The young man sighed as he steered his chestnut horse down the path, somehow he had managed to get himself lost, and then, stumble upon that girl.
“Oi, Darren, there ya are, were have ya been?” called out another rider from up ahead. He was older than Darren with inky black hair with flecks of grey and dark brown eyes. He was also dressed in mail, though it actually looked as if it fit him. He had a sword at his hip and was mounted atop a bay stallion, which pawed the ground impatiently. One arm was resting upon the horn of the saddle as he waited. The man was his mentor and teacher, Eric, a retired knight who had been training Darren and had taken him out for a trip that day. Although from another city, he was staying in the town to help train Darren.
“Lost,” he replied meekly. “I, took a wrong turn.”
The other rider raised an eyebrow, “What’s with that face, catch a glimpse of a nymph did you?” he asked teasingly.
Darren’s face flushed, “No,” he replied quickly, perhaps to quickly.
The man laughed, “I was teasing you boy, now come on, let’s get you back, I don’t need your father flaying me alive because I lost you,” he said as Darren drew up beside him.
“My father wouldn’t do that,” he said, “He’s a nice man.”
“Well thank heavens for small mercies,” said the other man, “Because I’ve met some that would. So, what are you thinking of your training?”
“Boring,” replied Darren, “I haven’t gotten to do anything interesting, and this little trip was just to get me out from under the hair of the other actual knights. All they make me do is polish their armour, wash their leather, help them suit up, and cool down their horses. I want to be a knight, not a servant boy.”
“You can’t start out as a knight, you have to work your way up,” he said, “It’s the sad truth, but it’s still the truth.”
Darren groaned, “But I’ve been stuck at this level for ages.”
“Patience, how much have I stressed that? A knight needs patience.” He ran a gloved hand through his inky hair as he spoke.
Darren sighed, “I have been patient Eric, I’ve waited long enough, how much longer will I be forced to wait?”
Eric just smiled and looked ahead down the path, “Just, keep a positive out-look. Good things come to those who wait you know.” He urged his stallion into a trot, and Darren soon followed suit, his mount keeping pace with his mentor’s as they headed back to the city.
As they neared the city both riders pulled their horses up and slowed them back to a gentle walk, their hooves clattering loudly over the cobblestone road.
“After we put the horses in the stables we have another stop to make,” said Eric, “Think you can handle that?”
“Of course, but where are we going?” he asked.
Eric just grinned, “You’ll see, remember what I said about patience.”
The streets of the city were bustling with people who were going about their daily business of trading and selling goods. Crated animals squawked and yowled from inside their wooden cages waiting to be sold and likely cooked for that night's dinner. Fruit and vegetables hung from the rooves of stalls. Other merchants had laid out their wares on a cloth so they could be admired easily; a large guard dog lay on the ground nearby to deter thieves. On a street corner a gypsy was dancing for money while her companion played an upbeat rhythm on a drum.
At the sight of the horses people stepped aside, some out of respect for the aging knight, others simply to keep from being trod upon by the horses' large hooves.
The stables were the only wooden building among the stone buildings and were located at the back of a large inn. Nearing the stables the two riders dismounted and walked their horses the rest of the way into the stables to prepare them to go into their stalls. The horses shook their heads and snorted impatiently and Eric laughed.
“It seems you aren’t the only impatient one, they can’t wait to get out of their tack,” he said as he clipped his mount to the long bar that ran the length of the barn, stopping only when it reached the stalls. It was used it to tie up horses while putting on or taking off tack as well as while they waited to be ridden or were having their stalls cleaned. “Can you fetch me their halters from the storage room?” he asked, tying up the second horse and loosening the girth of their saddles.
With a sigh, Darren made his way through the stable, the smell of damp hay and horses filling the air around him. At the end of the stable was a small room, which was dimly lit at best. The walls inside were covered in hooks, on which hung saddles, saddle pads, and bridals; the ones that didn’t have any tack simply had a halter hung on the hook. Above each hook were carved the names of the horses on small metal plates. He searched the hooks and soon found the ones he needed. Carefully, Darren removed the halters from the hooks with the names Baron and Toby above them, their horses. With the halters looped over his arm he made his way back to Eric, trying to avoid stepping on the mangy barn cat as she wove around his feet, meowing and purring happily, waving her bottlebrush tail.
“Out of my way cat,” he hissed, aiming a kick at her. The cat simply stepped aside nimbly and his foot missed.
“Oh, leave the silly cat alone, you look like a fool,” laughed Eric. “You’ll never hit her, she’s far to clever.”
“Are you saying that cat is smarter than me?” he asked, handing Baron’s bridal to his mentor, who draped it over the hitching bar.
“She’s smarter than everyone. They tried to get rid of her once with a pack of dogs, she simply took to the rafters and sat there watching them as they ran in circles trying to figure out where she was.” He laughed. “That cat isn’t stupid.”
Turning back to the horse he undid the girth and removed the saddle and saddle pad, setting them on the ground in the isle behind the horse, Darren copying his actions and doing the same for his horse. Picking up the halter, Eric carefully began to undo the bridal, slipping the halter over the horse’s head to replace the bridal as it came off. Baron pawed the ground and flicked an ear where he stood.
“Easy, I’m just about done,” he said, stroking the bay’s massive neck to keep him calm as he adjusted the halter. “Just wait a little longer, you won’t have to be here much longer,” he said, keeping one hand on the horse’s side as he made his way around him to gather up the tack; the bridal draped over the saddle and saddle pad which he scooped up in his arms. “You about done there Darren?” he asked.
“Yup, just trying to keep the halter from coming off,” he replied.
He nodded and made his way up the isle to put away the tack before putting the horse in his stall so he could rest and eat. Darren, who was awkwardly carrying his mount’s tack, soon joined him at the closet.
“You know, there is an easier way to carry that,” he said, taking the objects from Darren to put them away. Darren had been carrying them in an awkward manner and several times looked about ready to drop them.
“Really, I couldn’t find one,” he said once the tack had been taken from him.
“You’ll learn, don’t worry,” said Eric, patting his shoulder, “Now, we have to get moving, can’t be late.”
“You still haven’t told me where we’re going,” said Darren.
He just smiled, “You’ll see in a bit, and I guarantee you’ll like it.”
“You are as bad as my father about keeping secrets, you know that?” he asked as they walked, mild annoyance in his voice.
Darren could get no more out of him other than ‘you’ll like it’ as they walked through the streets. He looked around; they were heading into the industrial part of the city. Smoke billowed out the top of large stone buildings; the loud clanging of metal filled the air around them as they walked.
“Why are we here?” he asked as he looked around. This part of town was exceptionally dirty and grimy.
Eric smiled, “What did I tell you about patience?”
He sighed heavily and followed his mentor’s footsteps as they walked down the road. They stopped at a large building, a blacksmith’s and Eric rapped on the door loudly,
“You in there?” he called, peering in.
A burly man looked up form his workbench, tongs in one hand and a hammer in the other. An anvil sat in front of him and in the tongs grasp was a shard of metal that glowed red-hot.
“Ah, ‘bout time you got here.” he said, placing his work down, “I was beginning to think you’d forgotten.” He glanced over at Darren, “Ah, so this must be the young Darren.” He stood up and wiped his ashy, gloved hands on his apron. “Why don’t you come see it, tell me what ya think?”
“Come see what, Eric, what is he talking about, and how does he know you?” asked Darren, following the retired knight through the hot forge.
“As inquisitive as a young pup,” chuckled the blacksmith, “You weren’t kidding were ya?”
“Nope, he’ll ask questions till your ears fall off,” said Eric with a laugh. “Anyways, I assumed you’ve finished it?”
“Course I have, and I must say, I am quite pleased,” said the blacksmith proudly. He stuffed his leather gloves in a pouch on the apron and picked up something wrapped in leather from a nearby table. Carefully he handed it to Darren, who nearly dropped it in surprise at how heavy it was. “Go on, open it up.”
With shaking hands, Darren undid the thin cord that held the leather wrapping around it. Inside was a gleaming sword, polished to a brilliant shine. His eyes nearly bugged out of his head as he gaped in amazement.
“It’s for you,” said Eric. “You’ve been working awfully hard and, well, every knight needs a sword right?”
“But, I’m not a knight yet.” he said.
“No, but you’re a knight-in-training, which is pretty close, an unofficial knight if you will. What do you think of it?”
Grasping the hilt tightly he gave it a test swing, the weight felt comfortable in his hands and it arched gracefully through the air. “It's brilliant,” he said with a grin. “But, what about a sheath?”
“Don’t worry, I’ve got that covered too,” he said, his eyes crinkling as he smiled.
He felt like a child on his birthday receiving a present, so giddy with excitement he could barely contain it. “I can’t wait to show my father this, now I’ll actually be able to practice something, something useful,” he said as he admired the new sword.
“He’ll be glad you like it, it was his idea to get it for you after all,” said Eric. “Now, you’re going to need a sheath for that first.” He glanced back at the blacksmith, “I assume you picked that up as well?”
He nodded, “Yes sir, got it right here. Tanned deer hide, exceptional quality I must say,” he said as he handed it to Darren. Taking it from him, Darren set about adjusting it on his belt before sheathing the sword, now he felt like a knight and not just a stable boy or squire in armour.
"Today’s lesson is done for today, so if you wish to tell your father you may,” he said with a wave of his hand.
"Thank you sir, thank you very much.” he said, trying to hide his bubbling excitement as he turned to leave.
The blacksmith turned to Eric, who had his arms folded across his chest watching Darren, “The boy’s really grown up, I remember when he was just a little tyke no taller than my knee,” he said. “One of these days he is going to take his father’s place I’m sure.”
Eric nodded thoughtfully, “It must run in the family.”
“It must. The Brightheart boy really takes after his father so it’s no wonder,” said the blacksmith as he put his gloves back on, ready to start working again.
Sierra groaned as they walked, “How much farther till we reach the city?” she asked in a whiny voice.
Nuada sighed, “Even after all these years, you may have matured to become less rebellious, but you haven’t matured past the point of being a whiner,” he said with a headshake. “No, I don’t know how long till we reach the city, probably about an hour or so, so stop asking, it makes you sound like a child,” he said teasingly.
“Well my feet are aching, I’m hungry and I want to be around civilization again, not all these trees infested with bugs that make you itch,” she said, scratching her arms as she spoke. “And possibly find a way to cure this merciless itching,” she added after a moment's thought.
He laughed warmly, “You are full of complaints today aren’t you?” he asked. “If you were smaller I’d piggy-back you like I used to when you were younger.”
“Are you saying I’m fat?” she asked.
“No, I’m saying you’re too big for me to carry on my back for long distances anymore,” he replied without missing a beat. “Despite your appetite, you are still as skinny as a rail, where do you put it all?” he asked, gently poking her in the ribs.
She squealed and bunched up as he poked her, “Don’t do that, you know I’m ticklish,” she said. “As for the food, I probably walk it all off with the insane amount of walking we do.”
“And all your sneaky night-time activities,” he added, “That most likely helps.”
Sierra opened her mouth to speak, but closed it again quickly and stopped and looked around, for a split second she’d thought she’d heard something. “Did, you hear that?” she asked in a low voice.
He frowned, “Hear what?”
“I thought I heard something, a soft rustling of leaves, but, maybe it was the wind, or a small animal,” she said shaking her head. “Or I’m hearing things.”
They continued walking in silence until, yet again, she stopped and looked around, “Ok, I’m not imaging it, I did hear something that time,” she said.
Then, before they could react, several people emerged from the bushes, surrounding them entirely. They were dressed in dirty, raged clothes and all held drawn knives or long blades.
“An ambush,” she grumbled, “Lovely. What do you suppose they want?” she asked as she scanned the group.
“What most people who ambush want, money and/or valuable things,” replied Nuada.
“He’s a smart one,” said one of the bandits, gesturing with his knife to Nuada. “People like you are bound to be loaded with money and valuables, so start emptying your pockets and we might not kill you.”
She smirked, “You really think I’m going to do that? As if.” She rested a hand on her hip and shook her head. “You must be crazy.”
Suddenly she felt something cold at her throat, “We said empty’em, or we’ll simply take you instead. Who would need the money when we could have fun with you?”
“You sick bastard.” Her elbow shot out behind her, catching him in the jaw and jerking his head back forcefully. He stumbled, stunned and dazed from the hit. She spun around, grabbed one arm and pulled him towards her while extending her other hand, curled into a fist, into his gut. He coughed and dropped his knife before also falling himself. “Anyone else care to try me?” she asked, resting her foot on his head as he lay passed out in the dirt.
Nuada laughed, “You’re really done it now, you’ve set her fighting.”
“She’s just a woman, we can take her,” said one, the ringleader. He had a piercing in one ear, ink black hair and stubbly beard growth on his chin.
“Really, you’re going to gang up on a girl now?” she asked him, “That’s just low, and besides, if you’re all fighting me, who’s dealing with my bodyguard?”
The bandit stopped and looked around, wary about Nuada.
Then, “Psyche!” She hit him hard enough to knock him over. “Really, you were that worried about him that you’d let your guard down around me? Nuada doesn’t get involved unless I ask him to,” she said, kneeling down, one knee resting on his chest and knife drawn, pointed at his throat. “Now, call off your goons or I’ll have Nuada take care of them, and you don’t want that, not if you want them to still be able to do anything.”
“Y-you heard the lady,” he stammered nervously. The remaining bandits backed off, one of them carrying the unconscious man.
Lifting her knee off his chest Sierra went to stand up. Then, she stopped and slashed the blade across him, leaving a cut along his cheek.
“What was that for?” he asked, his hand flying to his cheek.
“A warning. If I ever see your sorry tail again you might not be so lucky. I’m in a good mood today. If I wasn’t the blade might have gone, a little further south.” she said.
He gulped nervously as he quickly pulled himself to his feet. As he stood, one hand still on his cheek, something caught her attention, a mark on his arm. She grabbed his arm and turned it over to get a better look, it was a tattoo of an emerald green serpent twisted around a sword and rose. “Where did you get that?” she asked.
He jerked his hand away, “It’s just a tattoo,” he said, before quickly retreating into the bushes with the rest of the gang.
Sierra narrowed her eyes, something smelled fishy, and it wasn’t their odour.
“Is something the matter Miss Sierra?” Nuada asked.
“Did that seem, a little to easy to you?” she asked. “I mean, they just gave up. Bandits are persistent, they won’t go down without a fight, they just went, belly up.” she said, her brows knitting together thoughtfully.
“Perhaps they were amateurs who simply chose the wrong target?” suggested Nuada.
She shook her head, “No. That one, the ring leader, he had a tattoo on his arm.”
“Lots of thieves and rogues have that sort of thing, not uncommon you know.”
“No, but the tattoo he had is.” She turned to face Nuada, her voice serious, if a bit nervous, “It was a serpent, coiled around a sword and a rose,” she said.
Nuada’s eyebrows raised up, “Are you sure?” he asked. “I haven’t seen that tattoo for a while.”
“That’s why I’m worried, why would he wear the same tattoo that my father’s supporter’s wore?” she asked. “My father has been dead for years, his supporters are either dead, in jail or in hiding.”
“There is one though, that might still use that tattoo.” said Nuada.
“You think?” She asked, as if reading his mind and knowing exactly who he was thinking about.
Nuada nodded, “Yes, very much so, he seems the very sort of person who would use that symbol.”
“Then, perhaps this ‘ambush’ was merely a test for us,” she said. “To see how strong we’ve gotten, or how strong I’ve gotten.”
"But why?" asked Nuada.