I promise, this series will end. Eventually... For those of you who have stuck with my story up to this point, I salute you! You make me very happy. =] Beforehand, I thank you for your sweet comments of appreciation. They have greatly encouraged me!
And now, without further ado...
And now, without further ado...
Part 6: Neris
“ 'Scuse me, sirs, where might we find some grubb?”
In a scramble of weapons and bodies, the two men were instantly surrounded. Despite the instinct to grab for their own weapons, both raised open hands to shoulder level, a sign that they were not there to fight. Peder did the talking, acting nervous.
“Whoa, there. Easy, fellas,” he said, in the accent of a southern farmer. “We're just two honest travelers lookin' for a bite.”
The armed men were silent. Presently, they parted and an Aijan man stepped forward. He stood at least four inches shorter than either Slannin or Peder, but was well-built and stocky, muscular in the arms and shoulders. Crossing those arms, he confronted them in the Gondian language, thick with his native accent.
“Who are you?” he demanded, his words blunt and fast. Small, dark eyes glared at the two beneath black eyebrows. The face was round, stern – devoid of laughter, and sported a neatly trimmed mustache and goatee, which framed the thin mouth.
To fit his character, Peder cleared his throat.
“Name's Pedd and this here's ma buddy, er... Dirt,” he said, throwing his arm around Slannin's shoulders and giving him a bear squeeze. “He doesn't talk much. We caught sight of your fire an' were almighty hungry after smelling your meat for th' last mile.” For effect, he leaned over, looked at what was left of a deer carcass still roasting over the fire, and sniffed longingly. The leader ignored his yearning and repeated the phrase in the same manner.
“Well, you see,” Peder began, acting disappointed. “We're headed to Wyntown Spring to see ma sister. See, he's 'sposed t' marry her,” he added, leaning forward and jerking his thumb in Slannin's direction. “But he got cold feet and I had to run 'im down. Took me all mornin' an' most o' the day,” he mumbled, glaring at his companion, who stood hunched with arms crossed. “But I caught him! An' now it's dark, thanks t' Dirt here, an' we're gonna have t' spend the night in this wood, an' I'm gonna miss Mammy's cake, an'–”
“Enough!” shouted the Aijan man, furious. Peder flinched, thinking it an appropriate reaction to his act, but inwardly he was laughing. “I care not for your petty troubles, peasant! You eat and go on your way.” Abruptly, he turned on his heel.
“But, it's nearly midnight–” Peder began and the man whirled to face him again.
“You eat!” he repeated. “And go on your way.”
The leader held Peder's eyes in a lock until the younger man, though he hated to, looked away. He then spoke abruptly in his native language to another dressed as a foot soldier, who promptly moved to the fire. The soldier returned and led them to a spot on the ground for them to sit, offering them heaping plates of meat and bread, as well as two mugs of fresh water.
“Much obliged,” said Peder. He didn't receive a reply nor was he expecting one.
Both men sat down and set to the food with a will. The soldier moved to watch them. Obviously, they were still under suspicion but, at the moment, Peder didn't care. The venison was delicious, cooked with some kind of spice, and the bread, though a bit stale, was a great accompaniment. He hadn't realized how hungry he was. This was the first meal he'd had since an early breakfast that morning, which now seemed ages ago.
As they ate, he and Slannin looked around the camp. Vaguely, he wondered where Jaron and their dragon friends were. Only when their guard became so bored as to fiddle with his boot, did Slannin turn to him.
“Dirt? That's the best you could come up with?”
“What? It was a last minute decision. They know your name, right? So I came up with a new one. 'Dirt' was just the first thing that came to mind.” Peder matched Slannin's hushed tone. Fortunately, guarding two “peasants” such as them was the last thing the soldier wanted to do and so, bored out of his mind, he began playing with a small dagger.
A cool breeze blew through the trees, ruffling the hair of two, making Peder wish he had kept his cloak, which he had hidden before entering the camp. The leathern clasp, bearing the likeness of a hawk, the emblem to which division of the Guard he belonged, was far too recognizable. Slannin, too, had abandoned his cloak, hiding his twin daggers in sheaths beneath his vest. To complete their makeshift disguises, they rubbed dirt and moss on their faces and clothing, and even rolled up the sleeves of their shirts, which better fit the look of a poor farmer. Peder hoped it was enough.
“Still,” muttered Slannin, shaking his head. He finished a bite of bread and meat, then added sarcastically, “You sure are a creative one.”
“Fine. Next time–” The guard turned in their direction and Peder, on impulse, mimed a random scene, opening his mouth as if he was speaking. Despite his grim personality, Slannin caught on and laughed aloud. The soldier turned away and Peder continued, pointing a hunk of bread at Slannin.
“Next time I'll call you Mumbly. I think it fits.” They glared at each other and Peder caught the faintest glimmer of a smile on the other man's face. He grinned.
“Aw, come on! You wouldn't believe what some people call their young 'uns, nowadays. Why, I met one just two weeks ago who told me his name was Twig! Poor kid, he–”
“'Least that's better than Dirt...”
“I heard that, Mumbly.”
Half an hour passed.
The Guard looked at Slannin, whose green eyes said something must be done. His friend was right; it was time to move. Peder ran a hand through his hair, half hoping Jaron would appear as if by magic beside him with a command or at least a nod of confirmation. Quietly, Peder sat, elbows on his knees, racking his brain. He nibbled what was left of the stale loaf and swished the lukewarm water of his mug. Maybe they should move on, find a place to observe the camp and wait for the Elf captain. It was madness to attempt to take on twelve men at once.
Doubts began to slither into his mind. Time would not wait for his decision, he knew, nor would those responsible for this plot against his country. The Aijan nation was now a big part, at least a select few of her people were guilty of treason, as was the united islands of the Twelve Isles. If they didn't do something soon, this situation would definitely fall out of their hands.
So be it, they had stalled long enough.
Peder stood, stretching his tired limbs. Slannin gathered the spent dishes, stacking them neatly beside the fallen log. His eyes roamed the camp grounds, grinding into his memory the positions of each visible man as well as those under cover of the tents. It would be risky. Thankfully, they still had their weapons. No one had thought to search them after hearing Peder's ridiculous story.
The Guard gestured to Slannin, then stooped to pick up the dishes, intending to thank their “gracious” host.
“Change of plans. I feel it would be best to leave the camp and pick off the soldiers one by one. The odds far outnumber us no matter our skill.” Peder's voice was low. Somewhat bored and ready for any kind of action, Slannin scowled, apparently disappointed, though he said nothing. He knew Peder was right. “If possible, we take them alive.” Slannin nodded, and they moved toward the camp center.
Just as they passed the man appointed to guard them, the night was pierced by a shout.
Neither Peder nor Slannin understood the language, but they didn't like the sound of it. Peder whirled to see a man dressed simply in a burgundy tunic and tan trousers pointing at them. He must have just stepped from the main tent. Peder glanced at Slannin, whose daggers appeared in each hand. His companion hissed.
“It's the messenger!”
The time following those words fell into chaos.
Even their guard was surprised by the sudden shout. Peder threw the empty plates at the unsuspecting man and drew his sword as the soldier stumbled. He turned in time to block a hit from an eager long-sword. With a few precise strokes, he left the second man in the dirt. Whirling his sword, he shouted.
Anger fueled his strength.
These men had come for a purpose: to destroy an alliance and, in time, ruin a country. His country.
“GONDWAAAAA!!!” he shouted, bellowing the war-cry of his people. Slannin looked at Peder, whose expression was fierce and confident. He determined not to get in the Guard's way.
Panting from exertion, he began to wonder why he had taken this job.
For a brief moment, he was no longer a part of the battle. Finding himself at the tree border of the camp, he took the chance to catch his breath.
On the far side of the central blaze burning brightly in the night, Peder saw Slannin engaged with another soldier. It wasn't long before the former thief hooked a hilt to the man's head. Peder grimaced and unconsciously felt the back of his scalp.
“Effective,” he mumbled to himself.
A footstep behind him caused the young Guard to freeze.
Peder spun on his heel, sword at the ready, and came face to face with a giant. Though he wasn't much taller that Peder himself, but he stood about as wide as he was high, the majority of his size being muscle. He was bald, except for a thin, braided ponytail on the top of his head, a trademark feature of an Aijan warrior. That was exactly what this man was. Bare-chested, clothed only from the waist down, with arms the size of small barrels, he displayed an intimidating sight.
The Guard's long-sword clashed with the other man's one-edged blade. Peder grunted at his strength. They broke and circled, the man gave something of a laugh, reminding Peder of a bear.
He, in turn, attempted a laugh, but it sounded like a pathetic, nervous squeak compared to the gruff voice of his adversary. Clearing his throat, he caught a glimpse of Slannin, five yards from himself, exchanging blows with two other soldiers.
“Kinda. Busy,” the other man grunted, blocking a thrust from the longer swords of his opponents.
“You wanna trade?” Slannin looked up, but quickly returned his attention to the two men before him. Dropping to the ground, he kicked one of the men's legs out from under him and finished with the dagger hilt. Keeping his eyes on the remaining enemy, he spoke to Peder.
“Where was he hiding?”
Peder ducked a swipe from a beefy arm.
“Aye. Where were you hiding?”
The big man laughed.
Dodging another blow, he feinted and spun in close, his long-sword whistling through the air. His offense was neatly parried causing the Guard to roll, avoiding a hit.
At that moment, an ear-splitting roar interrupted the course of the battle. Men covered their ears and instantly looked to the leafy ceiling. A shadow filled the open air, creating gusts of wind, and sending sparks flying dangerously close to the canvas of the tents.
Majestically, Valtiramiir landed in the midst of confusion and turned the chaos level up a notch. The soldiers were completely shocked at the sight of the rare creature, obviously an ally of their enemies.
At the arrival of his scaly friend, Peder nearly forgot the presence of his sizable opponent. He turned in time to defend against a blow that might have separated his head from his shoulders.
“Watch it! You almost took my head,” he muttered sarcastically through gritted teeth. He was getting tired of close calls. This time, the big man did not laugh. The arrival of the red dragon had triggered a fear, pushing back the confidence the soldiers had possessed only moments ago. It was all Peder could do to defend himself from the onslaught of offensive strikes, fueled by the power of terror. He felt himself tiring again, no doubt due to a long day of non-stop travel and battle.
Willing weary muscles to obey, Peder brought his sword up to meet a powerful, overhead swing. He cried out and fell to a knee as the resulting crash of metal jarred his arm enough to numb it temporarily.
Then, as if from nowhere, a massive, armored tail rammed the soldier in the side and sent him flying into the formidable trunk of an oak as round as a house. To Peder's relief, the man crumpled to the ground.
“My thanks, Lady,” said Peder from his kneeling position. The dragon dipped her head regally in acknowledgment.
“We would rather not lose you yet, young Peder,” she replied, her voice as smooth as honey.
“Well, that's a relief,” grinned the Guard. “Neither do I.”
The fight was brief.
Peder inhaled deeply the sweet night air. Leaning on the hilt of his sword, with the point in the ground at his right foot and his left knee pressed into the soft, mossy dirt, he took the brief rest gratefully. Thank You, Eliadan.
At the sound of boots coming to a halt before him, he groaned.
“Who dares disturb my peace?”
When he received no answer, he opened his eyes and glared at Slannin, who offered a hand.
With another groan of weariness, he accepted and was pulled to his feet. He took his cloak and slipped it on. Slannin did the same, but left the hood down.
“Jaron returns. He should arrive at any moment.” Peder nodded, not caring how Slannin knew this information. He patted the other man's back.
“Don't worry. I will speak for you.” Slannin shook his head.
“It does not matter anymore. I will accept the consequences of my actions.” The words were quiet.
Peder looked at him and the vision of his new friend on trial did not sit well with the young man. Jaron had said he was wanted on many charges, but was now believed dead. Maybe they could work that to his advantage.
His eyes observed the camp, which now lay in ruins. Two of the smaller tents were now smoldering embers and the others, though whole, lay broken from the fight. Valtiramiir joined the men from her position guarding the captured soldiers. Out of the fourteen, only three lay dead. Five others remained unconscious whether from Slannin's blows or the red lady's foreclaw. Those conscious were tied and gagged to await questioning.
At last, Jaron and Keighvyn arrived, wearied and windblown from flight. The Elf set foot on solid ground and scanned the area in approval. Before joining the young men and red dragon, he drew a whistle from a cord around his neck and blew a sharp, piercing note that rang through the quiet of the forest. With that, he returned the whistle to his shirt and met the men, now standing near the fire close to the larger tent. Peder came to attention and saluted his captain with a fist to his chest.
“Well done, Cadet,” Jaron remarked, placing a hand on Peder's shoulder. “You've proven yourself today, I believe.”
“Thanks, Cap,” Peder replied, relaxing. It wasn't often he received such an open compliment from his senior partner. “What of the ship?” he inquired, curious.
“She now lies on the ocean floor. Those of the crew who did not surrender, lay with her.” Jaron gestured to the tent and the men entered, excusing the dragons. The interior was spacious and neat. A quarter of the room was curtained, evidently allowing the leader as much privacy as possible. Each man took a seat around the circular table located in the right-hand corner from the entrance.
“But come, what happened here? I have called for a messenger hawk. We will send word to the Commander and await direction. Meanwhile, we have time to spare.”
As Peder filled Jaron in on the events from when last they parted, Slannin grew solemn with each passing moment. He dreaded when the subject would turn to him. Jaron listened with interest and actually laughed, or rather, chuckled slightly, at Peder's recount of their act as farmers of the South.
At the conclusion, the cry of a bird filled the night. Jaron left the tent and returned with a beautiful hawk resting on the leather of his arm guard. Dark-brown feathers mingled with those of a rusty-red color then faded into a mixture of white and brown plumes at the tail. Slannin noticed what looked like a halter fastened to the back of the bird where lay a cylinder to carry the messages. Two bands of painted red leather was attached to each of its legs.
Both men were silent as the Elf quickly penned a message with ink and paper from the supplies in the tent. Placing the small piece of parchment in the cylinder and securing the lid, Jaron lifted the fabric of the tent door and, with a soft word of Elvish, sent the bird on its way.
He turned to Peder and Slannin.
The man raised his head, a wary, guarded look in his eyes.
“Dawn is slow approaching. We must await the patrol my company will send. However, while the dragons guard the prisoners, we have time to hear from you.” Jaron returned to his seat before the two and continued. “Your every intention was to take the documents, was it not?”
“Yes. At first.”
“At first?” Slannin avoided the Elf's gaze.
“It is a long story.”
“We have time. You are foreign to this land – neither of Gondoa, nor Ardos. Though I know your nationality–” At this statement, Peder interrupted.
“Wait. You are not of Gondoa? Where–?” Slannin's eyes flicked to Jaron's. The Elf's nod was slight, and he smiled a small smile. Slannin looked at Peder.
Photos from Pinterest. I do not know where the handsome gentleman above hails from, but he is what I imagine Peder to look like. =]
Photos from Pinterest. I do not know where the handsome gentleman above hails from, but he is what I imagine Peder to look like. =]