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Chapter III - Gwenn

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“You can’t escape,” shouted Senfra, the self-proclaimed “Knight of the Peasants,” as he lowered his bow and stared into the black mouth of the cave. “I’ll add to my collection of swords by the end of the day.”
The voice of a young woman responded in a defiant tone. Her words were clear and sharp. “Am I to believe the lair of a bandit has no secret exit?”
“A bandit?” asked Senfra in an amused tone. “I swore an oath to protect those in need from unjust and intolerant nobles throughout this land.”
From within the cave, Gwenn silenced a laugh. “You target anyone with a bit of gold. Don’t try to convince me otherwise.”
“You mistake me for a common thief.”
“And you mistake me for a fool,” said Gwenn. Her voice echoed within the cave as she crept closer to the exit, keeping her body as close to the wall as possible.
Twenty paces in front of her lay a slain warrior with a dozen arrows protruding from his legs, arms, and chest. Surrounded by a pool of warm, sticky blood, the body covered a large sack of gold coins. Gwenn chastised herself for falling prey to the ambush. The poor soldier didn’t have a chance to defend himself, his weapon remaining untouched within its sheath.
“Fool or not, search the cave if you want,” said the bandit leader. “Spend the rest of the day in there, but you’ll find it’s nothing more than a temporary resting place. We’re far from my home, which indeed has a back door.”
“You might be speaking the truth, but I doubt your sincerity. I’m going to bring you and your fellow rogues to justice.”
Senfra let out a great laugh. “Trust me; I’m the one to decide who receives justice today. I single-handedly bested a dozen of your king’s most skilled warriors, and I own their blades as proof.”
“The only thing I trust about you is your treachery,” said Gwenn.
“Still, you’re at a disadvantage, trapped in a cave and surrounded by my men.”
He stroked the neck of the nearest horse, which whinnied at his unsavory smell. His ragged clothes and unshaven face contrasted sharply with the finely groomed beast tied to the tree with a silken rope.
“Aside from your invasion of my shelter,” he said, “you’ve done me no wrong. I’ll let you live if you allow me to recover my possessions and leave your kingdom in peace, but I’ll take these steeds as payment for the inconvenience.”
“What about my soldier outside the cave? What wrong did he commit to be slain by your arrows?”
“That was a misunderstanding. I thought he was a thief stealing my hard-earned gold.”
“Hard-earned, yes, but not by you,” said Gwenn, becoming more distraught by the minute.
Standing beside her three swordsmen, she peered out of the darkness, trying to determine the number and location of the bandits who’d trapped them. There seemed to be no escape except through the front entrance. Only Senfra remained in plain sight, taunting her.
She should have searched the area before entering the cave, but her overwhelming confidence had blinded her judgment. When her men found the missing gold, she rushed into the cave, expecting a quick end to this minor quest, but instead of capturing the bandits and returning home in triumph, she’d become pinned inside a potential earthen grave.
“If only we had a wizard with us,” said her second in command, “a sorcerer to send forth a spirit and draw their attention while we sneak out, or an elementalist to blast them with fire. I’d even accept a thaumaturgist to call upon divine aid.”
“I don’t trust wizards,” said Gwenn. “They’re forever at the mercy of their unpredictable magic.” She raised her sword. “A blade of steel will never fail me.”
“But a sword offers little protection against a swarm of arrows. I’d still prefer a wizard to shield me when we make our escape.”
“I’d agree if you meant to use his body as the shield.” Gwenn laughed morbidly as she stared out of the cave.
The horses remained where they’d left them, but she couldn’t see any of the bandits. As her eyes adjusted to the brightness, she noticed a few signs of her captors—a shoulder protruding from behind a tree, the tip of an arrow poking through some branches, and a shadow where none should have been.
“They’ve taken up good positions,” she said. “If nothing else, Senfra knows how to position his men.”
Her lieutenant stepped behind her. “Our only choice is to run from this cave together and hope one of us survives the onslaught.”
Gwenn grimaced at his words. “I won’t need magic or luck to overcome these thieves, just a touch of charm, an arrogant opponent, and a good weapon.”
“Very well,” she shouted at the bandit leader. “You may leave the kingdom with your…possessions. Let’s speak face to face and make the final arrangements.”
“I prefer to keep my distance, but if you leave your weapons and armor inside the cave, you may approach without fear of attack.”
Gwenn unbuckled her sheath, removed her boots, and peeled off her suit of leather armor, leaving her dressed in only a thin layer of linen. She smiled when her lieutenant caught a glimpse of her body, sculpted into perfect physical condition. She tore a strip of fabric from the bottom of her shirt and tied a pair of daggers to the back of her arms under her sleeves, making sure she could free each one with a small flick of the blade. Finally, she handed her sword to the others.
“Wait for my call,” she whispered, slinking out of the cave.
Senfra moved two steps forward, holding his bow in front of his body, while Gwenn walked provocatively toward him. When she marched past the fallen warrior, she was tempted to look down but instead clenched her teeth, kept her anger in check, and passed without peeking at the body.
“Tell your men to toss their weapons and armor from the cave,” said the bandit leader. He pointed at a lone spruce close to the forest trail. “They can bring out my gold and leave it in a pile by yonder tree. When they’re finished, they must head due south without looking back, or we’ll send them to meet their fallen comrade.”
Gwenn said nothing as she moved forward, thinking only of how the death of the swordsman was her responsibility. She wouldn’t allow another one of her men to lose his life to these ruffians.
“And don’t forget the gold that was spilled back there.” Senfra nodded at the dead warrior. “Do you understand?”
She answered him with an enigmatic grin.
“Perhaps I’ll take you as well as the horses. Aside from your shifty eyes and broken nose, you aren’t displeasing. Of course, you’d have to grow your hair longer. I don’t care for short-haired tomboys.”
His comment only made her angrier, having heard it from her parents too often as a child. Gwenn continued in silence until she was one pace away from the bandit leader. She was easily as tall as he was and nearly as muscular.
He reached out to grab her with his free hand when she pulled the two daggers from her arms and jumped at him. Her first stroke cut his bowstring, and her second went for his neck, barely missing when he twisted out of the way. Gwenn ignored the other bandits, knowing they’d hold back their shots for fear of striking their leader.
“This was a trick,” Senfra shouted to his men. “Keep your bows trained on the cave and let no one escape. I’ll enjoy dealing with this one myself.”
“Not as much as I’ll enjoy drawing your blood,” said Gwenn, slashing left and right with her tiny blades.
“You fancy yourself a warrior, but I’ve never been beaten in combat. This is your last chance to stand back. Once I’m holding my blade, I’ll offer you no quarter.”
Senfra dropped his bow and drew his sword just in time to counter her next pair of strokes. Gwenn, noting the great number of scars along his arms, went after his unprotected limbs. Aided by her swiftness, she disarmed him with a few precise moves, sending his sword to the ground several paces away. The two closest bandits drew their weapons and closed in. Slipping between them, she lunged at the bandits with bows and sliced through each bowstring.
“Now, men,” she shouted, turning her attention to the bandits with swords. “The bows are destroyed.”
Three soldiers rushed out of the cave with cries of anger. The walls of the cave amplified their roar, making the men sound as if they were a family of disgruntled bears. They charged at the bandits, demanding revenge for their companion’s death.
“You caught me off guard.” Senfra retrieved his sword and joined the fight against Gwenn. “It won’t happen again.”
“Surrender now or I’ll show you no mercy,” she said. “This is your last chance to leave this battle with your life.”
“You’re outnumbered and without a sword. You should be the one who yields.”
“Hah,” she snorted. “I wouldn’t have shown you mercy even if you dropped to your knees and begged.”
Senfra and the two swordsmen advanced on her one step at a time, pushing her against a tree. She parried their thrusts with her daggers but couldn’t gain an advantage with such small blades at her disposal. Thankfully only Senfra exhibited any skill, or her life would have been in more danger than she was willing to admit.
“Your blade,” shouted her lieutenant as he tossed the weapon to her.
In a single move, Gwenn dropped one of the daggers, caught the sword in midair, and used the other dagger to block a bold thrust by Senfra. She spun the sword around and impaled one of the other bandits.
“I have a fine weapon now and your numbers are dwindling.”
With a few more swift strokes, Gwenn recovered the ground she’d lost, moving away from the tree that had recently threatened to restrict her movement. Senfra rushed his attacks, but he couldn’t break through Gwenn’s solid defense. Her sword and dagger moved in a blur, blocking every move the two bandits attempted.
“Now tell me who’ll receive justice,” said Gwenn.
Senfra said nothing, obviously paying closer attention to the blades in her hands than the words coming from her mouth.
“The bandits are dead,” the lieutenant called out. “Finish your sparring and let’s be done with this.”
Gwenn’s aggressive attacks pushed her two opponents into the open. Senfra backed away from the combat, jumped onto one of the horses, sliced its rope, and galloped away. Gwenn finished off her outmatched opponent, mounted a second horse, and charged into the woods after him.
A competent but unexceptional rider, she soon lost sight of her target. When she broke through the underbrush onto the forest road, she almost collided with a disheveled soldier galloping in the opposite direction.
The two horses came to a halt as the warriors gave each other a long stare. Assuming the interloper to be another one of Senfra’s henchmen attempting to delay her, Gwenn looked up and down the path but didn’t see any sign of the bandit leader.
Facing the soldier again, she said, “Ho, thief, where’s your master? He must know he can’t escape me.”
“I don’t know whom you’re referring to, good…lady,” said the soldier, turning his head aside.
Gwenn pointed her sword at him. “Perhaps you’ll understand if I put a few holes in your body to match your tattered clothing. Answer me now and I might let you live.”
She inched her horse closer, ready for any sudden moves. Just as the tip of her blade touched the soldier’s chest, her lieutenant appeared.
“You finally caught—” he began but stopped when he saw the stranger.
“Stay with this one,” said Gwenn. “I’ll head after the leader.”
The lieutenant examined the newcomer. “This man doesn’t seem to be a common bandit. His rags were once a fine material. He looks familiar but I can’t remember where we’ve met.”
The soldier sat up on his horse and pushed Gwenn’s blade aside. He pulled his shirt tight, dusted off his pants, and straightened the sword on his back.
“I am Hermod, Champion of Cyllin,” he said. “If you’ve been chasing a young fellow, he came through the trees ahead of me and galloped to the east not a moment ago. I’m afraid you were heading in the wrong direction.”
Gwenn turned around, looked down the path, and shrugged. “I never claimed to be an expert tracker.”
The lieutenant bowed to Hermod. “I’m honored to meet you. As a young warrior, I attended your ceremony at Castle Cyllin. I recognize your face but it’s aged some years.”
Hermod ran his fingers through his streak of gray hair. “I must speak with King Tharain,” he said. “I have grave news for him.”
Gwenn’s eyes wavered between Hermod and the forest road before settling on her lieutenant. “Bring our guest to the king and instruct the others to recover the missing gold. I’ll follow the bandit leader and return with his head by tomorrow evening.”
“I suggest delaying your quest,” said Hermod. “If you’re a warrior of importance in Tharain, you may wish to hear the news.”
“I’ve been hunting these bandits for days and refuse to give this one another chance to escape me. My men can escort you to the castle.”
“Do what you must, yet…you face a much greater danger than a few thieves and some lost gold. An army on the horizon intends to bring war and destruction.”
Gwenn raised her sword to Hermod’s chest. “How dare you threaten us? We’ll easily crush your feeble army.”
Hermod went pale, showing true pain in his face. He couldn’t have looked worse if she’d run him through with her blade. She lowered her weapon.
“Cyllin is no more,” he said. “The castle has fallen.”
“Kronwulf wouldn’t have broken the peace,” said Gwenn. “It must have been that warmonger Aethelred, but I haven’t heard reports of anyone crossing our lands into Cyllin.”
“It was neither. We face an invincible army of Ferfolk.”
Gwenn laughed at the outrageous statement but quieted down when she realized how much time she’d just wasted. “I have no patience for childish tales.”
“I speak the truth,” said Hermod. “At first, we didn’t believe in the Ferfolk, but they came from the badlands, burnt our villages, and killed everyone in sight. Our warriors fought valiantly, but the Ferfolk were too powerful. I fear they’ll come for Tharain next.”
The sincerity in his voice silenced Gwenn. Any thoughts of following the bandit leader were replaced by grim images of war.
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