Henry and Petalwynd raced through the grass, desperate to reach the small monastery ahead of the Driskian raiders that had, at long last, caught up with them. For Henry, it was the blossoming desire to protect his newly found family at all costs. For Petalwynd, it was something else. Something darker.
As they reached the outer edge of the grounds, Henry spotted Kira, already armed with her bow, coming out onto the steps, staring across the rolling hills of grass and trees. Nerise joined her a moment later, staff in one hand, Henry’s sword in the other, her ears twitching as she spun towards them. The moment her eyes landed on the tiny Halfling at Henry’s side, relief seemed to wash through her body.
“How many?” Henry called as they got closer.
“Twenty, maybe more,” Kira replied, reaching over her shoulder to run a hand through the arrows in her quiver. “Too many.”
“Their blades will already be poisoned, as well,” Nerise added. “This will not be an easy fight.”
“There will be no fight,” Petalwynd told them. “Do not fear. I know what to do now. Thank you for that, Henry.”
His grim expression softened at her words, hope filling his eyes. “I knew you’d have a plan when the time came.”
The smile she returned was soft, kind, and sad. “Of course I do.”
Before anyone could ask her what it was, the sound of hooves reached them, the Driskians cresting the hill and pounding towards them. Henry took a moment to buckle the sword belt around his waist, but decided not to pull it, having faith in Petalwynd to guide them. He knew now, though, that he wouldn’t hesitate to fight.
There had been a time, what seemed so long ago now, that Henry had never fought back. When the people of Rivershire who asked him for blacksmith work had begged off paying. When Miranda had demanded unreasonable things. When Stringham had taken his home, his business, and even his wife. Through it all, Henry had never once fought back.
It had bothered him in the months after he started traveling with Petalwynd, just why he had taken it all so easily. Why he had let so many treat him so poorly. It seemed so alien to him now, the idea of just accepting things as they were, and never fighting back.
As he looked down at Petalwynd, her small shoulders squared at the Driskian approach, he knew why. It was so clear to him, he couldn’t help but wonder why he hadn’t seen it before. Looking to Nerise at his side, her ears flat, tail bristled, and staff gripped tightly, he understood. Looking at Kira to his other side, eyes fierce, arrow nocked, posture ready to move in a moment, he really got it.
He had never had a good enough reason.
He had never had anything worth fighting for.
Henry rested his hand on his sword, and made ready.
The raiders spread out in a semi circle as they came to halt outside the monastery, a handful more than twenty in number. The four defenders were badly outnumbered, and they knew it, their eyes bright with joy, and their smiles cruel. This would be easy.
One moved forward a few feet before bringing his horse to a stop and dismounting. Tall, and powerfully built, his head was shaved and tattooed with a pair of curling snakes, their heads reaching down over his eyes, fangs bared on his cheeks. Multiple piercings decorated his ears, nose, and lips, giving his smile a more menacing look than even his maliciousness could.
“Gilford,” Nerise murmured.
Henry nodded, remembering the man from Trader’s Hallow. He wasn’t likely to agree to any deal Petalwynd offered this time, having lost so badly to her back then. Which just left Henry wondering what her plan actually was.
Gilford looked over them for a moment, eyes lingering on Nerise in anger for a brief moment, before dismissing Henry and Kira to focus on Petalwynd. There, his smile turned truly cruel as he swaggered forward, hand resting on the hilt of the blade at his hip. Petalwynd did not move, watching him back with resignation.
“I do believe I told you we would settle out score one day, monk,” the Driskian leader said. “Today is that day.”
“Indeed it is,” she answered.
“Only question is how many of you am I going to have to kill, and how many will be going home with me as slaves,” he told her thoughtfully, scratching his chin. “I’d rather have slaves, to be honest, but considering the trouble you’ve put me through, bodies don’t really bother me, either.”
“That is not the question,” Petalwynd told him. “You think only of revenge, and cannot see the opportunities before you. It is why you are still such a small man.”
Chuckles rose up from the Driskians gathered behind Gilford as his smile faded to a look of anger. “Watch who you call small, halfling.”
“There will be no battle today,” Petalwynd continued, ignoring him. “Nor will you be taking slaves.”
“You are capable,” he admitted. “But I doubt you can defeat us all.”
“I will not be trying,” she shrugged. “I will be joining you, of my own free will. I will do as you ask, without hesitation. In return for this, these three will be allowed to leave here, and you will never bother them again. That is my offer.”
Henry gaped. By his side, Nerise growled in her throat, as Kira stared in shock and horror at Petalwynd’s offer. Gilford was taken aback by it as well, unable to look away from the gaze she fixed on him. For several moments, silence reigned over the gathering, as everyone tried to digest what the monk had just said.
“You really mean that?” Gilford finally asked, his mind starting to grasp the possibilities having her on his side would offer.
“The hell you do!” Henry exploded, reaching out to grab her shoulder and spinning her to face him. “Don’t you remember who these people are? What they do?”
The look in her eyes made him step back, as utter despair met his gaze, but only for a moment, before she looked away.
“I know,” she replied quietly. “I know what it is I’m agreeing to.”
“Petalwynd, you really don’t,” Nerise snapped. “You have no idea the savagery these people are capable of! The things they will ask you to do!”
“”I do know,” she said again.
“After what they did to Hu and the monks here,” Kira roared. “You would join with them? Is this how you honor the dead? Is this what you think Hu would want?”
“It’s what I have to do,” she shouted back, hands tightening into fists. “We can’t beat them. They are too many. This is the only way.”
“Forget it,” Henry yelled. “I’m not going to let you leave with these people. Not today! Not any day!”
A small hand touched his chest, stilling him in an instant. “This is my choice, Henry. Please, try to understand. It’s the only way I can protect you. All of you. Maybe, this is even what I was destined for. To save you.”
“They are murders,” Kira reminded her, voice harsh with anger and resentment.
“And what am I?” Petalwynd asked. “You saw what I did to Waylan. Am I so different from them, really?”
“You are,” Nerise replied. “More than you can ever know. This is a mistake, my friend. Do not do this.”
“It’s already done,” the monk sighed, turning back to Gilford. “Do we have a deal?”
As the Driskian considered it, staring at her with an appraising eye, Henry glanced to his left, and found dread in Nerise’s eyes. He glanced to his right, and found heartbreak in Kira’s. Both watched Petalwynd, and Henry found, he could not abide this.
No, this was not something Henry Blake could accept. Not ever.
“You guys are big on duels of honor and all that crap, right?” he called out, not even sure where he was going with it. He just knew he had to do something. Anything.
Gilford considered him for a moment, seemed to notice him him for the first time, really, then nodded slowly.
“Like hell am I gonna stand here and watch you take my friend away.” Henry found he was walking, but didn’t remember wanting to do it. He pushed past Petalwynd, who stared up at him in fear, and surprise.
“Not much you can do about,” Gilford chuckled.
“Isn’t there?” Henry snarled. “I challenge you to a duel. One on one. If I win, you and all the raiders with you never return to the Thertin Hills again.”
“Our duels are usually to the death,” Gilford smirked.
“Fine, then if I win, I guess I won’t have to worry about your ugly ass ever coming back.”
Gilford’s smile faded. “If I win?”
“Petalwynd goes with you.”
“The other two?”
“Not a part of this.”
Gilford shook his head, laughing slowly. “Tell you what, buddy. If I win, I take all three of those ladies with me. Agree to that, and you have your duel.”
Henry considered it for a moment, then nodded. “Very well.”
“Henry, no!” Petalwynd cried out.
“Settle, little one,” Gilford told her. “Man’s gotta do manly things now and then, am I right?”
“This has nothing to do with that,” Henry replied. “Don’t confuse me for you. I don’t give a damn about being manly, or any of that other stupid shit. This is about protecting my friends. All of them. Nothing more.”
Gilford gave him a bored look. “Yeah, whatever. The deal is struck. I win, they lay down their weapons and come with me. You win, these boys leave and don’t come back.”
Henry nodded. “Give me a moment to prepare.”
“Sure,” the Driskian snorted. “Take all the time you need. The end is going to be the same. You just signed your death warrant.”
“We’ll see,” Henry shot back as he turned to rejoin his friends.
They waited until Gilford returned to his fellow raiders to speak, but when they did, it was all at once, making Henry jump half out of his skin.
“What were you thinking?” Kira chastised under her breath.
“That was foolish,” Nerise hissed.
“I had it under control,” Petalwynd snapped.
Henry waved his hands at them, bringing them all to silence. Once they had stopped, he took a deep breath, and turned to Petalwynd first. His friend. His best friend. Probably, the best friend he’d ever had.
No. Not probably. As he looked down into her eyes, he knew. Definitely.
Kneeling, he rested a hand on her shoulder. “Is joining them really what you wanted? Do you really think your master sent you out into the world to bring terror, pain, suffering,”
She started to reply, the hesitated. “No. Of course he didn’t. But if this is what I was meant to do, to be a killer…”
“It isn’t,” he told her, squeezing her shoulder. “You aren’t. You are Petalwynd. You saved me. You saved Nerise. That’s what you are. The brightest ray of hope I have ever known. That’s your destiny.”
“Henry,” she whispered, tears forming, spilling, as she threw her arms around his neck and held him tight. “Please. I’m begging you. Don’t do this.”
“I have to,” he replied, hugging her back, then pushing her away to stand and face Nerise.
The big cat said nothing, instead holding out a hand. Henry took it, shook it, and they exchanged a nod. In her eyes, he saw pride. It was more than enough. It was all he had ever wanted, he realized. All he had ever needed.
Turning to Kira, he was startled as the ranger pressed close to him, her bright blue eyes regarding him in way he wasn’t sure how to define. Without meaning to, he rested his hands on her hips, and just held her for a moment.
“His blade will be poisoned,” she reminded him, before lifting a small vial from her belt pouch. “Drink this. It will protect you.”
“That’s probably the least of my worries,” he replied with a smile.
“Just drink it, you scoundrel,” she told him. “And try not to die. I’ll be mad at you if you die.”
Henry took the vial, and nodded. “No promises.”
She watched him down the contents, then suddenly kissed him, her hands holding his head in place. Before he could even think, it was over, and he found himself looking into those hard, bright eyes again.
“Seriously, I’ll be mad as hell.”
Henry turned to face Gilford, who waited across the grass for him, already looking bored with this whole thing. Squaring his shoulders, he started walking, moving to the center of the space the Driskians and his friends made simply by standing there.
“Please, stop, Henry,” Petalwynd pleaded once more, to no avail.
“Don’t die,” Kira whispered, her cheeks flushing at the sight of his back, so strong in his resolve.
“Be the moonlight, Henry,” Nerise murmured.
Henry drew his sword.
The sun was bright. The day was warm. The wind was gentle. The grass smelled sweet. Birds called, and crickets sang. It was peaceful, the sort of day that begged one to relax under the shade of a tree and just snooze.
Henry’s steps became a run as he charged Gilford, sword low and to his left, ready to swing up when he got close enough. The Driskian’s face erupted into a wide smile of glee at the promise of single combat, and pulled his own weapon, a vicious, barbed blade that glimmered with poison in the sunlight.
The first clash was a testing ground. Their swords locked, Henry swinging up, Gilford down from over his shoulder. They measured each other past their blades, reading skill and talent in a moment. Gilford’s smile widened, while Henry’s face grew more determined.
“You’ve already lost,” Gilford mocked as he pushed Henry back.
Allowing himself to be move, Henry disengaged, bringing the sword up in front of him. He had no words for this man. He wasn’t worth them. Behind him was all he cherished in this world. He would protect it, or die trying.
Gilford charged, sword whipping out to his right, then back in for a series of fast jabs. Henry blocked the first two, and quick stepped to the side to avoid the rest, giving himself an opening as the Driskian passed him. Swinging down, Henry hoped to end this fast, but Gilford was a seasoned fighter, and got his blade over his shoulder, countering Henry’s attack. Moving ahead a few steps, Gilford spun on his heel as Henry came after him, bringing his sword to a high guard, and swinging down.
The Driskian swung to his right, leaving him nothing to strike, and Henry felt the barbed blade cut down his back. It wasn’t deep, just a scratch, but that was the whole idea. Gilford wasn’t going for a quick finish. He wanted Henry to die from the poison. A slow, painful, lingering death.
Henry couldn’t help but smile. They were in two very different fights. For him, this was about family. For Gilford, it was about entertaining himself. That was the distance Henry knew he would have to close.
“Even if you somehow win, which you won’t, you’ve still lost now,” the Driskian chuckled as he circled Henry, casually spinning the sword in his hand.
Henry ignored him, swinging around with a powerful blow. Gilford barely got his blade up, and was still pushed back a couple of steps by it. To Henry’s surprise, he laughed, and pressed forward, sliding his blade down Henry’s.
At the last moment, before the hand guards locked, Gilford tucked his blade in to his chest, and ran it up Henry’s chest. Again, it wasn’t deep, little more than a scratch, but the intent was to kill him slowly. Henry couldn’t help but smile.
Cutting towards him, Henry almost had the Driskian again, only to have him quick step backwards, out of reach. That was the most frustrating part. For a man his size, Gilford was fast, and knew how to fight. Henry wasn’t unskilled, but he had nowhere near the years of experience his opponent had with reading a a foe, and staying a step ahead.
It wasn’t the poison he had to worry about, Henry realized as Gilford circled him again. It was the slow bleeding from the cuts. Unless he could land a good blow of his own, the depth of his wounds wouldn’t matter, not when he ended up with dozens.
“Don’t tell me your done already,” the Driskian teased. “Not after all the big talk you gave.”
Henry’s hand tightened on his blade, and he brought it up, watching his opponent more carefully. He had to stop letting Gilford dictate the fight. He needed to make him make the next move, and try to counter it. He had to fight smart.
Gilford was grinning, sword bouncing on his shoulder as he circled, watching Henry bring his blade up. When it was clear his opponent wasn’t going to charge in, Gilford nodded, and darted forward, low and fast, starling Henry. The sword still resting on his shoulder, he was giving Henry an opening, but the move was so unexpected, Henry hesitated, trying to figure out what to do, and missed his chance.
Two steps away, Gilford ducked under Henry’s fumbled counter, and cut to his right, trailing the blade across his stomach without ever lifting it from his shoulder. Swinging around him, he did the same to his back, adding two more shallow cuts in one move.
Henry reeled, staggering away as Gilford darted back out of reach. For a moment, Henry couldn’t think, or move, only stand there, trying to grasp what had just happened. The move had been so unorthodox, so bizarre, he had missed an obvious opening. It was more than about fighting smart, he saw.
Gilford was good. Really good. Maybe even too good for him to defeat. His training had been basic, he knew, but had always thought it enough to carry him through a fight should he ever get in one. That had been arrogance, or maybe just complacency, however, as he recalled his last fight with a Driskian had nearly cost him his life.
Following Gilford with a wary gaze, Henry couldn’t help but see that the man was a creative thinker in combat. He saw every opening, every chance to not just defeat his opponent, but humiliate them while he was at it. That made him far more dangerous than an average fighter.
“You could try to make this a bit more interesting,” Gilford called out. “At least as much fun as I’m going to have with that cute blonde while your body is still getting cold.”
Henry glanced towards Kira, met her eyes, and thought of the kiss she had given him. He was moving before he knew it, running towards Gilford, sword swinging. Distantly, he wondered why his world had become such a red haze of rage at the Driskian’s words.
Gilford laughed as he casually chopped down, sending Henry’s sword into the ground. With a swift move, he brought his foot down on the locked blades, and Henry’s sword shattered.
He gaped as Gilford swept up, leaving another shallow cut along his chest, the pommel of his sword connecting with Henry’s jaw, and throwing him back to hit the ground hard.
Henry’s vision danced, and he knew as the hilt of his weapon floated free of his hand that this battle was over.
He had failed.
Petalwynd’s voice seemed distant as Henry lay there, staring up at the sky. The cuts from Gilford’s sword burned, but whatever Kira had given him kept the poison from coursing through his body, as it had before. He lived, but not for long.
He felt a fool for thinking he could beat this man. Still, he was glad he had tried. It’s better, he thought, to die fighting for those you love, than live taking whatever comes without ever standing up and even trying. He was just sorry he hadn’t been up to the task, and that his friends, his family, would now suffer.
“Ah, yes,” Gilford chuckled as he waved at Henry for his men. “This is what happens when people try to be heroes.”
Henry closed his hand, making a fist. Petalwynd was crying. Nerise had looked at him with pride. Kira had kissed him.
“I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again,” Gilford laughed. “People need to know when they are in the presence of their betters.”
Kira had kissed him.
“Betters, you say,” he called out, reaching up to grip his tattered shirt in one hand. “What gives you the right to decide that? Just cause you can swing a sword? Any fool can do that.”
Gilford frowned. “Still some fight left in you, ‘eh? Fine with me.”
Henry ripped the torn shirt away, glaring towards the Driskian in rage. Kira had kissed him, with that look in her eyes. Petalwynd was crying. Nerise was proud of him. Those thought whirled in his mind, and he knew nothing but the need to protect them. His friends. His family.
“You don’t know anything about what makes people better,” Henry roared as he charged forward, swinging back with a fist.
“Come here and die, worm,” Gilford laughed, swinging his sword up and chopping down towards Henry as he got close.
Henry’s arm, heavily muscled from years of swinging a hammer at the forge, swept up, blocking Gilford’s sword arm, and holding.
Henry’s hand, tempered in fire, rocketed forward, connecting with Gilford’s face.
Henry’s shoulders, broad and strong from years of hefting heavy metal, followed through.
Gilford tasted blood as his world spun. He felt Henry’s iron like grip grasp his sword arm, keeping him from falling, jerking him forward, to be punched once more across the jaw. He saw stars as Henry held him firm, jerking him forward to backhand the Driskian.
Suddenly desperate, Gilford tried to wrench his sword arm free, to no avail. Henry was too strong. His grip would not yield.
Henry hit him again, this time in the chest, driving the wind out of him. While Gilford had gone for a slow death, he had missed how wide Henry’s chest really was, buried under the loose shirt he had worn. Use to working long hours at the forge, Henry had plenty of stamina, and even if the wounds had been deeper, could have gone on fighting for some time.
The raiders stared in shock as the man they had dismissed so easily pummeled their leader, holding him up with one hand when the man could no longer stand on his own. Henry’s friends gaped as Henry jerked Gilford around like a rag doll.
When his vicious, barbed sword finally fell from his grasp, Henry let Gilford drop, and knelt on him, driving a knee into his chest. Glaring, he drove a fist against his face again, shattering his teeth. Another turned his nose to pulp. More followed, each as powerful, and brutal as the last.
“Who’s better now?” Henry roared. “Come on, tell me! How much better than me are you? Tell me!”
“Henry, stop,” Petalwynd whispered, seeing her own nightmare play out, with Henry making the same mistake she did. Allowing his rage to take him somewhere she knew, there was no returning from.
“Henry, stop!’ she screamed.
Henry’s fist paused as he looked down at Gilford with contempt. Then man’s face was a mask of bruises, broken bones, and blood. Still, Henry saw, he was conscious. In pain, no doubt, but conscious.
Gripping him by his shirt, Henry jerked him up. “I win. You loose.”
“Then kill me,” Gilford managed to stammer out in a slur of words.
Henry lowered his face, and smiled, making sure the Driskian could see it. “Kill you? I was never going to kill you.”
“I want you to live. I want you to live a long life. I want you to grow old, and die a withered old man. Most of all, I want you to remember, every day, for all the years to come, the day you were beaten down, and begged for death. I want you to never forget the day you lost to a blacksmith.”
With the one eye he had left that wasn’t swollen shut, Gilford stared at him in horror.
“Who’s better now, bitch?”
Henry threw him down, and stood tall over him, gaze cutting over the Driskian raiders who could only stare back in shock.
“Get out of my country, and never come back,” Henry ordered. “And take your trash with you.”
With that, he moved back several steps, and turned his back to them. He remained that way as they gathered Gilford and threw him over a horse. He didn’t move until they rode away, abiding the deal their leader had struck.
Henry stood, tall and proud, until they were far away.
Only once his shoulder’s slumped a bit, did the others race to him, catching him as he sank to his knees, relived to just be alive.
“That was stupid,” Petalwynd told him, eyes bright with tears.
“That was crazy,” Nerise told him, eyes bright with pride.
“That was brave,” Kira told him, eyes bright with something he wasn’t sure he wanted to believe was really there.
“That was painful,” Henry chuckled, and passed out.
“We about ready to go, or what?” Henry asked.
“Just waiting on the girls,” Nerise told him with a wave of her hand.
Henry frowned. “Aren’t you a girl?”
“I am a woman, thank you very much,” she sniffed in return.
“Right,” he drawled.
The two laughed as they turned to wait for their companions to join them. After the battle with Gilford, Henry had recovered easily, under Kira’s care. His wounds had not been deep, and her potion to counter the Driskian poison had been effective, but wounded he still was, and he had needed a few days to recover.
When he had, they had decided it was time to move on. There was nothing here they could do, and forward was the only way to go. To his great joy, Kira had decided to come with them, making them a band of four now.
Henry shook his head and smiled as he saw Petalwynd stepping out of the old monetary, her wide straw hat on her head, staff in hand. She paused a moment to look up at the building, then bowed deep, and turned to join them.
“You okay?” he asked.
“I will be, I think,” she said with a gentle smile as she reached up to remove the hat, revealing her freshly shaved head.
Henry ran a hand over it with a nod of approval. “Much more like a monk. I like it.”
“You were rather like a monk yourself, you know,” she replied. “That was some very skilled unarmed combat, after all.”
He shrugged. “I’ve been in a few bar fights, that’s all. My ex-wife liked to start them.”
“You were married?” Nerise asked in surprise.
“In another life,” Henry told her. “Before I found my family.”
The Juten struggled for something to say, but ended up just smiling and looking anywhere but at him for a while.
“Bar fights, huh?” Petalwynd mused. “And here I was thinking I was just a good influence on you.”
Henry’s smile faded. “You are. A very good influence.”
Petalwynd gave him a bright smile. “Henry! You learned something today!”
He slumped, then grinned happily. Petalwynd was back.
“Yeah, I did,” he agreed. “You’re still a pain in the ass.”
“That’s two things,” she intoned with awe. “This is a good day for you.”
“Oh, stop it,” he grumbled.
“Stop what?” Kira asked as she joined them.
“I’m congratulating Henry on learning things,” Petalwynd replied before Henry could.
“Henry can learn things?” Kira asked in mock shock. “Wow. Who woulda thought it?”
“Really?” he whined, waving a hand at her. “You, too?”
“Women stick together,” Kira shrugged.
Henry gave Nerise a warning look. She busied herself watching a flock of birds, and refused to get involved in this. He was somewhat glad.
“So, we off, then?” Henry asked.
“We are,” Petalwynd nodded.
“You guys go on ahead,” Kira said quickly as she moved away. “I want to pay one last visit to the graves of Hu and the others. Say my last goodbyes. I’ll catch up in a bit.”
“Of course,” Henry said, giving her a wave as he turned and took a step forward with his friends.
Behind them, Kira rounded the corner of the monastery, and paused, looking to the figure who stood in the shadows, watching her companions as they headed away.
“So, what do you think of them?” he asked.
“They’re everything you promised me they would be,” Kira said. “Everything, and then some.”
“I figured you’d think so.”
When Kira said nothing, the man considered her for a long moment. She was watching Henry, in particular, and smiling. With a sigh, he nodded his head.
“Figured that would happen, too.”
He gave a laugh. “He’s your type, after all. Brave, reckless, kind, and strong.”
She scowled at him. “This isn’t about that. I mean, yeah, I like him, a lot, but I don’t have time to let it be anything. He’s useful. That’s all.”
“That’s harsh,” her companion retorted.
“I’m trying to save a country,” Kira reminded him. “I don’t have time to let my personal feelings get in the way.”
“Of course, Princess,” Lieutenant Alan Foster said with a bow. “I’m just glad I was of service to the throne.”
“You have been,” she agreed. “Return to your men for now. I’ll test them, make sure they are the heroes we need. If they are, I’ll guide them to where they we need them.”
“We don’t have a lot of time,” Alan pointed out.
“We have enough,” she assured him. “More than enough to see if they can do it.”
“I feel bad about it,” he admitted. “I rather like them.”
Kira gave him a wan smile. “As do I. However, if I must sacrifice four to save a million, then that is my duty, isn’t it?”
“As our future Queen, it is,” he agreed.
“Then that’s what I will do,” she said. “Take care, Lieutenant.”
He gave a salute and watched her hurry to catch up. Somehow, he wondered, if she really could sacrifice them. When the time came, could she be hard hearted enough, really, to let them die?
Alan turned to head back to Trader’s hallow, a smile on his face. He had no doubt Petalwynd would show Princess Kira Callantin another way.
©-2017 Cain S. Latrani