Sooner then later, Dalious' wound began to bother him again. It felt like it had reopened with every bounce of the horse, so he slowed them down to a trot and gave Laurel the reigns. He rebandaged it while they continued to move along, the afternoon sun shining brightly overhead. "We have to slow down,"
he told her. "Less I bleed out before we get there. Worry not, I'm still in my prime."Laurel said nothing as Dalious saw to his wound, taking the reigns without much of a response. She had a sense that the man had little care for his own life, less so than before when his jovial attitude had at least had a feeling of something more behind it, and her policy was to not interfere with the feelings of an acquaintance. They dismounted after a short time in the trees, the sounds of the forest familiar to her although this was not one she had visited before.
The trees they passed were thicker and more dense, as they moved from the main roads to the dirt paths spread across the valley. Dalious followed the directions he was given by the store clerk back in the city, so far without a hitch. He checked his weapons again briefly and hitched his horse up loosely. "From here we go on foot, it's still a ways ahead but we should use the cover of the trees. Do you have trees like these in Earthica?""Aye, we do. I've spent most of my life out in woods like these." She could feel tension she had not realised was there fading from her mind as the scents and strange coolness of the forest welcomed her."They're more home to me than any city."
They journeyed on foot deeper into the forest, light filtering down from above in a dappled pattern as it passed through the leaves illuminating their path. Her sharp ears could already isolated the sounds of life around them, creatures scurrying through the undergrowth and birds navigating the maze of treetop branches above them, as she fell into her natural state of alertness. She even began to move more lithely, instinctively stepping in such a way as to not leave marks of her passing while searching their surroundings for any unusual signs. Dalious seemed less used to woods like these; he certainly did not have the bearing of a hunter as he trooped along the path leaving dozens of indications of his recent presence. "I've only camped and hiked the woods of Luthra, miserable cold and many things that want to eat you,"
he started. "Though none of it would be a problem for you, seemingly. With your bow, I mean. I knew you wouldn't miss. When I first saw you in the arena, even in the healer's room afterward, you had this unquestionable confidence about you. It may have been hidden with everyone that was there, but I noticed. You'll need that confidence again here shortly. These are ruthless cutthroats and trained mercenaries, show them no mercy for they will show you none.""I know what I'm about, that's all. Being in that tournament... it was the wrong decision as a guard but being there in the arena at least felt natural. All of this politicking in a foreign city sits wrongly with me. Some may say that the nature of a warrior is no different to that of a guard but such people are fools." She stopped for a moment, turning to Dalious as he picked his way through bracken she had slipped expertly through. "You understand, I'm sure. Not all fighters can be tarred with same brush. I know my business but others' is as foreign to me as this city of the snake-eyes.""Right, my hair requires a special kind of brush,"
he joked while moving through, combing his hair from his face with a hand. "I understand, and I thank you for joining me."
As they drew closer they went higher, up through the hillside overlooking the valley. The lumbermill would be just beyond the ridge now, but there were no sounds coming from the direction. Only the wind could be heard as it whistled through the trees, everything else was silent. They reached a vantage point of the mill, where Dalious pulled out a spyglass from his satchel and peered below. He looked for awhile at the site, just a bunch of lumber piled up in certain areas. There were shacks and cabins forming a half circle around the yard at the base, with the tall trees surrounding all else. A long dirt path led uphill from the base to a flattened surface on top."Seems no one's home. I'll take a closer look, maybe you should hang back."
Dalious made his way down the hill and into the yard. He could see signs of horses trampling about the dirt, their trail led off and away toward the hills. Upon reaching the shacks, the next thing he noticed was the blood stains in the dried grass. The trail of blood led around the cabin, where Dalious stopped in his tracks at what he saw. There were body parts littered everywhere, all of them hacked and slashed to pieces and spread out. A few of the bodies had arrows in them, while some of the heads were scalped. From their clothes Dalious instantly knew that the corpses were the gang, many still wearing red flags at their belts. He took a few steps around, taking in the carnage.
Bo, the man that led the gang, was in three halves right before him. His severed head stared up blankly at Dalious, the cuts clean and smooth. Dalious whistled for Laurel to hear, indicating for her to join him. Whoever or whatever killed them, they weren't after the bounty. "Well, easiest coin I've ever made."They reached the lumber mill and immediately the land felt wrong. Wildlife reacted to the presence of humans in predictable ways, often skirting its way around inhabited sites while learning to what extent it could encroach upon the occupied land. It pulled back but was never absent, the more brazen creatures quickly returning to live alongside humans and there were signs here that that was the case but she could not sense anything. Silence reigned nearby, the cawing of avians behind them distinct against the utter absence of the sounds of life before her. There was a stillness which felt wrong, too extreme even when a new settlement was established and shocked age-long ecosystems into change.
Working on instinct, she dropped lower to the ground, reading her bow but not yet noching an arrow as she circled around the lumberyard while staying in the shadows of the trees. Dalious was clearly visible walking into the shacks, clearly intent on something she could not see from her vantage point so she moved further around, listening out for anything that contravened her every instinct warning her of imminent danger but animals were steering clear of the settlement in a way which unnerved her.
Dalious heard a grunt somewhere in the slew of bodies. Then once more, the sound aching of agony. Dalious quickly tossed torsos aside until he found the source, one of the gang members was still alive though with fatal wounds. The man coughed out a spit of blood as he eyed Dalious helplessly. "Who did this to you?"
he wondered, though showed little care beyond curiosity.
The man opened his mouth in an attempt to speak, only more blood came out, then tried again. "Sti- Still..." he coughed again."Still what?"
"Still...still here!" the dying man said and pointed outward.
Before the pirate could think again he heard the object fly from beyond the trees. Just by reaction, Dalious pulled out one of his swords and swiped in its way just in time. His blade clanged and deflected the thrown object and it fell to the ground, a throwing star forged like he had never seen before. Arrows and more throwing stars soon followed, so he dropped to the ground and slid in between the bodies as cover. They struck the already wounded gang member numerous times, though he died from the first that made contact. A few seconds longer and everything stopped. From his position he had no clue where Laurel was, or who was attacking him.
There were at least three of them, one stayed in the shadow of the tall trees while the other two simply walked out in the open and toward Dalious' position. They wore completely black garbs that covered their entire body and face, save for slits opened for breathing and seeing. The two rushed in quickly while the third continued to fire arrows toward him. His options were limited as he used the gang members bodies as human meat shields, staying lying down to avoid the onslaught from the trees. The faster of the two ran up with a raised katana, standing just above Dalious and heading in for the killing blow.After circling round far enough, momentarily she lost the pirate when a long shack obscured her view but soon found him again, she could see clearly the signs which he had been following. The remnants of a slaughter, brutal and exaggerated in every manner, was strewn around in a space between the buildings nearly on the far side of the yard from where they had entered. Dalious whistled but Laurel stayed put, slowing noching an arrow on her bow while scanning the shadows below the trees in front of the pirate. Death often unnerved animals but it never took them long to start scavenging which meant this was either fresh or something else was keeping creatures away.
That something made itself very apparent by attacking Dalious, missiles she could not properly make out spinning out toward her companion but he managed to scramble for cover without injury. The assailants left the cover of the forest, dressed in strange garb, before two of them charged toward the concealed pirate while the third watched. They were skilled, their presence concealed from Laurel until their attack, but they had also not noticed her, leaving their flank open to attack.
Her first arrow took the one who had remained behind in the neck, the deep twang of her warbow vibrating through the lumberyard even as the second arrow took the man standing above Dalious, weapon raised, in the shoulder. She forced the final assailant to dive for cover with a close miss, the arrow punching part way through the wall of a wooden shack with a dull thud less than foot from their head, before slipping back into the forest and circling toward where the attackers had come from.
It was darker in this part of the forest, the trees closer together, but she could still clearly make out the lumber mill and hopefully Dalious would be able to make use of her distraction while she set up in a new position. Three attackers had shown themselves and she had killed, wounded another but there was no telling how many there really were. She intended to surprise any hiding in the cover of the trees before they could do the same to the pirate and if there were none then she would cut the remaining two down from behind before they could locate her.
The one charging fell backwards and onto their back when Laurel's arrow struck him. He fell a few feet from Dalious, while they both rose to their feet simultaneously."Now we're both wounded, fair is fair,"
Dalious said and unsheathed a dagger while the one across from him did the same, the arrow still stuck in his shoulder."Who are you?"
Before Dalious could even finish the sentence the man rushed forward in attack, but the pirate tossed the dirt he held quickly and direct into their eyes. While they were distracted, Dalious drove a hard elbow into their head and knocked them down again. "You've got some explaining to do, mate. How 'bout-"
Within a split second the ninja flipped a pill from his hand into his mouth. He started to choke, and thirteen seconds later the poison had burned through their insides and out the mouth and eyes. "Well, nevermind then."
Dalious reached down and took off the mask, from what he could make out it looked like a young boy.
North of the mill, upon the green hillside, a few horseback riders could be seen. Then more and more, most of them wearing the same garbs. The top of the hill would soon be littered with them. Dalious was just on his way toward his partner when they blew a soft horn, catching him still in his walk. They were probably close enough for Laurel to hit, though there were far too many if they were to give chase. Most had bows themselves, the archers being held back by one man's hand.
In the center of them all was a white colored stallion, and atop sat the leader of this clan. The leader wore differently, he was cloaked in a black and blue samurai armor. His head was helmeted with a mask that bore a smiling dragon as design. A few others wore similar armour to him, though of different colors. The leader held out his hand to still his men, and then they stayed there for awhile. Dalious counted in the twenties before they moved again. He was a long ways from them, Laurel even farther, but he did not need to be within hearing distance to know what the leader said as he pointed at them. "Kill them!"
The entirety of the clan rode forth.
Dalious winced, then started to limp-run in what he hoped was Laurel's direction. "This is not exactly what we had in mind, but only the enemy has changed,"
he spoke as if she could hear him. "Fuck me, I'm gonna die here!"
The riders reached the yard with arrows at the ready, Dalious had altered his direction though. Instead of the forest, he went upward and through the mill. Every time he peaked his head out from cover an arrow came flying near to him. He continued, hiding and maneuvering through the large stacks of lumber. The higher up he went, the dirt started to feel like mud.
He reached the top of the mill yard in good time, immediately rushing over and hacking off the straps that held a lot of the wood together. With the katana they cut like butter, though there were many that held it in place. The wood began to creak from just losing a few, but it all still held together for the moment. Dalious lit up a smoke while he sat and waited behind the bundle stacks, quickly taking a few hits while the horseriders came up the muddy path. "And here...we...go."
Dalious slashed the next strap and they all went thereafter, rolling down the hill in great speed and number. A few of the horseriders froze dead in their tracks, then were crumpled and broken under the branches. Those still at the base circled around and ran for the trees, a thick cloud of dust obscuring the yard as each piece of lumber smashed into things near the bottom.Just as Laurel rounded to the far side of the lumberyard she caught sight of the assailants massing on the hill. They were on horseback and she could make out at least two dozen of them. A leader arrived at their head, his position clear from the distinctive blue armour he wore, and they held for a time. She used that brief respite to pull a dozen arrows from her bag and rammed them point first into the ground before her. As she readied the first on her string the enemy charged forwards. Dalious had the sense to flee although being separated was probably not a good idea.
Tossing aside her anxiety she let herself go to work. The bow thrummed deeply, a sound which when massed was referred to as the Devil's Harp for the destruction it inevitably hailed, as she ploughed arrow after arrow into the charging mass. She aimed for horses in the front row, lessons from long ago resurfacing; when facing a cavalry charge make obstacles between you and them. Ditches, low walls, streams. Where that wasn't possible then turn their fallen into obstructions, dying horses screaming and flailing had a habit of disrupting a cavalry charge and often killed their riders in their panic.
Her position became compromised as the riders who made it through her volleys surged into the small settlement, some dismounting to better navigate between the buildings. Laurel picked up the final arrow she had plunged into the ground and shifted back into the foliage before heading round to near where she had seen Dalious disappear to.
A tremendous crash sounded from the battlefield and she wondered what on earth the pirate had managed to do but shook aside the questions; she could ask them later if they both managed to survive this. She could not hear any fighting but it was clear that neither she nor Dalious had been yet caught, frustrated yells from their pursuers resounding back and forth as they tried to locate their quarry.
Sounds up ahead made her pause, dropping down into the bracken and freezing in place just as a pair of the assassins crept past. Their garb seemed well suited to hiding in dark places but in the woods on a sunny day they were less hidden than they might normally have been and, although careful, they did not move silently. Laurel carefully placed her bow down, drawing the hunting dagger from her waist carefully before pursuing the two, quickly catching up to them without either noticing her presence.
She smiled grimly as she rammed her dagger through the back of the rear's skull, dropping them with barely a sound and slicing through the second's throat as they turned to see what had was the source of the noise behind them. She paused for a moment, hearing something from above, and barely moved out of the way in time for a third assailant swept down with a long bladed sword. They were quick and alert to her presence now, taking no chances as they pressed against her bad footing. She retreated, narrowly avoiding the knife but she was no match when it come to this kind of close quarters combat and it wasn't long before she was hit shallowly on the arm.
Knowing that she had no chance if this continued, Laurel growled, letting them inside her guard before slamming bodily into the man. They rolled in the undergrowth, Laurel managing to climb on top and pinning him to the ground but not before he managed to stab her in the side. It was not a deep wound, not life threatening but painful. Before they could attack again she grabbed the assailant by the head, pinning it back and ramming her dagger through their eye up to the hilt. They struggled for a moment longer and then were still, allowing Laurel to rise unsteadily and retrieve her weapon.
Wiping her blade on the latter's clothing and returning it to its sheath, she returned to where she had left her bow and continued on without encountering any more entering her domain. For that was what the woods were and while she was in them these would-be assassins were at a severe disadvantage, as long as she didn't let them get the drop on her again. Blood oozed down her side, wetting her leather jerkin and trousers red but not impeding her movement any.
Finally she located Dalious, at the highest point of the mill with a scene of bloody havoc below him. She left the woods, loosing an arrow at a man charging on horseback at her before taking up her dagger and finishing off the few dazed warriors extricating themselves from Dalious' trap. From one of them she retrieved a quivers of arrows still in useable condition and slung it over her shoulder. Temporarily free of opponents she joined Dalious at the high ground and noched an arrow, gazing at the still numerous enemy readying themselves more cautiously down below.
"What's the next move? I've got maybe half a dozen good arrows left and then this poor excuse of a fletcher's work. There are some in the woods so we can't escape that way. Well, you couldn't anyway and I'd leave a lovely trail for them to follow with this wound."
Dalious kicked at the corpse he had just sent to the afterlife when Laurel found him again. He took off the mask and showed her, then looked down at the ones running up the hill after them. "These are boys, not fighters,"
he informed, taking out the last of his bandages and handing them to her. "The weapons are expertly crafted, but the skill is novice at best. They kill themselves when defeated, probably brainwashed by that one."
He pointed to the leader below. "I'm going to go have a little chat with him, keep them off me.""A boy with a dagger is just as deadly as a grown man. The suicide is a bit unnerving though." She accepted the bandages gratefully although it was hardly the time or place to start patching herself up, not will the enemy still lurked at least, so she slipped them into a pouch at her waist for later.
Nodding to Dalious, she emptied the quiver she had looted and rammed the arrows head first into the ground before her, the whole sheaf of them, and noched one of her own arrows on the string. The difference between them was like between a toy and a sword, hers made of tempered steel and almost half a foot longer than the ones these assassins used but a shortbow would struggle to release the heavy-hitting arrows she preferred.
The pirate engaged a group at the foot of the hill and she watched as he danced death amongst them, despite his injury. Despite his rough exterior and inability to emotionally engage with near enough anything, the man was a skilled warrior and she could only admire the technique with which he dispatched his enemies. Seeing one of the assassins raise a bow at the man she dropped them calmly, the force of her arrow jerking the whole corpse back down the hill. Dalious turned and gestured to her and she shook her head with a wry smile; there was something oddly charming about a man who seemed so carefree on the battlefield.
Dalious used the high ground to his advantage. While they struggled to climb toward him, he swiftly moved from side to side striking and defending. His wound flared up again and he hesitated mid fight, barely avoiding a lethal stab. He was able to knock away the weapon, then struck the attacker down. Three more ran up quickly behind him and three more just as quickly were shot down by Laurel's bow. The horseriders formed a half circle at the base of the hill in wait for him to reach the bottom.
Body after body slid back down the mud, so they took to the shacks and fired arrows. Dalious cut down two more on the hill before taking one of the corpses and holding it up as a shield. By the time he reached the horseriders the human shield was covered in arrows and Laurel was picking off the last of their archers. Focusing, she noched another arrow, this time from the poorer stock, and began to take out assassins who had crowded onto the precarious rooftops of the shacks. The others facing Dalious seemed to have stopped and the pirate clearly gestured for her to do so too although she completed her sweep of the bow armed attackers before lowering her bow. Truth be told, she was glad for the break as her arms and shoulders were aching at the constant pull and release of her great warbow; the wound in her side was beginning to make itself felt a little more as well. "Here I am,"
Dalious spoke to the leader, holding both his daggers high. "We came here to kill the men you already killed, so what's the bloody issue? Why are you fighting us?"
There was a pause in the chaos and then the leader rode forward and dismounted his stallion. The others stood in watch as he then unsheathed his katana and made a stance. "Alright, you can get it too."
He held his hand up to still Laurel, if she were planning on attacking.
Dalious crossed his blades and nodded from his stance, taking note of the weaknesses in the armor. "Say when."
The samurai rushed in and attacked, keeping Dalious on his heels in defense. He was able to block a few strikes, but this one was more skilled then the others. The leader knocked one of his daggers away quickly and cut in with the other, mildly slicing the pirate across the waist and then reseting. Then Dalious pushed forward, but the samurai quickly read his attack and deflected his blade, while simultaneously tripping him to the ground. Raising his katana high, the samurai went for the kill but was caught by surprise when Dalious kicked him hard in the genitals. In a swift movement, the pirate picked up his fallen dagger and stuck it into the leader's throat while he hunched over. Dalious picked up the katana and looked toward the others as the armor'd man slowly died. "Your leader is dead, go home."
Another samurai with a lighter blue armor rode forward and removed his mask. His face was older and scarred, his hair dark black and tied up into a knot. His face looked expressionless as he gazed on Dalious, then upward the hill to whoever was helping him. "You and your men fight well,"
he spoke, his voice relaxed but commanding. "I have no men.""And you did not kill our leader,"
he continued. "Our God leads us.""Like I said before, we came to kill the men that stayed here. There's a bounty...""Those men are irrelevant to our cause. They thought they would be able to join us, but their sin was too heavy. You are also irrelevant, though your skills have earned our respect. You may leave here alive, we will not pursue you further."
The man put his mask back on and started to part away."Which kingdom do you serve?"
Dalious asked."Death to all kingdoms,"
the man said, then they all rode off back into the trees beyond the hills.
Dalious watched them until they were gone from sight, then turned and looted the dead samurai. Inside one of his belt pouches he found a letter, and upon opening it up he saw that it was an invitation to the Exodus festival. Keeping the sword, he made his way back up the hill to where Laurel was.She watched the pirate fight the supposed leader whose skill posed a challenge but Dalious had a few tricks up his sleeve, suited to a battlefield like this and certainly not accepted under duel etiquette. A brief exchange followed between the actual leader and the victorious pirate and the assailants departed, leaving behind their dead and their victims alike. She watched them go cautiously, waiting until the last of them had disappeared amongst the trees before relaxing fully, just as her partner joined her at the top of the hill."They're leaving us alone, but I dare say we'll see them again."
He showed the invitation to her. "I think they're going to the festival, bunch of madmen. He said 'Death to all kingdoms'. All kingdoms just happen to be there, though it is no concern of mine anymore.""Surely they can't expect a repeat of this when surrounded by skilled and prepared guards?" She gestured at the remnants of the lumberyard works below as she read the invitation Dalious had shared with her. Her immediate thoughts were for Eve's safety but she calmed herself, remembering that at least Ultfic would still be present should the strange attackers beat them back to Exodus."Who knows, maybe we set them straight. You gave them quite the scare, I've never fought alongside anyone with such talent. I've only one question left to ask of you...will you marry me?"
He smiled in jest, which faded when he remembered that she was hurt. "Are you okay?"She pulled up her leather jerkin, struggling to bandage herself without fully removing it, as the pirate talked. The joke took her by surprise and she threw her head back and laughed.
"Oh, pirate, we'd have some strange adventures as a married couple! I'm fine but I've been better. If we're going to run into them again I need to be in full health, maybe actually wear my damned armour as well." She struggled with the bandages for a little longer before sighing with exasperation. Holding them out toward him she grinned devilishly, an amused glint in her eye. "Care to fix me up a little?""My lady,"
he said with a nod. He began to wrap the bandage around her wound, being as careful as he could not to mess it all up. He tried to reenact what he witnessed Thyrri the healer do for him, though she probably would have yelled at him for doing it wrong."Final kill count, I believe I downed nine of them,"
he told her proudly as he finished up. "Couldn't tell you. More than a dozen I can tell you are definitely dead. Maybe half again wounded? With an arrow in them most tend to die off anyway." She glanced down as Dalious tied the bandage up, gently amused at how careful the otherwise free spirited pirate was being. "You need to tie it tighter, no point if it doesn't put pressure on." She winced as he followed her advice but it felt more secure once he was done; she moved around a bit to make sure the bandages did not slip and that the wound itself would not impede her too much."Well, I only counted the lumber log spill as one but that was at least four..."
he had to add in. His hand rested on her warm skin for a bit to long so he turned his attention toward one of the horses that had survived the small battle. Dalious took its reigns and offered them over to Laurel. "At least we have two horses now, you'd make it back quicker on your own,"
he told her, knowing that she had duties in the city. She had people that needed her, unlike himself of which he just realized he was again homeless. "I'll only slow you down, besides, I have some heads to collect before I follow. I will find you again to give you your proper coin, I may be a pirate but I always pay my debts."
Truth was, if he were with anyone else he would have ditched them and kept it all for himself. There was something about this one though, something that made him want to see her again. "Maybe I'll even join you Earthicans in rank, I am after all a free agent now. Lord knows I don't belong to Luthra anymore."Gratefully accepting the reins of the horse, she stroke its mane and spoke to it in a low voice to calm the creature. The horses the assassins had used were clearly used to the battlefield but a sudden change in ownership often had a detrimental effect on a steed. Luckily, she had always had a deft touch with the creatures, probably in large part due to her general affiliation with the non-urbanised parts of the world and the wildlife which lived within in.
"Just be careful you don't get jumped by any they left behind. They strike me like a lot to abandon their wounded." The coin was of little importance to Laurel, even if she had forced the pirate to concede to an equal split between them; the principle of the matter and her own reputation were more serious to her. "I can't say the king would be overly welcoming of you but I'm sure I could persuade Eve to provide a place for you. The way the old man's drinking it won't be long before she's sitting on the throne as it is." Accepting help, she heaved herself up into the saddle and wrapped the reins around her hand, leaving one free to grab her dagger should anyone try to surprise her on the way back through the forest.
"Take care of yourself, Dalious. I'd like to take you for a drink some time so don't go and give any more people an excuse to kill you, aye?" She gently pressed her heels into the horse's flanks and it obeyed her happily enough, setting off at a slow pace. Laurel directed it to go around the lumberyard, lest the carnage in the centre panic the already nervous creature, and raised a hand in farewell to Dalious until she entered the treeline and could no longer make the man out."No amount of them could stop me from that drink, I'll give my word to that"
he said and waved as she left. Then he went back down to collect some heads.