Tori's life had prepared him for many things, but rugged he was not. He could hold his spear and he could throw it far, but this did little to help him in the deeper reaches of the northern forests. Despite warming springtime weather, he spent most of those early nights miserable and cold. Were it not for the abundance of wild berries and nuts, he may not have survived.

The young man was lonely for a time, being unused to the solitude he found himself thrust into, but as the trees grew greener and the animals lifted their voices to celebrate the approach of summer, he became accustomed to his new routine. He arose early as the forest filled with new life and began to walk, eating what he found along the way. Simplicity became the staple of his day and he managed to forget his worries. Far from his home and free from his responsibility, Tori became happy once more.

Occasionally he came across a town or village and he immediately sought out the people of the land. He entered while the sun still hung high in the sky and men were still in need of an extra set of hands for their day's chores. Often enough he found someone willing to pay him for his time, giving Tori a night at an inn and a few drinks for his efforts.

His attire was outlandish, of course, and he was seldom greeted with anything more than silence upon his first appearance. After removing his heavy armor and joining the locals at the tavern, few spoke openly to him. It took only a few drinks to bring him to song, and it took only a few songs to convince those gathered of his harmless intentions. It did not take much of his singing to portray him as a joyous fool.

The people were amused and he was happy until the morning found him only occasionally waking in the bed he had paid for. Often he was sore, both from

He would remain in these towns only a day or two, being content to spend whatever he made working on a bed and a few drunken nights. He left with little more than he arrived with. It was a simple and carefree life and he found that it suited him perfectly. He would have been content to see it last.

Tori was between towns, heading westward with the same path he had taken out of his village. Before him was a hill, the third he had been forced to climb that day. The sun was starting to dip behind the horizon, leaving him in the shadow of the mound before him. He grimaced to himself and complained aloud, feeling his armor become heavier as he thought of scaling what seemed to him a small mountain.

In the end there was little to be done to ease his grumblings. The hill must be climbed, but it need not be attacked that day. The day's walking had been more stressful than most, allowing Tori to justify ending the day early. He removed his armor and enjoyed the freedom this brought. Tori's camp was little more than a pile for his pack and armor and a space to sleep. The season had warmed enough that he did not need to bother with a fire. He ate a few bites of bread and drank a bit of his water under the shelter of the treetops.

He did not watch the stars as they appeared in the sky, but he did sing a few songs in a low voice. They were songs of drinking and dancing rather than the narratives of warriors. Tori wondered when he would find the next town. He wondered what he would find tomorrow in his wanderings. Just before sleep took him, he wondered about his homeland.

That night, his dreams were fitful and cruel.

Tori was awakened by a warm light on his face. It seemed unnaturally early for the sun to rise and his eyes refused to focus in protest of the hour. He groaned and turned over, hiding himself from the light. He could steal a few moments more sleep. He would start his day soon.

He nearly found the release of slumber when a second sense was disturbed. Someone was speaking nearby. The words were unclear but Tori noted the harsh tone. He was soon awake, reaching for the comforting touch of his shield and spear. He had no reason to think he had been noticed, but he would prefer not to be found unprotected.

Tori dared not move, but his hands tightened around the edges of his shield. It lay across his chest and seemed to rattle and creak with each shaky breath he took. He waited and hoped that they would pass quickly and leave him to rest. He heard them speak as they drew closer and Tori finally caught their words. They were bandits, robbers and thieves who hid nearby in the woods and stole what they could from passersby. They were scoundrels and wretches and Tori would be thankful when they were gone. If only they would go faster.

The torches they held cast their light along the worn path and a short way into the trees. Tori watched the radiance approach, holding his breath for fear of the sound it made. He clutched his shield until his knuckles turned white. The growth and the trees blocked his sight of the group, allowing his mind to imagine their numbers in the dozens, even hundreds. Beyond the bushes lay an army, intent upon finding him and ending his life. They had not seemed to notice him yet, but he thought of nothing but their speedy departure.

Another sound broke through their careless ramblings. It was a new voice, lighter and higher than the others. It was thick with fear and shaking with fatigue. Tori heard it only once, but it seemed to rise above the rest of the noise.

"Please. Let me go." The voice was young and terrified. Tori debated only a moment before moving to grab his helmet. There was not enough time to don his full armor and already his mind raced to find a way to avoid a fight with these men. As he climbed to his feet, no plan had yet formed.

Time gave him little room for delay. He stood too soon. As his shield and spear rose above the undergrowth, the light of the torches shown off the gleaming metal. It was difficult to miss, for the bandits were only a short distance from him. He could see them, at least, and could begin to count their numbers. It also meant that they could count his numbers as well. Tori's counting took far longer than theirs.

Their weapons were drawn, mostly bows and long knives. Only one held a sword and none wore any armor. The only one Tori could see that was unarmed was the young girl, bound and blinded in the center of the group. No one spoke. No one moved. Tori could not bring himself to approach with any great speed. Even the slow pace he had taken seemed to carry him far too quickly. Any moment he expected to see their arrows fly. A few seconds passed and Tori was only a few steps from the road before they finally broke the silence.

"No closer," the man with the sword demanded. Tori was all too quick to halt his feet. A bush hid the lower half of his body from view, a fortunate fact that hid his trembling legs. "Who are you and what business have you approaching travelers in such a manner?"

"What manner have I approached you in?" Tori responded. He did not know what good would come from speaking to them, but it seemed the wisest course to take. If he kept them talking long enough, he may think of a plan to save himself and the girl.

"Those who happen upon travelers, emerging uninvited from the woods are seldom bringers of good will. Who are you and what is your business with us?" The men shifted themselves, carefully edging closer together. All seven kept their weapons trained upon Tori.

"I am Tori Trediasryn of Altonia," Tori answered. "I bring you no will at all and I have no business with you, provided you release the one you are holding captive."

There was a great deal of commotion from the bandits. Drawn bows went slack and swords lowered in exchange for words that they let fly. Even the leader's long blade dipped as indecision struck him. There were no words of anger, but they spoke of fear and distress even as they crowded closely around the girl.

It took several moments of this confusion for Tori to understand what happened before him. They were worried and vexed by the words he had spoken. He recognized the signs of stress, even fear, in their actions. It was not likely his name that drove such uncertainty into them. He had no such fame. He was not terribly frightening to look at, even with his shield and spear ready. It must be Altonia, he decided. His homeland, even so far from her borders, was enough to keep most men at bay.

"If we give you the child, we may leave with all we have?" the leader asked, already motioning for the others to unbind her ropes.

"You have nothing more valuable than her life," Tori replied, thankful that the name of Altonia was enough to protect him. The girl's bindings were undone and the villains withdrew. A moment later, Tori removed her blindfold, though without the torchlight it did her little good. He laid his hand on her shoulder and felt her recoil from his touch.

"Come on," he urged her. "We have to get off the road. You'll be safe. In the morning, we'll see about getting you home."

That night she was silent, refusing to speak even a word of thanks to him. Eventually she did sleep, though it took several hours. Against a tree, his sword sheathed in his hand, slept Tori, proud to have done some good but more thankful to have escaped unharmed.