Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Caristhium: A Small Band

The cart rolled steadily along the road, pulled by a single ox, and Aesa shifted her weight on the wooden bench and wished she'd thought to add a cushion to it before starting out. She wore the dark coat and pants of a modestly successful trader, and a broad-rimmed hat that was supposed to help hide the fact that she wasn't quite as male as she trying to appear. 

There were bandits on the road as it passed through the savage hills -- elves, according to the reports, probably the remnants of the ones who had tried to take over Caristhium, gathered together with a few others. They really should have stayed, Aesa thought. Martini would have had them worked into shape as city guards. Of course, the guards were all terrified of Martini, but it was the sort of terror that meant that they'd follow her into the face of death itself. 

I wish I knew how to do that, Aesa thought, idly watching the road ahead, and that was when she came far enough around the latest curve to find that someone had managed to lay a mid-sized tree across the road, almost as if it had fallen there. 

She sighed, and make a clicking noise for the ox, who obediently slowed. 

Muttering to herself and gesturing, she set the brake and climbed down from the cart, then walked over to the fallen tree. It was browning, a little too long-dead to be a convincing recent fall, but maybe the elves didn't want to keep cutting down fresh trees for their banditry. She'd left her blade under the bench; she made better bait that way. 

"Your pardon for interrupting your journey, good trader," said a voice, and Aesa made herself whip around. 

It was an elf, of course -- a common elf, proud and graceful, but nowhere near so formidable as Ruin or Werendril. He was tall and slender, lithe and lean, with soft grey hair that was almost silver and skin the color of honey. "My friends and I, we have need of your cart. More need than you, I fear. Still, we are not unreasonable. If you walk away now, no harm will come to you." 

"A gentlemanly highwayman," Aesa said, looking carefully around. She could see another elf on the road behind the cart, and one just past the fallen tree; all three were holding longbows. "I was hoping to find you here." 

He stiffened. "Were you?" 

Anica sat up from beneath a half-roll of cloth in the back of the cart, reached around under the bench, and tossed Aesa her falchion. Aesa nearly fumbled catching it, but managed to get her hands around it and bring it into a ready position. She unclasped the cover, but didn't draw it yet. "May I have your name, good sir bandit?"

He shrugged. "Valinir Goldstem." 

"Aesa Borrington," she replied. From the back of the cart, Anica added: "Anica desAmun." 

"Very well," said the bandit. "You've found us, and I've offered my name. What is it exactly that you have in mind? There are still only two of you, and twenty of us." 

Anica laughed, apparently delighted, and Valinir glanced at her. 

"An end to your banditry," Aesa said. "The True King Mythandril calls you to service."

The elf shifted, raised his bow. "You," he said. "You claim to speak for the True King?"

Aesa spoke the spell she'd been holding ready, and Valinir fell as if pollaxed. The archer to her left, beyond the fallen tree, was already down; Anica hopped off the back of the cart and headed for the woman on the road behind it. An arrow shattered against her shield as she approached. 

"Archers!" called the bandit woman. "Damn you, archers! Cut them down! Now!"

"They can't," said a soft voice, and Aesa had the rare pleasure of seeing Anica startle back. There was a man standing behind the bandit woman on the road, rapier drawn, his face hidden by a fox mask. She spun, drawing an arrow lightning-fast. 

The fox-masked man behind her didn't so much cut her bowstring as hold his blade in place and let her swing the string across its edge. She stood still for a moment, staring, and no doubt feeling the point against her throat. "Come," he said. "We have better work than this."

The woman swallowed. "The Silver Fox?"

Vendril nodded. "The True King lives, and he calls to his own. Let us gather your companions. You are summoned."

"But--" She looked around, almost desperately. 

"They are alive," whispered Vendril. "You, Valinir, the five archers who thought they were hidden in the trees. I do not kill our own kind, not without the greatest need."

"My lord," the elf breathed, and dropped to her knees. "Command me. Take us to our king."

Slack-jawed with shock, Anica looked back at Aesa, but Aesa could only shrug.

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