“Henry! Wake up!”
Henry hit the floor, pulled from sleep in the rudest possible fashion, as Petalwynd prodded at him. Muttering curses under his breath, he realized she was not only in his room, but standing on him.
“What the hell are you doing? Get outta here!” he yelped, checking to make sure he was covered.
“I’ve been trying to wake you up for ten minutes,” she told him, still poking him. “You just kept snoring and talking in your sleep. I need you to get up!”
“I was having a really nice dream,” Henry sighed. “But you’ve ruined that.”
“About Sharon?” Petalwynd asked with a sly smile.
Henry flushed. “What the hell are you doing kicking me out of bed anyway?”
She looked towards the window, face turning grim. “Something’s happening.”
Nodding, Henry pulled himself up. “Gimme a minute to get dressed.”
“Make it quick,” the monk replied as she went to the window.
“Without you in here!” he barked.
Petalwynd gave him a curious look. “Like I’d be interested in what you’ve got anyway.”
“OUT!” Henry bellowed.
She smirked and dropped out the window. He sighed and started looking for his pants. Some days, the Halfling was more than he could handle.
Ten minutes later, Henry joined her on the street and was a bit surprised to see Jarl there as well, a massive hand holding the small monk behind him. Looking farther down the street, Henry suddenly understood why.
Large men, heavily muscled, with multiple piercings and tattoos were leading children in chains toward a caravan of wagons. Near them, the city guard looked the other way, too busy counting the gold they’d been given. More of the terrible men held parents at bay with wicked, barbed swords.
“Who are they?” Petalwynd asked.
“Slavers,” Henry answered. “From the Drisk Empire to the south.”
“Fearsome warriors, too,” Jarl said softly. “They live for the slaughter.”
Petalwynd looked from one to the other before turning back to the caravan. “But why are they taking the children?”
“To sell, on the market, back in Drisk, I imagine,” Jarl answered.
Petalwynd gasped and started to move, only to have both men push her back. It was Henry who spoke, though, saying what he already knew Jarl was thinking.
“Be still, and stay out of sight, dammit. You don’t want them to confuse you with a child.”
“But…” Petalwynd began, only to have Henry silence her with a wave.
“There’s nothing we can do,” Jarl told her. “They come every couple of months, and take whoever they please. There’s too many of them to fight.”
“At the moment,” Henry added.
“What do you mean?” Petalwynd asked.
“If we try to take them on right now, the guards will get involved. Once they do, they’ll call the rest of the garrison, and we’ll face an army. We have to wait until the caravan leaves, then intercept it.” Henry’s voice was low, and dark as he spoke.
“You can’t mean to take on Drisk slavers,” Jarl gasped. “That’s suicide, Henry!”
“Yeah, I know,” he replied. “But it’s funny. When I was at my lowest point, no one offered a hand to me. All my friends, people I’d known my whole life, just stood there, and did nothing. What can we do, they asked themselves. They hid behind that excuse, and didn’t even try.”
His fist tightened at his side as he watched the children being chained to the wagons. “I won’t be one of them. I won’t stand back and do nothing. I just can’t. I know how it feels, to be begging someone to help, and have them just stand there and watch. I won’t just watch, even if it costs me my life. I’ll never stoop that low.”
He felt Petalwynd’s hand grasp his, her small fingers sliding into his fist and squeezing. When he looked down at her, the smile she gave him was one of the brightest he’d ever seen.
“That’s why I believe in you,” she said.
He grinned back at her. “This is going to be pretty dangerous, you know. Probably just going to get us killed.”
“It’s better to die for something, than live for nothing,” she replied.
“Yeah, I guess it is, isn’t it?” Henry chuckled. “We wait till they’ve gone, then trail them. We’ll hit them after dark, when fewer of them will be alert and ready. It’s our best chance to take them out.”
“Good plan,” the monk agreed.
“I’m coming with you,” Jarl told him.
“No, I won’t ask that,” Henry answered.
“You aren’t asking,” the barbarian said. “I’m saying I will. You have shamed me enough, Henry. Last night, and now, it’s too much for me. I must go. I have to.”
Henry nodded slowly, seeing the fire in the big man’s eyes. “Okay then. Get ready. We leave an hour after they do.”
The trio trailed the slavers for the rest of the day, until the caravan made camp for the night, several miles from the city. As they had followed, Henry’s anger had only grown, watching from the distance as the children were forced to march while the slavers rode. If one of them fell, they were dragged, the Driskians showing no mercy.
They rested while they could, though Henry was unable to sleep. He had been trained to use a sword, but never had never been in a real fight. When the time came, he wondered if he would be able to take another mans life.
He knew the slavers wouldn’t hesitate, and despite his anger, knew he likely would. That this was a fools mission was never far from his mind, either, and the probability of any of them living through this was slight.
Despite her skill, Petalwynd had never been forced to take a life either, Henry was certain. With her good nature and kindness, he was afraid she too would hesitate when the time came. As for Jarl, Henry doubted the big man would last long in any fight, his bulk a death sentence against trained killers.
Regardless, as the camp fires of the slavers burned low, they stood and made their way towards the caravan. It was as Petalwynd had said, after all. It is better to die for something, then to live for nothing.
Henry let that warm him as he drew his sword, and made ready to kill a man for the first time in his life.
Petalwynd had counted a dozen slavers as they had trailed the caravan earlier, leaving them outnumbered four to one. If they were lucky, they could improve their odds by taking some out while the others slept. Henry had never been one to count on luck, and instead, accepted that whatever happened, would happen.
Reaching the edge of the encampment, Henry nodded to his companions and they nodded back. Each would take a different approach from here, as they had agreed. Jarl would sweep to the right, while Henry went to the left, leaving Petalwynd to strike at the heart of the camp.
Henry hadn’t liked the idea, but Petalwynd’s argument had been unbeatable. Of them all, she had the greatest skill and training. Jarl’s experience was for naught, eight years between he and his last campaign, while Henry had skill, but had never used it. Reluctantly, he had agreed.
Moving as silently as he could, Henry slipped around the side of a wagon, trying to ignore the soft sounds of children crying from the other side. Before him stood a sentry, though he had yet to take notice of the intruder at his back.
Griping his sword tighter, Henry shoved himself forward, boots crunching on the ground, drawing the sentry’s attention. It was too late, though, as the pommel of Henry’s sword struck his head, sending him down with out a fight. Now, if only Jarl could be as fortunate.
Across the camp, the barbarian hedged forward, suddenly mindful of his size. In his hand, he carried a massive warmaul, a deadly weapon with the biting head of an axe opposite the smashing head of a hammer. It had been too long since he had wielded it, and he knew it, the thing heavy and alien in his grip.
Still, he steeled himself and moved ahead, determined to at least die with honor. Luck was with him, it seemed, as he saw they sentry’s head droop slightly, the man dozing at his station. With a smile, Jarl pushed from the shadows, weapon swinging.
The guard didn’t even know what hit him as he crumpled to the ground, dead or close to it. Everything now rested on Petalwynd as the barbarian took his position, hoping for the best, and fearing the worst.
Seeing her companions dispatch their targets, the monk began moving, darting forward into the camp, eyes fixed on the guard that stood at the center of the circle of wagons, a large fire at his back. He held a sword, curved and barbed, a weapon meant not only for slashing, but ripping at the flesh of those it struck.
Silent as a breeze, she slipped in, her light frame a whisper in the night. The guard had looked away for a moment, leaving her all the room she needed. Before he knew it, she was on him, fingers tapping his body, leaving him paralyzed. His eyes went wide as he tried to call out, but was unable, left to stare at the miniature monk and her wide smile as she tipped him over onto the ground.
Seeing her deal with the guard, Jarl and Henry began moving, joining her in camp as the fourth and final sentry noticed what was happening. It was all the advantage they were going to gain, and it would have to do. From here on out, it was a fight just to survive.
Everything had gone as planned so far, though Henry doubted it would continue much longer as the slavers were roused from their sleep. He moved alongside the fire as Jarl stood on the other side, Petalwynd between them.
“Who the hell are you?” one of the slavers snapped, sword swinging up to point at them.
“Come and find out,” Petalwynd replied.
“Is taunting them the best idea?” Henry asked her.
“Does it matter?” Jarl asked in return.
“Guess not,” Henry sighed.
“Kill them!” the Driskian shouted, waving his men forward.
Them came as a wave, nine men against three defenders, but Henry had chosen their placement well. The fire still burned high, and their backs were guarded for now. It was still three on one, and those were not odds he cared for.
Behind him, Jarl bellowed in rage, swinging his massive weapon in an arc the killed one man quickly, and forced two others back to regroup. Beside him, unarmed though she was, Petalwynd waited till the last moment, then dropped low, fist driving into a slavers knee, shattering it.
Even as he toppled, she was swinging up with a kick, destroying his jaw, taking him out of the fight for good. In a distant way, Henry was actually impressed with her skill.
Then they were on him, swords swinging. He was quick to block their attacks, but noticed a sheen on their blades. This just became a whole different fight then he had been expecting.
“Watch yourselves,” he yelled. “They’ve poisoned their swords!”
“So, you noticed,” the slaver directly in front of him chuckled as his companions slipped to the side.
Henry cursed, knowing he couldn’t possibly defend himself while his blade was locked with the slavers. The mans companions would make short work of him if he didn’t get free quickly.
Henry smiled, and took a page from Petalwynd’s book, stepping up to the slaver before him and driving a knee into his crotch. With a yelp of pain, the slaver fell, Henry whipping his sword to the side just in time to deflect a blow to his right. His left, however, remained unguarded. Lurching forward, pushing the Driskian back, he avoided the worst of the blow.
It wasn’t deep, but it didn’t have to be. The poison on the blade would finish him even if he won, and he knew it. With his heart pumping hard, the toxin would spread quickly, meaning his life was now measured in minutes, if that.
Henry pushed the thoughts away, reversing his grip on his sword as the opponent in front of him retreated. Stabbing backwards, he felt resistance, and pushed, impaling the slaver behind him.
“Now neither of us will see tomorrow,” Henry told him as he died.
Across the fire, Jarl swung again, both opponents dodging back. They had a measure of him now, though, and knew how he fought. As he pulled the weapon back, they rushed him, swords swinging.
Jarl smiled, having suspected they would fall for the old trick. The wide swings of his weapon had lead them to believe he couldn’t fight in close quarters, and with that, he had lured them in.
Relaxing his grip on the haft of the weapon, he let it spin, blocking their swords as he reached out, enormous hand grasping one by the throat. As his companion watched in fear, Jarl crushed the mans windpipe and let him drop.
“Now, it is just you and I,” he said, his voice the low rumble of thunder.
Nearby, Petalwynd avoided one attack after another, her deft movements leaving the slavers no chance to strike her. Mindful of the poisoned blades, she bobbed and wove around their attacks, making ready, timing their swings. Already, she was smiling.
With both slavers growing frustrated at their own inability to hit, Petalwynd slide between them, standing tall. They drove at her, sword hungry for her blood. She counted in her mind, and moved, falling to the ground, legs spread apart. The slavers killed each other over her head, their swords finding each others stomachs. She looked to the sky as the dropped, asking forgiveness, for though she had not taken their lives herself, she had orchestrated it.
Standing as they fell, she looked to Jarl, but found nothing to worry about there. Turning to Henry, she saw the gash across his back as he battled the last slaver still standing on his side, and felt fear creep into her heart.
Henry countered each attack of the Driskian, but his sword was beginning to feel heavy in his hand. His vision was starting to swim, and he felt like he was burning alive. Shaking it off, he tried desperately to keep his focus, but felt it floating away from him.
“What’s wrong?” the slaver asked. “You don’t look like you feel too good.”
“Try me,” Henry snapped.
He came at him with a wide swing, but Henry knew the trap too well, having fallen for it at his father’s hands many times during his training days. He rolled the sword in his hand, laying along his arm as he blocked, throwing a hard punch into the slaver’s face.
As the man staggered, Henry flipped his sword around and stabbed forward, piercing the man’s chest. The slaver stared at him in shock as his sword fell to the ground, where he joined it moments later.
Panting, Henry collapsed to his knees. He was finished, and he knew it. Behind him, he heard a muffled cry, and turned to see the man he had felled with the groin shot earlier being bowled over by the last of the slavers. Across the fire, Jarl heaved from the exertion of having thrown a man.
“Get the kids,” Henry yelled to him. “Then get out of here, both of you!”
“Henry!” Petalwynd was at his side, kneeling as she looked at him in fear.
“It’s too late, Petalwynd. There’s nothing that can be done,” he told her. “Just, get the kids, and go.”
“I won’t leave you,” she said softly, holding him up as he began to fall, too weak now to even kneel.
Henry watched as Jarl freed the captured children, and sighed. “It’s okay. I’m okay. We did it. This is a small price to pay, for them, right?”
Jarl stood back, watching as Petalwynd cradled her dying friend. The children gathered around him, knowing that the man before them had paid for their freedom with his life. No one had ever done more for them.
“No, this is not the end, Henry,” Petalwynd told him. “I won’t let it be.”
“Not much you can do about it,” he smiled.
“Watch me,” she replied, voice hard with determination as she stood.
With Henry laying at her feet, Petalwynd closed her eyes, hands folded in front of her. She knew the technique, but had never used it on someone before, not when their life truly depended on it. Not outside of practice.
With Jarl and the children watching, Petalwynd moved, like a dancer, with such grace and beauty it took their breath away. Light folded itself around her hands, growing steadily brighter as she went on, brilliant and pure.
Lowering her hands, she rested them on Henry’s chest, letting the light flow into, and through him. For a moment, Henry felt as if he were floating, like all the cares in the world had left him behind.
Then, it was over. He felt a sting on his back as he sat up, marveling that he was alive. Jarl saw it, though, and was overwhelmed with wonder. The poison had been pushed from Henry’s body, and the wound closed.
“What the hell was that?” Henry exclaimed as Petalwynd smiled.
“Oh, nothing,” she said with a casual wave. “Just a healing technique my master taught me.”
“A healing… technique?” Henry gaped. “Why didn’t you tell me sooner you could do something like that?”
Petalwynd shrugged. “I dunno. No reason really. Just never crossed my mind.”
“Anything else you can do beside healing and paralyzing you want to tell me about?” Henry asked as he stood.
“Not that I can think of,” she answered, rocking on her heels and grinning broadly.
“You are unbelievable,” Henry told her with a smile.
“I really am,” she agreed.
Jarl sagged, falling to a knee. They had done it. They had saved the children, and not lost their own lives in the process. Softly, quietly, he hoped Mia was watching, that she could see the man he had become today.
The man he wanted to be from now on.
By the next morning, the children had been reunited with their parents. The city guard, corrupt though they were, hadn’t so much as blinked. They had gotten paid, so what happened after that wasn’t their problem.
Henry was actually kind of glad about that part. He was in no hurry to fight a full garrison to bring the kids home. Petalwynd on the other hand, seemed eager to challenge them, something it had taken him a while to talk her out of.
“So, how exactly did that whole healing thing work?” Henry asked her as the day rolled to afternoon.
“It’s actually very simple,” she replied. “You just have to know how to channel the energy of the cosmos.”
“Forget I asked,” Henry sighed.
Jarl chuckled. “Some things we should just be grateful for, and not try to understand.”
“Tell me about it,” Henry smiled.
“What about you, Jarl?” Petalwynd asked. “What are you going to do now?”
The barbarian looked out at the road that reached into the Thertin Hills, eyes distant. “Try to find myself again. Live a life Mia and Tolly would be proud of. For that, I thank you both, my friends.”
“Happy to help,” Henry answered.
“You could come with us,” Petalwynd intoned. “Try to find your destiny, as we are.”
“Perhaps, in time, we will meet again,” Jarl told her. “But for now, I must go my own way. I wish you both the best, and again, thank you for pulling me from the pit I had sunk myself into. Without you, I doubt I would have ever gotten out.”
“Nothing like nearly dying to help you find reasons to live,” Henry told him with a smile.
“Ignore him,” Petalwynd told the barbarian. “He has an overabundance of sarcasm.”
“But he wields it as deftly as he does a blade,” Jarl grinned. “Until we meet again, my friends. Be well.”
With that, the obese barbarian turned to the road and headed away from them at a run, eager to face the future once more. It was there, he knew now, just beyond the horizon, and he could reach it if he hurried.
“Why is he running?” Henry wondered, scratching his head.
“Because he’s happy,” Petalwynd replied with a bright smile.
“Yeah, but I don’t think running is a good idea for a guy his size.”
“Running is the healthiest way to shed those extra pounds.”
“Okay, sure, but I mean, he’s gonna knock himself out the way he’s jiggling around.”
“Oh, looks like he figured that out. He slowed down.”
“No, more like he stopped.”
“He’s just catching his breath.”
“No, wait, he’s okay now. There he goes again.”
“There’s a lesson in all this, Henry.”
“There’s nothing you can’t over come if someone else believes in you!”
“I’m leaving you here.”
Despite his words, when Petalwynd looked up at him, she saw Henry smiling. He stood taller today, she felt. A bit straighter than he had before. She smiled as well, and was proud of him.
©-2016 Cain S. Latrani