“I don’t want to get up,” Deren murmured groggily. He rolled over and looked away from the door. Nypre sat up slowly and walked over to the window. The window only showed the wilderness outside of town. It was very early in the morning and the source of the clanging was nowhere to be found. Nypre was tired of being awakened suddenly every morning. First Ryan and now this? He opened the door of the room and made his way to the lobby downstairs.
“Good morning sir. How did you sleep?” The innkeeper greeted him with a smile. He was an overweight bald man who seemed friendly enough. He stood at the counter just like the previous night. It was like he hadn’t moved.
“I slept well, thank you. What was that clanging sound I just heard?” Nypre asked. The innkeeper seemed surprised that anyone would ask that.
“Oh, you’re really not from Falkner’s territory. It was the collection bell. Every month each town gives a small portion of their earnings to the kingdom which is then used to build roads, buildings, and of course fund the war. It’s called taxes. The bell is rung when the royal collector first enters town so everyone can be ready,” the innkeeper explained.
“Yeah, we don’t have anything like that in Tawarln’s territory. It seems fair enough I guess.” Nypre didn’t want to pass judgment on other people’s cultures.
“Ha, glad you think so. We all know it does well for us in the long run, but still, having to give up some of our hard earned money is never fun. There’s been trouble before.” the Innkeeper gossiped. “You don’t have to worry about it since you’re just traveling. Where are you heading anyway?”
“Lumin,” Nypre replied pridefully.
“Ah, Lumin. Seeking spiritual enlightenment? We do have a church here if you wish to pray before leaving.”
“Thank you but I’m just an escort. I don’t worship Ana or anything like that.” Nypre explained. “I don’t mean to offend though!” he quickly added
“No worries. Some people do, some people don’t. It’s up to each person to decide. She isn’t very popular here. People tend to blame her for the current state of things.” The innkeeper nodded in understanding. A knock on the front door abruptly ended their conversation.
“Come on in,” the Innkeeper said with a merry tone, grabbing something from underneath the counter. The door opened and inside walked a man in full steel armor. His face was covered by a helmet made of the same material. He wore a dark black cloak with the symbol of a red bird on it. Nypre recognized it as the mark of the bird Falkner was famous for. On one side of his belt was a hand crossbow and quiver, on the other a sheathed short sword. Nypre couldn’t help but feel intimidated, especially since he had forgotten his own sword upstairs. The armored man walked over to the innkeeper just as he pulled out a small pouch of coins. He opened the pouch and ruffled through the coins one by one.
“The price of the tribute has been increased. We apologize for the inconvenience,” the armored man said after counting. He returned the coins to the pouch.
“Increased? What for?” The Innkeeper’s expression flared with anger. He clearly wasn’t intimidated at all like Nypre was.
“We require more funding for the warfront,” the armored man explained dully as if he had said it a thousand times.
“It’s due to the war with Aqnis, right?” Nypre couldn’t help but ask. He regretted it immediately. The armored man turned his head to face Nypre. Nypre couldn’t see his face in the helmet but felt the glare regardless.
“Where did you hear that boy?” he hissed.
“War on Aqnis?” The innkeeper was confused now.
“Where do you come from that you feel the need to spread lies?” The armored man ignored the innkeeper entirely. Nypre didn’t say anything. With a flash the man drew his already loaded crossbow and pointed it at Nypre. “Answer!” He ordered.
“Um. Tawarln’s territory,” Nypre spoke quietly.
“I see. And why does Tawarln wish for you to spread lies like this? We’ve had to deal with his interference in the past, but he has never done something like this,” the man growled.
“He doesn’t! I’ve never even talked to him before!” Nypre blurted out.
“Leave him alone! He’s just a boy who heard a rumor.” The Innkeeper tried to get involved. The soldier stood in silence, still aiming his crossbow at Nypre. Finally, he returned it to his belt.
“This will be enough for now,” the man grunted and walked out of the inn. Nypre jumped at the sound of Deren walking down the stairs.
“What’s going on?” He asked.
“Nothing,” Nypre lied, still shaking.
“Don’t lie to me boy!” Deren laughed. Nypre and Deren sat down at one of the tables in the lobby so Nypre could explain the scene that occured. “That’s messed up.” Deren’ said seriously.
“You are correct,” the Innkeeper sighed. “Things are getting worse. Why is Falkner declaring war on Aqnis?
“So you believe us then?” Nypre asked
“It wouldn’t surprise me. I don’t see why you’d lie about it either,” the Innkeeper nodded. The Innkeeper explained how Falkner had been increasing his military, drafting any of those able to fight from all of the towns. Those unable to fight he would put to work forging weapons, armor, or other monstrosities with the supplies provided from the Telkis territory.
“Ever since the Night Land appeared Falkner has been acting desperate. If you ask me, he’s afraid,” the innkeeper explained. “He says the elves created the Night Land to try to expand their territory. I don’t buy it. Elves are vicious creatures. But they usually keep to themselves.”
“Meeting with the locals I see?” Ryan appeared down the stairs wearing his usual smile. With Ryan awake they decided to eat breakfast which the innkeeper provided free as an apology for how the collector acted.
“You should be careful what you say, Nypre,” Ryan scolded him after being filled in on the situation. At the same time he didn’t seem too worried. After eating breakfast the three gathered their supplies and, with a quick goodbye, they left the inn. Nypre wanted to stay and hear more gossip from the innkeeper, but Ryan insisted they leave.
“It feels strange leaving Dustin already. We just stayed one night.” Deren surveyed the town.
“If we explored every town’s secrets we’d be traveling for months. I’m afraid I don’t have that kind of time, and I’m sure your mother wouldn’t be happy either.” Ryan responded. “We’ll stop by the capital today. That’s the best thing to see. Falkner has a well built castle and a town even larger than Dustin surrounds it.”
The stone roads of Falkner’s territory made travel easier. The environment was different than the fields of Tawarln. There were tall trees creating a light wooded area that shined beautifully in the sunlight. The Night Land was to the west of them now. It loomed in the distance, breaking up any good image of the woods they walked through. As they walked they came across some farmland. It was much different farmland than from the Tawarln territory. Even Nypre could tell the plants were being grown improperly and there were far less animals.
“Looks like Falkner is working to become more self-sufficient. This is worrisome,” Ryan pointed out.
“It will be several years with how they farm,” Deren scoffed.
The farmland changed into a town similar to Dustin but much larger. In the distance was a very large building unlike any Nypre and Deren had ever seen before. It was Falkner’s castle. Created from dark stone it towered over the surrounding town. Large dark banners with the symbol of the red bird hung from the castle walls. The streets of town were flooded with people all moving toward the castle.
“What’s going on?” Ryan asked one of the villagers.
“There’s going to be an execution in the town square!” the villager replied with sickening glee. Ryan gave Nypre and Deren a smile as if it were nothing. The three of them followed the crowd to the town square, which was just outside the castle walls. The closer they got to the castle, the bigger the buildings became. They were made of wood and stone just like in Dustin. It was uncommon to see a building with less than two floors at this point. The people were dressed differently too. Most of them wore robes of varying colors. It was far different than the leathers Tawarln fashion was made up of.
The town square itself was a circular cobblestone clearing in the middle of the buildings. A single tree was growing in a small patch of dirt surrounded by the cobblestone road off to the side. It was the only natural decoration. In the center of the circle was a wooden stand with post on it. Attached to the top of the post was a rope tied in a noose, and on the side of it was a lever. It was clear what the stand was used for.
“I wonder who’s being executed this time, is it another rebel?” one of the villagers asked another in anticipation. Nypre found it revolting to see people looking forward to this. The people looked not at the stand but at the castle wall which had a very large portcullis stretching almost to the top. With a loud clunk, the portcullis began to open. The crowd cheered in excitement as from behind the castle walls soldiers who looked similar to the tax collector marched out. There were six of them. In their midst was a small person whose head was covered with a black hood. It was hard to see this person until they marched her on to the stand. She wore a strange outfit unlike anything Nypre had seen before. It was a short grassy leafy skirt with a matching top. If she weren’t being executed Nypre would have taken a moment to admire her beauty. Her hands were bound by rope and she was held on either side by one of the armored guards.
“We have a special treat for all of you today!” one guard yelled; he was clearly the leader. The crowd was immediately fell silent so they could hear him speak. He walked over to the girl and pulled off her hood. “Behold, an elf!” he laughed loudly. The crowd gasped. She looked very human, the only difference was her ears were very long and pointed, they stretched quite a bit behind her head, and her eyes were more slanted. She also looked very young.
“This elf escaped her family to plead with us to stop our assault on their precious forest. Apparently she isn’t happy with the number of elves we killed!” the lead guard continued yelling. “Look over there elf,” he grabbed the elf’s head and forced her to look over the horizon to the Night Land. “Your dark magic continues to spread through our territory. You brought this wrath upon yourself!” The elf girl sobbed. She was horrified, but the crowd booed and yelled for her death. She tried to talk but her voice was drowned out by the crowd.
“I can’t believe this,” Deren was angry. “They’re really going to kill her? She’s a little girl, not an elven soldier!”
“They believe because she is an elf, she is a monster,” Ryan explained as if it were common knowledge. He remained very calm, but for the first time he wasn’t smiling.
“We have to do something to save her.” Nypre shared in his brother’s rage.
“I don’t think there is anything we can do,” Ryan replied plainly
The lead guard put the noose around the elf girl’s neck and the two guards holding her backed away.
“Hang her! Hang her!” the crowd began chanting. The lead guard held up his hand signaling silence.
“Any last words, elf?” he asked.
“Yes,” the elf girl responded. It was very hard to hear her voice because it was so weak. “I used to believe that humans and elves were the same. It is clear to me now that you are all the very monsters you claim us to be! My people are right to kill you. I hope this Night Land takes you all,” she cried out strongly. The crowd once again booed her, shouting out their own threatening ideas of what to do with her, each one more unpleasant than the last. The lead guard walked to the post and placed his hand on the lever. The crowd gasped and went silent.
“Goodbye, elf,” he spoke with disgust. Nypre felt the wind near him being sliced. Something moved very quickly through the air. The lead guard fell over. Everything was dead quiet now. One of the other guards ran over to him.
“He’s dead!” the guard yelled. The crowd panicked. The second guard fell over, this time it was clear what had happened. An arrow pierced straight though his armor as if it were cloth and into his heart. Nypre looked up to the rooftops. He saw what he assumed was another elf, dressed in very dark green clothing. His face was covered in a dark hooded cloak. It was as if he were a green tinted shadow. With him he had a very large bow, the same size as him, already loaded with another arrow the bowstring pulled back far.
“There!” one guards yelled before he too was shot and killed, leaving only three guards. Those three wasted no time, as each of them pulled out their short crossbows and returned fire.
“Wonik-E!” Nypre yelled. He aimed a quick gust of wind that blew the crossbow bolts to the side. The elf held out his bow and the wood shrunk until it was a portable short bow. The elf ran further back on the rooftops to get out of sight of the guards, who now turned their attention to Nypre. The crowds were still rushing to get away from the town square, but those nearest him all took a step away from Nypre as the guards reloaded their crossbows and pointed them at him, Deren, and Ryan.
“Nypre. You shouldn’t have gotten us involved,” Ryan grunted annoyed.
Nypre and Deren both stood their ground, swords now drawn. The guards shot a small volley at them but Nypre was ready.
“Wonik-E!” he repeated, dispatching the crossbow bolts just like before. The guards knew they weren’t going to get anywhere with that strategy so they each unsheathed their swords and rushed forward. Nypre and Deren prepared to run forward to meet them, but Ryan stopped them.
“Stay here.” Ryan ordered. “Allow me,” Nypre and Deren remembered their mother’s words of listening to Ryan and did as they were told. Ryan ran forward to fight the three guards despite being unarmed His movements were hard to follow. He seemed to dance between their swords as if they were nothing, anticipating each attack before it happened. When the time was right Ryan struck with his fists, disarming the first guard and taking his sword. Before the guard could even react to losing his sword Ryan had already stabbed him in the back, using enough force to pierce his armor, while simultaneously disarming another guard with his other hand. The two remaining guards took a step back in fear at this point. Ryan grabbed the second guard’s sword and pulled the first sword out of the body of the first guard, holding one in each hand.
He faced the two guards twirling the swords quickly, showing off his finesse. The unarmed guard quickly reached for his crossbow and loaded it. Ryan kept up his display. He threw one of the swords high into the air just before the guard shot the crossbow. With a quick snap he snatched the crossbow bolt in his hand with a speed beyond anything Nypre and Deren had seen. He squeezed the bolt until it broke, and then caught the sword he had thrown previously just as it came down. He pointed one of the swords at the two guards and they took another step back.
“What is he? He isn’t human!” one of them yelled in fear. They both ran back to the castle quickly. The hooded elf swooped down from the rooftops and freed the girl from her noose. He turned and faced Nypre, Deren, and Ryan before giving them a silent nod. With a rush he escaped the scene still holding the young girl in his arms.
“Yes. I suppose we should be going too before more guards show up,” Ryan’s carefree smile had returned as if this were all a game.
“Ryan, what are you?” Deren was shocked.
“What do you mean? I’m just an ordinary human.” Ryan kept on smiling. “Come now, the elf went east so we’ll head west.” He pointed down the west road. The three of them quickly ran down the cobblestone street.
Ryan led the way as they ran out of town. He kept turning this way and that through the streets and alleyways, ordering Nypre and Deren to follow him. It was hard keeping up with him. Nypre kept looking over his shoulder, expecting them to be followed, but never saw anyone. It was as if Ryan was capable of anticipating exactly where Falkner’s soldiers would be. Finally they escaped out into the farmland at the edge of town. Nypre and Deren both stopped to catch their breath exhausted from the long sprint. Ryan slowed down after noticing them.
“I suppose we can walk from here,” He said. The three started walking through the farmland after resting a bit “We’ll have to avoid the rest of the towns as long as we’re in Falkner’s Territory now. I’m sure they’ll spread word of our little rebellion.”
Where will we sleep then?” Deren asked worriedly between breaths.
“We’ll just have to travel through the night until we reach the mountain. There’s a town halfway up the mountain we can stay at,” Ryan explained. “Lumin is still quite far and nightfall will be upon us shortly. This is actually a wonderful learning experience for you two.”
“What were we supposed to learn? Don’t save innocent lives?” Nypre asked sarcastically.
“Something like that. Or as the old saying goes, don’t bite off more than you can chew,” Ryan exclaimed.
“I’ve never heard that saying,” Deren said grumpily.
The three walked until they cleared the farmland. After which Ryan made them get off the road and head into the woods. They walked until they were dangerously close to the Night Land. They could see into the shadowy area now. It looked like normal land, but was very dark. Nypre couldn’t help but feel a bit curious as to why everyone feared it. It looked so peaceful in the night time. It was much more difficult to walk between the trees of the light wooded area than on the roads. The ground was bumpy from where the roots of the trees spread. They had to keep moving, there was no safe place to sleep. Even as darkness fell Nypre and Deren couldn’t help but feel safe with Ryan after witnessing what he was capable of. It helped that he wasn’t tired at all.
Back in Tawarln’s territory Wonik sat alone in her home. She missed her two boys and found it hard to pass the time. She spent most of the day helping out in the village, but the sun was setting now. She needed to make the house invisible, which she preferred to do from the outside to make sure it worked. She opened the door and gasped at what she saw. Marching through the fields far down the hill was something she had never thought she would see. There were people on horses, all of them armored in a variety of different kinds of armor. The army displayed a banner with a mark she had never seen before. It was a blackened banner with the symbol of a white spider on it. She knew just what this was. It was an army under a new lord looking to claim land. It was her duty to protect Tawarln’s territory.