Kivan stopped and crouched in the limbs of the huge oak tree, his face hidden in the darkness of his hood. He held onto his bow with one hand, leaning into it almost like a staff. In the other hand, a white-feathered arrow turned slowly in his fingertips, first one way, then the other. He was there.
The bandit camp lay hidden deep within the forests north of Pendvale, surrounded by a high wall of sharpened timber and a grove of ancient trees thick with hanging moss and age-roughened bark. The journey had not been a long one, but the silence had stretched the minutes into hours, and the hours into eternities.
Kivan had always found the quiet of the forest soothing, but now it pressed in on him like water upon a swimmer’s limbs, until he yearned for a breath of air and an escape from the water’s cold embrace. He had not realized how much he would long for her laughter. Her smile. The touch of her hand. How much he would miss… Arien.
Kivan closed his eyes and lowered his head, feeling his heart tighten in his chest. Forgive me, a’maelamin. (2) You will never know what you have meant to me.
He felt the tears burning at his eyes and took a deep breath, shaking his head gently to clear his thoughts. When this day was over, he would have the rest of his life to think on his regrets. He had no time to do so now.
He opened his eyes and looked once more toward the bandit camp. There had been no sign of Tazok thus far. Only scattered groups of mercenaries and thieves wandering between the filthy tents, shouting and laughing in their ignorant confidence. They were armed, but only marginally so, and their armor was generally unremarkable, faded leather and dented plate dull with neglect.
Kivan narrowed his eyes, fitting the slender arrow to the string of his bow. He could slay nearly a half-dozen before they even realized that he were there. But he was not here for their meaningless lives. He searched for only one. He would find Tazok, and then….
Slowly, he began to move forward through the treetops, leaping lightly from limb to limb and tree to tree. He left neither sound nor tremor to betray his passing. At last he stopped on a low branch of an ancient oak, crouching again and lifting his bow to look down the arrow at the encampment below.
There were a few guards sitting near the one gate that led through the wall. Their weapons were drawn, their eyes attentively focused on the faint trail that soon disappeared into the thick undergrowth. Only one seemed bored, and would occasionally spit on the bare ground at his feet or scratch some patch of filthy skin with the point of his dagger. Kivan’s lip curled slightly. Disgusting.
The Scratcher yawned and scraped under his arm with his weapon, then glanced up with a bored expression. Kivan clenched his jaw slightly and threw himself back against the trunk of the aged tree. He was still several feet above the man’s head, but he could take no chances. He had to make it to the other side of the camp and the large tent that rose like a faded canvas palace over the others.
Kivan let out his breath slowly, craning his neck around the trunk of the tree to have another look at the guards. There was an argument going on, between The Scratcher and another man with small, dark eyes peering from a fat, dark face. The two men stared at each other with murderous gazes, until at last the dark man muttered something involving The Scratcher’s mother and the local goat, then shook his head with a laugh and turned away.
Kivan smiled in the shadows. Perfect.
The Scratcher shouted and leapt at the other, his dagger outstretched in his grimy hand. The other man turned with a shout, his short sword already drawn, and the two began to circle each other. The remaining guards were on their feet in an instant, some trying to separate the two combatants while others shouted for blood and whooped with raucous laughter.
Kivan slipped around the trunk of the tree and into the shadows on the other side. He moved silently to the next outstretched limb, then the next. The branches did not so much as bend under his weight, nor did the leaves move with his passing. He stopped in a particularly thick grouping of leaves and pushed them aside slowly with his arrow, narrowing his eyes slowly as he cast them around the camp.
There were no other guards along the walls, which were thick and high, formed of ancient trees pulled from the ground and sharpened into vicious spears no less than twenty feet in height. Kivan shuddered slightly at the destruction. He could feel in the air the sorrow of the forest sentinels at the loss of their brethren. He closed his eyes for a moment and let out a soundless sigh.
After an appropriate moment, he opened his dark eyes again and turned them toward the large tent that had become his goal. It was closer now, perhaps only thirty feet away. It was huge and gaudily painted, with a narrow wooden porch surrounding the front. The back nestled against the protecting wall. On the wooden porch a few guards milled around idly, swinging their drawn weapons in lazy, graceless arcs. They were obviously bored, distracted, and completely off their guard. Kivan let a grim smile tug at his lips at the choice of words, then let out a silent breath of satisfaction.
Your confidence will be your undoing, Tazok.
He moved swiftly now through the shady canopy. As he neared the tent, a low branch swung wide over the dangerous points of the guard-wall, ending a few feet short of a large canvas awning that led to the larger portion of Tazok’s shelter. Kivan lowered himself onto it without a sound and pulled his cloak more tightly around him. It was dark green and mottled to mimic the colors of the forest, lending him a degree of invisibility as he moved along the sweeping boughs.
He paused near the end of the branch, taking another quick glance at the guards below. One yawned as the other started to hum. His voice was harsh and brutally off-key, and Kivan cringed slightly at the musical massacre. Perhaps when he saw her again, he would ask her to sing, and banish the discordant memories from his mind. He had heard her sing before, when she thought herself alone. Softly, and with a hint of bashfulness to the silvery tones that brought a smile to his lips even now. She sang most often as she washed, clad shyly in a thick tunic of wear-softened cotton that clung to her legs and….
Kivan frowned as he felt the flush creep over his cheeks. There was no time for this, and the truth of the matter was… The truth of the matter was that he would probably never see her again. And would she want to see him? After what had happened…. He sighed softly, shaking his head to clear her face from his thoughts.
He turned his eyes again to the tent, gauging the distance as he rose to his feet. In a single graceful arc, he leapt over the wall and onto the large awning, cringing as the canvas shifted slightly under his feet. He took a deep breath and held it as his nerves began to tingle a warning. The steps of one of the guards slowed, then stopped.
"’Ey, Enden… Did you ‘ear that?"
There was a pause. "I thought I ‘eard somethin’…."
"Ach, ye’ve been sayin’ that all morning."
"And I’ve been ‘earin’ things all mornin’, ya pudding! First the ‘owlin’, and then I thought I ‘eard a rustlin’ in the leaves or somethin’."
"We’re in a forest."
"There’s wolves. And leaves. Lots ‘o’ leaves. They’re on the trees, ya dolt. Use yer bleedin’ ‘ead…."
"Now, don’t ye start on wi’ that. I’m in no mood for yer chatterin’…."
Kivan dropped gracefully into a crouch, slowly slipping his bow over his shoulder with one hand and pulling a thin dagger from its sheath with the other. Slowly he began to creep along the awning toward the sloped roof of the tent, shifting the weapon in his hand as he moved.
He reached the roof in a few steps and lowered himself again to the canvas, taking a cursory glance around. As far as he could tell, his intrusion was yet to be discovered by the bumbling mercenaries. They were still arguing, tossing insults back and forth like rocks in a child’s game. He would have plenty of time. He looked back at the tent, carefully slipping the thin blade of his knife into the canvas. He pulled back slowly, the canvas making the barest whisper of protest as it split under the blade.
He could hear voices from within the tent. Three voices, perhaps four. One was low and slightly accented, the diction perfect in every detail. A mage, perhaps. Their profession was governed by accuracy, particularly that of their speech. Kivan frowned slightly. He had not expected a mage. That would make things more difficult.
The other voices were coarser, more guttural. They were speaking in harsh tones, the beginnings of an argument, no doubt. Kivan slipped his dagger again into its sheath and used his slender fingers to separate the canvas and allow him a better look.
There were four men in the tent. A mage, as he had suspected, along with a large warrior of questionable bloodline, a dark-hooded rogue and another man whose profession was not immediately clear. They had only one thing in common. None of them were Tazok.
Kivan narrowed his eyes as he pulled the canvas a little farther apart. The creature was nowhere to be seen. The elf raised his head and looked around the camp. The rest of the tents were unremarkable, small and filthy. Utterly plain
Tazok may have been a barbarian and a monster, but he enjoyed his luxuries. Kivan looked back into the narrow opening. The walls were covered in ornately worked, if somewhat faded tapestries. Chests lined the walls. Here and there one lay open to display piles of golden coins or the sparkle of jewels. And on the north side of the tent sat a throne, for it could be called nothing else. Large and elaborately carved, it sat on a platform fashioned crudely from local woods. A throne. This had to be his tent. Kivan closed his eyes, his jaw tightening angrily. So where was he?
"I’m tired of sitting on my hands.. Let’s go find the girl and be done with it."
Kivan opened his eyes as the huge warrior spoke. He was pacing the room with enormous steps, his massive arms folded over his chest impatiently.
The mage shook his head slowly, his smooth voice filling the room. "We have our orders, my friend. The bait has been laid and the traps have been set. We need only wait."
"How long, then?"
The mage arched a dark eyebrow. "Until she comes."
The rogue twirled a dark knife in his long fingers, a thin smile creasing his face. "And then we kill her."
The strange man of unknown profession shook his head. "No. We do not. That pleasure is to be reserved for another." He glanced meaningfully at the other men. The mage nodded silently and the rogue slipped his knife back into a secret hiding place without another word. Only the warrior seemed unhappy.
"We’ve been sitting here for weeks, with nothing to do but shoot at the birds and the trees. She’s less than a day’s ride away. We can bring her to Baldur’s Gate…."
"Can we, then?" The stranger stepped forward, a dark smile in his eyes. "She’s rumored to be quite lovely, you know, and we all know of your… fondness for elven maidens. I doubt very much that Sarevok would be pleased to receive his prize, only to find that another had already received his…."
Kivan’s mouth went suddenly dry. No… Not Arien….
"We wait." The dark man repeated. "She will come here, and only then will we take her to Baldur’s Gate." He glanced at the warrior. "And when Sarevok has done what he will with her, I have no doubt that you will be given your turn."
The warrior narrowed his eyes. "She’ll be dead."
The warrior waved his hand dismissively and turned away. "They’re no fun when they’re dead. All the fight’s gone out of them, and they can’t scre…."
His words ended in a formless cry and a gargle of blood. His eyes widened as he fell to the floor with a thunderous crash, clutching at his throat. Between his fingers protruded the smooth shaft of an arrow, tipped with snow-white feathers that were quickly turning to scarlet.
The mage looked at the dark man quickly, then around the room as his lips began to move, forming arcane words in a hoarse whisper. The rogue had already drawn his blade and looked toward the shadows, moving lightly on his feet as he turned to search them all. Only the stranger stood motionless, staring still at the arrow in his now-deceased companion’s throat.
In the space of a breath, Kivan had put another arrow to his bow and let it fly, feeling a grim satisfaction as it drove through the leather of the rogue’s armor and deep into his back. The dying man flung his knife uselessly toward the shadows, letting out his last breath in a guttural curse before slumping to the floor.
The stranger moved quickly now, drawing his sword and throwing his glance over the interior of the tent. Kivan let loose his weapon, but the man pulled aside quickly and the arrow thudded harmlessly into a chest at his feet.
Kivan cursed under his breath, immediately pulling another arrow from his quiver. The strange man followed the flight of the last arrow to the roof and the thin stream of sunlight that filtered through the makeshift opening.
Kivan scrambled back from the opening as he saw the first globe of magical fire streak from the mage’s hands. It hit the canvas beside him with a thud and a roar as the roof burst into flame.
The ranger was on his feet now, running lightly along one of the tent’s support poles as the camp stirred from its idleness. There were bellows of surprise and shouted oaths in several languages as swords were drawn from sheaths and bows were set with arrows. They flew past his head with whistling whispers, pulling at his cloak and the hood that Kivan now shook from his face as he leapt to another of the tents.
The dark man burst from the larger pavilion, shouting orders as he scanned the camp with murderous eyes. They fell at last on Kivan’s cloaked form as it jumped to another tent and another, dodging arrows and bullets as he made his way toward the small wooden horse pen on the other side of the camp.
"Kill him, you idiots!"
Kivan turned at the shout, ducking his head slightly to dodge another arrow. His eyes met those of the stranger, black and unforgiving. He had seen those eyes before… Years ago….
The stranger’s ebony gaze widened, then narrowed darkly as his mouth twisted in a harsh scowl.
Another whistling arrow brought Kivan back to the present, and he turned his head quickly as he dropped lightly to the roof of the small pen. His aerial journey had given him the advantage of a few seconds, and every one gave him a better chance at escape. The mercenaries were still making their way through the maze of tents. There may be just time enough….
Kivan leapt to the ground, speaking softly to the horses as he pulled his sword and brought it down heavily on the bar to the gate. The animals gathered around him, neighing softly and tossing their heads impatiently as he struck the bar again, shouting triumphantly as it splintered under his blade. He kicked it open and shouted again to the horses, laying his hand on the flank of one gray stallion.
"Go! To your freedom!"
The horses leapt from the pen with shrieks of victory, charging toward the onrushing mercenaries with wildly rolling eyes and gaping mouths. The gray stayed behind, tossing its head proudly as Kivan turned and leapt lightly onto its back.
"Tua amin, mellonamin." (2)
With a shrill cry, the stallion hurtled forward out of the pen and into the dusty battlefield of the camp. The freed horses kicked and bit at the men, who thrust their swords and arrows toward the unprotected flanks and sides. One horse had fallen, and many men. Kivan let out a hoarse shout of encouragement, then spoke a single word to the gray stallion. It spun quickly from the foray and ran toward the gate, weaving through the tents and easily as the wind.
The guards at the gate had risen at the sudden disturbance, their weapons drawn and ready. Kivan pulled his dagger free with one hand, his longsword with the other. Then he tightened his legs at the horse’s sides and leaned forward, steeling himself and shouting.
The guards rushed forward with a hoarse cry, weapons lifted. The horse turned in its steps, raising its enormous front legs and bringing them down sharply on the nearest enemy. He crumpled under the attack, but his companions rushed forward, their eyes glittering with malice. Kivan thrust his longsword at The Scratcher, slashed his dagger at another, then turned and kicked sharply at The Scratcher again, throwing him back against the sword of his companion.
It pierced the man’s armor with a shriek of metal on metal, and his mouth opened in a silent cry as blood began to trickle from the corner of his lips. His unwitting killer dropped the hilt of his sword quickly as his victim fell, then rushed around his body with an oath and a dagger drawn.
Kivan knocked it away with his sword, then turned the weapon quickly in his hand and thrust it deeply into the man’s leather-clad chest. The injured stumbled back with a moist gurgle, his eyes wide and his hands clutching helplessly at the growing crimson stain on the front of his armor.
The stallion turned and threw its powerful back legs at the last guard, catching him under the chin and snapping his neck as easily as if it had been a twig. Kivan shouted to the horse and it leapt forward through the gate, then flew through the thick undergrowth toward the deep forest and beyond.
Kivan shouted his triumph to the trees, but the cry was cut short as a searing pain pierced his side, taking his breath and replacing it with fire. He looked down and his heart sank as he saw the long head of an arrow protruding from his leather armor. It was dark with his blood, but there was another darkness that shimmered in the dappled light of the forest. A slow coldness began to surround the wound, and Kivan’s heart sank.
He turned to look over his shoulder, throwing aside his dagger and reaching forward with a trembling hand to grasp the hair of the stallion in an attempt to steady himself against the growing cold. At the gate of the bandit camp, he could see the dark stranger with bow drawn, another arrow set to the string.
Kivan shouted to the horse, but as fast as the steed was, the arrow was faster, and the ranger felt it strike him just above the waist, piercing his armor and skin with a dull thud. He bit back a cry and let his sword fall to the ground. He could feel the numbness spreading through him, and tried to speak the words of one of the healing spells that he had at his disposal. One word slowly left his lips, then another, but before he could finish his prayer he felt the jarring blow of another arrow as it thrust through his shoulder, breaking armor and bone as it passed.
The prayer turned into a cry of pain and frustration and was lost. Kivan crumpled over the horse’s neck, each breath filling his lungs with fire that seemed oddly out of place in the poison’s cold embrace. He wrapped his free arm around the beast’s neck, breathing a gasping whisper into its ear.
"F..Friendly Arm…. A’… Friendly Arm…. Arien…."
Then all went black.
(2) Help me, my friend
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