Chapter 8
Not Quite a Villain, Not Quite a Hero

Near the Ruins of Brodheim, Norland, Pendragon

Brodheim was not known for its great warriors or rich treasures, but it was often said that by the fruits of Brodheim soil were Norlander bellies filled. Always a weak nation, it was the tributary of one kingdom or another until Adam Pendragon and his army came to lay waste to the land on his road to conquest. When the land healed, it was parceled out to the vassals of the Lord of the Tower and their tenant farmers.
As with most parts of Norland, the warriors of the former kingdoms and their descendants fell to banditry. Some were taken into Lord Cain's army, but many were too proud to bend the knee. Though Brodheim itself was poor, its lands extended to the road to the High City. Any merchant or other traveler who did not have a sufficient armed escort would find themselves despoiled by these bandits.
Sometimes bandits found it easier to sell their swords and act as escorts for travelers. You had to pay well enough that they would not abandon you at the first sign of trouble but not so well that they were tempted to rob you themselves. Only the richest and most influential could afford an escort by the King's men or, barring that, the mercenaries of Lord Cain.
It was not clear at first glance what sort of men the four armed riders were. They were all that defended a small convoy that consisted of a single mulecart, about six pack mules and some twenty people on foot. It was enough to give pause to the group of eight bandits lying in wait a short distance up the road. If the riders were any good or even just modestly lucky, it would not be worth the effort to waylay them.
The closest thing to a leader the bandits had eyed the two riders at the front of the convoy, turned to one of his confederates and said, "Trooble coomin' oop. Ye's goonna earn ye's keep, cootpuss?"
The confederate in question, a young man who did not quite seem to belong with the other seven gave the putative leader an annoyed look.
"How many times I gotta tell ya I ain't a cutpurse?" he asked. "Treasure hunter. Treasure hunter."
The nuance was entirely lost on the bandit.
"Ye's 'oonts the tresyah 'angin' ooff belts, ye's do. Boot we goot a roughah soht thin ye's oop a'ead."
"If you're so worried, let 'em go by," the young man said, not showing much enthusiasm for plunder.
"We ain't 'ad nothin' gud fer days," the bandit leader said. "We's need this."
"Then we all go out an' stand in the middle a' the road," the young man suggested. "They'll think there's more a' us hiding off ta the sides. Long as they feel they can get by partin' with a lil' gold or silver, they won't make no trouble."
"Wut makes ye's so shoh?"
"Folks tend ta be attached ta their skins," the young man replied. "Long as that's safe, they'll be willin' ta part with just 'bout anythin' else."
"Ye talk like banditin' nothin' new fer ye," another bandit said.
"Let's jus' get this over with," the young man grumbled.
And so the eight bandits got up from their not so well-hidden hiding spot and positioned themselves at the crossroads. Only the leader had a proper sword, albeit a little rusted, having been unearthed from the grave of one of the King's men who fell during the Goblin War. Three had spears that were little more than sharpened sticks, one had a pruning hook that looked a little more formidable, another had an ax originally intended for chopping wood, and there was a single bowman armed with a simple shortbow. That left the young man, who had a dirk about a span and a half in length and a brace of smaller knives slung across his chest. Equipped as they were, they could only hope to cower the unarmed, but perhaps the convoy's escort would prove to have milk for blood when challenged.
The convoy stopped as it drew nearer to the gang of bandits. One of the two riders up front was the first to speak.
"Let us pass," he said.
"Shoh, ye's kin pass," the bandit leader replied, "if'n ye's pay the toll."
The driver of the mulecart started to reach for something behind him, but the bowman caught him, drawing back an arrow and pointing it at him.
"Yew they, in th' caht," the bowman said. "Noo gettin' ahdees. Sit they an' wait ye's tahn."
The driver held up his hands to show that he would not in fact be getting any ideas. The rider who had spoken up looked to his partner and then to the driver. All the while his eyes were darting around trying to catch sight of the other bandits that were sure to be lurking about. After all, what bandit gang had only eight members?
"How much do you want?" the rider asked.
"We's not greedah," the bandit leader replied. "Haff'll do."
Still eyeing his surroundings, the rider suggested, "Why don't you call your friends to come out and claim it?"
"They's doon' need ta coom oot," the bandit leader said.
However, his face betrayed him. The rider's nervousness eased and he gave the octet of bandits a smug grin.
"Then I guess you can just take it now."
The rider dropped his reins, quickly drew out a javelin hanging off his saddle and threw it square into the bandit leader's chest. The driver of the mulecart went for whatever it was he had under his seat, but the bandit archer put an arrow into him for the trouble.
"No!" the young man cried.
As the bowman was nocking another arrow, the young man threw one of his dirks into his neck.
"Treytah!" the axeman bellowed.
The young man dodged a chop of the ax and before the axeman could swing again, the rider threw his second javelin. However, this did not fell the axeman as it did the bandit leader. In a rage, he howled and charged at the rider. His first blow went into the skull of the rider's mount. The horse collapsed, pinning the rider's leg. Before he could do anything to defend himself, he became the ax's next victim. The axeman did not settle for a single stroke either, but as he was hacking away at the rider, one of the riders from the rear of the convoy galloped forward and skewered the axeman with his spear.
While all this was going on, the four remaining bandits rushed at the other rider in the front. The rider's clumsy thrust only served to graze one of the bandits while he was in turn pierced by three makeshift spears and a pruning hook.
As with the left, so too on the right did the rider in the back charge forward. He caught the bandit who had been grazed with his spear, but with his spear weighed down with the body, he was all but defenseless against the other three, not being so quick with a javelin as the first rider.
The three bandits first thrust at him with their weapons, then dragged the body off his horse before pulling out. This gave the remaining rider an easy opening to kill two in quick succession using quick jabs rather another full charge. The last bandit managed to catch the rider under his arm with the pruning hook, but he did not die without getting in one last thrust to ensure that he would not die alone.
In mere moments, twelve men were dead. The young man looked around numbly and more out of habit than conscious thought, retrieved the dirk from the body of the dead bowman. With the bandits and the riders all dead, there should have been no one left with the ability or the inclination to fight, but among the caravan, seven men came forward bearing heavy sticks and other such simple improvised weapons.
With his dirk in one hand and drawing a throwing knife with the other, the young man warned them, "Now stay back. I don't wanna kill any a' ya. You jus' go your way an' I'll go mine an' that'll be the end of it."
"You ain't gettin' off so easy, boy," one of the men said.
Though he looked conflicted, the young man readied his throwing knife.
"I'm warnin' ya, don't come any closer..."
Before the men could move to capture him or he could throw his knife, a blinding light threw everything into disarray. As the young man shielded his eyes, he felt a delicate hand take hold of his wrist and a woman's voice say, "Come with me."
The young man allowed himself to be guided away. It was some time before his eyes adjusted and he could see properly. The woman pulling him along was mostly concealed by a grey hooded cloak. Two smaller cloaked figures accompanied her on either side. The young man said nothing and gave no indication he was once again in full command of his faculties. He opted to observe in the hopes of learning more about his mysterious benefactors, if they could even be called such. Of course, there were few worse options than being beaten to death on the spot or dragged off in chains as a prisoner. And even considering only those choices, death would have been preferable to life as a prisoner-sailor aboard the Hulks out in the North Sea.
They continued for a good quarter mile before the woman saw fit to stop.
"We should be safe now," she said. "I cannot imagine they would try to follow us."
"So much for our ride," one of the two little ones replied.
"We have come far on our own two feet," the woman said. "We will continue on the same."
"It was better riding," the second little one said.
Ignoring the little ones' complaints, the woman turned to the young man and told him, "I suppose I no longer need to be holding your hand."
Seeing her face for the first time, the young man was immediately taken by the woman's beauty. Her hood did little to conceal it. Indeed she seemed too beautiful to be human, as if Aphrodite and Artemis somehow managed to have a child together, not that anything seemed too bizarre for the old pagan gods if any of the stories were to be believed.
A slight blush rose on the woman's cheeks, almost as if she could read his thoughts.
"Yes, well, I suppose this is where we part ways," she said. "For your sake, you should avoid falling in with any more people like those bandits."
The woman let go of the young man's hand, gave him a slight bow and was about to turn to leave when he spoke up.
"Wait. Why, why did ya help me back there?"
The woman gave him a gentle smile and said, "Because I knew you were not a bad person, not at your core. Whatever drove you to join them, you did not deserve to share in your companions' fate."
If this were a story written by the poets, the woman would have been swept up to the heavens in a cloud or something like that. A chance encounter with an unearthly beauty, parting with a kind word of warning to turn from his wicked ways and make something of the life she saved. And yet the young man did not allow the story to have such a beautiful, bittersweet ending. He had to ruin it in a clumsy bid to hold on to the moment by making small talk.
"So, uh, are these your kids?"
The first of the two little ones to speak earlier balked, "Kid!? I'm five an' twenny!!"
Shaking his fist to dispute the charge, the little one's hood fell back to reveal what looked like nothing more than a small child still round with baby fat.
"Five an' twenty?" the young man said incredulously. "Take away the twenty an' I might believe ya."
The woman put the little one's hood back over his head, telling the young man, "Looks can be deceiving, good sir."
"I ain't no 'sir', m'lady," the young man replied, "jus' a common vagabond."
"And I have no rank to warrant being called 'lady'."
"So ya say, but you're no commoner neither, not dressed like that. That cloak can't hide everythin', ya know."
Self-consciously, the woman clutched at her cloak, as if trying to conceal her finery now would change anything. Attempting to deflect the issue, she gave him another slight bow and started to guide the little ones away.
"It was a pleasure making your acquaintance," she said, "but we must be going."
"What's your hurry?"
"We have many miles yet to travel and time is of the essence."
Whether it was simply because he was so entranced by the woman's beauty or because of some other reason, the young man could not seem to leave well enough alone.
"This is rough country, ya know," he said. "Ya might run inta bandits again. Ya could use a bodyguard."
"We can protect Cassy ourselves!" the first little one insisted.
"Even though it was Cassy who saved us..." the second one said.
Undeterred, the first one changed his tack.
"Well then, Cassy can protect herself! After all, she's--"
Whatever the little one was about to say, the woman hastily interrupted him, telling the young man, "It truly is a kind offer, but we do not have the money to pay you."
Almost as soon as a certain ungentlemanly thought entered his head, the woman quickly added, "And any alternative form of payment is out of the question."
Grinning awkwardly, wondering if she really could read his mind, the young man said, "Maybe I'll do it outta the kindness a' my heart.
"You are a better man than you think you are," the woman replied, "but you are not that charitable."
She knew him too well, disturbingly well, but he was not about to give up.
"Well, ya know somethin'? I've got a feelin' bein' around someone like you'll make opportunities happen."
"Really I must--"
The woman's words trailed off and the light in her eyes dimmed as she was lost beyond all perception. Or almost all.
The little one started by calling out to her.
"Cassy?"
And when a few repetitions failed to yield any results, he tried again more forcefully.
"Cassy!"
The woman twitched her head and blinked, as if she were waking up after having dozed off.
"Perhaps I... may have been too hasty," she said in a distracted voice. "I believe I will take you up on your offer after all..."
"Rafael," the young man said, "as in 'God heals', ya know?"
"Rafael..." the woman said to herself. "That is no Norlander name. It almost sounds Elvish."
Rafael held up his arms and said, "As ya can see, I'm not an Elf, not that I've ever seen an Elf ta know what one looks like."
The little one then said, "Well, Cassy's a--"
Again, the woman quickly interrupted him, saying, "I am called Cassandra and these are Samhain and Tamarin."
"Sammy," the first one said.
"Tammy," the second one added.
"So what's the story with you?" Rafael asked.
"We are simple travelers," Cassandra said. "That is all."
Rafael gave her a skeptical look.
"I don't think it's all that simple."
"You do not need to concern yourself with it any further than that."
Realizing he was pushing his luck too far, Rafael backed off.
"Alright, alright, we'll leave it at that then. Where're we goin'?"
"To the High City," Cassandra replied. "I have business there. Shall we be going?"
She made a gesture toward the road. It was not the direction Rafael was expecting.
"You're not thinkin' a' takin' the old south road, are ya?"
"We are."
"North road's safer."
"Not for everyone," Cassandra said cryptically. "I must take the south road."
It did not seem like he could convince her otherwise, so Rafael simply shrugged at her choice.
"No wonder ya changed your mind 'bout me."
Cassandra tilted her head and asked, "Have you changed yours?"
"Well, now I really can't leave ya be. A woman an' two kids on the old south road? You're askin' ta be in some Goblin stewpot."
"At least we are going around the forest and not through it," Cassandra said.
"No kiddin'," Rafael said with a chuckle. "I don't care what the Pendragons say 'bout havin' wiped out the Goblins. They're still runnin' 'round in those woods."
"And I would rather not have to deal with them again."
"Again?" Rafael asked curiously.
As always, Cassandra was quick to deflect whenever the conversation turned in a direction against her liking.
"We need to get moving," she said. "If possible, I would like to reach the second post station from here by nightfall."
The Pendragon post stations were about two rests apart and the average person would not travel on foot more than three or four rests in a day. The day was already half-spent and Rafael marveled that a woman and two apparent children would have the wherewithal to go so far.
"Ya sure ya can keep up?" he asked.
"You sure you can keep up?" the little one called Samhain shot back.
He had a smart mouth on him, but Rafael had to admit these three made for far better company that the bandits he left dead in the dirt.