Rufius watched as the last of the town’s garrison rode out the east gate. When they had gone, the aging veteran looked to the task of taking care of the Lord Protector’s body. The crowd stood around Merigal in silent vigil, the shock of the great hero’s death almost too much to bear. Silent tears spilled down unbelieving faces, each hoping beyond hope that Merigal would rise miraculously, defeating with his formidable skill the specter of death. But it was not to be.
Finally, after allowing the mob their time to grieve, Rufius ordered them to disperse. The death of Merigal Quickblade would be known to the whole of Riverwatch soon enough and the town would be given it’s chance to remember their former Lord Protector properly. Former, Rufius supposed, because with Merigal’s death the title of Lord Protector passed to him by all rights. It was not the way that he had envisioned gaining the post, but now that he had it, he would perform it as best he could. Soon the crowd dispersed quietly and numbly back to their homes until only the girl Aniwen was left besides Merigal’s form.
With the help of two stout men, Rufius carried the body of Riverwatch’s greatest champion back to the fort to be cleaned and prepared for a proper burial. Aniwen walked quietly behind, her head down, thoughts to herself. Every once in a while she would look back in the direction of the east gate and Rufius knew that her thoughts were on Mericc. He had tried to convince her to go back home to her father’s house, but she had stubbornly refused, preferring to act as a make-shift honor guard on Mericc’s behalf.
Later on, with Merigal’s body safely inside the fort’s medical ward, the young girl fell asleep in a chair close by.
The dark of the night deepened.
A lone rider rushed through the east gate and towards the fortress atop the rocky hill at the city’s center. With weary arms he lifted a horn to his lips and blew a note of dire warning. His armor was dented in many places and blood seeped slowly but consistently from a wound in his side. By the time Rufius and Aniwen had run out to meet him, he was slumped over his horse’s head, fading ever closer to death. His eyes half opened he spotted Rufius and beckoned, his words barely above a whisper.
“Disaster…garrison surprised…routed,” the rider finally managed, holding his side painfully. He slumped down further in his saddle and Rufius was forced to shake him roughly to rouse him.
“What happened? Speak!” Rufius commanded sternly. “Who did this?” With an effort the soldier continued, each breath a struggle. “Jaxton One-Eye…Brigands…Heading this way,” the soldier said before slumping over. Suddenly Aniwen rushed forward, her eyes filled with worry.
“What of Mericc? Have you seen him? Is he safe?” she asked frantically, but it was too late. The soldier had breathed his last. Aniwen broke into fresh tears, fearing for the young man who had captured her heart and whose fate now hung in deadly uncertainty.
From the dark several men appeared, drawn by the call of the warning horn. Rufius gave orders for them to pass from house to house, warning the people to stay safely inside and out of sight of the streets. With the garrison now gone, the town was practically defenseless against the danger that now approached. Jaxton One-Eye was as ruthless as he was crafty and anyone unfortunate enough to fall across the gaze of that one remaining malevolent orb would bitterly regret it.
“That means you as well Miss Aniwen,” Rufius said softly, breaking her from her daze. “Head back to the High Quarter and warn the families there to stay inside at all costs.”
“What will you do?” Aniwen asked, her eyes wide with fear.
“What I have to,” Rufius responded, his eyes focused on the east gate. His senses were sharp and he could just make out the dust rising beyond and the sound of hooves approaching fast in the distance. “Now go Aniwen, and do not look back,” The veteran commanded as he unclasped his sword from it’s sheath. Aniwen turned and ran, her heart beating hard in her chest.
Soon the group of riders came into view, their black cloaks and head-wraps masking them from head to waist, covering their features. Unlike the orcs that morning, the men before him did not shout, threaten or snarl words of derision as they came. These were professional men. As they approached the new Lord Protector, the riders slowed and fanned out in a semi-circle around him, but made no other move. Rufius unsheathed his sword, eyes darting from one side to the next, but the riders just sat on their mounts silently and waited.
After a minute Rufius heard the sounds of two more riders approaching. The semi-circle split in the middle and Rufius watched as the leader of the brigands made his triumphant entrance into Riverwatch.
Jaxton One-Eye was a man of mean reputation. The days of his youth had been spent long ago but were replaced with the craftiness of old age and the slyness of a rattlesnake in the high grass. The wrinkles of his face ran deep over cracked skin, his crooked nose casting a small uneven shadow on a small precise mustache. A black patch over one of his eyes masked a jagged scar, a gift from Merigal Quickblade during one of their early encounters. But Merigal was dead and the aging outlaw remained and that was just as Jaxton would have it.
Fearlessly, for he was surrounded by his men with only the aging Rufius before him, Jaxton dismounted off his horse and approached the veteran warrior. Quietly by his side, another dismounted and followed, but Rufius knew without thinking who the other was.
The differences between Jaxton One-Eye and his companion were striking and one might wonder how these two bandits of such disparate looks had ever gotten involved with one another. But the partnership had proven lucrative and for the last years the name of Thurin Quiet-knife had garnered as bad a reputation as the older Jaxton’s. But while Jaxton was old and wrinkled, Thurin was in the prime of his youth, his dashing, handsome features a stark contrast to his cold remorseless interior. He was called the Quiet-Knife, both for his skills as a spy and assassin and for the fact that he rarely ever spoke, allowing his blades and the wilier Jaxton do the talking for him.
The two men walked unconcernedly towards Lord Protector Rufius, who brandished his sword threateningly before them. Their men sat on their horses like ominous sentinels, surrounding the proceeding. Rufius stepped back a pace without thinking, he knew there was no place to go. The line had already been crossed.
The campfire burned low, it’s dying embers releasing their last vestiges of light and warmth. The man poked at them with a blackened branch, hoping to coax what remaining heat lay trapped inside. His eyes darted nervously from side to side as the shadows closed in around him, stretching out their accusing fingers at him in the gloom. He hated the cold and dreary outdoors with it’s night time predators, exposure to the elements and worst of all, the gods-cursed marsh flies.
A friend of his once heard that in the lands out west, the marsh flies grew to the size of small dogs and could suck a man dry in under a minute. But his friend’s imagination was as big as his mouth as the man told him often while they drank at the local tavern.
What the assassin wouldn’t give for a drink right now at the nearest tavern, out of the cold, with a town-girl wrapped around his arm. But the nearest town was the last place he wanted to be. Not after what he had done.
Swatting absently in front of his face at a marsh-fly, the man smiled at the rich reward he had coming to him. ‘Oh yes’, his benefactor had promised. ‘There would be plenty of money for the job’, more than he had ever seen in fact. The embers of the fire pulsed fainter and fainter but the man was too lost in his thoughts to notice anymore. Images of endlessly flowing wine and women danced before his eyes, enticing and tantalizing him as red hot particles of burning wood floated along the breeze.
The assassin marveled at the simple cleverness of the plot. The orc attack drew the attention of the Riverwatch garrison, allowing him to easily slip in unnoticed and wait for the coming dark. His benefactor had even shown him on a rough map, the perfect spot to sit and wait for his quarry while still remaining undetected by even the sharpest eyes. The man at the campfire remembered with glee the thrill of the kill and the manic race through the side streets and alleys until he came upon a horse that he promptly ‘acquired’ to aid in his escape.
The faint cracking of a branch went unnoticed by the assassin, still lost in his thoughts.
An angry cry broke Merigal’s killer out of his reverie and he looked up just in time to see a shadowy form charging towards him. Before he could react his nose exploded in pain as the form cracked him with the hilt of a sword, sending him sprawling. The assassin looked around frantically for his assailant, but stars danced in front of his eyes and the waning light of his fire turned everything a murky shifting gray. With an effort he went for his crossbow, however before his fingers could wrap around the stock, a boot kicked at his hand, sending his weapon into the night.
“WHO SENT YOU?” his attacker screamed. The assassin looked up and found a sword pressed to his neck. At the other end of the blade was a red-faced young man and Merigal’s killer saw that though the boys’ hands shook, he meant business.
“Mercy,” The assassin pleaded, sweat pouring down his brow. Mericc bent down, the tip of his sword causing a small rivulet of blood to appear on the assassin’s neck. With his other hand he grabbed at the man’s collar and drew him close and the assassin could see the fire in the young man’s eyes.
“The same mercy that you showed to my FATHER!” Mericc bellowed. “Now I am going to ask this one time or else what comes after will be slow and painful. WHO sent you?”
The assassin gulped carefully, mindful of the blade at his neck. All thoughts of wine and women were dashed from his mind as Mericc looked down at him expectantly. The fire offered neither warmth or light, its embers completely burned out.