Brono… I appreciate everything you’ve done…” Will glanced at Carmine. “Where are you going?”

Brono gazed about the surroundings, the furniture about the inn, with a sad expression in his eyes. He looked back at William, and said, “News travel fast in the village, Mr X. The movement of soldiers in the village means the deal is probably off. There is no way the village can hold out against the brigands in the forests.”

William shook his head. They could if every member raised sword and pitchfork and club to fight them off, he thought. But that would require strong leadership, and a belief in themselves. Something that’s lacking here in Langando.

Brono looked at Carmine, and stroking her hair in a fatherly way, continued, “Carmine had suffered enough here, and I feel bad that I cannot protect her like a father should, Mr X. The least I can do for her right now is to bring her to a safer place. I have had some customers who offered me a job as a manager in their inns in the cities. Perhaps there we can start anew.” William could still feel the longing in his heart for the tavern that Brono probably invested much of his life in.

“Don’t worry so much, my friend,” William said with a smile, “Things will get better here, and you will return one day. Probably sooner than you think.”

Brono looked back at William again, and spoke, “Once again I thank you for coming to our aid, Mr X. We are forever in your debt.” He paused a while, as if thinking of something, before continuing, sounding a little worried, “Mr X. I would suggest you leave the village as soon as possible too. I cannot tell when the brigands will attack. We will be leaving in another half an hour, once our packing is done. Would you like to come with us?”

William’s eyes narrowed, and he shook his head. “No,” He said, “My business here is not yet finished.” Will reached out and shook Brono’s hand. “But again, you have my thanks. Good luck, and make sure to check back here in the near future. Things will be different, I promise.”

William turned from Brono and walked up to Vernon and Vornuna. “I still can’t believe you two are with me on this,” He said, looking at Vornuna earnestly and shaking his head slightly. “My magicks are still in play… or I should say, WERE in play.”

With the speed of a cobra, William lashed out and slapped Vernon across the face with a resounding SMACK!

“What the…” Vernon reeled in shock from the slap. He had instinctively raised his hand to try to block it, but William was too fast. Vornuna looked shocked too, and she spoke, “William, what was that for?”

But William did not have the chance to answer her, for Vernon bellowed, “Nobody insults a warrior of the northern lands! I say, nobody!” There was anger in his eyes, and he took a step towards William. He shouted, “Yes, I can remember now…a manner of power that touched my mind. Yes, so it is true – you did ensorcel me!” He growled dangerously, his hand on his weapon.

“Yes, it’s true,” William said calmly. “I’m sorry, but attacking you was the only way I knew to break the ensorcelment.

“I did so because I will not bring either of you into danger against your own free will,” William said. “Vernon, I consider you my friend, and I beg your forgiveness for ensorcelling you as I did. Please believe that I only did it to protect myself, and not to gain an advantage over you. You are free now, and I promise you I will never do such again.”

William stepped back, hands at his sides. “So,” He said, “Now that we know what we know… Are you with me, or aren’t you?”

It was obvious that Vernon was not listening. He roared out, “Nobody, and I say nobody, insults a warrior of the northern lands!” He charged at William, fists poised to punch the daylights out of him.

Vornuna screamed out, “Stop it, Vernon!” She tried to grab hold of him, to stop him from hitting William. Brono and Carmine were by now huddled in one corner, Carmine sobbing again.

William shook his head. “No! Vernon is right!” Will barked, “I attacked his mind when he was unaware. He has every right to be angry, and to seek retribution.”

William beckoned with his hands. “Come, my friend,” He said to Vernon, “I admit that I have wronged you. Exact…” William stood there expectantly.

William did not finish his words, for the big behemoth of a man had smashed his fist into his face. The force of the blow was so strong that it penetrated through the spell of protection he had erected about himself. Sparks flew and a loud clap of thunder resounded about the inn once again as it did the day before. For a moment it seemed his world turned a little dark, as William reeled from the force of the blow.

Vernon slipped free of Vornuna’s hold easily enough, and he pushed her away. “Come over and fight me like a man!” He roared, pointing his finger at William, “Or do you want me never to avenge my insult? Do you insult me further by refusing to fight me!”

Vornuna screamed out, “By the light of the Eternal One, Vernon – keep a grip on yourself! How would you help the Sheriff by killing William?” Vernon stared at Vornuna, his hands still clenched into fists, and he stared again at William. There was still anger in his eyes.

“Stay back, Vornuna… Honour must be fought for and satisfied, else it means nothing,” William growled, rubbing his jaw. He waited a split second, then launched himself at Vernon.

“You want some?” He cried, “You got some!”

Vornuna rolled her eyes, shaking her head and saying to herself, “Men!” She retreated and sat down on a bench.

William’s punch went wild, missing the burly warrior without him needing to evade. William ducked a punch thrown in return. Both of them threw a punch at each other, which connected – fist to fist! William grimaced in pain as the warrior grinned. Seeing his chance, William moved suddenly, catching him unaware – landing a punch on the kidney. The warrior looked unfazed, and landed a quick right on William’s chest. Again, sparks flew with a loud clap as William’s magical protection stood its ground.

Vernon’s eyes narrowed as he circled about William. He shouted, “So you use your sorcery in this fight! Just as well – you, a sorcerer, have your protection of magic. I, a warrior of the north, have my protection of steel! This morning, steel shall triumph over magic!”

“Oh, so you need steel to kick my scrawny ass?” William snarled, again launching himself at Vernon. “And I thought warriors from the north were tough…”

Vernon shouted out with a grin, “Nay – just being fair, William. You drop your sorcery, and I will drop my steel!” His words were stopped short by a jab from William to his jaw. He shook his head, a little dazed from William’s punch – his punch went wild, missing William by at least a mile. William was a little faster, and returned a jab at Vernon, who blocked his punch, and smashed his fist into William with a mighty haymaker.

A flash of light and plenty of darkness was the last William remembered. He awoke to see a disgusted face looking at him, and dabbing him on the face with a piece of cloth filled with something hot and smelly. It was Vornuna. She shook her head in disgust as the pain from the bruise affected William, making him wince a little. She looked reproachingly at William and said, “You boys are always itching for a fight – and in the end I have to be the one who tends to you!”

“What can I say?” William said with a grin, “We’re incorrigible.”

Vernon was sitting on a bench, grinning to himself, holding on to the same piece of cloth with the smelly stuff. His eyes sparkled of one who had won a fight and he walked over, extending his hand to William, saying, “You sure are a good fighter, William! One of these days, we will fight – I without my steel, you without your sorcery!”

William suddenly realised that the magical protection about him was gone. It must have been breached by the warrior during the fight.

William shook Vernon’s hand. “I hope you’re happy, you big lug,” Will said, “You knocked down my Armour spell! Now I have to wait until tomorrow to put on a new one…”

The blank look on Vernon’s face told William that he probably did not know what he was trying to say.

“Lena can’t wait until tomorrow, though,” Will said with a frown, “Did the Sheriff have a plan to rescue her? Or contact Naruyama?”

“A lot happened last night while you were gone, William.” Vornuna said, handling the piece of cloth to William, and motioning for him to apply it to his bruises. William’s body was beginning to ache all over, and the areas where Vernon had punched him hurt very much – almost like broken bones.

Dammit! William thought angrily. You weren’t supposed to hurt me this bad, you idiot! Will hated it when things didn’t go according to plan. A while later, a numbing feeling came about through his bruises, and he felt much better. Vornuna definitely was good in the healing arts.

“Yes, I hear that the Sheriff had managed to force a confession from the captured prisoners as to the route to the hideout. He was still angry with us though, and refused to speak to us concerning this.” Vernon shrugged his shoulders, wincing a little as the piece of cloth seemed to soak into a part that hurt.

“You’ve got to be kidding me!” William exclaimed, “He interrogated one of Foldori’s flunkies? So he heard what Foldori wanted him to hear…”

“I think the Sheriff is preparing to attack the hideout,” Vornuna said with a worried look on her face, “The soldiers seemed to be getting ready to move out when we left his place this morning. The Lieutenant was the one who told us to leave – apparently the Sheriff doesn’t want us about.”

William frowned. “Hmm…Not a good thing,” He muttered, “Still, I suppose Lena will be safe enough with Foldori, who will keep her safe for use as a hostage should the Sheriff’s forces prove victorious. If Naruyama’s forces win…Well, we’ll get her back before that happens, but we’ve got to move fast.”

“All right, here’s what I was thinking,” William said, “We need to isolate some of Foldori’s men, no more than 3. There’s got to be SOME of his men running around… I’ll use my magicks to charm one of them, and we’ll have to dispatch any others. Once we have an ‘inside man’, we get him to take us to the bandit’s home ground. On the way, he details for us all defences, guard schemes, personnel deployment, and planned strategies.”

“When we arrive, we penetrate and find Lena,” William said, “This can be done in a number of ways, but I won’t know which is the best way until I know what we’re up against.

“What do you think?”

“It is a good idea, William, but where are we going to start? We cannot go about asking everybody in the village whether they are Foldori’s men, and the prisoners are with the soldiers, from what I understand.” Vornuna said.

“Yes, well…” William’s eyes flicked to Carmine.

“But I fear one thing, William – if truly you suspect that Foldori has asked his captured men to give the information to the Sheriff, then they might be going into an ambush!” Vornuna said worriedly. Vernon stood up immediately and flung down his medicinal smelling cloth on the ground.

“Then what are we waiting for? The Sheriff needs us, and we should be gloriously fighting Foldori’s men! Yes, they shall taste the bite of cold steel!” He shouted gleefully, drawing his weapon and waving it about in the air. William could see Carmine clutch her father’s arm in fear as Vernon drew his weapon.

“Whoa, there, big fella!” William said, holding up a hand, “A little consideration for the ladies, please!”

“Now I appreciate your enthusiasm, but failing to plan is planning to fail,” William said, “Let’s make sure we know what we’re doing before bashing heads.”

William turned his gaze back to Vornuna, “Anyway, I’d recognise any of Foldori’s men that I saw earlier, if I saw him again. We’ll have to keep our eyes open, and maybe others will reveal themselves.”

Will stepped close to Vornuna, and spoke softly, “It occurs to me that Carmine and Brono have dealt with Foldori’s men many times. Perhaps they can point us in the right direction. Would you mind asking? You have a gentler touch than I…”

Vornuna nodded, and smiled at Carmine, who tried to smile back at her. Now that Vernon had sheepishly sheathed his weapon, the girl seemed more relaxed.

William stepped back, “As far as ambush, that’s always a danger. The sheriff is a military man–I presume he can anticipate such situations better than we can. In any case, I don’t see Foldori interested in an ambush–he needs both sides to wipe each other out, not one side destroying the other.”

“Right now,” William said, “I’m mostly concerned with finding Lena, and getting her out of the danger zone. I’ll address this little power struggle at a later time.”

“Hmm…but what if Foldori set the whole thing up such that Naruyama thought he was setting up an ambush, but the Sheriff was actually warned beforehand?” Vernon seemed to have a bright spark up there, and he spoke excitedly.

“That might do it,” William admitted, “But to be honest, I’m not particularly concerned about stopping any battle between these guys. They’re all brigands to me, even though the Sheriff’s men wear badges. The best thing for this village would be for the King’s soldiers to sweep through here like a cleansing flame, ridding poor Langando of both the criminal element AND the corrupt government.”

“Stupid men will always kill each other,” William said, eyes fierce, “I only get involved when innocents are threatened. In this situation, I only care about getting Lena to safety, and freeing this village from this hellish existence. What happens to Naruyama, Foldori, or the Sheriff doesn’t mean a damned thing to me.”

Vornuna smiled. It was a gentle, almost motherly smile, though quite unlike those of his mother. He remembered his mother only smiled when he did something impressive in the magical arts (and she would boast about it for weeks).

William felt a little uncomfortable with these impressions. It felt strange for someone to display such affection towards him–it was not like the smitten stares he was used to.

Vornuna said, “William, I understand you care a lot about this Lena, and the village. I do not know Lena well, but like all children, I am sure she does care a lot about what happens to her father. I for one would like to see him safe, together with the village.”

“I understand,” William said, nodding, “And I agree, to an extent. I will certainly save as many lives as I can, even that of the Sheriff. But one must set priorities.”

“Mr Vernon, Miss Vornuna, Mr X,” It was the voice of Brono, speaking hesitantly, “I really have to be away, but perhaps I can help in whatever little way I can.”

“Anything would be greatly appreciated, Brono,” William said earnestly.

He paused for a while in thought, and continued, “I know of one strange man living in the forests. He never seemed to have any problems with the brigands, and I have seen him once in the inn. Nobody knows his name, and everybody calls him ‘Old Ben’. A jolly little fellow too, though he does not talk much about himself. Perhaps he knows of a way to stay out of sight of the brigand’s patrols in the forests. The problem is, nobody knows where in the forest he is, but he may just be an invaluable ally.”

Interesting, Will thought. Druid? Ranger? In either case, perhaps the animals will tell him we’re looking for him, once we get to the forest.

He looked sheepishly at the party, and said, “I know this is not of much help. Maybe this may – one of our villagers did not return from a foray to an area of the forest about two miles from the entrance of the village. He was looking for some rare mushrooms he had seen growing. If he had been attacked by the brigands, perhaps that might be a clue as to the brigands’ hideout.”

“That’s a great lead, Brono!” William exclaimed, “Can you give us rough directions to this place, or maybe draw a crude map?” Brono nodded and began scribbling something on a piece of parchment. He handed it over to William.

Brono sighed and looked at Carmine again, before returning his gaze back to the adventurers, “Carmine really had a bad time with the brigands. I really hope the new place can make her forget all that had happened during the past weeks. Perhaps there too, I may find a husband for her, to give her something to look forward to.” He smiled at the red-faced Carmine.

“I’m sure life will be better for you soon,” William said with a warm smile, “And, the gods willing, you’ll soon be able to return home, if you wish.”

Brono nodded, suddenly carrying a determined look on his face, “Well – we have to be off, Mr X. I know I probably cannot talk you out of any thoughts you have about taking on the brigands, but I really hope you know what you are doing. It is going to be crazy to do something like that. I thank you once again, brave adventurers. May Mystari shine upon you. Now if you permit me, I would like to lock up the inn before I leave.” Brono smiled at the party before him.

“Sure thing, Brono,” William said, “Thanks again.”

Will stepped outside of the Inn, followed by Vernon and Vornuna. He looked at them, “Well, why don’t we see what we can find near that mysterious mushroom grove? And once we enter the forest, perhaps we can find ‘Old Ben’.”

“And we are going to just leave the Sheriff’s men as it is? And the village? What if Foldori’s men sweep down while the troops are away? I am not too sure, William – I would think you have the better ideas, but why should we be gallivanting at the mushroom grove when other events await us?” Vornuna said, eyeing William.

William raised a hand. “First of all, enough of this ‘I think you have the better ideas’ stuff,” He said, “I make my share of mistakes, and you’re right to question me if you think my ideas are shaky. I’m always happy to explain my reasoning, and alter my judgement if presented with a stronger argument.”

“Regarding this situation, I feel it’s better to take the offensive than to continue reacting to Foldori’s machinations,” William continued, “We are but three people, and will affect little change in a battlefield situation. Nor can we stand against the might of Foldori’s forces if they sweep down on the village–hell, last time we barely held our own against Foldori and his two flunkies.”

“We can be most effective by exploiting our single advantage–our wild card status,” Will said, his demeanour becoming ever more logical and precise, “Foldori cannot have figured us into his plans, nor can he have counted on my magic. We must use that to find the key to victory.”

“That is why I feel we should chase down Brono’s lead, even though it’s uncertain it will pan out,” William said, “Staying here or arguing with the Sheriff gains us nothing, but checking out Brono’s story could gain us everything. It’s worth taking a chance.”

“I also am confident that we can garner the attention of this ‘Old Ben’, and he may be able to help us,” William said, “So that’s another incentive to range into the forest. But the important thing is for us to make contact with one of Foldori’s men, so we can Charm one to our side. We’ll need some inside intelligence if we’re to have any chance of pulling off an effective rescue.”

Vernon walked next to William, and patted him on the shoulder, before saying to Vornuna, “Aye, sister, I’ll rather go hunting for them than wait for an ambush any day! You think too much sometimes! I say we go to the mushrooms and go hunting for brigand scalps!” He laughed and flexed his muscles.

William laughed. “Yeah,” He said, “What he said.”

Vornuna looked first at Vernon, then at William, then sighed and said, “I guess you men stick together. But we must be careful – the woods can be treacherous even without the brigands.”

Chapter 8: Towards the Woods

William studied the map for a few seconds, then looked at Vernon and Vornuna. “All right,” He said, “I say we walk about 20′ off the road–no sense in presenting ourselves for ambush. I’ll take the point, walking about 30′ ahead of the two of you. Keep an eye out for movement–either soldiers or animals. No talking, so we can keep our ears involved also.”

“Along the way, we’ll work on silent commands so we can communicate in stealth mode,” William continued. “If I make contact, you two cover me while I try to talk to whoever it is. If there’s danger, you two will have to pull me out of the fire.”

“Any questions or comments?” Will asked, “Fill me in on the way. Let’s move…”

The walk to the mushroom grove took nearly two hours – the party had to constantly watch over their shoulders, careful of lurking dangers. Walking off the beaten track was particularly difficult, and William had to find himself slowing down to match Vernon’s gait. His chain-mail armour was also making noises enough to scare off woodland animals. If they were going to have any measure of surprise, either William would have to place himself further away, or Vernon would have to take off his armour…something William was not too sure he would want to do.

William was aware of the small little animals along the way – the squirrel, harmless grass snakes, and rabbits that inhabit the woodlands. He whispered to them many a times, to tell Ben they were looking for him. The animals that seemed to hear him must have thought him stupid though, since they just gazed a while before disappearing into the undergrowth.

William shrugged. I feel like an idiot, he thought, talking to birds like this, but no harm in trying.

The day was quite clear, and William could see off to the distance of about 400 yards, a patch of purplish-green growth off the side of the trail. That could be the mushroom grove. He could hear Vernon grunt as the links of his armour caught another outlying branch, pulling him back a little.

William gave the signal to “hold”, and scanned the area with his full array of senses, searching for danger or ambush. Satisfied, he then returned to Vernon and Vornuna.

“I think we’re finally here,” He said with a grin, “Vernon, why don’t you and I explore the grove? Vornuna, would you mind keeping an eye on us from some hidden vantage point nearby? The grove is a potential ambush site, as well, so we should designate some backup…”

Will looked at Vernon, “C’mon, let’s check it out…”

Vornuna smiled and her eyes lit up a little when she saw the mushroom grove as well. She said to Will and Vernon, “Why don’t you two keep an eye on me while I explore the grove? These mushrooms look interesting to me. I think they have some cosmetic properties.”

“No way, sister! Hey, this place is dangerous, and we men should be the ones taking care of the dangers here!” Vernon said, shaking his head.

Vornuna sighed. It seemed like that had been going on between the siblings for some time. She replied, “My dear brother, do you know mushrooms as well as I? Perhaps not, but you could probably protect me better than I could protect you!” It was a nice disarming choice of words that left Vernon speechless. He looked towards William for support.

“Both of you go,” William said, “I’ll cover you with my bow. Vornuna, let me know if you see anything out of the ordinary. Be careful about stepping into any mushroom rings – legend says such circles have power in nature.” Vornuna nodded and gave a warm smile to William. This time it was devoid of maternal feelings. More like something else…

Will unslinged his bow, and nocked an arrow. “Are you ready?”

Vernon nodded, and drew his weapon. Both of them cautiously moved towards the clearing. William could see that Vornuna was very happy to see the mushrooms. Gingerly she stepped towards the clearing, taking care to stay just outside of the patch of mushrooms. She picked one up and looked at it. Smiling happily, she continued to pluck a few more to place inside her pouch.

William could see that Vernon was getting a little bored just hanging about the clearing. But he was still keeping his eyes opened and alert. William was aware of the sounds of the birds chirping and the trees and grass rustling gently in the breeze. The breeze blew across Vornuna’s hair, showing off her beautiful neck and ear. The sounds of the woods were sweet and wonderful, and faint laughter could be heard inside the woods. A faint male sadistic laughter.

William frowned, and hunkered down in his little hiding place from where he’s covering Vernon and Vornuna. I’m sure they hear it too, William thought. Better stay here out of sight. Hopefully this guy is someone my Charm spell or my bow can handle.

Vernon and Vornuna did not seem to have heard the sound. William did not hear it again, but judging from the sound of it, it was coming from his left, deep inside the woods. William pulled his sword, and flashes the sun into Vernon’s eyes. When he had commanded the big northerner’s attentions, Will made the hand signals for “Danger! 9 o’clock. Hold.”

Good thing we went over those silent commands on the way over, William thought. Moving silently, and using his hunter’s instincts, William stalked slowly towards the sound. He carried his bow in one hand, and an arrow in the other.

With an unearthly silence, that of a jungle cat, William made his way to the source of the sound. The foliage was many, but he was able to clear them without making too much noise. About 30 yards away, William stopped within the bushes as he came within sight of another clearing.

He saw two men. Both of them were dressed in simple clothes, and carried short swords. Relatively short and stocky, they looked like rough men. And they were laughing away, kicking at some kind of small animal. But William’s sharp senses noticed something.

It was no animal! It was a small little humanoid creature! Probably the size of a big rabbit, it was being kicked about mercilessly by the two men, probably playing some kind of sport with the little thing. Already, it was whimpering as the men kicked it. One of its wings was already broken, the other hung limp.

Damn! Will thought, can’t waste my spell, I’ll need it when we find one of Foldori’s men. These two might be with Foldori, but I can’t be sure. However, if we confront them, they may sound an alarm, and who the hell knows how many of them are hiding in the woods.

William tried to think, but the pathetic whimpering kept calling to his attention. Dammit, enough’s enough, he thought. William rose, an arrow nocked in his bow. He looked down the shaft at the two men.

“Good afternoon, gentlemen,” William said, “I wasn’t expecting to run into company, but I see I was mistaken. Please put your hands where I can see them, and introduce yourselves.”

The two men were taken aback by William’s words and stopped kicking the little creature. For a moment they stood looking first at William, then at each other. They seemed unsure of what to do, as they considered the situation they were in.

William clucked impatiently as he stared down his bow, “C’mon fellas…” Will said, “I said to introduce yourselves. Don’t do anything foolish–arrows tend to hurt quite a bit, and I won’t miss from this range. My friends and I need some answers, and you fellas are gonna have to supply them…”

“Who are you?” William asked, “Why are you abusing that creature? What the hell are you doing way out here in the middle of nowhere?”

One of the men on William’s left shouted, “Go!” They immediately split off into two directions, heading for the undergrowth, where they could get some cover.

Will sighed as he observed the men closely — it was obvious they were going to bolt. William plunked the larger man with an arrow. The arrow flew straight and true, striking the man in the upper shoulder, making him cry out in pain. But he still ran on. William drew another arrow and let it fly, this time striking on the upper arm. And still he ran on. The third arrow flew on – this time it sank into the back of the man, and he fell onto the floor, a pool of blood rapidly forming.

“Vornuna, Vernon, get over here!” William cried as he ran after the smaller man, “We’ve got a wounded innocent, and two bad guys!” A loud grunt from Vernon a distance away assured William that Vernon had heard him.

The woods were thick, making it difficult to shoot, or even to keep the man in sight, for that matter. He was fast, but William was dogged in his pursuit.

A blind man could follow this trail, William thought, not concerning himself with the man’s distance. With his tracking skills, it did not matter if he could see him or not, nor did he concern himself with getting lost, as his own trail would be simple to backtrack.

After about two minutes of pursuit, William lost sight of the man. William suddenly realised he was in the midst of thick forestation, with tall trees and lush leaves hiding any potential enemy. Will halted, blended into a shadow, and listened. He stood stock still for two minutes.

From a distance, the sound of metallic links clinking against each other was heard. The sound was quite faint – Vernon should be quite a distance away.

William looked about his surroundings – there were many low overhanging branches, some of them strong enough to take his weight. None of them at this moment looked like they were hiding anyone but William could not tell. The sound of Vernon’s armour came nearer – any advantage of surprise he would have would be lost. But his prey, if he was still around the area, was not coming out.

William could have easily guessed why his prey was not coming out – Vernon saw him without too much difficulty, and waved to him, making a signal of “What happened?” with his hands. Anybody who saw Vernon would have realised William was in the area – who else could he have been signalling to? Hopefully, his prey would not notice Vernon, with his armour shining off the late morning sun filtering through the trees.

Enough, William thought. We’ve lost all chance of surprise. Time to head back. Will quickly moved away from his position, and motioned for Vernon to follow. Once the northern warrior was near enough, William said, “I lost him, I guess… I’m sure the bandit camp is near here, though. Let’s get back to Vornuna, and talk to that little bird guy. We’d be better off coming here later, when we have the element of surprise, and better info.”

Vernon gritted his teeth in anger, “Wait till I get my hands on him! This is getting ridiculous – all this wandering about for an enemy we cannot see. If only he had not run – Vernon would have crushed his skull!” The last bit was said with not a little bit of glee.

Will retraced his path, taking them back to the mushroom grove. Better take cover, just in case the bandits come after us in force, William thought. Once we reunite with Vornuna, moving into the forest a few tens of yards should be sufficient.

The heavy undergrowth parted easily enough for the Vernon and William to reach the mushroom grove without too much difficulty. William noticed Vornuna tending to the little creature, trying to apply the same foul-smelling herbal mixture to the little creature.

William also noticed the bandit, still unconscious and breathing weakly, with strips of cloth from his own shirt tying him in the areas William’s arrows had penetrated. Blood had soaked through the cloth, but his bleeding would be contained – he would not die.

“Criminy,” William said softly, “That’s one tough bandit. Not only did it take three arrows to bring him down, he’s STILL alive and kicking! Good thing for us, though. Maybe he’ll have something useful to say.”

Vornuna looked up at William and her brother as they came nearer. She gazed upon the creature with a kind of a concerned motherly look, and said to William, “His injuries are extensive, but he should feel better after a while.” She looked at William, and asked, “Do you know what he is? I have never seen such a creature of the woodlands before.”

From close, William could see that this was possibly another of the sylvan creatures – it had pointed ears, like what he heard about elves. The fact that it was so small and had wings, could very well mean it was one of the fairy folk.

William had heard his mother told him of these beautiful peace-loving creatures back when he was young. Reclusive in nature, they were said to frolic about in the deep forests, where no man could see or touch them. This one must had been careless to wander about so near to the outskirts of the forest. Or perhaps just youthful – its features seemed to suggest that, but William was not sure. He had heard that they always looked like children.

William shook his head, “Honestly, Vornuna, I’ve never encountered such a being before. But I’ve heard stories… I think he is one of the faerie folk. How is he doing? Will he regain consciousness soon, do you think?”

“Listen, we better find a hiding place, just in case that bandit returns with some friends,” Will said, “Let’s see if we can move our two wounded into the woods a little, so we’re not out in the open.”

Nodding, Vornuna cradled carefully the little creature in her hands, as one would a rabbit or a hamster. It winced a little in pain, still in a semi-conscious state. Vernon went over the injured man and took him up roughly over his shoulder, in a fireman lift. The man must have been in a really bad state, because there were no visible reaction from him over the rough and possibly painful handling.

Heading into the woods, the three tried to move a short distance away from the clearing. Vernon ducked his head to avoid a low tree trunk, muttering something as the blood from the man began to soak into his clothes. Kneeling down, Vernon dumped him unceremoniously into the ground.

“Be careful, you might just kill him!” Vornuna hissed, hurriedly moving over to bind up the bandages that had loosened from the rough handling, letting out blood again. Her skilful hands quickly stayed the fingers of death that crawled over him.

“I say we just forget about this guy, and go smash up this Foldori! Look – even if we want to question him, he probably is in no state to answer any questions. We are wasting our time.” Vernon replied as softly as he could. The links of his armour clinked again as he shifted his position a little for more comfort.

“I’d like to smash Foldori’s smug face myself,” William admitted, “But if we just go in without a plan, we’ll get captured lickety-split. We need to be careful, here, or we’ll never save Lena…”

William saw that Vornuna had the strange creature well cared for, so he turned his attention to the prisoner.

“He’s barely hanging on,” Will said. He tried to gently prod the man awake, without much success, “Hopefully, he’s got enough will left to want to live. If so, he may be willing to help us, since we’re the only ones who can save him.”

“How’s the little one doing?” Will said, glancing over his shoulder at Vornuna, “Coming around, at all?”

Vornuna nodded as she applied the smelly stuff over the creature’s wounds. The pong from that thing was just overbearing – any woodlands creature still around must have fled! It was an amusing thought indeed.

The little one seemed to rouse itself as the medication started to take effect. Its eyes opened and closed quickly as it cringed in terror upon the sight of the three humans looking at it. It whimpered in fright, moving up its arms to cover its face. The knees were moved to bring the legs up to its stomach.

“It’s OK, dear – we will not hurt you.” Vornuna said reassuringly as her hand moved towards it with the cloth filled with the healing herbs. The creature seemed to scream even more in terror, crawling away to a nearby tree-trunk in fright. It lay there trembling, not daring to look at the three humans before it.

Vornuna looked at Vernon and William, “It must have suffered a very terrible fright. I don’t know what I can do here right now. Vernon, perhaps if you put down your sword, it might feel better.” Vernon shrugged and sheathed his weapon. The creature whimpered, its eyes still tightly closed, waiting for the next blow to descend upon it.

“Come on, buddy,” William said soothingly, “You’re with friends now.”

Turning to Vernon and Vornuna, Will said, “I wonder if this fellow is an associate of Old Ben? If we can find him, maybe he can take care of this one…”

“I don’t know why you keep talking about this Old Ben guy, William. As if some wild hermit staying in the forests can help us deal with the bandits.” Vernon shrugged his shoulders, “I say we continue to the den, wherever it is, and smash up some skulls. Fighting is what we warriors are best at, not waiting here for some old man!”

Will sighed inwardly. How many ways can I say it diplomatically? He thought. But then Vornuna spoke up.

“We can’t leave the little creature here!” Vornuna’s eyes narrowed at the speech of her hot-headed brother. Sometimes she really wondered if his brains might have been in his arms rather than in his head. She shook her head and looked at the little creature again. She knelt down to the floor, making herself look somewhat smaller and less threatening to it.

“I’m not a warrior, Vernon,” William said. “I’m just a guy who has to fight sometimes. As little as possible, preferably.”

Will shrugged, “I want to talk to ‘Old Ben’ because if he is what I think, or hope, he is, he’ll know these woods better than anyone. Even the bandits. We’ll need that kind of edge going up against such superior numbers.”

The creature tried to crawl further away, but its back was already against the tree. William noticed that its eyes seemed to be upon the weapons they were carrying. It continued to whimper in fear.

“Tell you what, Vernon,” Will said. “Why don’t we go keep watch on the grove? Maybe those guys will come back looking for us, and we can ambush them. We can let Vornuna care for the little one…”

Vernon shrugged his shoulders and was about to move off when something seemed to burst out of the woods from the north. A noisy rustling sound was heard as a swarm of red ants the size of fingernails began to move towards the three of them. Their mandibles clicked menacingly as they advanced.

“Whoa! Killer ants!” Vernon’s eyes opened wide as he quickly turned towards William and Vornuna. Vornuna looked and quickly reached out her hand towards the creature, to bring it with her. Her hand was stopped short by three of these creatures that suddenly appeared from behind the tree, pointing miniature crossbows at her.

The three that apprehended her looked like bigger versions of the little creature cowering away by the tree. Elven features were apparent in them, and they were flying on wings that looked like they belonged to dragonflies Except that no dragonfly was one foot tall. Hovering at the level of her face, the crossbows seemed to be aiming for her eyes.

William sighed, threw down his bow, and unbuckled his belt sheath, allowing his sword to drop to the ground.

“Don’t do anything rash, Vernon,” William said, raising a hand. Turning to the strange little creatures, William smiled, “That goes for you three, also. It seems we have a little bit of a misunderstanding. We’re all friends, here… we defended this little one from his abusers.”

William pointed at the wounded bandit, “I found this one and another tormenting your friend… I brought him down with my bow, chased off his companion, and Vornuna here has been caring for the little one’s injuries.”

“I am called William X,” Will said, “My big friend is Vernon, and you already know the lady is called Vornuna. We come in peace.”

The swarm of ants continued its slow march towards the three of them. Vernon’s hands briefly grasped the hilt of his weapon. He seemed to be in thought for a moment, before shaking his head and dropping his weapon, still sheathed.

“I hope you know what you are doing, Vernon.” Vernon muttered to himself as he stepped further back, towards William, seeking to be as far away from the swarm of ants as possible.

Vornuna seemed to freeze for a moment, as she stared into the crossbows aimed at her eyes. She spoke as gently as she could, but William could detect a little quivering in her voice.

“Little ones, you must believe us. We meant no harm. Look – if you are a creature of the forests, you should know the cloth and the herbs on my right hand. These are healing salves. The little one needs the tending of a physician.”

The swarm halted about 10 feet away from the party. Vernon backed up till his back was to William’s and growled in a low voice, “I hope these little people know our language, Will. Otherwise we are dead for sure. Who knows how many of them are hiding in the woods?”

William whispered back, “There are universal languages, Vernon. I’ll be able to communicate with them. Don’t worry…”

Chapter 9: The Creatures of the Woods

Another two more of the little creatures appeared from the tree the injured one was crouching against. Looking cautiously at the party, they began to haul it up from the ground. They seemed to be female members of the creatures’ kind, and the injured one (from its size) should be one of the young. One of them began to speak in a soft kindly voice to the young. It was a beautiful voice, and the language, although unintelligible to William, sounded gentle and flowy.

The sounds coming from the clattering mandibles of the swarm were quite unnerving. It appeared to be the sounds of the angel of death, waiting to devour the party. The swarm seemed to be held back by something – the ants were eagerly trying to move forward, to devour all that lay in their path.

One of the female creatures flew nearer to Vornuna, and wrinkled its face when it encountered the smell of the herbs from Vornuna’s hand. It spoke in the same gentle language to one of the males flying about, crossbow still pointed at Vornuna.

The young one was crying on the shoulders of the female tending to it. In the same language, it spoke in pain-racked sobs, gesturing with its small fingers. William noticed it was pointing at the man lying on the ground, as well as the three of them.

While it was still speaking, another of these creatures, one somewhat bigger than the other five adults, emerged from the tree. One of the crossbow-armed creatures flew towards it and spoke calmly with it in their language.

The creature nodded its head, and turned to look – first at Vornuna, then at Vernon and William. It looked like it was the leader of the group, with seeming regal bearings. Its gaze fell upon William’s, and it spoke. The voice was steady and gentle, in the Common tongue.

“I would assume perhaps that you are the leader of this party? You would claim that the man lying on the floor was not one of your own? What would make us believe you, violators of the forest’s sanctity?”

William stepped forward, his voice calm, “I am not the leader, but perhaps you could call me first among equals. I will speak for us.”

“You should believe us because one of your experience can look into my eyes, and know I speak truth,” William said, “If you wish proof, I can only offer evidence comprised of logic. If it was not me that brought him down, who did? I’m the only one here with human sized arrows, which an examination of that man’s wounds will prove to be what brought him down. My blade, and that of my big friend Vernon, is clean and unused. And my pretty friend, Vornuna, was attempting to heal the little one, as evidenced by the healing herbs in her hands.”

“I am William X,” Will said, “We do not violate the sanctity of the forest, for it belongs to all who live and respect its creatures. We are here because bandits have kidnapped one of our friends, and we believe we can find them nearby.”

“May I ask who YOU are?” William said, “I have never encountered your kind, though I have heard stories in my travels…”

The little man listened patiently to William. His ears seemed to lift a little when he heard William mention about the man and the forest. When William had finished, the little man called for one of those flying. He seemed to speak out a command to the other, who simply nodded, and flew off cautiously to William’s and Vernon’s weapons.

The spokesman replied to William haughtily, “You have no right, human, to ask who we are. We have been the creatures of the forests, tending to its safety, and dwelling in peace. You are the ones who have violated the sanctity of the forests. You are the ones who have destroyed our homes, and forced us away. You have killed many of our kind. Years of destruction from you – and you dare speak as one who claims respect the sanctity of the forest?”

“Not so fast, partner,” William said, still smiling but raising an eyebrow, “You’re painting with an awfully broad brush, right there. We humans are a pretty diverse race, and I won’t deny that some of us act badly or even evilly. But some of us also act with honour. I would never judge you by the worst of your race. Please extend to us the same courtesy.”

He shook his head, and continued, “Look at the weapons you carry. Look at the metal all over the body of the big one!” He pointed to Vernon, “If you mean not to destroy the peace of the forests, then what is it? Why should we believe you?” Obviously, he had not been listening to what William was saying.

“We carry weapons to protect ourselves,” William said, “Both from other humans and also the dangers of the wild. Your men also carry weapons, for the same reasons, probably.”

“Listen,” William said, “We’re not here to start any trouble. We’re here to rescue one of our own who was kidnapped, probably by the same lawless bandits that have troubled you. Perhaps we could help each other in that respect, and I can show you that not all humans are selfish bastards.”

The creature who was examining the body of the fallen man called out something to the leader. He seemed to be communicating some kind of find with him. The leader nodded, and looked to William. Suddenly the two with crossbows who were aiming at Vornuna took aim at William.

“My underling will be taking an arrow from your quiver, to take a closer look. Besides those you see here, there are many more hidden in the bushes, aiming their bows at you. At any time I give the signal, more of us can appear again from the trees to aid us. Try anything foolish with him, and we will not hesitate to destroy you, filthy humankind.” There seemed to be a bite of venom at the last bit of the sentence.

William shook his head. “Will you listen to yourself? I’ve heard many stories of fairie-kind, but I’d never heard they were so willing and anxious to hate…”

William had remembered the legends and stories told of how Theophilia was a more beautiful place, with the many races living more or less in harmony with each other. He seemed to remember the records at the Institute of Arcane Studies mentioning that man’s arrival destroyed all that. The more superior mankind drove out many of these beautiful creatures in his hunger and lust for more power and territory.

The creature flew over from the man’s body to William’s quiver lying on the ground, near his feet. Staring cautiously at the towering form of William over him, and seeming to fear being crushed by his foot, he took out one arrow. William put his hands up harmlessly as his quiver was played with. The creature tried to fly with it, but was not able to. Still looking cautiously at William, and also giving a glance to the armoured form of Vernon near by, he pulled it over to the fallen man.

The female who was tending to the little one looked at Vornuna with interest. She spoke suddenly in Common, “You are a female of humankind? I understand you were the one who tended to my child?” The tone was definitely kinder and gentler than the one the leader had been using on William.

Vornuna nodded and answered, “Yes. I was the one. Please do believe us. We mean no harm to the little one. But the life of one of the little ones of our kind is in danger. She was probably caught by one of them.” She pointed at the man on the ground. The creature examining the man seemed to be comparing his wounds with William’s arrow.

The leader shook his head. He turned to William and spoke with obvious sarcasm, “Our weapons are only to defend ourselves from the humans, and from the goblins. We do not take the life of one of our kind. Only you creatures of the greatest evil would kill each other. Just like the goblins. The only difference is that you are bigger than them!” His eyes flashed with hatred.

“Perhaps you WOULD take the life of one of your kind,” William said, “If he were torturing and inflicting pain on innocents. Perhaps not–I am not familiar with your ways or whether you live with honour. But I have never stood for such things, be the oppressor of my race or not.”

William noticed that the swarm of ants had by now dispersed and had gone off into the forests from where they came from. He heard a snort from Vernon upon the words from the leader, “Hey – watch what you are saying, puny little fellow! We are men of honour here! We fight for honour, for justice, to rid the world of evil!”

The leader laughed. It was not the evil laughter of Foldori. But there was hatred and ridicule in the laughter. He looked at Vernon, then at William, and said, “For honour, for justice – to rid the world of evil? I say you are just looking for a chance to fight, to loot, to destroy! It is just an excuse! The Sprites do not enjoy fighting, neither do we spoil for one. But be warned, evil human! When forced, we will fight – and fight well we do!” There was a gleam of strong confidence in his speech.

“Looks to me like you don’t need to be forced,” William said. “You seem quite anxious to pick fights with humans, and think the worst of us. I’m sorry the worst qualities of my race are bringing out the worst qualities of your own.”

The leader’s eyes narrowed as the words of William stung him. He was about to give a retort when the sprite that was checking on the unconscious man flew over to him. He spoke in calm tones, in the same beautiful tongue. William remembered the books telling him that the tongues of the fairies were beautiful, and they had very little words to describe evil. But the author was only conjecturing – he himself had only one or two encounters with these folks too.

His eyes flashed with anger at the words of the man. He turned towards the party and said, “My friend here told me it is true that the injury is from an arrow of like manner to yours. There were no other injuries on him, and your weapons are clean, like you said. So we shall believe you. You are probably not the one who afflicted our little one. But you foul humans have encroached upon our land, and you shall die!”

There was a loud commanding voice that came out, “No!”

It was the female sprite who had spoken to Vornuna. The leader of the group turned his head angrily towards the spritess, “Chieftain’s daughter – they must die for their deeds! This is how we protect our way of life!”

“Enough of this!” The spritess waved her hand in a motion of dismissal, “These people have saved one of our little ones, and we cannot repay this kindness with evil. If you are not happy with my decision, you can bring it up to my father.”

It seemed to have escaped their minds that they were speaking in Common. One of the sprites whistled, and spoke something in their language. The two paused for a while, and continued their heated exchange in their own tongue.

William exchanges glances with Vernon and Vornuna. This isn’t going as I’d thought, he thought uneasily. These little creatures might actually attempt to kill us. Thank goodness they’re giving me a few seconds to plan…

William’s mind raced as he analysed the situation and what course of action would allow the best chance of survival if things turned physical. In seconds, it became obvious… We’ll have to take hostages… William thought reluctantly. It would be our only chance to escape. I’ll nail the Chieftain’s daughter, Vernon the squad leader… can’t count on Vornuna to follow orders immediately in this situation, so forget about her for the opening sequence. Not a good chance, but our best one. Damn, this could get ugly…

A loud whistle from off the clearing interrupted William’s thoughts. Just as quickly as they had come, the sprites immediately flew off.

The two spritesses had taken the little one with them, and flew into the tree. The others simply flew off into the dense forest growth, leaving only the party and the injured man around. Vernon gave a growl and leapt for his weapon lying on the floor.

William also dived for his sword and bow, and spoke with urgency in his voice. “Quickly, you two…” He said through clenched teeth, “The fairies are reacting to something, and it’s probably a pack of humans led by the one that got away from us. Find cover, try to stay hidden… Don’t attack unless things go bad or I give the word.”

William rolled behind a tree with enough brush at the base to conceal him. He nocked an arrow, and looked anxiously in the direction of the human camp, wherever that may be.

His ears picked up voices. Probably about two of them – rough and boorish voices. The voices came nearer and two men broke into the clearing. Their style of dressing – leather armour over green shirts and leggings – was similar to the first two that William came across. Perhaps the one that got away had warned them. William could not be sure if they were the only ones but it seemed likely that there were more of them searching the forests.

Their weaponry was somewhat different however. One was wielding a short sword and a buckler, in combat ready positions. A shortbow and a quiver of arrows were slung across his back. The other was armed similarly, except that an arrow was nocked to his shortbow, and his short sword and buckler hung at his waist.

The man with the shortbow saw the man lying on the ground and immediately went to his side, kneeling down to check on him. The other man’s eyes scanned the area constantly for threats. Their moves looked like they had been in the military or some armed fighting troop. If these were brigands, they were no ordinary ones.

William noted that, and nodded grimly. Naruyama was military–his men were well trained. Jackpot.

William could not see Vornuna and Vernon. They were probably like him, hidden in the thick undergrowth. He had not had the chance to see where they went, so fast did all them moved to find a place to hide. Hopefully Vernon’s armour did not give himself away again. It just made too much noise and had the annoying tendency to reflect light in unwanted places.

Quickly, William whispered words of power, and silently fulfilled the arcane gestures necessary to cast his spell. He focused his eyes upon the bowman, and attempted to ensorcel his mind. Again, the thrill and feelings of power engulfed him as his fingers felt the tendrils of mana in the air about him. Every magic-users’ joy and passion each and every time they manipulated the powers of their surroundings.

The man’s eyes seemed to close momentary and he gritted his teeth as the magical energies struck his mind. The struggles were brief as the forces of mana fought for control over his thinking faculties. It was over quickly, and his eyes returned to gazing upon the surroundings, like a watchman over his charge.

The other man spoke something to him, and he nodded, still pointing the arrows and scanning for signs of threats. The other man then sheathed his short sword, and picked up the wounded man on the ground, and set him upon his shoulders in a fireman lift.

With a movement as smooth as that of any accomplished bowman, William stood up from behind the thick shrubbery and fired, aiming for the one carrying the wounded. The ambush was quick and over before the other was able to react, the arrow flying straight and true, striking the man straight in the heart, penetrating his armour. The wounded man fell down to the ground with a sickening crunch, and his would-be-rescuer fell on top of him, hand clutching the arrow.

William shook his head, disappointed at causing the death of another. It was sometimes necessary, but never pleasant. Will did not dwell on the matter long–he quickly refocused on the situation at hand. He hoped the bowman was under his Charm, but he couldn’t be sure.

The bowman did not shoot at William, but it seemed his arrow was still pointed at him. He was about to say something when Vernon began screaming out some northern abuses and charged from his hiding place at the bowman. It seemed like he had forgotten about what William said, so excited was he to charge into battle. The bowman dropped his bow and arrow and drew his short sword in preparation for battle.

William sighed inwardly, and cursed. Dammit, Vernon, if you screw this up and make me waste my spell…Will ran forward and plunked an arrow into the ground several feet in front of Vernon, to get his attention. “Vernon, stop! Don’t attack him! Don’t attack him!”

William ran in between the docile brigand and the huge northerner, and tried to keep them apart. “This guy’s on OUR side…” Making sure his back was to the brigand, William winked broadly. But the momentum from Vernon was too much, and his eyes widened as he smashed into William instead. There were grunts and oaths issuing forth from Vernon as he struggled to get to his feet and retrieve his fallen weapon.

The other brigand meanwhile had gone over to William. He grabbed a bit of William’s vestment roughly and picked him up. There was anger in his eyes as he snarled, “What were you trying to do? You’ve just downed my comrade! If not for the fact that you are my friend, I would have run a sword through you!

“What the hell are YOU trying to do?” William retorted angrily, “Settle down.” He seemed to ignore William’s words – he seemed very angry.

“And you!” He shouted to Vernon, still struggling to get up, laying his short sword at his neck, “You are an intruder! If you value the connection between your head and the rest of the body, I suggest you stop reaching out for your weapon!

His eyes turned off Vernon momentarily, and returned to William. His sword blade was still at Vernon’s neck. He said angrily to William, “You also better had a very good explanation for what you just did! You may be my friend, but I cannot protect you and myself too when I have to answer before my chief!”

William could not see Vornuna. If she had come of hiding and was behind him, the brigand facing him should have seen her. It was a good thing the sister did not think like her brother. Hopefully she would continue staying in hiding.

His eyes drifted to Vernon. He looked at William and gave a wink as well. He seemed to be getting into the game at last. He shifted uncomfortably, eyeing the blade on his neck. He looked up again and spoke out, “Uh…I am also a friend of William’s…uh…does that make us friend as well? Uh…maybe you can take your sword off me…”

The brigand’s eyes flashed angrily as they returned to Vernon. He let go of William’s shirt and pressed his blade even closer to Vernon’s skin. He spoke in a threatening voice, “Forget it, intruder! I can’t even protect myself if I were to let my friend go, much less you!” He put his other hand to his mouth and gave a loud and sharp whistle that rang through the woods.

“Put your sword away,” William said. “The two of us have been wanting to talk to Naruyama any way.” He put an emphasis on the “two”, for Vornuna.

Come on, William thought desperately. Get that sword off Vernon’s neck.

The brigand seemed to hesitate a little at William’s words. If the spell worked, he would do what William asked him to. A brief moment seemed to pass, and it would seem like his spell had failed when suddenly the brigand let down his weapon. He turned to look at the man still bleeding away and stepped in to try to stop the flow of blood. Vernon took the chance to retrieve his weapon.

Damn, William thought. His whistling just ruined everything. Now his friends are on the way. If we’re captured, they’ll disarm us and they’re no guarantee Vornuna could follow us safely and undetected. Two bad choices, which is the lesser?

Making a snap decision, William took this chance to lift his bow and fired an arrow into his “friend”. William felt something wrong in the flight path of arrow as he released it. It plonked down just next to his ‘friend’ – the feathers falling down on the ground about him. They must have somehow dropped off during the release.

“Quickly, Vernon,” William cried, quickly nocking another arrow, “Take him down! Won’t be long before we’ve got company…” The arrow was released quickly, even as the victim ducked and twisted away. This time it found its mark. The arrow, fired at point blank range, sank deeply into the abdomen, buried all the way to the end of the shaft. The look of death fell quickly upon the brigand, and he collapsed to the floor.

William nodded as his arrow took the man down, then looked at Vernon. “Never mind, I got it,” he said with a grin, “Quick, back into the bushes. I’m out of tricks so let’s play this straight. We’ll ambush them if there are 5 or less, hide and retreat if 6 or more and meet back at the clearing in one hour.”

With that, William resumed hiding. He was somewhat concerned about his arrow, and even his spell did not seem to work right. Could the fairies be messing with him, somehow?

About a minute later, four men burst into the clearing from the north. They were dressed in the same manner as the other three that lay fallen on the ground. Again, they adopted the same careful stance, two men with shortbows readied to shoot, and two with shortswords drawn for battle. They were probably about ten to fifteen yards away from William.

William watched from hiding, and took a deep breath. Doesn’t feel right springing an ambush, Will thought with remorse, but our lives, and Lena’s life, are on the line. Just have to remember these men will kill us if given the chance.

William slowly and smoothly nocked his arrow and drew back the bowstring, after glancing at the fletchings. With deadly precision, he let fly at the closest bowman. The arrow flew straight and true, striking him upon the left shoulder. Before any of them could respond, William had let fly another arrow – this time it grazed his thigh, and landed in the bushes behind.

William coolly noted their reactions, and continued to smoothly draw, nock, and fire. His eyes narrowed as he chose his targets, aiming for the bowmen for now, but ready to switch to a charging swordsman.

However, William knew Vernon would come charging out at them any minute now. That would provide the necessary distraction for him to pick off the first three and then help Vernon with the hand to hand. William smiled. That is, if Vernon NEEDED the help, which didn’t seem likely.

“Ambush!” shouted the four men in unison, the sign of trained soldiers. They were fast, and William could not get a chance to aim off at them before they dived into the bushes. There were rustling sounds of movement in the thick underbrush.

Vernon, on the other hand, had charged out of the clearing the moment William’s arrows had begun to fly, only to find the men jumping into the bushes, and hiding themselves. Now that Vernon was the only one out in the open, he too halted and jumped into the nearest bushes as well.

William waited a while – the rustling sounds continued, getting softer. The brigands were moving away from the clearing! From some distance off, William heard the sound of a whistle, and the clinking sounds of Vernon close to him. Vornuna was probably still hidden, but there was nothing to betray her presence.

Quickly, William moved towards the direction of the clinking sounds of Vernon’s metal. “All right, time to cut our losses and start over. Let’s hightail it out of the area, try to circle around and avoid them. They may flood the area with troops, and we don’t want to be here if they do. I’ll try and cover our tracks, so they can’t follow too easily, but let’s move it!”

Vernon nodded and was about to move off when he seemed to remember something. He looked about him, then at William, before saying, “Hmm…you don’t happen to see Vornuna anywhere, William? I think she might still be about, but how do we get her to join us?”

Vernon quickly got out of the bushes, to the chagrin of William (who was trying to keep as low a profile as possible), and shouted, “Vornuna! Where are you! By the Eternal One, you had better come out now!”

If Vornuna had heard him, there was no response. William also could not hear any sounds of approaching troops too. It was quiet. Too quiet.


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