“Who SENT YOU?” Mericc roared. His hands shook, causing beads of sweat to pour down the assassin’s face who looked perilously at the sword at his throat.
“RUFIUS!!” The man on the ground screamed. “It was Rufius.”
“You LIE!” Mericc responded hotly. His anger welled up again, threatening to bubble over. He had never drawn blood in anger, much less killed another person, but the man at his feet had murdered his father like a coward in the night and now had the gall to lie to his face. Mericc lifted his sword to strike and the man quickly lifted up his hands to ward of the blow.
“I don’t lie, I swear!” the assassin blurted out quickly. “It was Rufius and his partners who offered pay for the job.”
Mericc felt the world swim before him unevenly, losing the solidity it had previously held. He looked into the assassin’s eyes and knew that the man was telling the truth. The blade in his hands felt suddenly heavy and it took a great straining of his will to stop it from dropping to the ground. Rufius was his friend, his father’s friend. The very idea that he could do such a monstrous thing was beyond the boy’s comprehension.
And more importantly, why would Rufius do such a thing?
Then Mericc grew angry again, there was only one person who knew the answer to that question. The assassin squirmed beneath him, still pleading for his life. Mericc did what he had to do.
A moment later he was on his horse and riding back in the direction of Riverwatch.
“You’re late.” Rufius said, still looking warily at the black cloaked riders.
Jaxton sneered evilly. “My deepest apologies, Lord Protector Rufius,” Jaxton said, presenting Rufius with an exaggerated mocking bow. “But routing garrisons is dirty and uncertain work. Your soldiers put up quite the fight.” The glimmer of a grimace passed before Rufius’s face, hardly noticeable in the dark. Jaxton saw it though and deposited it somewhere in the deep depths of his malicious mind.
“The Riverwatch garrison is defeated then?” Rufius replied.
“Scattered like the winds of yesteryear,” Jaxton returned silkily. “Though I am afraid that I come to you with a lessened host since I had to use my first to get our friend into the city to do his…little deed.”
“Orcs. Pah!” Rufius spat. “Did you really have to use those filthy creatures for the first assault? That was a close thing for a while. If not for Merigal we…” But Jaxton interjected.
“Tsk Tsk my dear Rufius, you would not have me use my own men on an assault on the gates?” Jaxton said nonchalantly. “And besides, there are always more orcs to sacrifice, yes. They are oh so good for that.” At Jaxton’s side Thurin smiled quietly at his mentor’s jest.
“But enough of the poor orc host,” Jaxton continued. “Let us speak to the fortunes of our friend and new Lord Protector of Riverwatch, Rufius. May his reign be long.” With that Jaxton bowed again with a wicked smile while behind him the cloaked riders bowed in unison.
Rufius looked over Jaxton’s men. Their show of deference, however feigned, finally easing his mind enough to let go of the hilt of his sword. “And these men will be loyal to me now?” he asked.
“As loyal as they are to me.” Jaxton said with a wink. Rufius was less than pleased with this answer, but with the events of the previous day and current evening weighing on him, he let it go.
“Do you think the people will suspect the changeover?” Rufius questioned, but Jaxton merely waved his hand dismissively.
“As long as the merchant families have their coffers protected I doubt they will bother to notice the faces of the men doing the protecting. You worry too much my friend. Enjoy the spoils of your victory. Riverwatch is yours.”
With that Rufius finally smiled himself and looked around at the town that was now his. Yes, Jaxton was probably right. Sure some of the citizens might question at first the appearance of so many new men in the town, however after a while they would begin to accept the new regime. The great merchant families had a history of turning a blind eye as long as their interests were not threatened and the common folk would do as they were told.
And what of Dale and the King? Dale was miles away and only concerned itself with Riverwatch’s taxes and the protection of it’s borders. In a way, Jaxton’s orc attack was a good thing in that it would strengthen Rufius’s position with the Dalish nobles who might have at first expressed concern over Merigal’s death as it pertained to the town’s safety. Sure, there might be inquiries, but the new Lord Protector was sure he could assuage any questions that might arise.
Jaxton ordered his men to dismount. There would be a celebration at the fort with the town’s new Lord Protector as the guest of honor. For this Rufius was glad as strong drink would drown out the feelings of guilt that tugged at the corners of his conscience. He pushed the thoughts aside, there was no going back now.
A disturbance down the road caused the party to stop suddenly. A horse could be heard approaching them at a terrible speed. Jaxton’s…Rufius’s men turned with their hands on their weapons while Jaxton and Thurin looked on with curiosity. Rufius’s heart sank when he heard the cry, knowing in an instant who the rider was.
“RUFIUS!” Mericc screamed until he was hoarse. He drew his steed up with a start when he saw the men surrounding his father’s former friend. When he spotted Jaxton his mouth dropped open in shock. Here was one of his father’s mortal enemies walking the streets as if he was a welcome guest. And then, like a hammer blow, it struck him that that was exactly what Jaxton was.
Confusion and shock were once again turned to anger as he dismounted and approached Rufius.
“How could you Rufius? My father was your friend and you had him slain like a coward. A COWARD!” Mericc roared, sword drawn in shaking hands. “And here you are, walking the streets that you protected together with thieves and murderer’s”
Jaxton grinned and bowed. “Jaxton One-Eye at your service. You must be Merigal’s brat? It is a shame my assassin couldn’t have allowed you the pleasure of joining your father in the grave. But time catches up to everyone eventually.” With that Jaxton motioned for his men to attack.
“NO!” Rufius commanded, warning Jaxton’s soldiers off. “I will take care of the boy myself.” Jaxton shrugged and repeated Rufius’s order to retreat. “Make it quick,” he whispered to Rufius. “We have a town to run.”
Rufius walked towards the boy that he had watched grow from an infant into a young man. Part of him had hoped that the assassin would in fact kill Mericc so that he would be spared the details of his father’s death and Rufius’s own betrayal. But now he supposed things would have to be handled a little rougher than he had hoped.
“I will give you one chance Mericc. Leave Riverwatch and never return,” Rufius said, stopping a fair distance from Mericc.
“And let the killers of my father and usurpers of my home go free?” Mericc spat. “My father gave you a home and a chance and you have repaid him with nothing but betrayal and death.”
“Wrong Mericc,” Rufius responded hotly, his voice booming in the night air. “Your father denied me a chance. Years of my blood and sweat for his causes and for what? To be told repeatedly that I was too rash, too erratic to be Lord Protector. To be supplanted in heart and in position by a boy who has rarely even been out of the city gates.”
Mericc stood unbelieving, his sword dropping slightly. “What are you talking about? You were his Deputy Protector, the job would have fallen to you in time.”
“Not according to him,” Rufius said darkly. “Those were the last words he spoke to me. That when he died the job would pass to you and that he wanted me to guide you. Guide YOU! *I* was there when Vasper Morianart fell. *I* was there when we defeated the orc army of Grog the Reaver outside of Dale. I’ll not have it said that I risked my life time and again to play wet-nurse.”
“So instead of taking your case to him you had him killed?” Mericc retorted. “Do not speak to me of deserves Rufius while you stand before me red-handed with my father’s blood.”
“Enough!” Rufius shouted. “I have given you your chance Mericc. Leave now.”
But instead Mericc charged with a battle shout and attacked Rufius suddenly, catching him off-guard. It was only in the nick of time that Rufius got his weapon out and parried Mericc’s blow. The boy attacked furiously, tears streaming down his face with emotion. At first the veteran was pushed back, but eventually his far greater experience took over and he gained the advantage.
Mericc was skilled but his anger was making him reckless. He swung his sword in a mighty arc that Rufius side stepped easily, exposing a large hole in the young man’s guard. Rufius thrust his sword, piercing Mericc’s left shoulder and sending him toppling to the ground in pain.
“I warned you Mericc,” Rufius said as he stood over the boy. But instead of finishing him off, he dragged Mericc by his injured arm to where his horse was. Pulling some rope out of the steed’s bags he tied one end to the back of the saddle and the other around Mericc’s bloody arm. “Don’t ever come back here Mericc, or it will go worse for you I swear.” Rufius whispered before sending the horse off running into the dark.
“Don’t ever come back,” he repeated again, more to himself than to the horse whose hooves receded quickly in the distance.
Later that night, when the Lord Protector slept in a drunken stupor at the fort, with Jaxton and his men around him in an equally inebriated condition, a shadow passed over the walls of the Eastern gate. The shadow’s cloak and robes masked their form and disposition perfectly, although a close observer would note that the robes were too big for whoever it was by far, and a curious bulge protruded from their back. But despite this they made it over the walls stealthily where they found a horse. As they rode off, the moonlight glinted off a patch of exposed green and gold clothing.