The morning was passing peacefully enough with only light-hearted conversation between the two. There seemed to be an unsaid agreement to avoid anything deeper for the time being. They were talking about the myriad of Gods that inhabit the different lands and how each one had its own version of Paradise and Hell. For example, Asfirak, the God of Trees had its Hell as a barren desert. Whereas the Hell for followers of Torval the Mountain God believed their Hell to be a vast and featureless Plain with no end. Just before noon, Talon called a halt to their little procession.
“Look ahead there, that’s an awful lot of dust in the air for it to be just travelers. Something’s wrong. I’m going to scout ahead and find out what’s happening. Follow my tracks at your best pace and keep an eye out.” With that he galloped off, down a deep ravine with a creek bed that ran in the general direction of the disturbance. Pulling the pack horse along, Vanna followed at a slow trot.
Talon climbed up the creek bed’s slope and, with just his head poking over the edge he surveyed the plain before him. A small merchant’s caravan was being besieged by a group of six Marauders. They ran their horses in circles around the caravan, firing arrows at the merchants. Their aim was to kill the people and salvage the goods, so they were being very careful with their shots. Before long, Vanna caught up to him, tied off her horses to some creek bottom shrubs and climbed up to Talon.
“Marauders. I hate these vermin.” said Talon. “All they do is kill, steal and rape. Usually in that order. No honor at all to’em. They give other nomad tribes a bad name. Listen Vanna, I’m going to put a stop to this, but I need you to stay here. I mean it, the last thing we need is you catching a stray arrow.”
But Vanna had questions. “What are you going to do? I mean, do you have a plan of attack?” Having sat in on several of her father’s War Councils, she had learned that that was the first thing you wanted to do. Develop a plan of attack before engaging the enemy.
Talon was now making his way down to the creek bed and getting into Hotshot’s saddle. He wrapped his flannel scarf around his nose and mouth, pulled his horse bow from its quiver and placed several arrows in his bow hand. “I do have a plan” he answered. “I’m going to attack.”
Timing his climb out of the creek bed carefully, he waited until the group of Marauders had made another circuit around the beleaguered merchants and then ran after them at a full gallop. He was able to gain ground on them quickly due to their already tired horses and the pure powerful speed that Hotshot was able to give. The big stud knew a fight was near and that was one of his two absolute favorite things to do. They were close now, an easy bow shot away but Talon wanted to get closer. Once bodies started dropping, his surprise attack would be over.
Two Marauders were riding almost parallel to each other. Opting to take the outermost rider, Talon nocked an arrow, waited an instant for all of Hotshot’s hooves to be off the ground and released the arrow. The rider fell, instantly dead from an arrow that pierced his spine at the back of his neck. In the space a few more heartbeats he was next to the other rider who hadn’t noticed a thing because all his attention was on the caravan. Talon kicked the rider’s right leg who then looked over in confusion.
“Hello!” shouted Talon and released another arrow point blank into the Marauders face. “Goodbye!” he shouted over his left shoulder as he increased Hotshot’s pace. “Have to move fast now, before the lead riders see the bodies I’ve just dropped.” he thought. Marauder number three, however, had taken that moment to check on his friends behind him. Seeing the stranger drop one of his own sent a clear message. Enemy. And enemies must die. Turning his own horse around he charged at Talon and Hotshot. He was able to release an arrow which narrowly missed Hotshot’s chest. Talon’s arrow did not miss, it punctured the man in his chest who managed to stay in the saddle for a short time before falling out. And this was witnessed by the remaining three Marauders who then maneuvered to surround Talon. Familiar with their tactics, Talon saw one Marauder that stood out from the others because of his tall, bright red mohawk and figured he might be this band’s leader. Talon charged straight at the man while rapid firing the rest of the arrows clutched in his bow hand. He wasn’t taking careful aim now because his goal was to keep the man busy until he saw an opening. However, his rapid firing of the remaining arrows actually unnerved the Marauder enough to make him run. That, and seeing half his men already on the ground. Settling his bow back into its bow quiver, Talon urged Hotshot on to a pursuit course of Red Mohawk while the other two Marauders fell in behind Talon. Damn! He really hadn’t figured on the leader turning tail like this but then again, he realized, it’s not surprising. Not fond of having two riders behind him, releasing arrows in his general direction, Talon turned in the opposite direction and charged directly at the two Marauders. He drew his Eastern yaiba sword from the sheath on his back as he quickly closed the distance between them and watched the rider on his left very closely. In fact, he made a show of watching just that single Marauder and ignoring the other. At the last instant, he dodged to the right, barely out of reach of the left Marauder’s sword swing and stabbed the right Marauder through the rib cage. Unfortunately, the sword stuck firmly in the man's ribcage, and Talon lost his grip on it. Mortally wounded, the Marauder quickly fell out of his saddle. Another turn to face the remaining the two Marauders and Talon saw that Red Mohawk was still heading for the horizon, but the remaining rider was charging him again. Then, a small black crossbow bolt tore open the rider’s throat. Coughing blood, choking but still alive, the rider galloped past Talon who turned his horse yet again to follow. The rider began slumping over still holding his neck. Just beyond him was Vanna on her gelding. She was frantically trying to reload her crossbow, unaware that the rider was practically dead in his saddle. Just before reaching her, the man finally tumbled off his horse and crashed onto the ground in front of her. She stared in horror as the man hacked up frothy blood in terrible gurgling sounds and bled his last into the dirt in front of her, kicking feebly and pawing ineffectually at the ragged wound in his neck.
Talon looked back and forth between the retreating Marauder and Vanna. He considered pursuing the mohawked Marauder as it was never a good idea to leave any of them alive but decided that Vanna took priority. He soon reached her and dismounted. He saw what she was experiencing and correctly assumed it was the first kill she had ever made. He gently helped her down off her horse, turned in the direction of the merchants and started walking with his arm around her shoulders.
“Look at those people over there, Vanna. Those are good, honest people. At least, as far as merchants go. They brave these dangers to provide folks with the goods they need. They’re alive now because you and I took a stand against some very bad people. So don’t think for a minute that you’ve done something wrong because you haven’t. You’ve helped protect the innocent and you’ve helped rid the world of something it really doesn’t need.”
It was the most words she had yet heard from him at one time, and she was grateful. The sincerity and understanding were both unexpected and very heartening. She knew she might have nightmares about that man, bleeding to death in front of her but she knew Talon was right. Those people in front of her, running now to meet her and Talon, were alive now because she had stood for what was right. And that thought raised her spirits considerably.
The merchants were, of course, understandably thankful. Despite the slower pace it would entail, Vanna and Talon agreed to travel with them to the next settlement. It’s where they were planning on staying for the night anyway. And besides, they offered to pay for all of Talon’s drinks.
Nazeem Al-baqr ran his fingers through his red mohawk and fought to catch his breath. Carefully, he probed what was left of his right ear. When the stranger showed up and quickly killed three of his patrol, he had decided the best course of action was retreat. Never had he seen anyone slice right through his men so quickly and it had unnerved him. That, and losing half his ear to an arrow. He could still hear it’s evil sound as it narrowly missed the rest of his head.
There would be trouble with his chieftain, that much was certain. He resolved to tell it like it really happened. Twelve, no, fifteen armed warriors appeared and rescued the caravan.
And it was only pure skill and determination that allowed him to escape. Perhaps the chieftain would agree to release a warband to him. That way he could track down and kill the intruder. And the blonde woman...she would fetch a fine price and go a long way towards restoring his lost ‘honor’. After applying a rough poultice to his ear, he rode his horse off to the East in the direction of the chieftain’s latest campsite.
The next day saw another early start, despite the pounding in Talon’s head. Vanna had gone to bed early and woke feeling refreshed. She spent the morning gently teasing Talon about the state of his sore head and Talon bore it all in good humor. They quite easily fell into a friendly rapport about nothing very important. That same unsaid agreement was still in effect. They both knew that she needed it after yesterday’s events.
The ground was rising now, becoming more of a scrub land with slowly meandering streams that fed slowly meandering rivers. Wide but shallow, they were easy to cross and provided the horses with plenty of fresh water and a welcome cool down to their bellies and legs.
The end of the day saw them arriving at a crossroads with a roadhouse.
“I know this place,” said Talon. “They serve the best lamb stew I’ve ever had.” They tied off their horses and walked inside the roadhouse. Pottery then exploded on the wall next to Talon’s head.
“OUT” shouted the innkeeper. “Out and don’t come back, Talon!”
Vanna was quite surprised and bemused by this. "I see he knows you!” she exclaimed.
“Talk to him, will you?” asked Talon while he ducked out the door.
Some time later, Vanna came back out. “Just what did you do with his daughter?” she asked. “He’s going to let us stay in the hay loft and supper will be served out there, but he swears he’ll kill you if he sees you again.”
Talon replied, “I didn’t do anything she didn’t want to do, I swear! I’m going to give the old man some time to cool off and then get this settled.”
Unsaddling the horses and getting their gear put away didn’t take very long at all. They were starting to learn each other’s movements and becoming a well synchronized team.
Talon had been fuming, muttering to himself about unfair treatments, grown women and overprotective fathers. Finally, Talon marched into the roadhouse, on guard for more flying pottery. The old man had his back turned to Talon which allowed him to close the distance. Turning around, the innkeeper saw Talon standing in front of him and his face immediately started turning red with anger.
“Hold on there, friend. I come in peace, and I wish to leave in peace. No need to destroy more crockery.”
Arvil, the innkeeper replied “She’s long gone now! Married off to a good family far away!”
Talon replied, “That’s good to know. You raised a fine daughter and I wonder if you’d see that this gold coin gets to her.” Arvil, who had started to calm down began re-igniting his anger. “It’s not like that, dammit. This is nothing but a wedding gift, given with sincere good-wishes for her and her family’s well-being.”
This mollified Arvil somewhat who then informed Talon that dinner would be served soon and wishes for a peaceful night’s sleep. Figuring that was the best he was going to get, Talon started making his way for the door but not before noticing a shapely set of legs behind the curtain that separated the kitchen from the rest of the hall.
“How’d it go?” asked Vanna with an amused expression on her face. “I don’t see any new wounds on your face.” Talon explained that peace had been achieved and that dinner should arrive soon. Arvil was true to his word and a very hearty serving of lamb stew soon arrived with a couple large mugs of ale and a loaf of freshly baked bread. Served by an attractive young lady with shapely legs. She spent a little extra time fussing over Talon before leaving. Vanna noticed and smirked, thinking that this must be typical with a rogue’s life. Supper was indeed delicious, and it was finished quickly. It was then whisked away by the same girl who repeatedly tried making eye contact with Talon, who studiously avoided all such contact. Vanna and Talon climbed up the ladder to the hay loft with their bedrolls and set about making their beds for the night. Soon enough both were asleep, grateful for the comfortable bedding.
A pebble flew up through the air, arced downward and fell onto Talon’s chest which woke him from a sound sleep. He wondered what had happened when, almost of its own volition, his right hand shot out and caught another pebble that would have landed on his face. Now fully awake, he rolled over and looked over the edge of the hayloft to the barn floor below. There stood Arvil’s other daughter beckoning him down with a wide smile. “I’ll be damned” said Talon to himself. “Sisters really do talk about everything!”
The early morning light of dawn caught Talon climbing back up the ladder to the hayloft. There he saw Vanna, sitting cross-legged with her hands held palm upright on her knees. He recognized the classic meditation pose but it was the first time he’d seen her doing it.
“Do you ever sleep?” asked Vanna with closed eyes. “You know this is a not a leisure trip, right? That we are actually in a hurry?” she said, scowling.
“I think you’re doing this meditation thing wrong” said Talon with a grin. “This stuff is supposed to make you peaceful!” Talon ducked just in time to avoid the thrown pitchfork.