The Elmwatch Barrow (Adventure II)
1110 SC, Seventh of Sunbring
The group was cautious, as they knew they were close to their target. They would be camping here for the evening, as the caravan would pass by early in the morning. Plenty of time to prepare their perfect ambush. Snares were set, warning systems rigged up with rope and rocks. Pickets posted along likely routes for travelers to stumble through. The Moor was unfamiliar territory for these bandits, but they knew their craft well. A group of wagons, fat and laden with trade goods, had been tracked through the Deadwind Pass. Each of the ten brigands eagerly awaited their share of the spoils.
While they had maintained the illusion of vigilance, they were all drunk with the pleasure of taking what did not belong to them, of using their strength to overpower those who could not defend themselves. To a casual observer, the Moor was desolate and remote, but to an opportunist it was as a pig ripe for the slaughter, and slaughter it they would. If the Moor had anything like a lawman, undoubtedly they would have been hanged for their crimes, but no such entity existed, or so they believed.
But the Moor was unfamiliar to them, and they were blissfully unaware of what was watching them.
The hunter carefully made his way through the traps the bandits had set. They were not poorly hidden, but still they caused the hunter no issue. There were only two sentries guarding the camp, putting too much trust in their traps and not enough in their own eyes. Breathing evenly, the hunter prepared his bow - a simple but elegant thing, designed for hunting game of any size. After all, bandits were simply one more type of animal that needed their population controlled.
It was never something he enjoyed, but the hunter’s father often schooled him on the harsh necessities of life in the Moor. Sometimes, you needed to cut away the rot for the tree to survive. Sometimes, you needed to kill a few deer to prevent the underbrush from being stripped bare.
With the moon high overhead, the hunter stood into the powerful, so-called archer’s T, masking the creaking of his bow with the rustling of wind through branches. The snap of the bowstring against his bracer was hidden by the laughter of men around the fire, and the first sentry fell, unnoticed to his brethren. Acting quickly, the hunter relocated to the other side of the small camp, his well-trained eyes searching the darkness for the other picket.
This one knew his craft well. He was positioned up within a tree, his back to the fire in order to not ruin his night vision. He looked limber and ready to move at a moment’s notice, something that could be a problem for the hunter. A few silent minutes spent in contemplation, and the hunter had his plan. It would be risky, of course, but rewarding. The best plans often were.
Using the sentry’s positioning against him, the hunter crawled between the perch and the fire, as silent as a ghost. With a fair bit of luck and no small amount of skill, he had made it to the tree chosen by the guard. The hunter placed his bow at the base of the tree and silently unsheathed his blade from a well-oiled scabbard. Placing the blade in his mouth, he began to climb. Every movement was followed by a minute of waiting, searching for any sign that he had been noticed. The climb was torturous, and his muscles were screaming out at the end of it. It must have taken the better part of twenty minutes to ascend the tree, but now the hunter was poised to strike.
While it was large enough to support the weight of two people, the tree was not particularly thick around the center. Balancing precariously, the hunter took the knife from between his teeth and wrapped his arms around the tree, one hand covering the sentry’s mouth while the other brought the knife down. There was no sound other than the knife impacting the tree trunk. With barely a whisper, both guards had been dealt with.
Moving swiftly, the hunter slithered down the tree and collected his bow. He found a vantage point with an excellent view of the camp and carefully arranged three arrows in front of him, their points sunk into the soft earth beneath his feet. Checking the mild wind, the hunter brought his bow to bear and drew, letting an arrow fly once it felt the way it should. Every seasoned archer could tell when a shot simply ‘felt’ right, and it was rarely disappointing. By the time the bandits had the sense to find their shields, four of their number were already writhing on the ground, arrows buried deep within them.
The hunter was on the move now. Evil though they may be, the bandits were not stupid and would have easily found him if he remained still. He slipped through the underbrush, much like one of the large, cat-like creatures that often ambush their prey around this region. The yelling and crashing of his quarry made them easy targets, and one by one the hunter picked them off, ending their dreams of being robber barons.
The door to the Brook and Raven eased open on carefully maintained hinges. It was well before the inn normally saw the bulk of its business, yet Kahrden wasn’t surprised to see Graf toiling away behind the bar, preparing for his day. The man was kind and warm, with the charm his parents hoped to bestow upon him easily coming through with his demeanor. He had taken over the establishment from his father, and was doing a fine job of running it.
“Mornin’, Kahr,” the innkeep said, smiling up at the hunter briefly before returning to the tankards he was polishing.
“Good morning to you, too,” he replied, carefully placing a cloth-wrapped bundle onto an empty table beside him. “Brought some stuff for you to look through.”
Graf put down the cleaned tankard and leaned over the bar. “Meat? What’d you bring down this time?”
Kahrden shook his head, his loose hair momentarily shrouding his face. “No meat this morning, sorry to disappoint.” he unrolled the cloth, revealing a dozen or so assorted blades of different lengths and quality. “Figured we could add this to the stockpile for the militia.”
The innkeep sighed and narrowed his eyes. “You’ve been tracking bandits again, haven’t you?”
“They’re the only ones with this kind of equipment.”
“You’ve gone out after them alone again, is what I’m getting at.” Graf chastised, albeit gently.
Kahrden sighed. “How else am I to do it? Would anyone here like to be turned out of their beds during the witching hours, to hunt down other people, no matter how evil?” He gestured to the weapons on the table. “Would you like them or not?”
Graf scratched at the beard he had recently decided to grow. “Why not take them over to the Emberforge?”
“Cinderbeard needs his rest, and I knew you’d be awake. Besides, I know you handle the militia’s stock. Your father taught you to read and write at the very least. I figured you could bring it by when you next have firewood for the old dwarf.”
The innkeep leveled a look at Kahrden, one he had seen many times before. “You and I are both getting a little old to be running about on our own, Kahrden. You know that as well as I do.”
“You’re a scant few years older than I, and neither of us is ready to be beneath the elms just yet.”
“And yet, we are both slower than we once were. What happens when you catch a blade or an arrow and nobody is there to watch your back?” Graf wandered around the side of the bar and stood before the hunter, placing a meaty paw on his shoulder. “You’re a beloved member of the community, despite your self-imposed distance from it, lad. Don’t be stupid, that’s all I ask.”
Kahrden knew the innkeep was right. After the death of his father, Cavril, the people of Elmwatch essentially raised him. His father had passed down all his knowledge and fieldcraft, and Kahrden took to it like a fish to water. Those who lived within the town proper made sure to teach a much younger Kahrden all they could about things his father might not have cared about, and he owed them more than they could know.
Despite all of that, Kahrden had made sure to live his life outside the confines of Elmwatch, instead preferring seclusion and the quiet parts of the countryside that bordered the farmlands. He told himself that it was to better deal with any threats that may arise, from bandits to starving animals that could harm the folk who had raised him. It was partly true, of course. The best lies always have a core of truth to them.
“No guarantees,” the hunter replied sarcastically, “but I’ll do what I can.”
Graf shook his head. “It’s a start. Now go on about your business, I’ll handle these for you.” Carefully wrapping the weapons once more, he brought them behind the bar. “Just think on what I said, will you?”
“I will, Graf. Don’t you worry.”
“We all will anyway, Kahrden.”
The hunter waved off the remark and made his exit, slipping through the still-sleeping town and making his way through the fields that would soon give way to forest. The trek was easy and familiar, allowing Kahrden to think on all the tasks he would need to perform for the day and perhaps the week, if he got far enough. With the most recent group of bandits decimated, he could focus on the more mundane projects he had lined up. His small shack needed a new roof, and the town would always welcome more venison.
His musings allowed the short walk to pass quickly, the fields disappearing behind him as the small house his father had built grew in his view. It was a simple, sturdy building that had withstood the tests of time through regular maintenance and caring hands. It was little more than a bedroom, kitchen, and a fireplace with a few chairs, but it suited Kahrden just fine. His father had lived simply, and Kahrden saw no reason to change that for himself.
Kahrden admired the man his father was. After his mother had passed in order to bring Kahrden into the world, his father had worked himself to the bone in order to provide a decent living for his son. As Kahrden grew, Cavril was often tired enough to drop at the end of each day, and yet he never could remember a time when the two of them were not happy. Despite it all, they had each other, and that was enough for them.
“I hope I can be half the man you were,” Kahrden said to the quiet place he called his home. Enough sunlight was streaming through the shutters to see by, and so no lamps were lit. The hunter stored his gear carefully, all of it within easy reach. He made a quick meal of whatever he had on hand, not wanting to light a fire in order to cook. After his late and adrenaline-filled night previously, Kahrden knew he would need at least some sleep. He fished through the cabinets for a candle and nail, then stuck the nail a few inches below the top before lighting the candle. His alarm set, Kahrden settled into a comfortable position and let exhaustion overtake him.
Something was wrong. Kahrden could feel it in the air as soon as he awoke. He kept his eyes closed, choosing to focus on his other senses instead. A soft rustling here and there, perhaps a step onto the floorboard he had been intending to replace. Someone was inside his home with him. He faked moving in his sleep to get a better angle towards the rest of the room, and all noise ceased for a good minute. Once the intruder was satisfied with his stillness, they began to pick through his belongings once more.
It couldn’t be anyone from Elmwatch, as nobody would dare steal from each other. Perhaps a caravan had come in, bringing unscrupulous types who saw his secluded cabin as the perfect mark. Although unlikely, there was always the possibility he had missed a bandit from the previous group. Either way, they had picked the wrong place to rob. Kahrden cursed himself internally, as he realized his knife hung on a peg beside the door. It was a stupid mistake that was going to give him more trouble than he wanted to deal with.
He cracked open his eyes the barest sliver, seeing what he could glean from the meager sunlight and what remained of the candle. A tall, hooded figure was rummaging through his home, and it seemed as though they had already selected a bag of dried meats and a wineskin to take with them. Kahrden had little in the way of coin, but the spoils of his hunts were his main source of income and were essential to his survival. He tensed his muscles, ready to spring as soon as the mysterious intruder made their way closer to him.
The candle burned low, and the nail he had placed in it clattered onto the tray underneath, breaking the tense silence.
The figure’s head snapped up at the noise at the same time Kahrden launched himself from the chair, slamming into the burglar with all his might. The two landed in a tangle of limbs and loose fabric, and Kahrden had his nose smashed by an elbow. Stars danced in his vision as he scrambled to pin the intruder. They were slippery, however, and a sharp strike to his abdomen left him gasping as the thief burst through his door and out into the forest beyond.
Struggling to catch his breath, Kahrden managed to crawl to the doorway. He smiled slightly as he saw the thief’s hasty retreat had left a trail that could be easily followed. He set his broken nose, a rather unpleasant task, and then rinsed his mouth with water from the rain barrel outside. Not bothering to change his clothes, Kahrden grabbed his bow and cloak from beside the door, cursing once more as he realized the intruder had stolen his knife as well. Like a great many other items he owned, the knife had been his father’s.
“Oh, you’re going to wish I hadn’t found you,” Kahrden said to the tracks beneath his feet as he followed them deeper into the forest.
The tracks were just confusing enough to lead Kahrden to believe the person he was chasing had some minor knowledge of how to stay hidden, keeping him on edge during his hunt. The trail led through a small creek, then stopped abruptly when the forest opened up into the rough terrain known as the Crag. The strange tower built by the enigmatic wizard Madrigal loomed in the distance, and he assumed it had the same effect on his quarry as it did on him. Tucked neatly in the jagged hills, the top peeked over the surrounding area, giving a commanding view of the countryside. He was mollified when he saw a much more cautious set of tracks leading back into the forest behind him.
Though he was a master of his craft, this thief always seemed to be one step ahead of him. Several times he thought he caught glimpses of a form sprinting through the woods, yet he was never close enough to properly give chase. There were signs, obviously planted and ignored by the hunter, and more clever ones that led him in circles. Clearly this person had some amount of skill, perhaps more than he had given them credit for previously.
The sun had begun to dip below the horizon when Kahrden returned to his cabin, angrily tossing his bow and cloak onto their pegs. He righted the chair he had overturned in his haste to get at the intruder and slumped into it, staring at the doorway. After several silent moments, he drew himself up and retrieved the bow, unstringing it and stowing it properly. After all, the tool should not suffer for the shortcomings of the user.
For the first time in a great many years, Kahrden locked his door and shutters as best he could, using some leftover rope and a chair in front of the entrance. His sleep was fitful, as the loss of the knife was just one more piece of his father he no longer had. There were days where he couldn’t even remember what his face looked like, but the things he had passed down were always there, definite evidence of his love and care.
“I will see you home again,” the hunter vowed to the void surrounding him.
Just as the town was beginning to stir the next morning, Kahrden made his way to the best and only blacksmith in the Moor, the Emberforge. As expected, old Cinderbeard himself was up and about, setting up the forge and getting ready for whatever the day brought him. The dwarf was humming to himself as he pumped the bellows, stoking the forge to its proper temperature.
“I’d hate to interrupt,” Kahrden said, gently rapping his knuckles on one of the workshop’s supports, “but I have a request to make of you.”
The dwarf finished his work and wiped his brow, although no sweat had gathered there. “And what might that be, young master?”
Kahrden rolled his eyes. “I’m not young, although you might be getting senile.”
Deep, rich laughter rumbled from the dwarf. “That is also probably true. But I was there when you were still soiling your pants, so you’ll always be a ‘young master’ to me!”
“Fair point. I am trying to bring you business, however, so perhaps it would be in your interests to forget about it for one conversation?”
Cinderbeard gave him a lazy smile and gestured for him to continue.
“I… am no longer in possession of my knife, it would seem.” Saying it out loud was like trying to swallow a handful of rocks.
“Your father left that for you, did he not?”
“He did,” Kahrden’s mouth formed a grim line as he did his best to maintain his stoicism.
“Do you want it to be patterned after that same blade, or perhaps something new?” The dwarf was already moving about the workshop, gathering tools and materials.
“The same, I would think, but how-”
The dwarf tapped the side of his head. “It’s all up here, my boy. I’ve seen that blade often enough that I could forge it anew with my eyes closed. Now, bring me some horn from the next great buck you bring down, and perhaps some of the fur. We can call it even after that.”
Even Kahrden knew that was massively discounting the price of a blade. “Are you sure?”
“You going to make me repeat myself?”
Kahrden held up his hands. “Horn and pelt, agreed. And I am in your debt.”
“Pah! Nonsense,” the dwarf spat. “Your father welcomed me here all those years ago, and we’ve all been taking care of you like you’re our own. Because you are. That’s how things go around here, or so everyone has been trying to tell me.” He reached out and grabbed Kahrden’s wrists, a bit of moisture glistening in his old, rheumy eyes. “Your pa would’ve been proud to see the man you’ve grown into, lad.”
“I hope so,” the hunter replied, his voice becoming strained. “That’s always the struggle, isn’t it? Living up to the ideas of those who cared for us?”
Cinderbeard nodded, releasing his gentle grip. “Sometimes it's just about living, I think. Rising to the occasion and all that. Just make sure you find your purpose. I guarantee you it’s more than you think it is.” He returned back to the forge, waving away any comment Kahrden could have made, almost eager to leave the sentimental talk behind. “I’ll have it for you in a couple days. Try not to get into any trouble you’d need this knife to get you out of while you wait.”
“No guarantees,” said Kahrden with a smile that refused to reach his eyes as he left towards the Brook and Raven. After his fruitless pursuit of the thief, he was in dire need of a drink and food that he was not required to prepare for himself.
Surprisingly, the Brook and Raven was packed this morning. ‘Packed’, as in there were at least six people within the taproom that could hold far more than that. Kahrden noticed the town’s carpenter, Marn, flirting with his charming wife over at one of the side tables. He was normally a very intense man when it came to his business, so it was amusing to see him cavorting about like an adolescent, even if it was with someone he had spent his whole life with.
There was a traveling bard of sorts, hoping to find tales of heroism and great deeds to bring back to the capital, no doubt. Kahrden smiled to himself. The bard’s search would undoubtedly be as pointless as his previous night’s hunt, as the people of the Moor cared more for survival and living another day than for heroics. Still, it might be worth a few coins to hear some actual music in the inn, since the only people who knew how to work an instrument were far too busy in the fields to play.
A set of familiar colors caught Kahrden’s eye, and he meandered over to his usual corner table, occupied by a stranger wearing armor in mottled greens and browns. He waved to Graf along the way, knowing the innkeep would just get him whatever was fresh and hot to eat. The hunter slid into the seat across from the armored man, who looked up from the drink he was nursing.
“You’re a long way from home, friend,” the hunter said, his voice grim.
“And you’re awfully nosy for a recluse, sir.” The armored man’s glare held steady for a few moments before the two of them broke into laughter, exchanging quick handshakes. “How have you been, Kahrden? It’s been too long since I have been able to come this far east.”
Kahrden shrugged. “Oh, it’s been the usual, Beocca. Hunting, drinking, being stolen from. You know.”
“Stolen from?” the man, Beocca, had surprise written all over his face. “Who in their right mind would do that to you, of all people?”
“Someone not from around here, I would think.”
“That much would be certain. You know, it wouldn’t have happened if you joined with us, Kahrden. You’d be a good fit.” Beocca gave the hunter a knowing look.
“I doubt I could pass the tests to join your merry band of misfits.”
“Oh, we’d relax the requirements for your old bones, don’t you worry,” Beocca winked at him conspiratorially before returning to his drink. “You’d be right at home with us. Plenty of people skilled enough to watch your back without slowing you down. Still, you know I have to ask. Armand is doing a hell of a job, but we don’t have the numbers we used to. He’s getting old, and we all know what getting old means for men in our profession.”
Kahrden frowned. “The Farstriders are falling apart?”
“I wouldn’t say that much, but times are tough. A few decades ago, we had a sizable force. Now? We’d be lucky to bring about half that number, if we called everyone back from the Edgewalk and from within the Dracwood itself.” Beocca looked almost pained as he stated the cold facts.
Kahrden placed a comforting hand on the man’s shoulder. “Rest assured, anyone with the resilience of your brothers and sisters will undoubtedly survive these troubled times. The spirit of the Moor that burns in you all will surely attract more to your cause.”
“That is the hope. But let us not talk of that, for now. You mentioned an outsider stealing from you?” At Kahrden’s nod, Beocca continued. “On our way here, we came across another group of three, rather unfamiliar to us. We aren’t often out this far east, so we left it alone for now. But… they were rather well equipped for common brigands or homesteaders.”
“Do you remember where you last saw them?”
“Of course I do,” Beocca laughed, “We’re professionals, Kahrden. It looked to me as though they were searching for something, though. Something, or someone. Give me your map, I’ll point out their camp to you.”
As Kahrden fished around for his map, Graf brought over a bowl of stew, still steaming and with a rich, peppery scent. The bread accompanying it was almost as mouthwatering. “Will you be waiting for your kin, master Beocca?”
“I believe I will, thank you. We’ve been taking meals together for so long at this point, it seems criminal to break tradition.”
Graf chuckled, wiping his hands on his apron. “Very well, I’ll have it ready for when they enter. You lot are a noticeable bunch, so don’t bother calling out.”
As Kahrden tucked into his hearty breakfast, Beocca explained the movements of the three strange men.
“We first noticed them here, moving through the Crag. We stopped by Madrigal’s tower, but the old man wasn’t home so we couldn’t ask about them. They were trying to hide signs of their passing, but not doing a very good job of it. That was the first indication that they weren’t locals, before we got closer to them.”
“You talked to them?” Kahrden inquired around a mouthful of bread.
Beocca nodded. “Briefly. They were standoffish, as you’d expect from someone in an unfamiliar land being approached by a well-armed stranger. I couldn’t place their accent, but I’ve lived here all my life, so that alone tells me enough. They looked more like the type of hunter that goes after men than game, if you see my meaning.”
“It wouldn’t be the first time a quarry has hidden in the Moor, hoping to shake their bounty.”
“Precisely,” Beocca agreed. “I see that look in your eye, Kahrden. If you believe them a threat, we would be happy to assist you with them. The others will be returning from the Emberforge soon.”
“I must have just missed them. I was there right before this,” Kahrden laughed, before growing serious once more. “I know how precious little time away from Farhold you recieve, I would hate to deprive you of it.”
Beocca held out his hands. “It’s nothing. The safety of the Moor is our charge, and we’re more than happy to assist.”
Waving away the offer, the hunter shook his head. “It’s quite alright, Beocca. Three men should be no problem, if they do end up being a threat. Just two nights ago I handled ten brigands, I don’t imagine this being worse.”
Beocca snorted. “Crows have to eat, too, I suppose. You’re going to put us out of a job, are you?”
“Only on this side of the Moor, friend. Know your place,” Kahrden joked.
Shaking his head, Beocca returned to his drink and shooed the hunter away. “Go about your business, pretender. I have to drink with real men soon and I would not want your presence offending them.”
“I’ll let you know if I ever see any real men wearing those colors,” Kahrden replied as he mopped up the last of his stew with a crust. “Thank you, Beocca. Safe travels to you and yours.”
“Of course, Kahrden. Stay dangerous.”
The two exchanged handshakes once more before parting ways, and Kahrden began to think on this strange new development. If he could track these unknown bounty hunters, perhaps he might find an answer to who had broken into his cabin and stolen from him. It could be one of them, or more likely, the person they were pursuing. If one of the men had tried stealing from him, it would’ve been far easier to simply kill him and take everything he owned.
With a full belly and a fresh mind, Kahrden returned to his home to prepare for the hunt once more.
Signs of their camp were easy enough to find. If he had ventured just a bit further into the Crag, he would have stumbled upon it a day ago. As it was, he only found the remains. A doused fire pit, and tracks enough for three men to be walking towards the general direction of Elmwatch. The trail they left had not degraded by any appreciable amount, and it seemed as if they were making no moves to hide it at all. Curious.
Regardless, Kahrden followed the trail. He would have to find them eventually, and it would do no good musing over their apparent naivety on the subject of staying hidden. The sign led him to the small forest outside Elmwatch, on which his cabin was on the other side of. If they were following someone, it appeared that their quarry had made their home somewhere within. It made sense, as his abode would be the closest place to steal from.
The hunter made one last check of his equipment. His bow was strung and all his arrows secure in their quiver. He had a knife strapped to his hip - a sad replacement for the one bequeathed by his father Cavril, but still a necessary item. He hoped he wouldn’t have need for it, but deep down Kahrden knew that would be the way of things. He took a deep swig from his waterskin, examined the tracks before him, and made his way into the familiar forest.
The thick woodland was like a second home to Kahrden, and he knew all the likely places for an ambush, or where to avoid people the easiest. It seemed as though the bounty hunters merely wanted to cover as much ground as possible instead of searching thoroughly, which made him think that their quarry was likely to bolt instead of stay hidden.
It wasn’t long before he came upon the first member of this trio, crouched beside an elm tree, scanning the forest before him. He didn’t seem concerned with stealth, and merely stood and turned at the sound of Kahrden’s arrival.
“That’ll be close enough, stranger,” he warned, his hand on the hilt of a well-forged sword.
Kahrden held up his hands, showing they were empty. “I mean to cause you no concern, sir. These are the woods in which I make my home, and I am merely wondering why you’re here.”
The man ran a hand over his shaved head before spitting onto the ground. “We’re here to take some unwanted vermin off your lands, is all. Once we have it in hand, we’ll depart this dreary place.”
“Vermin?” Kahrden inquired. “I have no knowledge of what you speak.”
“We seek a half-breed. A deceitful mockery of the human form contaminating the land on which she walks.” The vitriol spilling from the man’s mouth was almost palpable.
He had described their quarry as ‘her’, which made Kahrden think back to the confrontation in his cabin. The intruder there had seemed lithe, agile, and light on their feet. If this man’s partners were at all similar to him, they would be more accustomed to bludgeoning him and moving on, which didn’t fit with the brief fight he had.
“And why are you hunting her, may I ask?”
The man scoffed. “Besides hoping to cut short her continued existence? The lord who hired me has been wronged by the woman, and we are being paid handsomely to bring her back across the Sierras.” The bounty hunter had taken several steps towards Kahrden by this point, which worried the hunter. He could handle himself in a fight, but the man had size and strength on him. Any confrontation would have to be quick, before he was overwhelmed.
“You say you know these lands,” the man continued, taking another step, “perhaps we can come to an arrangement that would benefit us both.”
It was technically a sound idea. It would remove all the troublesome outsiders from the Moor and keep them from threatening Elmwatch, and recover his father’s knife on top of it. However, the man’s casual and heartfelt racism simply didn’t sit well with Kahrden. He had not met many non-humans, this is true, but all the ones he had were genuine, friendly people who had the same desire to see those around them succeed as the rest of the Moor’s denizens.
It also helped that the man was clearly posturing to try and kill Kahrden.
His stance had widened, ready to lunge at a moment’s notice. He was tall and had a fair amount of reach, so he would be just on the edge of his range with that sword. Kahrden had made his decision, however.
“Perhaps we could, you are right. But I think it might just be simpler to give you to the crows. This is my land you’re on, after all.”
The man drew his sword at the same time Kahrden pulled his knife, and several other things happened at once. The forest behind him exploded in a flurry of activity, as someone shouted for the briefest of moments before it turned into a wet gurgle. Something pierced through Kahrden’s left shoulder, staggering the hunter and sending waves of agony through him as he desperately tried to recover in time to counter the other man’s charge.
Kahrden knew he would get only one movement, and it would have to be decisive. His larger opponent started with a lunge, using a surprising amount of finesse. Unfortunately, that is what killed him. If he had rushed the weakened Kahrden, he would have overwhelmed him within seconds. As it was, the hunter simply stepped inside the lunge, almost face to face with the man and buried his knife in his throat before collapsing. Kahrden’s vision faded in and out as he felt something foreign coursing through his system.
Sounds of struggle filtered through the leaves around him as darkness clouded his vision.
Through the haze of poison and pain, Kahrden was vaguely aware that he was being half-dragged and half-carried through the forest, in the general direction of his cabin. The constant, stabbing pain from his wound would repeatedly rip his waning consciousness away from him, dropping him further towards the deep, unknowable, grasping roots of the elms. He saw glimpses of what could be the small stream he used to wash his clothes. If he could just follow it upstream, he could make it to his cabin... Through it all, a scared yet beautiful voice called out to him, pleading for him to live. It was a haunting melody to die to, he thought to himself.
Wracking coughs woke him an unknown amount of time later. He cleared his chest and spat onto the floor of his cabin before collapsing yet again due to the wound he had sustained. A person rushed towards him from one side of his dimly lit cabin, and Kahrden could clearly see his father’s knife strapped to their hip before the poison overwhelmed him yet again.
“Finally going to stay awake this time, are you?”
The soft voice sounded almost pleased as Kahrden opened his eyes and took a full breath. A woman stood a good distance away, leaning against the hearth, which had a soft fire burning within. He tried to lift his hands to rub at his face, but found that only his right arm responded to him. In a panic, he became fully aware in an instant. His arm was still attached, thank whatever gods might be bothering to still listen. An ugly puncture wound on his shoulder was packed with gauze, however, and dark, unnatural tendrils seemed to reach out from its edges. His fingers still worked, so Kahrden figured he could regain the use of his arm, given enough time.
He tried to speak, but his throat was so dry only a croaking rasp escaped his lips. Immediately, the woman was at his side with a cup of cool water from his rain bucket outside. He drank greedily, but the woman pulled it away.
“Don’t want you drowning yourself, now. Take it easy.” She placed the cup on the small table beside his bed, then gathered up some fresh gauze. “Sit up for me, would you? We need to change your bandage before it gets too dirty.”
Kahrden stared her down. She was pretty, in a strange way. She would have looked plain, were it not for the obvious addition of elven blood she had. It gave her a charming, pleasant face, without the extreme angles and lines that pureblooded elves had. The only elves Kahrden had ever met came from the Spiritwood, to the south, and they were a very strange lot. Ears shaped and ribbed like leaves, jawlines and cheekbones that could split wood… and this woman had none of those things. She just looked like a scared girl, too far from home.
The woman sighed. “If I was planning on harming you, I could’ve left you to die in the woods. Now sit up, before you go septic.”
Kahrden complied, but gave her a wary look. “Septic?”
She narrowed her eyes at him as she undid the layers of wrapped gauze. “Yes. Septic. Infected. Festering. Putrefying.”
“I apologize. I’m not much of a healer.”
“Yet you happen to have just the herbs and such that I needed to keep you alive.”
Nodding, Kahrden stared at nothing in particular. “My father kept a list. Always suggested I have these things on hand, although I never knew their purpose.” He chewed his lip for a moment as the woman began to clean his wound, the clean water stinging his shoulder. “He never quite finished teaching me how to read, but he had pictures of the plants.”
“Your father was a smart man, then,” she said, her dexterous fingers applying and wrapping the fresh gauze with a practiced ease. “Lie back, now. You need rest.”
He did, and grimaced the entire way down. Once the pain had subsided, he shook his head. “It was a stupid mistake.”
“Getting hit with that arrow. If I had been paying attention, it never would have happened. And now, I almost die because of it.” Kahrden sighed. “Not even three days ago I took care of ten bandits, all by myself. Then I’m laid low by three bully-boys and some bewitched arrow. Stupid, stupid mistake.”
“Did you not have someone to help you?” She inquired.
“I’ve been alone since my father passed.”
“I watched you go into that town,” she said, her face covered in confusion. “Surely any one of the men there would have been happy to assist you.”
Kahrden thought back to the Farstrider, Beocca, that he had found at the inn. The trio, plus Kahrden, could have handled just about any threat that could be encountered in the Moor. And yet, he had turned them away without a second thought, claiming how precious their time away from Farhold was.
“They would,” Kahrden agreed. “And I turned them away regardless. As I said, stupid mistake.”
“Well, that won’t do,” she said, her hands on her hips. “I need a place to stay, and this seems as good as any. Everyone has to stop running eventually.” She held out her hand. “I am Aderyn. Healer and falconer, although the bird is off somewhere.”
Kahrden looked at the half elf standing impetuously above him, her hand outstretched. In the soft light, he could see the calluses and cuts all over her hand. She had lived a hard, brutal life, at least recently. Kahrden had no idea who she was, or where she had come from. Yet, behind the proud mask she wore, he could see the abject uncertainty and fear of a young person far from everything they knew. He thought back to the old dwarf Emberbeard’s earlier words; “Make sure you find your purpose. I guarantee it’s more than you think it is.”
Kahrden gripped her offered hand, surprised at the strength it held. “I am Kahrden. Hunter and problem solver of Elmwatch.” He looked meaningfully at her waist. “I’ll be needing that knife back, though.”
Aderyn looked between his supine form and the blade she had stolen. “What do I get in return?”
The hunter laid his head down and closed his eyes, folding his hands over his stomach. “This isn’t a negotiation. You’ll hang up that knife, and I’ll have a new one for you once I teach you how to survive out here. And after you teach me how to read properly.”
“What makes you think I can read?”
Kahrden opened one eye and leveled a soft glare at her. She held up her hands in defeat. “That’s what I thought,” he said, smiling. “Once I rest some more, we’ll see exactly how much you know. Until then, try not to steal anything else from my house.”
As the hunter and bandit slayer of Elmwatch drifted to sleep, he finally felt as though something he was missing had been found. For the first time in a while, he was planning for more than just how to kill the next group of brigands, and it pleased him more than he thought it would.