Even though the sun had already begun falling from its high spot in the cloudless sky, the air was still surprisingly warm for the season. A young boy dragged his feet through the long grass wirily as he had done for much of the long day. He gave a sigh as he looked up from the ground into the distance, seeing only more trees, further than his small eyes could see.
"Is it much further?" He asked aloud, holding onto some small ray of child-like hope. The mahogany haired woman came to a stop, looking back at him with large amber eyes.
"We're going to stop at the next town, Lona. But you have to keep up until then. It can't be that far now."
Merope paused her brisk walk for a moment to allow the boy to catch up before she resumed her pace, with him fixed in her sight. She breathed in the delightful scent of the alders that stood proudly around. There was something about these particular trees that gave her a sense of joy, a sense of happiness.
Living in a city for so long had gotten her used to a more hustle-bustle sort of life. One where there was always people, events, something was always going on around you. Stone walls everywhere split things neatly if albeit clinically at times. The smells were busier, vibrant foods and different sellers' wares, all blended into one with the choking dust. Being away from it all was a big change for her. It was almost… simpler.
She had really missed being this close to nature.
She brought herself back to where she was now and what she was doing. She stopped and looked around, eyeing up the surrounding landscape, searching for something – or rather someone.
"Where's Kaia gone now?" She asked. The boy only shrugged as he passed her still form.
She couldn't have gone too far, she thought to herself quickly before any amount of worry could set in. "Kaia!" She called out. "Kaia!" As if on cue, the tree above her gave a rustle of its thin coat of green leaves. From the canopy popped an upside-down torso and bright beaming face. White hair dangled down, much of it escaped from its ponytail, and now with bits of twig and greenery tangled in it as well.
"Yes Ropey? You called."
"What are you doing? Get down from there!"
She did as she was told, twisting so she could swing her legs free and descend to the forest floor with a jump. She landed on her feet, safely at the bottom of the tree. "Spoilsport. I was only trying to lighten the mood a bit." She pouted. Merope frowned at her childishness.
"You breaking your neck wouldn't lighten anything."
Kaia and Merope both stopped, hearing something off in the distance. Merope gestured for silence as she motioned at Lona to come closer to them. He quickly stepped to her side and she placed a protective hand on his shoulder. Kaia's shoulder grazed her own. The sounds of people, a large group, came closer as they carelessly moved through the forests, all jovial and laughing carelessly. Perching birds flitted away as they came into view.
"Ah," the largest one at the front of the all-male group said as his attention came on the threesome. "Friends, it appears we have company in these woods today." His muscular arms, decorated in black coiling marks, extended out to his so-called friends. Each of them seemed to smile but not in a way that made Merope comfortable. Her grip on Lona's shoulder increasing as the males stepped closer towards them, all pitching in comments and remarks.
"Don't you know these forests can be dangerous?"
"Especially when dark nights come along, as it will do very shortly."
"Maybe you should let us lot take you someplace safer than here."
Merope audibly scoffed at their attempts. It wasn't hard to see what they were trying to do. But it wasn't going to work today, she thought.
"We can handle ourselves, thank you very much," Merope announced, her head held high showing she meant exactly what she said by that. The largest one gave a sinister smile showing off foul yellow slabs with the occasional gap where a fight must have got out of hand. It appeared he had personally been in quite a few brawls in his time.
"Oh really? Then how about you show us then."
Immediately, Kaia's hand went to her waist. Fingers curled around a dagger's hilt, concealed beneath her shirt, and she pulled it out. A laugh came from one of the males as they all drew their own weapons too. Kaia's dagger looked small and delicate in comparison to their heavyset swords. She noticed it very quickly. She tried to keep her hand steady as they closed in.
Merope outstretched her hand. "Déesse Divina présente mo'vec xabla fercar," she cried. A light came from her palm, shining brighter and brighter. On the back of her hand, silver scars etched across olive skin began to glow. The light grew. Long and slender but heavier towards the bottom end, it took form. Then the light shattered into pieces like glass shards. As they hit the ground, they dissipated into nothingness. Left behind was a rapier, her fingers wrapped tightly around the grip.
A few of the bandits stumbled as they observed what happened before them. The rest continued on unmoved.
"That's a cute blade there, little girl. Hand it over now and I won't hurt you. Much."
One on her right took the moment of distraction to take a swipe. Merope met his blade with her own, though thin the edge was sturdy enough to parry the advance. With a quick slicing motion, the guy fell to the ground, clutching his leg, red beginning to make dark stains.
Kaia dived to the floor and scratched at the dirt with her blade. Lona shook behind her as one fighter dashed their way, eyes riveted on them. She glanced up, gauging the time she had left before he was upon them. More than enough for few final marks. She slashed once, twice, thrice. Then she spoke firmly, "Żieda élevé" and her scrawls lit up.
The ground suddenly came to life, rising up and collided with the bandit, knocking the consciousness out of him. It hardened into an immovable wall of rock as quickly as it had started moving, trapping the fightless fighter partially within itself.
Merope's blade slashed at two that came from behind. They dropped to their knees. She sidestepped, moving in a better position to meet two others. One crouched down low to avoid the side slashes so she brought down her blade quick then kicked his hand, making him drop his weapon.
The other held back, he brushed the hair out of his eyes, desperately looking for a clear opening. She pointed the sharp end at him. A wry smile crossed her face. Her blade changed, steel silver to white, as she spoke aloud words of old. His eyes widened but he only had taken a single step back before the white flashed blindingly bright. His head hit the ground with a crack.
"Huh, what's this?" she murmured to herself. The one from before - the distraction opportunist - seemed to be back on his feet, albeit a little shakier than before with the biggest one flanking him. He suddenly came at her with a cry, thrashing wildly at a surprising speed for someone already injured. She blocked his hits but he still pushed back. Merope caught his eye. Big black holes swallowed up most of the blue but they seemed more than just dark. They seemed sharp, keen and riveted. She felt her strength weakening against his. Her hands cramping from the strain of keeping him back.
Kaia sliced anyone that got too close, Lona pressed to her side. Occasionally he would give her pointers on where to strike next.
"Big one's coming on your left."
"Got it!" She shifted her thumb so it was over a symbol and mumbled something under her breath.
She slashed the weapon, creating a large pulse in the air that moved in the direction of the so-called 'big one'. It moved until it came to him, smacking him with such force he stumbled but he did not fall. She sent another forth. He came to his knees. Kaia smiled slightly as she took a step closer to him.
Kaia turned as one had slipped beside her unnoticed and came charging at her. Easily twice her side, and then some, he grabbed at her dagger, trying to take it from her. His elbow slammed into her shoulder but she wasn't intending to let him have it. She gritted her teeth and focused hard on another symbol, a triangle, fighting his grasping fingers to place her own in the right place. Spittle landed on her face, her muscles ached but she held her frame strong.
"Fenar," she said. The blade became red and hot to match. The bandit released the weapon with a yelp, his hands in matching shades. He tried to grab at her instead but she kicked at his legs sending him down to the ground, yelling some more as he landed on his burns. Kaia panted heavily, looking on helplessly as he already made his way back up.
Merope felt a bead of sweat dribble down the side of her face. It tickled terribly. She kept her eyes on his and tried to forget about it. She thought about how to get him off. At the moment, her lock was the only thing keeping his sword out of her. If she shifted to either side and tried to knock him to the floor, she would break the lock and gravity would act faster than she could. She would take an injury to the arm; if she was really quick. She could try a hip flip but that would require breaking her lock too. If she was lucky, his balance would be thrown before he could severely wound her. But if she didn't do anything, her lock was going to break out of sheer exhaustion. She wouldn't have time to move anywhere and that sword would be in her chest. And that was the least appealing option of them all.
Something moving in the distance caught her eye. She glanced over the bandit's shoulder and saw the first guy, the one that greeted them, approach. He dragged a large broadsword, hacking ridges into the dirt while he staggered along. He changed course and approached them.
He raised his sword up, drawing it level to his abdomen. Her eyes widened as he pulled his arm back, only an arm's length away from his comrade. Merope's chest heaved, readying herself.
The sword shot forward. She twisted her body and yanked herself away as far as she could, throwing the guy to the side. There was a sickening sound as the broadsword sliced through muscle and skin. A lump stuck in her throat knowing how close that came to being the end of her. Her arm was slick and sticky. She scanned over it.
The nick wasn't deep enough to be life-threatening – even without any foreseeable treatment – however, it made moving her arm more difficult as she continued to fight them off. Her upper body movements got more sluggish and weak. She knew she couldn't keep them at bay for much longer and they were not backing down easily.
Kaia didn't seem as if she was faring strong either as she was knocked to the side. Lona pulled her up in a flash but it didn't quite bring back that bounce that was once in her step. She was tiring out quickly too. Merope breathed a word as she swished her blade. A shimmer rippled through the air hitting the attacker, throwing him to the ground. She ran to her side.
"We're exhausted, Kaia. We can't take all of them and protect Lona."
"So what? We give up now? Kind of wish you mentioned that way back in Bijou in that case." She huffed in between pants. She gave a swing at an advancing foe, the strike sent him flying backwards head over heels.
"What do you suggest then?"
Kaia went pensively silent at her words, either unable or unwilling to give her answer. Her attention stayed fixed on her carefully calculated strikes and perfectly timed counter moves to avoid harm from any of the several bandits still standing strong.
"But we have to make it, Ropey." She said at long last.
"I know." She replied, not really knowing how but simply that they had to.
She cast an eye on Lona stuck in the middle of them. There was a chance he could still escape from this if he ran. Then what? He'd be alone in the forests in the dark with no means of defending himself and no sense of direction. He would pretty much be a lamb to the slaughter. She bit her tongue unsure of which of two options was truly worse for him.
A scream echoed, coming from close by. The girls looked around, knowing for certain it wasn't their doing that caused it. There, not that far away from the rest of the fray, was a dark-haired stranger standing over one of the injured men. Aware of the eyes now watching, they slowly turned.
The worn leathers and ties, marked and scratched all over, was almost certainly bandit attire. The flouncy dress shirt was not so typical though - clearly, this one was good in order to afford something like that. The others wore clean linen but nothing special.
Their hair was long enough to bound into a bun at the back of the head, away from the face. High cheekbones were stiff and full lips were pursed tight together. Almond shaped eyes of blue cast a stony look across the clearing and met with Merope's briefly, acknowledging her. She wasn't sure if that meant they had hope in this new arrival or not. She only hoped that as a woman herself, she would be more sympathetic with their cause more than the others'.
A few went to move forward but hesitated with brief apprehension. Merope scanned over the woman again. Still in her grasp but low, almost hidden out of sight, the dagger had a red sheen to it. On her hip sat a belt, one side was a thick looking satchel and the other, a leather sheath heavy with weight inside; clearly not just for show.
"And who are you?" the big one frowned, eyeing up the newcomer with a sense with trepidation. She stepped over the limp body at her feet. No one else dared match her movements.
"You really want to know?" She asked slowly, her every word hanging in the air. "My name is Lucie. I'm the bandit that bards write rhymes about around these parts." He gave out a hollow laugh, one that shock through the forest like a clap of thunder. He turned to share his amusement with his fellows who could only muster a chuckle between them.
"Is that so? Then I must be the Prince of Thieves; the one and only Fanged Rooster of legend himself!" His voice dripped with unadulterated mockery at the woman as he paced in front of his comrades. Her body tensed suddenly though her face remained a picture of unmoved confidence.
She took a couple of steps forward, almost daring someone to start a charge. The laughing ceased in an instant as gravity set in. No one else made a move but every eye was trained on her in wait. Her eyebrow arched and, by her side, her right hand twitched. Dagger poised in the other. Her lips curled into a smile.
"In that case, don't go saying I wasn't generous enough to let you walk away without a fight, Royal Cockbite."
With a whip, she pulled the sword sat inside the scabbard and slashed it at the nearest bandit. He dropped instantly. Another came at her. He misjudged his step and he too fell with a single swipe.
"What are you waiting for, Ropey?" Kaia said, already bounding back towards the fight. Merope shook her head and gripped her sword tighter. As one staggered away from one of the other woman's attacks, Kaia had snuck behind him. With a well-placed set of hands and a bit of force, she had thrown the guy to the floor.
Merope had intended to slip into the fray as Kaia had done but her access was blocked. One of the bandits had seen her as she approached. It was only that stupid rooster of all people. He raised his solid weapon, ready to attack. Merope braced herself, keenly watching the tension in his tattooed arms for a sense of when he was going to make his move. Without any warning, he yelled out, his legs buckling beneath him.
Merope jumped back. The lead bandit doubled over, the wound in his shoulder became apparent as did the dagger still jammed deep in his arm, just out of his grasp when he tried vainly to reach for it. Lucie staggered in and swooped in to yank the dagger out. Merope noticed the way she twisted her wrist as the woman looked at her coldly. She was readjusting to a more offensive grip. Merope left a lump in her throat. She turned and moved away, Merope gave a silent sigh of relief. She looked on as the big bandit got himself up and look around. She held her sword tightly just encase.
"Fall back," he rasped, suddenly taking to the trees. The others left standing followed, hobbling and dazed as quick as they could manage. Merope gave out a huge sigh once the last one had disappeared beyond sight. Kaia laughed triumphantly.
"You guys did it!" Lona cheered running to hug them both.
Kaia turned to the other woman at the fringe of their celebrations. "Hey, thanks for that. You really came to our rescue there."
"Don't think I did it to be a hero. I just wanted that." She pointed to the abandoned loot as she moved over to it. The stray coins she picked up and stuffed into her pocket whilst she picked up a few of the bags.
"You're stealing from the thieves?" Kaia asked. The woman, Lucie, stood up straight with a furrow in her brow.
"There's nothing wrong with that, is there?" Kaia shuffled awkwardly, her mouth running dry momentarily.
Lucie went back to collecting up the gold while Kaia pulled Merope aside. "Having someone like that around might not be such a bad idea for us." She nodded her head in the woman's direction, still investigating the loot bags for anything else of value. Merope's face twisted.
"Are you really suggesting we should recruit a bandit?" She cynically asked.
"She can fight well. We'll come into no trouble with her tagging along."
"This is true but what if she turns on us? Or just abandons ship along the way?"
"Give her a reason not to. But you may want to catch her before she goes off…" Kaia shrugs, shaking her head as the other woman began walking in the thick trees from where she first came. Merope rolled her eyes and turned.
"Wait! Do you know this part of the forest?" She called out. She kept in her smile when Lucie seemed to stop and look back, at least acknowledging she had said something. She seemed to have a quizzical expression tugging at her features. "Yes. Why?"
"We need to get through safely and continue on to Aboda. We'd be willing to pay you for your help." Lucie stepped back in their direction regaining some distance. She stopped before getting too close though.
"Escort you three to Aboda?" She murmured, looking at them with a hard eye. "What kind of payment are we talking about here?" Her lips pursed.
"Gold. Whatever price you name within reason..." she added quickly.
"Done." Lucie was taken aback as she gave a surprised look.
"I was sort of expecting some bartering down there but okay."
Merope dug into her pocket whilst she made the final steps to cross the remaining space between them. She pulled out a small drawstring purse and held it in Lucie's view, only an arm's distance away.
"We can only pay half now. The rest is yours once we get there."
Lucie blinked, stunned as Merope stuck her ground. "You're not joking about any of this."
"Are you coming with us or not? Because regardless of your answer, we're moving out now before we lose the last of this daylight." Lucie scanned over her once more.
"Fine. I'll join you on your journey."
She reached out and took the bag. With one hand, she bounced it slightly in her palm whilst eyeing it up scrupulously. She used her other hand to tug at the bag's strings and pull it open until she could seek the contents. Her face was unmoved until she looked back at Merope. "Town's this way." She said, moving westwards.
After only a moment's hesitation, Kaia and Lona began to follow her. Merope pulled on Kaia's arm before she continued too far ahead.
"Are you sure this is a good idea, Kaia?" She whispered.
"It can't be no worse than any of our other ideas of late, now can it?"
"Haha, you think you're so funny," she laughed, painfully false. "Seriously though, I hope you're right about this."
Hardly a word was said as the four marched through the forest. It wasn't too long before the trees thinned out and traditional wooden houses took their place. They had reached the edge of a village.
"There's an inn you can stay the night at. This way."
Kaia and Lona chattered away about what they could see around them. A quaint tailor, a bustling tavern, a small bakery that still had the lingering smell of fresh bread this late in the day. They grinned and smile, she even caught one of them saying how it was a pity that they were only passing through. Merope stayed quiet, taking it all in.
"Here," Lucie finally said, stopping outside a large building. They turned to the doors of the rustic inn. Above the study looking knocker, a quaint wooden board was hung; the word "Vacancies" painted neatly upon it in a bold black print. Lucie had started wandering off.
"And where are you going?" Merope asked, making her stop. Lucie looked back at her, a hand on her full satchel.
"I have elsewhere to go but I'll ensure to be back in time for when you plan to set off tomorrow."
"In that case, we will see you here at sunrise tomorrow." She said firmly.
"Sunrise it is."
Lucie walked off. Merope thumbed the coins left in her pocket and bit at her lip. She followed Kaia and Lona in through the large doors inside.