Tongues of fire surrounded the sky, chasing each other in a thousand shades of the colour of the flames, casting crimson shadows everywhere. A spectacle so majestic, in its beauty, to be compared to the battle of a multitude of dragons; that was the last day of summer.
The ground, under that immense bonfire, seemed almost annihilated by such a vision, remaining bare and silent, only beaten by a light breeze that made some lonely blades of grass move.
The road, if such could be defined as that uncertain road that crosses the sparse fields, was deserted, and such promised to remain, with the only song of crickets stabbing its loneliness.
That was a desolate area, far from each of the four imperial provinces: a place known by all as the Central Lands. The path, narrow and impassable, was even further north of the term "remote"; on it would have been difficult to see wandering merchants, or even solitary travellers...especially on the last day of summer, with the feast of melancholy in full swing.
Meda knew better. She wasn't naive enough to believe otherwise. That awareness, so true and real, was physically painful.
Even the men who had kidnapped her, after appearing as ghosts on the outskirts of her village, must have known it well; now they were travelling on the road in silence, and where they were taking her, only Futurum could tell.
They had taken her just outside Inzen, where she was born and raised, on her way to collect water from the stream.
Four men, dressed in leather and covered with scars, with old and tired horses; flattened blades, evil smiles, vulgar mouths.
Everything had lasted less than an instant, leaving her only time to throw a couple of screams, immediately choked down her throat by a dirty gag, before being tied up and thrown on the back of one of their nags. After that they had galloped off, raising dust from the ground and leaving her overturned wooden bucket near the shore, evidence of what had happened.
"Why did they take me?" she thought for the umpteenth time, with the desperation overwhelming her, like water in a sinking ship.
Her eyes winked at the faces of her captors, seeking an answer in their faces, or in their expressions. She saw nothing, or at least nothing good.
They were four men, four bandits. That's all she knew, her fear kept shouting, reminding her over and over again that she had to run away, go home, save her life.
She was just a farmer's daughter, who had spent practically all of her twenty years working in the fields. Of course, her father was the wealthiest farmer in Inzen, he owned vast lands and traded directly with the other districts, as well as with the nearby imperial Fingers, but he certainly could not claim to be rich.
In those years, no man from the Central Lands was rich, no one who had no direct connections to the Empire, at least.
"Maybe they don't know, maybe they think my father hides bags of gold coins in the barn instead of seeds and rice..." That thought seemed the most plausible among those that had crossed her mind during those seemingly endless hours.
She lifted her neck again, feeling the muscles twinging in pain generated by the uncomfortable position she was in. They had thrown her onto the saddle as if she were a freshly killed game animal; hands and feet tied tightly with dirty ropes; her mouth shut by a greasy gag.
She had to make an effort with all of herself to keep her balance on the animal's back, risking falling every time the hooves met the uneven ground.
He was able to look around as the sky continued to burn, hoping to see someone appear on the horizon. There were only green trees shaken by the wind, and a high layer of grass masking the ground. The cobbled street was only enlivened by the tired thud of the horses' hooves, and the only thing you could see in the distance was loneliness.
Shadows of the Old Forest to the south, distant silhouettes of the Lost Mountains to the north; as far as he could tell, they would not have met a living soul for miles and miles.
"Don't lose hope Meda." she said, breathing deeply.
Fear hadn't completely overcome her yet. She was a strong girl. She had to be, being the only female among three brothers in a family of farmers; sacrifice and hard work had been her teachers. She had also been lucky enough to learn to read and write, receiving lessons in history, geography and theology for almost seven years. She was the only one in the whole village, and she was always very proud of it.
"I won't cry or beg," she thought, with a hint of pride that tried to console her. "I won't give them any satisfaction," she insisted, trying to convince herself.
The sky itself, however, underlined her miserable situation. The majestic redness began to reveal the shadows of the night; the twilight was fast approaching.
The sun would set completely in less than twenty minutes, to make way for the last night of summer. The moon, bright and reassuring, would shine only for a few hours, before making way for Autumn and the eternal fire of its skies.
They were away from Inzen, a couple of hours at a slow trot, and soon there would only be endless sunsets.
"The feast of melancholy will have begun by now..." said a painful voice in his mind.
Every town and village in the empire had its own way of celebrating the last night of summer.
Sober but honest banquets were as common as lavish feasts, or long moments of prayer. The Feast of Melancholy was a way of greeting the season and preparing for Autumn, and each province in the empire carried its greeting differently. In Inzen, every year since even the elders could remember, it was always done in the same way.
When Autumn was two weeks away, the oldest tree in the small forest that stood a few hundred meters from the village is chosen, and a young man, the first to turn sixteen that summer, would cut it down with an axe that the village leaders had kept since time immemorial.
The older men would then carve a large table out of it, which each of the other inhabitants would then baste.
"The old must fall for the new... but not without forgetting its teachings." her father used to say, and they were the same words that every man repeated to his children at the end of the Summer.
It would have been a generous meal, a gesture of sharing, as always.
"They'll all be so busy with the preparations that they won't even notice I'm gone until it's time to get to the table...and then it'll be too late. But what could they do anyway? Organize an expedition? Call to arms? Call the Imperial Guards from the nearest outpost?"
They all seemed impractical, almost fanciful. Children, women and tired old men abounded in their village. Of course, there were also strong young men and wise men, but none of them were warriors, only peaceful farmers and cattle breeders.
The only one who differed from the others was priest Yano, but his was a life of faith, not of steel and blood.
"As for the imperial outpost..."
She did not remember that there was one nearby, and even if there had been, she was not at all certain that soldiers would come to her aid. The stories she heard were conflicting; there were those who called them men of law and good principles, and those who painted them only as a group of brigands with jurisdiction.
A stronger gust of wind made her shiver, carrying with her the promises of Autumn.
The long dress she was wearing had been soiled with dirt and mud, while she had tried in vain to escape from her captors; now it was damp and had stuck to his skin, giving him the feeling of being wrapped in tight bandages.
It was a beautiful dress, destined for the Feast of Melancholy. She had sewn it herself for several nights once the work in the fields was finished. She suddenly felt lost and fragile, watching the tears on the fabric she had shaped with such dedication.
The four men surrounded her, speaking little and merely observing the road, occasionally exchanging a few incomprehensible words.
In an instant she remembered what Michea , her older brother, had told her when she was still a child.
"Slavery is still practised on the island of Xaros. It is said that fat slave traders pay twenty gold coins for every healthy man the mercenaries deliver to them... even twice as much for a good-looking female..."
A new thrill caught her without warning, this time without it being the cold that triggered it. She tasted the bitter taste of terror.
"Maybe they want to sell me... or rape me. Or just kill me for the fun of it."
Despite the proud promises he made just before, now all she wanted to do was shout and wriggle. The idea of not knowing what awaited her was a torture worse than any horrible truth.
She couldn't just let herself be carried away by the tide of fate, she couldn't.
She had to do something.
"Bhuauuaaah." she mumbled, with a gag to keep her from speaking clearly.
She straightened her back, while her long raven hair fell on her face, looking for her captors with her eyes. She risked falling off her horse again, in that very precarious balance, and had to put the weight on her legs to balance herself, feeling an intense pain in her stomach, crushed against the thick leather saddle.
The men stopped the trot, turning their attention to her.
"What does that bitch want?" one of the bandits asked in a contemptuous tone, the smallest and slimiest one.
Meda bit his hand when they tried to gag her, and the man has not seemed to have forgotten it.
The fat bandit looked at her, with a perverted grin.
"Maybe she wants to... have fun. I heard that peasant girls like to be taken at least three times a day."
Meda felt a motion of disgust and fear. That man had always given her a look that left no room for interpretation from the very first moment.
She prayed to Hoc that the others would never leave her alone with him.
The tall, thin man simply spat on the floor, emitting an animalistic noise.
The girl began to wonder if it was better to have stayed quiet, since now they had all focused on her.
"Be quiet." Finally said the biggest and oldest bandit, in a cold voice. "And don't even think of touching her with a finger... you know the terms of the reward."
"But no one would notice..." insisted the fat man, licking his lips "...who could accuse us..."
"Didn't you hear me?" replied the other one, marking the words strongly.
The fat bandit suddenly shook up. "Sure Duncan... I was just kidding."
The others remained silent, observing the situation; it was clear that the man called Duncan was the leader, and Meda understood why. The other three, could have been of any age between thirty and forty years, they seemed threatening and dirty, but nothing more. Ignorant goats with vulgar mouths and slow brains, one could tell with a simple glance.
But their leader looked different. Older, that was certain; in his fifties, perhaps a little more, the gray and sparse hair and the scars on his face did not hide the signs of time.
But his body was still massive and muscular, with a wide chest and strong arms.
A calm, cold voice and a pair of eyes that betrayed nothing.
"Maybe a mercenary or something." Meda thought, "A man who has seen the battlefield and has been clever and wise enough to survive... And thanks to the Three, he doesn't want to hurt me... yet." She felt relieved, at least in a small way.
Duncan came up to her, moving the gag with a gesture of anger.
"What do you want?" he asked, in a harsh tone.
"Think hard about what you have to say... use the right words... they talked about a reward."
Meda spoke quickly, trying to keep her voice steady.
"I don't know who you're looking for, but you got the wrong person. I'm just a farmer's daughter!" She was able to keep quiet, despite the fear of being interrupted with a sharp blow. "But I'm sure if you take me home, my father will give you some silver coins for your trouble. I'll say I'm lost and that you...gentlemen helped me find my way back..." she added, breathlessly.
It was a lie, of course, but she hoped it sounded convincing. She had to make them understand that she wasn't the person they were looking for, while at the same time valuing her life and her safety.
"Who could be so important in Inzen? There are nothing but farmers and cattlemen..."
The slimy bandit bursted a big laugh of mockery.
"Gentlemen...? You'd like that, wouldn't you?"
The two companions limited themselves to laughing, while the man called Duncan shook his head, impatient.
"Is that all you have to say?" he asked angrily
"You're mistaken!" repeated the girl, with a desperate cry. "My name is Meda Mcdren, and I am the daughter of Grej Mcdren! You are mistaken!"
The chief of the bandits showed a frosty smile, as frosty as winter that awaited them.
"Meda Mcdren," he said, spelling out the words like a sentence, "Black hair and blue eyes... that's who we're looking for."
"And what do you want from me?!" she continued, stunned.
"This doesn't concern you." replied Duncan, turning his back on her.
In his eyes, however, Meda saw another answer.
"He doesn't know..." her instinct suggested, as a giant chasm of despair opened up beneath her.
"...they offered them money, but they don't know why."
"Whatever they offered you... my father will pay you more... double!" she screamed, panicked.
The fat bandit approached her with a wicked grin.
"I thought you said you were from a poor family. What happened? In this time your father got rich pimping his wife out ?"
Followed by a new, horrible, unsettling laugh.
"I'll come to see you tonight, when the others are asleep." the man added, in a faint whisper, "We have a date."
Meda felt the frost take hold of her. There was no way out.
"Enough now." said the man called Duncan, interrupting all chatter. He then addressed her with a marble expression. "I can leave you gagless... if you don't scream. No one would hear you anyway, as you can see the road is deserted for miles and miles. You'd only make us angry... and it's not a good idea."
She nodded ferociously, clenching her jaw so tightly to get a painful twinge.
Being free to shout gave her one more chance; a tiny and remote chance, almost an illusion...but then she saw something in the distance that lifted her spirits.
She was still too far away, and the great bonfire in the sky prevented her from seeing anything but an indistinct spot...but there was someone moving in their direction.
There was someone on the road; he came from the south, exactly the direction they came from.
"They have noticed my absence. They must have found the bucket and some shreds of my dress. They're looking for me. The soldiers called." Those thoughts were filled with feverish joy and absolute certainty.
She clung to them with all her might.
"I don't need to alarm them... I need to stay put"
The bandits hadn't seen the movements behind them yet. If they realized someone was tailing them, they could have done anything. Running into the woods, pushing the horses at a gallop... gaining precious seconds meant getting closer to their own salvation.
"Please, before resuming the march..." she muttered, trying to look embarrassed. "...I have to go to the toilet."
The tall man spat on the floor again, with a sneer, while the small, slimy bandit just looked at her with a mocking look.
"You can do it here, I don't see the problem." he shouted, in a horrible voice.
Meda once again felt the fat man's heavy gaze upon her, so she turned to Duncan with a look of desperation.
"Please." she said, in a broken voice.
The man looked at her carefully, with his eyes narrowed.
"You can go a few feet into the bushes, but you'll be tied to one end of the rope. "If you try any tricks, you'll regret it... hurry up." he said, in a firm and decisive tone.
The girl bowed her head in gratitude, thanking the Three that at least one of them was a reasonable man.
"Though I wouldn't want to see him angry," she said, with a lump in her throat. "Not for anything in the world."
They made her get off her horse, untied her hands and loosened the rope around her ankles.
They then secured the thick rope to her right wrist, tightening it so tightly that it felt like it was cutting off her blood flow. Duncan escorted her a few steps into the tall grass, and then he backed away to give her some space, looking the other way.
"I have to buy as much time as I can." she thought, feeling the sweat dripping into her eyes, even though the summer heat had left those lands several days before.
She decided that she would not move from that point until they had dragged her away, but in the meantime she prayed to Hoc that none of them would notice that blur that was approaching. She could hear the bandits talking to each other, only a few yards away from her.
"How much did they say they'd pay us?" asked the skinny man.
"Duncan said at least fifty gold coins each... Didn't Duncan?" replied the slimy bandit.
Their boss probably just nodded, because there was no word of a response.
"I wonder what an empire attendant wants with a peasant girl..." Now it was the fat man talking...
"Sure, she's got a pretty face, but he could have found a whore in some brothel in Oksiz..."
"Be quiet." Duncan snapped, annoyed.
The gossiping ceased without delay.
"Oksiz's attendant?" Meda felt once again like she was falling into the void. "Why is an imperial official looking for me?!"
That idea was worse than any possible fear about a slave trader.
The Imperial Eye saw everything, and his fingers, as the four great provinces were vulgarly called, could reach every soul scattered over the lands of his domain.
"If the empire wants you, the empire will have you."
It was something you learned from childhood, every inhabitant of the land across the four oceans knew it. Oksiz was one of the great cities that surrounded the Imperial Eye, the capital.
It was east of the middle districts, at least a couple of days ride on horseback.
It was called the Imperial Fist, because within its walls, was were the vanguard of the army was located, in a strategic position to intervene in every part of the surrounding territories.
The idea of being sought by a high official of the Empire, by a figure like that of an attendant, left her in dismay. The attendants were in charge of the administration of the imperial citizens, in every aspect that this responsibility entailed. They responded directly to the narrow council of the Imperial Eye, which in turn was under the directives of the Emperor. Of course, in any small town in the provinces the figure of the steward was equated with that of a village head, but in the four large cities the discourse was quite different. Small kingdoms, with dozens of towns in their provinces, where the steward was the only ruler.
"A kingdom so vast that it covers almost a quarter of the lands inhabited by men... This is the Empire." thought the girl, enchanted. "A kingdom whose strength has annihilated every possible enemy over the centuries, and consolidated its dominant position... and one of the four great stewards of this kingdom is looking for me... Does that mean the imperial forces that might come from the south... wouldn't be here to help me?"
New dark frost descended upon her. Each of those thoughts gave her the desire to fall on the ground, hoping to be swallowed up by it.
But the whole thing was absurd, why send four bandits if you could mobilize a whole squad of soldiers? A little bit of lucidity left inside her came to her rescue.
"I must have misinterpreted their words... or they're lying, even if I don't understand the reason. I'll wait for the guards, coming from the south. They will save me." She stubbornly clinged on those thoughts, trying not to listen to the evil echoes of doubt that kept flying around her, like hungry vultures.
She spent endless moments, crouching in the grass, feeling her heart jumping in her chest; it seemed that in every moment Duncan had to drag her away, letting her last hope of being free again die.
"A little more..." she repeated in her mind, "A little more..."
He started counting, but when he was about to reach three hundred, the enchantment ended.
"Time's up." hissed the man, tugging at the rope and forcing her to get up.
Meda got back on her feet, upset but at the same time hoping that the seconds she had wasted with so much effort might have been of some use.
She returned to the road, where the other three men were still waiting for her. She got on the horse as slowly as she could, pretending to stumble a couple of times, stumbling and crawling like a cripple. She never looked back, though temptation was stronger than anything; she had to be patient. When they were finally ready to leave again, they had lost about ten minutes or so.
The girl finally allowed herself to peek over her shoulder, casting a quick, fleeting glance. Every possible desire and hope was ripped from her soul with unparalleled ferocity.
There was no longer an indistinct spot on the horizon, but only two figures, now a hundred meters away. One was the silhouette of a man, while the other, much shorter, must have belonged to a child.
"One man...with a child." she thought, feeling completely empty.
It wasn't an imperial legion, nor a bunch of village men; it wasn't even a merchant wagon bound for the north... just a man with a child.
"I'm lost." She felt despair, this time authentic and bottomless, pouring out of her chest.
They would have raped her and then sold her to who knows what slave trader or delivered her to some attendant of the Empire; there was no escape.
She was frozen, gazing at those mysterious silhouettes, while the horses resumed their trot, with the night finally falling on them. The sun had exploded into the fire of the sky, giving way to the last, brief summer night. The stars shone unknowingly of the immense darkness, dimly lit by a silver moon.
"Hunting nights..." Meda thought mechanically, remembering the past.
"There's nothing like Summer nights to get game," said her uncle, who loved hunting almost as much as the taste of wine. He died on a hunting trip, too drunk to notice he had fallen into a river.
Those thoughts crossed her mind, almost unrelated to what was happening, as she continued staring south, bewitched by the end of her hopes.
The fat bandit finally caught her eye and sounded the alarm.
"Someone behind us!" he shouted, in a dry voice.
"Who cares now?" Meda asked herself, disconsolate. A man and a child did not represent salvation, only the inevitability of her fate.
Duncan looked over his shoulder, seeing that the two figures were now no more than twenty metres apart.
"Stay alert, all of you!" he said, clenching his jaw. Then, looking at the girl, he fiercely added, "Now you have two more lives to worry about. Think carefully about what you're going to do."
She nodded again, with vacant eyes. She suddenly felt tired, with the only desire to surrender to a long, dreamless sleep.
The bandits slowed down the pace further, almost as if to allow the people behind them to reach them.
"Do they want to kill them?" she asked herself, distractedly, "No... maybe just scare them..."
They hadn't even put the gag back on, leaving her tied only by her wrists; they knew that screaming wouldn't do her any good.
The figures finally reached them.
Now the girl could see clearly what she previously had only glimpsed in the distance. The answer was the same, as was her fate; a man accompanied by a child.
The man was tall and wore woven leather garments, the colour of the trees, giving a glimpse of an athletic build. He looked like a mercenary, and carried a long oak bow on his back, accompanied by a quiver loaded with arrows.
A strange-looking sword was tied to his waist.
It was long, smaller than a two-handed blade, but definitely bigger than an ordinary weapon.
Above all else, it was the color of the sword that was unusual.
The hilt, the handle, the sheath; it was a red sword, a sword of the colour of blood.
The child who accompanied the man could only be about ten years old, maybe a little more. He had a thin body and dirty skin, which he covered with a creased hood, probably made from a sack of potatoes. On his face stood out two bright blue eyes, and short tufts of blond hair fell on his forehead blackened by dirt and the sun. He carried a saddlebag on his back that looked heavy, and wrapped in a grey rag, a modest sword with a worn-out appearance. They passed by in silence, without uttering a word, as if they had not even seen them. When the man passed her, Meda noticed his somatic features.
He was young, he could only have been a few years older than her, despite the signs of life on his face, together with thin scars that adorned his skin. He had long brown hair, dirty and messy, which hid his eyes.
No consideration, in the look that settled, vaguely on her. As if she had not been a prisoner, as if she were lost and alone, far from home.
Meda once again felt the desire to be free, to survive; he caught her suddenly, with violence almost hurting her.
"Help me! Please!" she screamed, with all the breath in her lungs, though the young man was only a few yards away from her.
Duncan struck her with his eyes, then nodded to his companions, who blocked the way for the two travellers.
The guilt caught the girl in an instant. It had been a vain and foolish gesture; she had probably condemned those poor people to death.
The child automatically went near his partner, even though there was no hint of fear on his face.
"He's so small." thought the girl, with anguish.
The stranger stared quietly at the line of men in front of him, remaining silent.
"Will you let me pass?" he asked, in a calm voice. "Your business is none of my business," he concluded, pointing to Meda.
She, in spite of everything, was shaken by a wave of anger.
"Damn the coward..." she thought, with burning tears that began to scratch her face.
Her hatred was not for that man, but for the condition she was in; she was hopeless, completely at the mercy of events. She felt like a piece of driftwood lost in the waves, carried by a storm. The bandits began to giggle with a voice distorted by mockery and contempt.
"He shitted in his pants... I can smell it all the way up here!" yelled the fat man.
The others vomited insults and laughed loudly.
The young man did not give in to provocation, merely remaining silent. A gust of wind blew his hair aside, showing a beautiful face, with hard features, and ebony coloured eyes, attentive and deep. Duncan silenced everyone with another wave of his hand.
"Boy" he said to the young man, "If we let you pass, what will you do?"
The stranger shrugged his shoulders, carelessly.
"As I said, I'm not interested in your business. Whether you are saints, bandits or demons... or whether that girl is Hoc's daughter... I just want to go my way without any trouble." His voice was unflinching, as distant as a new summer.
The child at his side protested weakly. "But sir... we can't..."
His companion gave him a meaningful glance, and the child looked down, and returned to silence.
"Everything has its time." then said the young man, placing a hand on the child's head.
Duncan nodded slowly, staring into the eyes of the young man, who did not look away. He remained silent for a few minutes, deep in thought.
"Fine." he said finally, "If that's the way things are, go your own way, and pray we never meet again. Don't do anything you might regret, or you'll never have a chance to regret anything ever again... "
The short, slimy man interrupted him. "Do you really want to let them go!?"
Discontented murmurs rose up from the other two bandits.
"Isn't that my decision?" Duncan's tone was ice cold. "I don't care what you think, we don't have time for this. If the boy doesn't want to stand in our way, he can go his own way... or should we worry about one man and one child?" His voice thundered with rage as he held the sword's hilt tightly.
All other protests seemed to be quiet. The young man nodded his head, as thanks, as he resumed his journey, while the men on the road moved away reluctantly.
"Farewell..." whispered the stranger, not talking to anyone in particular, but taking a brief look at Meda.
Was there a light apology in his eyes?
"May the demons take you..." she hissed, full of frustration.
The stranger didn't even seem to notice, while the bandits broke out in other hateful laughter.
Only the slippery looking man did not join them.
"Duncan, it's a mistake," he insisted, in a poisonous voice. "You've heard the rumors in Oksiz too... such a high reward, the steward... the Empire! No one must know we were lucky enough to arrive before the Imperial Army... “.
The chief of the bandits mumbled something that Meda did not understand, because she was too focused on what was happening in front of her. The young man and the child had just overtaken the thinner bandit's horse, now with only miles and miles of deserted road in front of them...but for no apparent reason they had stopped. The stranger seemed to have whispered something to the child, who nodded back and walked a few steps away from him.
Duncan continued to argue with the slimy little man, with two other bandits watching the discussion unfold. Only Meda seemed to notice what was going on.
The voice of the stranger resounded among them again, this time loud and decisive, interrupting everything else. "What business do you have with the empire? Who is that girl?"
After those words the silence fell, even if only for a brief moment. Almost automatically the three bandits brought their hands to their daggers, while Duncan's eyes narrowed.
"I let you go on your way. Don't waste good fortune." There was not the slightest trace of hesitation in the bandit's voice.
The young man did not move, and no part of his body showed signs of fear or afterthought.
"I'll ask you again. Who is that girl? What does she represent for the Empire?" he spoke calmly, spelling out every syllable. "I can give you a few gold coins for the information." he added, so distractedly as to seem mocking.
"In the name of the three... What do you think you're doing?" Meda asked, unable to do anything but observe what was happening.
She couldn't even feel the pain of the ropes or the pressure of the saddle anymore.
"There's a storm coming..."
The skinny bandit made an animalistic cry, full of anger, and threw himself at the stranger, drawing a long black iron dagger. This time Duncan did not make any gesture to stop him, he merely observed the situation with an expression of contrariety, almost disappointed.
The man did not even take two steps before suddenly stopping his run and falling backwards, as if driven by a strong gust of wind. He seemed to have stumbled, almost comically, but there was no laughter to accompany him on his way to the ground, just a thick stream of blood. One of his eyes, narrow and the color of mud, was gone, and its place had been taken by a long oak arrow. The young man held the bow in his hand, holding it loose by his side, as if what had just happened was not his doing.
A sleight of hand, the number of an acrobat, a funny story to tell in a tavern. But there was no other story to tell than that of death, a lightning-fast, invisible death. Everything had happened so quickly that only Duncan seemed to have grasped the situation, a situation that years on the battlefields must have shown him countless times.
He only rolled his eyes for a moment, giving no more time to his disbelief before reacting. "Spread out!" he shouted, addressing his comrades, "Don't stay too close! Let’s surround him and kill him, let's not give him time to aim accurately... ".
But the men weren't listening. They were certainly not soldiers, nor did they know discipline, and certainly none of them had experienced a tenth of his battles he had.
They threw themselves at the young man, screaming as their companion had done before, before his voice was ripped from him forever.
The bulk of the fat bandit inevitably slowed him down, so it was the smaller man who moved first, charging with his head down. There was, however, almost sense in his movements, the instinctive perception of what had just happened to warn him. The distance between him and the stranger was less than five meters, and the bandit zigzagged through the grass, trying not to run in a straight line. When he was almost on top of his adversary, he suddenly jumped to the side, with his arm outstretched and ready to plunge the dagger into the living flesh. The young man stood still, holding in his bow without an arrow, limiting himself to tightening his grip on his weapon and staring carefully at the bandit in front of him. He moved only the instant the man took his last leap, the one that aimed to devour the centimeters that separated them from each other. For a moment it seemed as if time was expanding, and the magic of death that had just struck them fell again on them.
With a grace foreign to a battle, the stranger took a half step backwards, simultaneously stretching his bow, with the arrow already in his right hand, that appeared out of nowhere.
He nocked and shot the arrow with the ease of a breath, and with the same speed. Despite the rapidity of his movements, the arrow stuck precisely into the throat of the bandit, who crashed to the ground with no more voice and no more life. Lifeless and without making a sound.
"I can go home..." was the only thing Meda could think of.
She had no guarantee, nor had those brutal moments given her hope or promise... it was just a feeling that warmed her chest.
The fat man, however, was still lurking there. He hadn’t given up the fight even when his companion had fallen to the ground lifeless; on the contrary, he took advantage of the broken body that hid him from the sight of the stranger. Perhaps by cold cunning, perhaps by pure chance, he was now few steps away of the young man, and his dagger was ready. Meda would have shouted a warning, but it would not have helped; there was no time.
The bandit appeared in front of the warrior, cutting through the air with an iron dagger. The stranger's bow fell with a dry thud, accompanied by red blood that stained the ground.
But that enchantment had begun for the third time, and the fat man could only emit a guttural sound of surprise before he found his opponent behind him. A short blade of steel had appeared in the young man's right hand, drawn from who knows where, and before the moon could reflect light off the metal and glisten even for a second, it had disappeared again, plunged into the bandit's neck. The fight had lasted less than a couple of minutes, but its outcome was absolute, and without appeal. The three bandits, Duncan's companions, were dead.
The stranger turned back in the direction of Meda, who was now only the old mercenary's prisoner. The young warrior said nothing, and his gaze reflected on the silence and death that surrounded him; he merely waited, seeming intent on doing nothing else.
It was Duncan who had to decide what to do; his men had made a wrong decision, and they were dead. The chief of the bandits clenched his jaw, hiding any trace of emotion.
His eyes transmitted nothing but frost and extreme attention. He took time, perhaps to reflect, perhaps to pray, then made his choice.
I will hold my hand around the hilt of the sword, showing the steel.
"The girl is worth a lot of gold. I won't give it up," he said, in a firm tone.
The same expression that Duncan had shown just before also appeared on the young man's face; a disgruntled, perhaps disappointed face. It was clear that those who had met death countless times hoped never to see it again.
The child, who had left following his companion's directions, approached him again, handing him the ruined sword that he had been carrying with care. The stranger stared him straight in the eye, then waved to him, asking him to wait.
"You challenge me with your blade? Do you seek my life and offer yours?" he asked, in a loud voice, and in his words echoed a solemn echo.
Neither had used their sword, yet the duel seemed to have already begun.
Duncan seemed bewildered by the young man's words, and his eyes were reduced to two cuts as he watched him. Suddenly his gaze fell on the opponent's strange sword, that absurd weapon wrapped in crimson, and the bandit seemed to take an invisible blow, which caused his stoic expression to collapse.
"You?" he muttered, shaking his head "So young... I thought the Empire... after the fall of White Castle... that you were all dead..." for the first time you could hear uncertainty in his words.
"I am the last." replied the stranger, and in his words Meda perceived an infinite pain. "For every other there is only the shadow of the God of the past. Praeterito has run his course, as always."
"I've had partners... maybe friends." Duncan kept talking, as if kidnapped by the ghosts of his past. "On the battlefield, where the word friendship still has meaning..."
The silence fell again, and the road was darkened by a bank of black clouds, before returning illuminated by the last summer moon. The metallic sound of Duncan's sword falling to the ground interrupted that little moment of quiet. The duel was over, the man had made his choice once again.
"Whatever this duel goes... I'd certainly lose something more precious than gold. The quiet field is full of greed and fools," he said resignedly, and his limbs seemed to weigh down a stretch of all the years he had lived and all the battles he had fought.
The young man merely nodded, with a melancholy expression.
He nodded to the child, who ran towards Meda, ready to untie the ropes that held her captive. He then cast an enigmatic glance towards her before approaching Duncan.
"I need to ask you a few things," he said naturally, as if their battles had happened centuries before.
The child had a dirty face but two bright blue eyes and a mouth as quick as his feet.
"You were lucky to run into us. If it hadn't been for me and Lord Reis, you'd still be here despairing." He said, trying to take an austere tone.
"Lord Reis?" Meda asked taken aback.
"Yes, Lord Reis, the great warrior who saved you. He's my master, you know? And one day I will be a great warrior too!" replied the little one proudly.
Meda glanced at the young man, while finally the blood flowed freely in her wrists, now free. She had been saved, that was certain... but she firmly believed that this was not a selfless act at all.