Xian

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Chapter 1.8: Strangers Bearing Gifts.

“Among my philosophical musings, you might be nursing a certain question. That question being: Why does everyone hate the elves and vice versa, and what are these wars that everyone’s talking about? Well sit back dear reader, and I shall illuminate you.

Millenia ago, when the gods actually did things, the myriad species of Caminus and Yishu shared the gifts of this world, both natural and magical, in equal measure. Then, two elven siblings whose names are lost to time (I know who they were, but telling you would ruin the ambiance of my narrative) looked into a mirror and made a startling discovery: Elves...are sexy.

This divine “truth” compelled them to rally the other elves into a triumphant crusade across the western world. Thus, The Elysian Empire was born, and then reigned for two thousand years...Then every other mortal species rebelled and the empire crumbled. Yet due to the Elves’ hoarding of magical secrets, the little bastards have managed to remain at the top of the social totem pole. Naturally, the other species resent this, which has led to many wars of both class and race across several of your generations...”

********

The energy field circling the town was more impressive then Abram had anticipated. Possibilities of the magic powering it ran through his mind; even as he helped set camp outside of Skywood Hold. There were no advantageous positions like hills or ridges surrounding the town. There were only woods and grasslands, so Abram decided to camp in the latter. When questioned on this, he pointed out the many other campsites in the general area. Many townsfolk had been outside Skywood when the field appeared, and were now huddled outside.

The farmers who supplied the town with food had come from their homesteads to feed the semi-exiles. At first Abram suspected it was for economic reasons, but then he saw many of the farmers giving out cooked and ready to eat meat for free.

The sight stunned him such, that he paused from his work and watched. Everyone else in his party worked on, fearing what might happen should they interrupt him.

All except Evangeline, who walked right up to Abram, and deduced what he was looking at. “It’s not like we haven’t seen charity before.”

The Silvered Fiend scoffed at this. “Not in this country, not much of it anyway.”

“Not from the nobles, I guess. But with all the crazy shit that happens in these parts, I think the regular folks like to stick together.”

Abram looked out over the other campsites, and the many suspicious eyes fixed on his train. It wasn’t unexpected, he had counted on it in fact. If there was a bandit attack, or some other disaster, there would be bodies between it and his crew. But as he considered these thoughts, he saw someone else looking in his direction, Ylena.

As used to people’s attention as he was, there was only so much that Abram could handle. “I’m pretty sure that’s a nervous expression on her face, however nervous a dwarf can be...I suppose it’s time then.”

He waved a hand at her. “Come over here captain, I can tell you have something to say.”

She looked from side to side, like she was about to do something she wished none could see. Then she marched over with a practiced confidence. Once she reached the Silvered Fiend, Ylena took in a deep breathe, let it out, and said: “I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

The junior captains’ words came out a bit rushed. “I’m sorry for thinking that the stories about you were a bunch of rubbish and shite. But you really are a warrior of skill, and an expert strategist and all the rest...So I’m sorry I thought any different.”

Ylena kept her nervous grimace and nodded curtly before going back to her work. Knowing that her admission had been a difficult one, Abram smiled beneath his helmet. He knew he had chosen well in letting the neophyte captain into this hunt, but certain misgivings still lingered in his mind.

And Evangeline, who had been able to read Abram’s periodic silences for years now, tilted her head so she could meet his gaze. “I don’t think she has it in her to be a spy.”

“Converts and flatterers make rather convincing spies, in my experience. Her admiration could easily turn to fear or jealousy.”

Evangeline smiled again, in her confusing and charming way. “Always with the cynicism.”

“I think it justified.”

There was a lingering question in Evangeline’s mind, Abram could see it. But before he could ask what it was, the sounds of a brawl pierced into his ears. They both rushed towards the noise, dodging through bystanders and almost stepping on a few sleeping refugees.

At their jogs end, the Fiend and the Warlock found their new elven companions fending off a gang of humans armed with farming hoes and wooden sticks. The elves nimbly dodged their blows for as long as they could, but the shorter of the two (a younger sister most likely) was holding something in her hands, a bundle.

Before Abram could get a better look at it, he noticed movement at the corner of his eye. “Are they really that stupid?”

On reflex, he punched out with a gauntleted hand and broke the axe that was coming for his head at the shaft. The force of the impact was such that the axes owner, a human man in common clothes, found himself stepping back with his hands flying over his head. He lost his balance and landed on his butt with a thump.

This was finally enough to ear the whole crowd’s concern. Though this attention was clearly unwanted by the two elves. These sisters, who Abram knew as Abanisi and Tricia, looked up at their commander with hopeful eyes. Dressed in the same chain and leather that they had scavenged off of their former captors, and their fair skin barely washed, they were a rough-looking pair. Adding to this look was the bundle of meat that Abanisi held in her hand.

Before Abram had even raised his gaze to hers, Abanisi explained herself. “This was a gift!”

From behind her came the voice of a younger man. “No one around here gifts knife ears.”

All turned towards this young man. He wore rough clothing and fingerless gloves that did little to hide the calluses on his hands. The other humans, five in total, backed away in deference to this man, who was obviously their ringleader. Though the other gathered citizens looked to him for direction. But before he could speak again, Tricia, slightly taller and with ashen hair opposed to Abanisi’s blonde, drew a long dagger to the boy’s throat. “Leave us alone you perverse scum.”

Before the mob could charge in, Abram called out with an unbreakable authority in his voice. “Stand down!”

The mob, a varied mix of humans from different social strata, obeyed. This was as surprising to them as it was to Abanisi and Tricia.

Only the ringleader remained defiant, even as he bristled at the blade against his throat. “You! Sir Knight, keep your pets on a leash, and we’ll forget any of this happened.”

“They are free to do as they wish, though whether I help them or not depends on what they say next.”

Abanisi tried to step forward and speak, but the gang got in her way...that is until a burst of emerald flame streaked in front of one of the humans. All eyes, except Abram’s and Tricia’s, turned to Evangeline.

The young warlock looked around for source of the flame along with everyone else. “Wow! Just...Wow! I have no idea where that hellfire came from...But unless you want it to happen again, I think you should let her through.”

They did just that, and Abanisi set about explaining what happened with a beleaguered tone. “Well it’s like this sir: We went out to gather food like you told us to. We found an old farmer giving out beef and we asked him if he was selling. He just smiled and told us to take a share with everyone else.”

The young man with the blade at his throat spit on the ground. “Stupid old shit.”

Ignoring this, Abanisi continued. “So, we said thank you, and walked up to his cart...where this young person-”

She pointed a gloved hand at the young ringleader. “-Was manning the desk. So we asked him for the beef, no more than anyone else was getting and he asked us for payment. We explained what the old man had said, but the kid dismissed it. Well...this wasn’t the first time we’d had to put up with this, so we asked him how much it was, since we just wanted to get out of there. He then told us that our money was no good here, but that...”

There was a hesitation in her voice, but that was cut off by Tricia’s own commentary. “He said that ten minutes with my “fine ass” would just about cover it.”

The young tool with the blade at his throat wore a dark grin. “I bet it’d be the only time you didn’t club somebody over the head for it, you damn knife-ear.”

Before anyone could say anything else, the air was filled with Abrams booming, and unnatural laughter. The ringleader looked at the Silvered Fiend with a curious glance. “The hell are you laughing about?”

“Only ten minutes?”

Everyone blinked in surprise, but Abram continued on. “Well I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. I imagine it’s quite a chore for you to hold out even that long.”

Evangeline worked hard to suppress a smile, while the two elven women bit back their own laughter. The other young men looked embarrassed, though a few of them chuckled before shifting their gaze from their now humiliated leader.

Of course, now that he was humiliated, the young man held nothing back. “Alright then you armored shit, what are you gonna do?”

“I’m going to giving you a chance.”

The young man’s arrogance didn’t let up, even as he was confused. “What chance?”

“A chance to convince me not to kill you and your friends.”

There was a silence, all levity disappeared and fear was now the reigning impulse. Evangeline gripped her hands, and one could see the faint flickers of emerald light peeking beneath her fingers. Abanisi and Tricia gulped down air, they were all for self-defense, but the sheer murder that was present in Abram’s voice set them on edge. But this was nothing compared to the young gang members, who were paralyzed.

Since this was just par for course in his line of work, Abram casually drew his Morningstar. “Allow me to explain. You accosted two members of my train, and then you told me how I ought to treat them. In some countries, I’d be within my rights to butcher you right here. But I am nothing if not a reasonable man, so I’m going to allow you to defend yourself...and your friends.”

Ganging up on beleaguered strangers was one thing, but fighting a trained killer in armor? The gang knew they were out of their depth. Before one of them could sputter out a plea for mercy, an older voice rose from the now curious murmur of the growing crowd. “I beg you please, spare these boys.”

Tricia and Abanisi looked towards the voice, seeming to recognize it. At this distraction, The young ringleader moved to take away the dagger. In response, Tricia merely flicked her wrist, brought the blade across his face, and back to his throat. The cut was light but stung and bled. Yet Abram’s attention was fixed on this old man. He was of a formidable build and possessed of the same naturally dark skin tone as the ringleader. His walk was also efficient, almost regimented. And when he stood before the Silvered Fiend, the old man was just a few inches shorter.

Despite this air of capability, the old man made no attempt to hide his desperation. “Please, I ask you to leave my grandson alive, and his fool friends if it pleases you.”

The cat-eyes widened, intrigued at this development, and wanting more. “I’m giving him a chance to defend himself.”

“Please, I beg of you, spare my grandson Gideon. He is blinded by the prejudices of histories he is too young to have known.”

This man’s soldierly habits were all too obvious, even behind his genuine pleas for mercy. Abram finally found the answer to its origin, when he spied a tattoo on the elder’s right shoulder. It was of a Unicorn spearing a dragon with its horn: The symbol of the Royal Guards fifteenth legion.

Abram didn’t even conceal his respect. “It is good to see your colors sir, but what is a royal legionnaire doing in farmers’ clothes?”

“Retiring my lord, and failing to raise my grandson properly.”

The grandson in question, Gideon, took exception to this comment; and despite the pain in his face, he made himself heard by all. “Those knife-ears killed your daughter! My Mother!”

The grandfather shook his head mournfully. “Feudal wars my boy. There were elves and humans killing each other aplenty in those days.”

“And that makes it right?”

“No. But holding the sons and daughters of our enemies responsible for the sins of the past is wrong! These young women only wanted food, which we are here to give. Besides, I owe them a debt.”

Abanisi looked over at the old man and recognized his face. “My gods, Tricia...we healed this man after he protected our farm.”

The old man nodded. “I am sorry to say that I live there now. I’ve tried my best to take care of it...I kept what farmhands who wanted to stay and-”

Abanisi shook her head. “It’s better in your hands than in ours. My sister and I had no skill for nature.”

Gideon rolled his eyes. “I thought you elves loved all things green and itchy.”

The grandfather took to his knees and begged at Abram’s feet. “Please, good knight. Spare my grandson from your wrath, he will be disciplined.”

Abram looked long and hard at the old man. Then, he conjured a brand and held it out to Evangeline. She then raised her hand and heated it with low flames. Abram then looked down upon the now grim and serious old man. “What is your rank and name?”

“Captain Ali Adin, sir.”

“You know the penalty for hate crimes in the Royal Guard?”

Ali nodded, and Abram handed the brand to him once Evangeline finished her work. Not one word passed between the two men as Ali took the brand, and plunged it into Gideon’s exposed cheek. The young man screamed out, and even the two elven women looked away...Tricia, who up until then held a steeled hand with her dagger, actually closed her eyes as she backed away.

Only Abram, Evangeline, and Ali remained focused and staring at the work being done. Once he was finished, Ali dropped the brand and ran to his falling grandson. In vain did he try to comfort him, for Gideon shoved him away as he flailed on the ground. Abram took stock of the situation, before reaching into a pouch on his belt. He counted out fifteen pieces of silver and then put them into the steady hand of Ali.

The older man matched Abram’s gaze with an equal metal. “Thank you for your mercy sir knight, but the food was for-”

Abram sheathed his weapon and waved his free hand in a dismissive fashion. “Then use the money for more of this charity you are so fond of. Perhaps inspire a different outlook from your grandson’s.”

Ali gave a nodded grimly, before once more attempted to comfort his grandson. Gideon, tears in his eyes, brushed away his grandfather’s hands. Then he stood up and defiantly pointed at Abram. “I won’t forget this you elf-loving bastard!”

Abram didn’t even flinch. “Good. You wouldn’t learn from it otherwise.”

With that final word, Abram and his companions turned on their heels and went back to their campsite, while the rest of the crowd went about their original business. The sun had just begun to set, and it’s dying rays glinted off Abram’s armor.

His light pierced the eyes of those following him, but they walked on anyway, hurriedly, even desperately marching in his wake. Finally, they reached their destination, and the human couple: Alexander, husband and cook, and Cleo, wife and huntress, took the meat that the elves had brought and prepared it over a fresh campfire. Abram conjured a steeled chair for himself and noticed Evangeline standing over him, looking contemplative. Abram didn’t even need to be asked, and he conjured another chair for her.

Evangeline mouthed a thank you and then sat down in the seat. “So, you just made a man burn his own grandson’s face.”

“It would have given the wrong message if I did it myself.”

“Ah.”

“Ah what?”

Evangeline leaned forward, balancing her chin on a curled fist, which rested on as lender arm balanced atop her crossed legs.

“Ah, you’re a knightly knight.”

“That answer isn’t particularly- ”

“You won’t get your hands dirty with scum. You just arbitrate over it and let others mete out the punishment, the ideal ruler most people’s eyes. And you showed that to the entire town.”

“Something like that, yes.”

Evangeline smiled at him and sat back in her chair. “But why? To flex the power of the Imperial Flame? Of yourself?”

“No, because it was just.”

“Just?”

“That’s the whole reason we’re here. Justice. If we’re pursuing it for ourselves, there no reason we shouldn’t help others do the same.”

Evangeline fixed him with a piercing look and tapped her fingers on the arm of her chair. Abram knew better to interrupt, as he could tell she was puzzling out his motives. She enjoyed those moments where she matched his reasoning.

This time though, she threw her hands up in defeat. “Alright, but why do it here? You never do anything without a reason so what is it this time?”

As she said that, their new orc companion, clothed in chainmail with two short swords sheathed at his hips, walked over to Abram and bowed. “Sir?”

“Is something wrong, Ironbrow?”

The large orc, who was the same height as Abram but more muscled, shook his head. He pointed a maroon toned hand toward a long line of human and elven civilians. “These people came and are asking for your judgment in...” He patted down his pockets and the pouches of his belt and then gave up with an accepting laugh. “Well I had a list, but there was a lot.”

Abram indicated towards the crowd, answering Evangeline’s question. She then smiled and followed Abram as he began tending to the people that Count De Fuoco had forsaken.

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