The morning grew sour in Illaeda’s mouth. Something was wrong, she knew, she could feel it in the very ground around her. Dawn’s light only just embraced the sky above, clear in bright hues of orange and red. She overslept. With a stretch she fought aches from sleeping on the forest floor. She used only a cloak as a pillow, leaving her belongings packed on her shaggy mare. The chestnut horse regarded her with sleepy eyes weary from their travels. Illaeda’s quarry had not been easy to track, and had flown further than she anticipated.
She rolled her cloak and packed it, giving her steed a gingerly pat before tending to herself. Laying in her armor was uncomfortable, but she learned to rest wearing it if the need arose. Her prey couldn’t get away because she was too busy getting dressed, especially not this one. She dusted off her teal high-collared, long-sleeved jacket of studded leather intricately laced with mail and adjusted her black leather gloves. She peeled leaves off of her sand-brown leggings, armored at the knees, and tapped on the plate-tipped toes of her boots. Her guild dress was made for combat, but light enough not to slow the wearer or hinder movement. From her neck hung a jagged arrowhead of polished stone on a braided leather necklace, resting on a red shirt just above the part in her jacket. She tied her short red hair behind her head and picked up her heater-shield of steel-reinforced oak where it had lain next to her and strapped it to her back. Her sword, a common, long, straight blade, still rested in its scabbard on her belt. Finally, she adjusted the black leather eyepatch over her left eye, the symbol of the arrowhead etched into it, while an uncovered globe of green on the other side of her little freckled nose peered out into the morning hungrily. Moments from stirring from sleep, she was ready to get to work.
First was to check on her mark. She climbed the boughs of a nearby tree, as she had the night before, to gaze at the fortified knoll in the nearby clearing. From her belt she took and extended a spyglass, black with gold trim. There the knoll stood, stony and buttressed by walls of wooden logs, a camp nestled along its top. A hubbub was afoot, the entire camp stirring, torches still burning in watchtowers, their archers looking inward rather than to the surrounding landscape. Not smart, she thought, but maybe something she could use to her advantage.
What everyone was watching was obvious; a gigantic man with a wolf cloak sauntered up the knoll, through the horde of scoundrels, right up to the throne at the knoll’s peak and laid his maul down, head first. A challenge issued, it looked like. An even taller, pale, shirtless man was talking to the first. Smidgin, no doubt running his mouth, she thought. Every bounty hunter knew the Bandit King, of course, and almost as many carried a tag for him, dead or alive. Illaeda did, but he wasn’t why she’d ridden for weeks, sleeping in the wilds most nights. Her real mark was worth much more. Now, where was he?
Suddenly, movement just at the edge of her spyglass. She caught a pair of legs and feet topple over the side of a watchtower. No one else seemed to notice, the crowd now intently watching the two giants wrestle near the dragon-throne. Was Smidgin trying to push the wolven giant into it? She watched the other towers, and surely enough another guard slumped over. This time, she could just barely make out a crossbow bolt in the support beam the guard had just been leaning against. Ah. Now she understood. The Wolf must have tricked Smidgin, using his fragile ego against him, and a force outside was giving support while the camp was distracted. They must be in the trees, she thought, somewhere by the lower end of the wall. She could feel the tension rise, her blood practically boiling with it. These punks are going to ruin everything.
The two wrestling idiots were surrounded by the entire camp now, bodies piling on top of each other, trying to…were they trying to make the Wolf sit in the throne!? Completely absurd. None of it made sense, causing frustration to furrow her brow. Then she flashed a dimpled grin as she caught sight of what she was looking for.
A jester hat, four bells hanging from tentacle-like protrusions, bounced around the crowd. Its wearer obviously spied a carcass on a rock in the enclosure, and even narrowly avoided a shot from the hidden sniper in the trees. Then it was lost in the crowd, but nothing else changed, no clamor to find the killer, no alarm raised. The last she saw of it, it seemed to bound with the energy of intention. Illaeda realized she had to move now before she lost him again.
She stowed her spy glass and began to climb down when her wary eye caught catastrophe on the knoll. The Wolf and the throne shot out in opposite directions. The giant spun through the air, he and his mallet launching the mob in all directions like a tornado. The throne slammed into Smidgin and the crowd, plummeting with the bandit king through his tent and into the log wall. The collision echoed in the clearing, dwarfing the clamor of pain and destruction. The wolf landed among unfortunate bandits, slammed under his weight. She wondered, what caused them to go airborn, as if slung from catapults?
Hastily she leapt from the tree, landing in the saddle on her shaggy mare. Her steed’s hooves thundered on the forest floor, dashing towards the camp. Before she broke a sweat, they arrived at the destroyed camp, some of the injured and afraid already fleeing into the surrounding forest.
Illaeda found the front gates wide open. Apparently those within considered the Wolf too fascinating to secure the encampment. Amateurs. The shaggy horse trotted them in and up the knoll, winding through debris, the unconscious, and the dead. Illaeda analyzed the scene with a keen eye, missing no detail. Most tents had collapsed, their contents—food, supplies, weapons, bedrolls, furs, elegant clothing, golden and jeweled plunder—lay crushed and spread about moaning bodies. Sacks, boxes, trunks, baskets, all manner of cargo and container lay in disarray, their pilfered contents, shimmering in the morning sun, spilled and scattered. The place was an absolute mess.
She continued up the knoll, coming upon the location of the odd brawl between Smidgin and the Wolf. Some bandits began to rise from the ground with groans and curses, fleeing the camp into the woods, dragging any loot they could carry. Even the injured helped themselves to an item or two. Those moving avoided her like she was a sickness, averting their eyes as if the simple sight of her could strike them down. She worried not about them as she wove through the camp. No king, no kingdom, she thought, just cowardly rats now. Two, a man and a woman, stood at the top of the knoll, the man holding his arm as if broken. Their bandanas were nowhere to be seen. As Illaeda came closer, she could see their awed gazes focused on the Wolf, who was currently regarding the punctured and crushed carcass pinned to the toppling outer wall by a portion of a once ornate throne.
“I forgot to ask about the girl,” he sighed to himself.
“What girl, Wolf?” Illaeda said cooly, as if acquaintances.
Gafgarn shifted to look at her, his hood pulled back to reveal a scarred and disinterested face. He hefted his maul in one hand like it was a tiny carpenter’s hammer rather than an immense instrument of war.
“Where is your friend?” she asked as she dismounted. She looked out at the trees, then once more at the two gawking bandits, still standing where they were wearing flabbergasted expressions. Her stony eye and relaxed smirk, on the other hand, expressed a level of unconcern often reserved by most for ants or motes of dust. She stopped a few paces from Gafgarn, releasing a visible sigh as she observed Smidgin.
“Well,” she said, “finally something he won’t get back up from. That death was a long time coming. Would have preferred the blow was from me, but…can’t really complain if an evil bastard like that’s put down.” She removed an iron token from a pocket within her jacket and flung it at the bloody, mangled corpse. Gafgarn saw it for but a moment, flat and oblong, with ‘Smidgin’ and ‘10 S’ etched into it. “Not really who I was lookin’ for, but I could’ve used the bounty all the same.
“What’s your name, Wolf?” she asked. “Where’s your friend?” After his silence, she continued, undeterred, “You have a real name? Don’t tell me it really is ‘Wolf’…we had enough of dumb names with that carcass over there.”
Gafgarn responded with a cross of his arms and a raised eyebrow.
Illaeda shrugged at him, “Suit yourself, Wolf is a name I guess. You happen to see where a guy wearing a jester hat went?”
Gafgarn recalled the man she mentioned, sitting and watching him as he entered the camp. “No,” he said, shaking his head.
“Right, too busy doing whatever you did to him,” she motioned to the dead king, “care to explain?”
Again, Gafgarn regarded her with all the deference of a wall. She was pretty and smelled of earth and travel, and he liked that, but would prefer to keep his predicament to himself as much as he could. Wither discovered him, but maybe this…whatever she was, wouldn’t.
“Fine, I’ll figure it out myself.” She walked nonchalantly to the body, her eyes investigating every detail with a voracious intent. Gafgarn found himself investigating her details, her dress fancy to his tastes, but as ready for battle as any of his people’s armor. He had never seen hair so fiery red and eye so green. Smaller than his people’s women, she was no less built for combat; as solid as a stone, she was not what he expected to find in the Kingdoms. Everyone in his country could fight in the name of their people, but the Kingdoms rarely fielded women in wars past. Sully and Dorin sat now, still bearing the look of the dumbfounded.
Illaeda poured over the scene before her. Her eye missed nothing, from the way blood splattered on shattered logs and the splintered throne, to the way it so solidly and brutally stuck in and through flesh and bone. She looked at the top of the knoll, then back to Smidgin. She observed the surrounding destruction: tents crushed in the path of the throne’s flight, bodies and objects scattered about. She walked up the path the throne had taken, her eye cut a seam in the ground. Many things were toppled or destroyed, but there were no drag marks. She came to a divot in the earth and knelt over it, feeling it, measuring it in her mind. She looked back to Smidgin, then to the top of the knoll again. She stood and continued up the path, stepping lightly, eye a sharp blade. When she came to the spot where the great seat had rested, she knelt. Signs of a scuffle were everywhere, footprints over footprints, crushed grass, the smell of blood and sweat, but where the throne had stood remained a long rectangle of stunted grass and marks of a brief but violent slide back towards Smidgin’s corpse. A quick glance back, Gafgarn watching her attentively, then a glance in the direction the Wolf had flown. Illaeda rose, wiping the dirt from her hands, wearing a self-satisfied smile.
All eyes watched as she returned to stand before Gafgarn, her walk a saunter that seemed to declare the very ground underneath her her own. “Okay, Wolf, you ready for this?” She continued without giving him a chance to respond, “You came into this camp, your friend watching you from a tree somewhere over in that direction,” she pointed over the low end of the encampment’s wall, “and you goaded Smidgin into some stupid wrestling match. You bet him he couldn’t make you sit in the chair. Somehow, it took not only him, but the entire camp to get you into it while your friend killed anyone he could with a crossbow. An insanely powerful one, for this kind of range and accuracy. I don’t know why he bothered though, because you did…something…that practically leveled this place.” She motioned towards the top of the knoll as she continued, “you and the throne shot out in opposite directions, the throne at an extreme velocity. I’ve heard rumors of explosives, powerful and compact, from across the Altaen Sea, but I see no burn marks, no crater. Besides, you’re not that well traveled.” Gafgarn raised a single brow even higher from its already elevated perch. Illaeda went on, “No contraption, and you’re strong, maybe could’ve flipped the thing, but not while the whole camp was on your back. It was carved from a single solid log, maybe a whole tree; you’re a big guy, but not that big. No drag marks, though, so it wasn’t pushed back, didn’t even touch the ground except for that one spot,” she pointed at the divot in the ground, then added, “that’s where Smidgin must have fallen out in front of it while it spun to pin him lengthwise, dragon-tail first. Otherwise he’d just be pulp…well, worse pulp.” She wrinkled her nose at the body, then gave Gafgarn a commanding look with hand on her hips. “So, Wolf, how’d you do it? Tell me ‘magic’ and I’ll slap you so hard across the face with my shield you’ll have to run back across the camp to pick up your teeth.”
Gafgarn shrugged away the image of the throne spinning in the air in front of a helpless airborne Smidgin and answered flatly, “Magic.”
Illaeda glared at Gafgarn and opened her mouth to reply when a peculiar sight trudged up the knoll and knelt over a quivering body. It looked like a moving bush, the size and shape of a tall, lanky person, carrying an immensely large crossbow with an array of lenses along its stock. The bush nodded its shrubbery head and gesticulated its leafy hands as if in conversation, then abruptly began beating the prostrated bandit with the butt of the crossbow. Illaeda had only seen one thing more ridiculous—a man and a throne jettisoning into the air in opposite directions. The humanoid foliage continued up the knoll, swiveling its head as if looking for another victim. He found one shortly, a man trying to crawl away, and repeated the process. Bush knelt, moved as if in conversation, then beat the poor sucker, quickly and viciously. If she wasn’t staring at a bush, she would conclude these beatings were born of a passionate hatred; after all, why beat them when a swift bolt would do? Why kill them at all when they’re already injured and helpless? A bringer of justice, she had a list of lives taken in the name of peace and coin, but the bush had to be after something personal.
“First it’s magic throne-launching, now it turns out your sniper-friend is a bush,” she said jokingly.
“He’s not my friend. I don’t really know what he is,” Gafgarn muttered.
The shrub sauntered up to the pair, crossbow resting on a shoulder, and faced Smidgin’s murder scene. “Fine work, fine work indeed!” it chimed happily, “you certainly are a singular destructive force, old boy! Bravo, I knew without any uncertainty you would rise triumphant! Now,” it continued as it turned to face Gafgarn, “what did our precious Smidgin say about the girl?” Illaeda barely moved, waiting with her arms still crossed, while Sully and Dorin looked on in an ever-heightened state of amazement.
“Nothing. I forgot to ask,” Gafgarn said. The bush went rigid.
“Excuse me, Shrub, who are you exactly?” Illaeda interrupted.
The bush pulled back a hood and mask, revealing Wither’s mustachioed face, currently wearing a very red, very severe look. This close, Illaeda could see stitching and cloth, that the twiggy-leafishness was fabricated. The man before her was wearing a very clever camouflaged suit.
“Dear, as much as a beauty such as yours is deserving of the best of introductions, I have a pressing matter,” he turned on Gafgarn, “I told you not to forget, old boy. Where is the girl?”
“I have no idea, Wither. Even if I had asked, I don’t know what she looks like. There were plenty of women here.”
“I’m uninterested in this band’s particular co-ed status. She wouldn’t have looked like them, she’s a prisoner, young, likely in distress. You didn’t see her?”
“Not through a stinking heap of bandits, no.”
Wither practically tore out of the bush-costume, revealing his suit of blue and pinstripes, somewhat sweaty but none the worse for wear. His eyes searched hungrily while his head jerked in all directions. “The jester then, did you see him? If somehow a girl in distress evaded your view, the albino with that blasted hat surely could not.”
Gafgarn was surprised by the mention of the albino jester, Wither had never mentioned him before. He answered, his curiosity peaking, “I saw him when I was coming in. I’d never seen an albino before, but he was interested in me. Not like the rest, more like he knew something.”
Illaeda interrupted once more, “AJ is crafty, he must’ve known you had something up your sleeve. Whatever that something was.” Her eyes narrowed at the two men. She didn’t like that she could only conclude something impossible had happened on that knoll.
Wither recoiled with disgust, “You gave him a name!? Scoundrel hardly deserves one!”
“More like a designation, no one knows his real name. And I’m pretty sure he took off with your girl.”
Wither became rigid once more, even his chest ceasing its constant movement. Gafgarn found it odd to see the man stop moving or talking. Whoever this girl was, she had to be extremely important to him. Wither’s pale color returned and shoulders relaxed when he started breathing again.
“My dear, my name is Withersmod Gollsteen III, commonly known as Wither, and it is a great pleasure to be in the presence of such striking beauty,” at this he gave a flourishing bow. When he returned to standing, he wiggled his whiskers and, in the most polite and sincere voice Gafgarn had ever heard, asked, “To what Hunter do I have the pleasure of speaking, dear, and to where did you see our mischievous joker retreat?”
Gafgarn could hardly believe his ears, but Illaeda didn’t move, her arms remaining crossed. A smile graced the men’s presence, seeming to brighten the knoll with its own light.
She bowed he head slightly, politely, “Illaeda. He went North, maybe, vaulted over the toppled wall behind what’s left of Smidgin. Someone much smaller, likely a young girl, was with him. We might be able to catch them, could I track them, but…”
“What?” Gafgarn asked.
“How do you know where he went?” Wither followed.
“Bloody hand prints,” she answered. “Some blood smears, most likely from feet and shoes. On a log by Smidgin, probably climbed right over his carcass. I imagine the girl is shoeless. When Smidgin’s crew trades in bodies, feet aren’t the parts they care about.”
Gafgarn stepped between them, his intimidating size demanding attention, his arm cutting between them like a hammer, “Stop. Now, right now, it’s time to tell me what’s going on.” He stuck a muscular, sausage-sized finger into Wither’s face, “You tell me what you’re after.” Then, he did the same to Illaeda, “You tell me who and what you are and why I should care.” They both looked at him with serious faces, and he responded with a jutting point to his boots, “I get pushed around enough by these, I won’t spend another moment with the two of you until I have some answers.”
Wither responded, his usually rapid speech slowed by the heavy weight of an audibly deep hatred, one that bubbled up into each word like a sickly toxin, “The girl is my sister, old boy. Kidnapped by the jester a mere fortnight ago and brought to this decrepit den of degenerates and denigrates. I will rescue her, nevermind the souls in my way.”
Illaeda explained, “Dr. Gollsteen’s sister is one of many young men and women who’re kidnapped regularly for sale in some of the less-kind kingdoms’ slave trades. Smidgin’s band was more known for stealing and killing, sometimes secretly paid by barons and dukes to thieve from or otherwise sabotage one another.”
Gafgarn was unsurprised to find that the Kingdoms would secretly use criminals in their petty power struggles, but he took note of it and continued listening.
“AJ, as the guild calls him, is a high-value bounty; serial killer, thief, arsonist, extortionist, assassin, torturer, all kinds of dark and disruptive deeds. He never uses the same name, if he uses any at all, and moves between kingdoms often enough that local authorities never find him. He finds a place, makes trouble, then disappears, leaving destruction and despair and taking almost nothing he didn’t arrive with. He’s the reason I’m here today, and you two let him go.”
“She belongs to the guild, old boy,” Wither added, “and should have used the opportunity we gave her to catch him.”
“Yeah, well, why’d you miss, Professor?” she snapped. “You had a great chance to take him out and you missed it. Too used to selling your death machines you haven’t put enough practice into using them.”
Gafgarn’s eyes bolted between the two while Wither regained his red tone and choked on unspoken words. Back home, a quarrel like this was settled with skill, cunning, or strength--a game of baldimong, the challenge of a hunt, or a regular old brawl. As of recently his mere presence would silence and bury the argument like death itself, if not from fear, then from respect. Instead he stood in a broken camp on a knoll in a forsaken country, thrown from his own, stuck in boots as cursed as a backhand to a swarm of scorpions. Infuriating.
Gafgarn turned on Wither, “We find your girl, you help me out of these boots?”
“Yes, old boy, twas the deal! Now she’s…”
Gafgarn interrupted, swiveling to Illaeda, “You hunt the man that has his sister?”
“That’s what I just bloody explained, now didn’t I?”
“Then we find him, and when we find him, we have her. Between a bounty hunter, an inventor, and a cursed emperor, AJ will be put down and the girl safe. You get your bounty, you get your sister, and I get rid of these.” He pointed to each of his companions and the boots respectively. “Now, I have something to take care of before we leave.”
“No, no, no,” Illaeda declared, “I’m not doing anything until you tell me how the two of you pulled this off,” she motioned all around her, “and the Hunters usually work alone.”
“How’s that worked out getting AJ so far?” Gafgarn said, flashing a smug, scarred grin. “And I already told you: magic. I can’t use furniture.” Then he walked away as if nothing he said was abnormal. Illaeda looked as if tentacles had sprung from the back of his head and both were gesticulating obscenely at her.
Wither puffed at a long, thin pipe, contented. Gafgarn swore to himself that the man had always had a curved, ornate pipe, and that it was still sitting on the seat of the carriage in the forest. Did he have a trove hidden in his suit jacket?
The giant walked up the knoll straight at Sully and Dorin. Sully sat holding his broken arm, flinching in anticipation of the beating to come. Dorin stood straight and still as a rock, eyes wider than moons. “You two,” Gafgarn announced, “how about joining an outfit worth the air it breathes?”
“What are you on about, old boy?” Wither called.
Then he grinned at the delirious pair, “I’m thinking, if we’re on the hunt and all, it’s time to rebuild my army.”