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Chapter III - Knight of the Peasants

The Lesser Evil Cover
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For most of his adult life, Senfra’s home away from home was The Gray Dog Inn. Kept in good repair by the old innkeeper, The Gray Dog had stood on Luceville’s main wharf for decades, overlooking the Cold Ocean of the north. Compared to the dozens of rickety shacks and cottages along the shore, the tavern could have passed for new, but it looked ancient next to the ships anchored in the bay. The sailors spent every free moment caring for their precious boats, the only source of livelihood for the small fishing village.
Senfra took one breath of the briny air and entered the packed tavern. Most of the fishermen had finished their evening meal and were ready to return home for a good night’s sleep before another exhausting day at sea. Midsummer was their busiest time of the year. As the men paid their tabs and filed out the door, they gave Senfra a wide berth, due more to disgust than respect. He hadn’t shaved in several days, his light brown hair was matted against his scalp, and his ripped clothes were covered in mud and other unidentifiable substances, giving off an offensive odor. Thinner than the hardy sailors, he’d never truly fit in with the demanding physical lifestyle of the villagers, but Luceville was far removed from the nearest settlement, making it the perfect hideout, quiet and ignored by civilization.
“Good evening, Senfra.” The innkeeper approached him with one hand over his nose. “Shall I draw your bath water?”
“Maybe next week.”
Senfra slid into a chair at his usual corner table. He disliked being in the center of the room, surrounded by people who might listen to his private conversations.
“Just the usual for now with a bit of extra ale. I feel like celebrating.”
The innkeeper, a big man in both girth and height, cleared the dirty dishes and wiped some crumbs onto the floor.
“May I ask the occasion?”
Senfra unbuckled a pair of sheaths and rested both swords against the wall behind him.
“Can’t a man have good food and drink without explaining himself?”
“Very well,” said the innkeeper, backing away. “Your dinner will be out presently.”
He returned with a clay jug and an overflowing tin mug. Senfra took one sip of the drink and spit it on the floor.
“This is seawater. Bring me something stronger.”
“But you’ve always disliked my wine and brandy, and this is what’s left of the ale. The fishermen have had a good day at sea today.”
“I don’t care if they dragged a mountain of gold out of the water and gave it all to you. Bring me something drinkable.”
While he waited for the innkeeper to return with his meal, Senfra rolled up his left sleeve. Dried blood covered his skin. He poured the rest of the watered ale on his arm and wiped away the blood, taking care not to reopen his wound. It had stopped bleeding only two hours ago. He’d been careless during the duel and was thankful he hadn’t lost his arm. A similar scar peeked past the end of his other sleeve.
The songs and laughter faded as the clinking of forks and knives diminished. Soon, there were only a half-dozen sailors finishing their drinks and telling stories of their adventures battling the ocean. Senfra had heard such tales more than he cared to recall, but the nearest group of men had changed the subject to a more interesting topic.
“Do you know Ashter?” asked a gray-haired sailor.
The younger man pushed his empty plate aside. “He caught the largest black cod ever.”
“Supposedly, but he’s gone now.”
“Gone where? To Seaton?”
“No, he and his family are just gone. Missing for the past week.”
“His boat probably sank,” said the younger man. “The old barnacle never took proper care of it. I don’t think I ever saw him repairing the sail.”
“His boat’s where it always has been. Off the fourth pier.”
“So he took his family by land. Maybe they wanted to visit Terun City.”
“Could be, but their animals are gone too. I doubt sheep and goats have any interest in the subterranean life of our Terun neighbors.”
The old fisherman rose from his seat and threw a few coppers onto the table.
“Bar your doors tonight. Strange things have been happening in our fair town.”
The younger sailor matched the coins on the table and followed him out, passing a man with an even more unsavory appearance than Senfra. Missing his right ear and capped by a greasy mane of black hair, the newcomer headed straight for Senfra’s table, grabbed the jug of wine that the innkeeper had just delivered, and chugged down a few gulps.
Senfra snatched the jug away from him and slammed it on the table.
“First the good news. Then you can drink.”
“My news is worth more than a sip of this cheap wine,” said the newcomer in a scratchy voice.
“It had better be.”
Senfra reached behind his chair and unsheathed a bloody sword. The man watched nervously, his hand hovering near his belt.
“I had other plans for this,” said Senfra, tossing a bejeweled sheath to the man.
“You’re more than generous, as always.”
He pried a handful of small sapphires off the sheath, pocketed the gems, and shifted his chair closer to Senfra.
“Lord Thelus has been building a mansion outside of Kroflund,” said the newcomer. “He’ll personally move his sizable fortune next week, taking the old forest road from Cyllin.”
“How’d you hear about this?”
“That information’s worth more than Thelus’s gold.”
“This new mansion should be mine. Why does Thelus have money and power? Because he was born to the king’s sister?”
Senfra pulled the newcomer even closer, ignoring the foul stench. “How many soldiers did he hire to guard the caravan?”
“Six expert swordsmen and two archers, Arboreal from what I’ve heard.”
“Impossible,” said Senfra. “Arboreals never come out of their forest. They’ll have nothing to do with us lowly humans, especially one so pampered as Thelus.”
He sat back in his chair and rubbed the stubble on his chin.
“This should be easy enough with proper planning. I trust this information will be forgotten as of now?”
The man pushed the stripped sheath back to Senfra with a grin. “As always.”
After three weeks of planning, the raid on the caravan had been a success, although a separate group of soldiers patrolling the woods had surprised Senfra. Their appearance couldn’t have been a coincidence.
He ducked behind a thick trunk. Beside him, a young man stood with his hands shaking.
“Were all the guards dead when you left?” he asked.
“All of ’em, sir.”
“Then why are these warriors from Tharain sneaking about the forest?”
He should have skewered the boy for lying, but it was Taroq’s fault for delegating this important assignment to an underling. Perhaps this was why his lieutenant had remained on the boat, expecting to take control of the gang after the guards caught Senfra. Now he was stuck with a contingent of trained soldiers tracking him down. If there weren’t so much gold at stake, he would have left the others to their fate, but he wasn’t about to give up on such a sizable treasure.
“Gather the others,” he said, checking the tautness of his bowstring, “and circle behind the soldiers. We’ll set a trap for them at the cave. Make sure we have enough arrows. If they engage us in hand-to-hand combat, I can’t guarantee your safety.”
The young man nodded and dashed through the underbrush, while Senfra headed in the opposite direction. His men were decent with a blade, but not good enough to defeat a single Tharain soldier. They needed an advantage, and he didn’t have much time to come up with a decent solution.
He arrived at the cave to find a female warrior in charge of the soldiers. She ordered her men to search the cave and followed them in, making a costly mistake.
Senfra waved his arms to quiet his men.
“They’re in the cave with our gold,” he whispered. “Take positions behind the widest trees, twenty paces apart, and stay clear of their horses. I don’t want those beasts giving us away.”
A few minutes later, one of the soldiers walked out of the cave carrying a bag of gold. Senfra aimed his bow and released an arrow, piercing the soldier’s leg. A round of arrows came from the trees, bringing the warrior down. The sack of gold coins spilled onto the ground, mixing with a pool of warm blood.
“We’re under attack,” came a female voice from within the cave. “Move to the sides. Don’t let them see you.”
“You can’t escape,” shouted Senfra. “There’s no other way out.”
He lowered his bow and peeked around the trunk. Nobody was visible inside the dark 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, am I?”
Senfra chuckled loudly enough for her to hear. How could she call him a thief? Landowners routinely stole coins, food, and property from peasants, but the community honored and respected them. She and the rest of the soldiers defended such people, making them just as guilty.
“I swore an oath to protect those in need from unjust and intolerant nobles throughout this land,” he said.
“You’d 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.”
Her voice echoed from within the cave.
“Fool or not, search the cave if you want,” said Senfra. “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 the young woman.
“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 and pulled at its silken rope. It would be best if he could escape quickly. He’d never heard of a female commander in any army, let alone Tharain’s. There had to be another group of soldiers nearby, one led by a proper captain. Fleeing would have been sensible, but there was so much gold waiting for him in the cave.
“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’d come to steal my hard-earned gold.”
“Hard earned, yes, but not by you.”
Who was she to tell him what was hard earned and what wasn’t? She’d probably been spoiled her entire life, living in luxury, while he was forced to struggle every day, wondering when and where he’d get his next meal. It was only in the past few years that he’d accumulated any wealth at all, hidden safely in his island lair.
“Very well,” she called out. “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.”
He signaled his men to stand down and moved two steps forward with his bow in front of his body. The young woman, dressed only in her undergarments, slinked toward him. Although she had a plain face and a muscular body, her shape was definitely female.
“Tell your men to toss their weapons and armor out of the cave,” he said and pointed at a lone spruce close to the forest trail. “They can leave our gold 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.”
The young woman said nothing as she strolled forward. She was definitely planning something, but Senfra couldn’t imagine what it was. If her men rushed out of the cave, thinking she’d distracted anyone, they wouldn’t get more than five steps before a barrage of arrows brought them down.
“And don’t forget the gold that was spilled back there.” He 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 must grow your hair longer. I don’t care for short-haired tomboys.”
She was as tall as he was and looked nearly as strong. He reached out to grab her with his free hand when she pulled two daggers from under the cloth on 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.
“This was a trick,” he 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 the young woman, 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 down. 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. The young woman 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. He’d underestimated her skill and left his arms open once again. When the two closest bandits drew their weapons and closed in, the young woman lunged at their bows, slicing through each bowstring.
That had been her plan all along, to render the bows useless and force close combat. Senfra should have guessed, because he would have done something similar if their positions had been reversed.
“Now, men,” she shouted, turning her attention to the bandits with swords. “The bows are destroyed.”
Three soldiers charged out of the cave, demanding revenge for their companion’s death.
“You caught me off guard.” Senfra retrieved his sword. “It won’t happen again.”
“Surrender now or I’ll show you no mercy,” said the woman. “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.”
Even he didn’t believe what he’d just said. His men would be overpowered within minutes. He glanced at the nearest horse, tied to a tree several paces away.
“Hah,” the woman snorted. “I wouldn’t have shown you mercy if you dropped to your knees and begged.”
Senfra waved two of his men closer. Together, they advanced on the female warrior, pushing her toward the tree with the horse. He didn’t dare check how the rest of his band was doing. If they were smart, they would have fled already, leading some soldiers away from the battle.
“Your blade,” yelled one of the soldiers as he tossed the weapon to the young woman.
In a single move, she dropped a dagger, caught the sword in midair, and used the other dagger to block a bold thrust by Senfra. She spun the sword around and impaled another bandit.
“I have a fine weapon now, and your numbers are dwindling.”
With a few more swift strokes, she recovered the ground she’d lost, moving away from the tree that had threatened to restrict her movement. Senfra rushed his attacks but couldn’t break through her solid defense. Her sword and dagger moved in a blur, blocking every move he attempted.
“Now tell me who will receive justice,” she said.
Senfra said nothing, paying closer attention to the blades in her hands than the words from her mouth. Another careless wound would only leave a trail of blood for them to follow.
She slapped the tip of his sword with her blade.
“That sword has the markings of Tharain.”
“What of it? I have many blades in my collection, and I plan to add more after today.”
“The bandits are dead,” shouted a soldier. “Finish your sparring and let’s be done with this.”
The female warrior attacked aggressively, pushing the last bandit into the open. This was Senfra’s only chance to escape. He backed away from the combat, jumped onto the nearby horse, sliced its rope, and charged away. Thelus’s gold was lost, all because Taroq had refused to travel too far from the water.
As he broke through the trees onto the forest road, Senfra passed a disheveled warrior on horseback coming from the west. Hoping the rider wasn’t part of a second legion from Tharain, he urged his horse to a gallop. With enough of a head start and the soldiers weighed down by the gold, he might escape with his life.
When viewed from afar, the mountain home of the Teruns looked as if an oversized giant had taken a bite out of its top, giving it the name, “Tooth of the Gods.” Below the enormous indentation, scores of homes and shops had been carved into the mountainside, forming the aboveground portion of Terun City. As a race devoted to stone and metal, however, the Teruns held more respect for the structures that were buried beneath the mountain.
The finest swordsmiths could be found in the Undercity, but Senfra had no time for a new weapon. He sold his horse when he reached Terun City, halfway between Tharain’s castle and Luceville. Although he’d been traveling nonstop for nearly two days, he couldn’t rest with the Tharain soldiers in possible pursuit. After purchasing biscuits and dried meat at a tavern in the side of the mountain, he continued on foot toward the coastline, remaining several paces off the well-used trails.
This whole excursion had been a disaster. Instead of returning home with piles of gold, he had only a handful of silvers from the sale of the horse. The sapphires from the fancy sheath would have been worth far more, but at least he had enough coins to pay for a room at The Gray Dog for another fortnight without returning to his secret island lair on the Cold Ocean.
Luceville seemed abnormally quiet as he approached the shoreline at daybreak. The fishermen would have headed out to sea before sunrise, but their wives and children were usually outside tending livestock or caring for their vegetable gardens, desperately coaxing life out of the salty soil. Perhaps everyone in town had been affected by the mysterious disappearances, in which case Senfra would finally have something to rule over, an abandoned coastal village.
He pushed open the door to The Gray Dog, not surprised that the place was empty.
“I need breakfast,” he called out to the innkeeper. “Might as well add last night’s supper, as well. I’m especially hungry this morning.”
The innkeeper brought out a full tray and placed it on a table in the center of the room. Something was wrong. Senfra spun around for the door, but he was too late. The three Tharain soldiers from the forest were blocking his exit with their swords drawn. Only their female commander was missing.
“It was a lucky guess to find me here,” he said.
“It might have been luck,” said the lead soldier, “but it was no guess. We came to escort the haul of black cod back to Kroflund. Imagine my surprise when I found this.”
He tossed the fancy sheath, missing the sapphires, onto the ground in front of Senfra.
“This belonged to a comrade of mine. I don’t suppose you’d tell me where the jewels went.”
“Far from here, I’m sure,” said Senfra, drawing his sword as he backed away. “If you left now, you might reach them by next week.”
“We’re not going anywhere.” The soldier remained by the door, guarding the exit. “Lay down your weapon, and I won’t kill you. Do it now, before I change my mind.”
“I don’t fancy a life in jail without my hands.”
Senfra hopped behind the nearest table.
The lead soldier sent the other two forward.
“Alive or dead. It doesn’t matter to me, although Gwenn would prefer to face you herself.”
“Is that your commander who prefers to fight unclothed? A woman has no business in the army.”
“Don’t mock her, thief. She bested you easily enough.”
The two men came at him from opposite sides of the table. He lunged at one of them, but the soldier deflected the attack with a simple flick of his blade. Before the second one could reach him, Senfra scurried behind another table.
“You’re trapped between our swords and the Cold Ocean,” said the lead soldier. “Yield now or you’ll soon meet your comrades in the netherworld.”
The other two threw chairs aside to reach Senfra, cracking the seats in half and splintering the wood. If they destroyed everything in the room trying to catch him, he’d never pay off his debt to the innkeeper without raiding his stash of hidden gold. When he reached the center table, Senfra flung the tray of food at the advancing soldiers and darted for the stairs in the back of the room. All three men ran after him, one of them hopping from table to table instead of around the obstructions.
Senfra bounded to the top of the stairway and turned to face his pursuers. For a few seconds, he sparred with the nearest one, but even with the advantage of being above his opponent, he couldn’t break through the soldier’s guard. It was no myth that Tharain’s army was the strongest in the land. The sword came at him again, but he sidestepped the blade and sprang forward, knocking the warrior down the stairs into the others.
The lead soldier jumped over his two fallen men and scrambled up the stairs.
“You’re stuck now. Throw down your sword, coward. There’s nowhere else to go.”
“I’d sooner part with a finger.”
Senfra sheathed the blade and dashed toward his room at the end of the hall. He crashed through the door, tore off his leather jerkin, and dived through the open window, falling two stories into the deep harbor water.
When he surfaced, he looked back at the window, where the lead soldier stood grimacing. Next time he wouldn’t be so careless. He should have thrown the fancy sheath into the fireplace and taken the gems for himself.
The water was cold, but he swam with powerful strokes toward his boat, the Miller’s Wheel, anchored just off shore. His men threw down a rope as he approached the boat and covered him in a blanket once he was aboard.
“Where’s Taroq?” he yelled.
“I’m here,” said a sturdy man about the same age as Senfra.
Taroq strolled up from below deck. A clump of short black hair topped his head with a matching tuft hanging below his chin.
“I take it your outing was less than successful.”
“No thanks to you.” Senfra lunged at him. “You alerted the guards, didn’t you?”
They locked arms, but Senfra was already exhausted from the swim. Taroq threw him to the deck.
“Why would I do that? Don’t you think I wanted the gold?”
“If you wanted the gold,” said Senfra, using the rail to help him to his feet, “you should have been there with me. Now Thelus will have his guards hunt me down no matter the cost.”
“Don’t worry, he’ll give up eventually,” said Taroq, wiping the water off his arms with his shirt. “Besides, we both agreed that I’d stay on board while you took our best men.”
“They weren’t good enough. I barely escaped with my life—twice!”
“Next time we’ll be more careful.”
Senfra unsheathed his sword and wiped the salty blade on Taroq’s shirt.
“Next time I won’t leave anything to chance.”
For several weeks Senfra remained at sea, skirting the coastline and watching for ships other than those from the Luceville fishing fleet. He was surprised that the number of boats diminished as the weather grew colder. Normally the villagers would have been stocking up on reserves for the winter.
A brief ship-to-ship conversation with one of the crews told of war coming to the land. An army of desert warriors called Ferfolk had invaded, plowing through human armies as if they were a bunch of unskilled trainees. Senfra did his best to convince the fishermen to let the remaining kingdoms’ armies battle it out between themselves, but the men wanted to help defend their land.
Rather than risk being caught in the struggle, Senfra took his ship back to the safety of the ocean for a few months.
The sight of other boats braving the Cold Ocean prompted him to return to Luceville, thinking the war must have ended.
“This is close enough,” he said as they approached the harbor. “We’ll anchor here.”
His lanky frame had been a fixture near the bow for most of the trip, preferring the refreshing spray of water on his face to the feel of the wooden wheel against his palms. Ahead of them, Luceville was nothing but a flat patch of land nestled between the mountains, almost too distant to discern the separate buildings. After such a long time away, he almost missed the small village.
Taroq relayed the orders to the rest of the crew, who took down the sails and heaved a heavy iron ball into the water with a big splash.
“This is farther out than usual,” said Taroq. “Won’t it rouse suspicion?”
Senfra handed his lieutenant an oar, but Taroq resisted, staring at the coastline as if he could see the battleground at this distance.
“Staying out here will give us a good lead if the Ferfolk have boats of their own. Go search the town.”
“What about the sail we saw to the east?” Taroq turned his back to the oar. “It must have been a fishing boat. We haven’t seen a single one since the beginning of the war.”
“They might have been forced to fish after running out of supplies, or it might have been a warship looking to capture prisoners,” said Senfra, stepping in front of him again. “Until we know what happened in the war, I won’t take any chances.”
“Then let’s return to sea and follow that boat,” said Taroq. “If there are fishermen aboard, they’ll talk to us, and if it’s anyone else, we’ll out-sail them.”
“And if the Ferfolk have wizards aboard? It’ll be difficult to catch the wind when our sails are nothing but charred canvas.”
Senfra shoved the oar into his hand and threw a second one into the rowboat.
“Be back with your report by nightfall.”
With a grumble, Taroq waved over a couple of sailors, lowered the boat into the water, and headed well east of the docks.
“No delays,” Senfra shouted after them.
Sunset came and went, as did the moon and the following sunrise. It wasn’t until mid-morning the next day when the rowboat returned with its complement of laughing, raucous crewmen.
“You’re late.” Senfra hovered near the rope ladder that hung over the gunwale. “Even if you went door to door, it shouldn’t have taken that long.”
No response came from the rowboat. When Taroq’s head appeared, Senfra kicked him in the face, sending him flying off the top rung. His lieutenant landed with a thud and a groan. Halfway down the ladder, the other two sailors hesitated, but Senfra waved them up and moved aside to let them board.
“I’m sure you were only following his orders,” he said as they climbed, “but next time, remember that I’m your commander. Do not disobey me again.”
Taroq reappeared on the ladder, the back of his neck covered in blood from a gash on his head. Senfra offered him a hand to help him over the side.
“The Ferfolk are gone,” said Taroq, pulling up the bottom of his shirt to wipe away the blood. “Defeated by a combined army, including the Arboreals.”
Senfra leaned in close and sniffed.
“You seem to have made a thorough inspection of the tavern, as well.”
“Would you have done otherwise?”
“You’re not in charge of these men,” said Senfra.
“But we’ve been at sea for months. When do the rest of us go ashore for some fun?”
“When I say so! Now, take care of that boat.”
Taroq ordered a crewman to clean the blood off the rowboat before disappearing into the barracks. He was intelligent and somewhat loyal, if undisciplined. Senfra would have long since replaced him for his bouts of insubordination if he weren’t so dependable. Although it was almost a full day later than he’d planned, he knew the village was safe once again.
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