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The number of sticks

By Suin All Rights Reserved ©

Action / Fantasy

Chapter 1: Trade and tricks

“Hey Konrad, I’m fed up with watching squirrels make war over some nuts,” Aeros spoke as a bored child might. The young man wore no weapon, his azure blue coat and white trousers looked more fit at a dancing party than in a forest, and the Epping Forest, no less! The kind of place where people had the bad habit of disappearing, never showing up again.

“What do you expect actually? Werewolf suddenly jumps out of a bush or vampire tries to bite your lovely neck?” Konrad, who had the look of a veteran warrior, answered haft-heartedly. A grey hood covered most of his face. He also carried  a long curved sword on his waist while a heavy crossbow was strapped to his back.

“What else? It doesn’t seem like we are enjoying an autumn picnic anyway.” Aeros continued to kick up a fuss. There was a sour look on his high cheekbones face.

“Perhap they are afraid of suffering a conversation with you.”

“What a meany!” Aeros protested, then a thought suddenly struck him. “Unless you mean...”

“Of course,” Konrad shrugged, quite surprised that his friend hadn’t realized such simple fact yet.

For a moment, the blond young man seemed to be deep in thought, but he quickly regained his enthusiasm and raised another question. “So when can I see some brigands?”

“Be careful what you wish for!” the tall warrior frowned for a moment, then his ears picked up something: the crushing of dry leaves, the snapping of small twigs, and heated argument…

“Bandits?” Aeros asked, hope filled his  almond-shaped emerald eyes.

“Worse,” Konrad replied, “amateurs.”

The footsteps on dry leaves grew louder until at last the brigands surrounded their supposed easy preys. Konrad counted three boys a year or two younger than Aeros, armed with pitiful clubs and rusty daggers. With them was a redhead girl in one mess of a dress wielding an unsightly bow. It looked like they had outgrown their urchin life recently but not tough enough to be accepted in a real street gang yet. All of them were covered in mud, hunger and desperation haunted their gaunty faces.

“Do as we say and no one will get hurt!” a hatchet-faced boy said. He was the largest of the party, an inch or two taller than Aeros. After taking a long look at both of the travellers, the boy continued. “I claim the sword and the crossbow that the big one carries,”

“I’ll take his leather armor then,” this came from a skinny boy with a nasty burn scar on his cheek.

The redhead girl then pointed her arrow at Aeros. “I want the coat and pant of the blonde sissy.”

“You’ve just met him and now you want to strip him nude?” the youngest boy complained.

“Fuck you all!”

“Are you sure?” the hatchet-faced boy showed a dirty grin.

“We are in hurry, you know?” Aeros spoke.

“Be quiet!” the redhead girl barked. “Can’t you see we are having an argument right now?”

“Sorry!” Aeros offered. The girl was still pointing the arrow at him, so being rude was out of the question. 

“First thing first, your purses!” the burned one ordered.

“What should we do, Konrad?” Aeros asked.

“You are the one begging to see some actions,” the tall warrior grunted, “and at the first sign of trouble, you raise the white flag immediately?”

“They are just some misguided kids. You can’t blame people for trying to survive.” Aeros shook his head and sighed.

“I won’t repeat myself again. We want it all, right down to your gears.” Hatchet-faced cried.

“Wait a minute!” Aeros raised both of his hands. “Taking some coins is fine but I doubt that my friend here wants to part with his sword. After all, I haven’t ever heard of any sword-priest doing such a thing.”

“Did you say sword-priest?” Hatchet-faced took a step back instantly.

“What is going on, Ryan?” the girl asked.

“You stupid woman! Don’t call my name!” the hatchet-faced boy snapped, then he took a further step back and scratched his head.

“What? Have you lost your nuts?” the redhead girl shouted.

“Just shut the fuck up!” Hatchet-faced barked. “Even a horde of Cjien would flee rather than face a sword-priest.”

“But how can we know if he is a real deal?” the burned boy asked.

“How about just give it a try?” Konrad took off his hood. The tall warrior’s skin was unnaturally pale, his pit black eyes glew with a savage inner fire. Lines of silver rune cover his shaved head then disappeard under the leather amor.

The gang shot uncertain glances to each other, not a single one dared to take the intimidating warrior priest up on his offer. Finally, Hatchet-faced frowned and said, “Perhaps we should let them go.“

“Not a wise choice,” Aeros said abruptly.

“What? Why?” all member of the gang were filled with confused look.

“Because we have seen all of your faces. Because we can report it to the first guardman we meet,” Aeros’ tone changed rapidly, then he pointed toward the hatchet-faced boy. “I even remember your name, Ryan.”

“That…” the hatchet-faced boy stuttered.

“Each trade has its tricks. Two of the very first among banditry are to cover your god damn face and not to spill out your name,” the blond young man howled, then he pointed toward the red-head girl who were still aiming arrow at him. “And you, toss away your silly bow.”

“Why? It is a good bow. I made it myself,” the young girl protested.

“You keep it drawn for almost five minutes, so either you are inhuman strong or your little toy is a useless piece of greenwood.”

“Any other advice?” the youngest boy honestly asked.

“How about scouting ahead, evaluating your target carefully to make sure you don’t stumble upon any sword-priest? Also, set up an ambush, make some traps. If your prey is right-handed then approaching from the left…” Aeros paused for a moment then spoke to the redhead girl. “Don’t forget to…”

“That is enough!” Konrad warned.

“What? Aren’t you the one always preaching about helping people?”

“This kind of help will get a lot of good folks killed!” mixed feeling of resolve and regret filled the warrior priest’s face, his steady hand  gripped the handle of the curved sword.

“A well executed robbery usually leaves less corpses than a messy one…” Aeros hesitated, then boldly stared at his friend for a long moment before pulling out a rune-covered ivory claw from his pocket and tossed it to the hatchet-faced boy.

“What’s it?” The whole gang curiously asked, paying no mind to the strange silent just a moment ago.

“Your future,” The blond young man grinned. “Go to the nearest city, ask for the Golden Claw, then show the one in charge that small figure. Tell him the cripple send his regard.”

“Are you trying to cheat us?” the redhead girl asked doubtfully.

“Perhaps,”

“What kind of answer is that?” the girl angrily barked.

“A tricky one,” Aeros grinned again.

The gang were speechless, but Konrad had had his share of trouble for a day and decided to interfere. “Just do as he said and you will be rewarded handsomely.”

Four amateur bandits seemed to take Konrad at his words and were preparing to leave when the tall warrior priest continued to speak. “Do you know how far we are from Tisza?”

“Only haft a day worth of walking,” the hatchet-faced boy quickly answered. “Though I wouldn’t go there if I were you. It is a dragon’s hunting ground now.”

“Would you mind filling me in with more detail?” Konrad pulled out a silver coin from his pocket and flipped it to the boy.

“I heard that the baron’s men captured that monster last summer, but some big shit happened and it ran loose again. The maniac terrorized that town ever since, killed no less than thirty men in just four months. They said the baron would pay a fortune to get rid of that winged beast once and for all.”

“Exactly what I want to hear!” the warrior showed one of his rare smile.

“And I think we are traveling to the asylum,” Aeros groaned.

“That town is on our route anyway,” Konrad replied while walking away from the group.

“Hey Konrad,” the blond young man said after making sure no one could hear them, “did you really intend to…”

“No,”

“You bastard!” Aeros angrily shouted. “Do you know how much that figure worths?”

“Of course,”

“Fuck!”

“Admit it!” Konrad calmly said. “You just want to annoy me as much as possible, right? Babbling all that nonsense about trade and tricks.”

“Yes, it is true that those haft-baked tricks are useless. If it were me…”

“Then what?”

Aeros grinned then kept his mouth shut for the first time.

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