It was an hour after sunset when the bureaucrats launched their offensive. Their target, an unsuspecting traveler, was sitting by the side of his small campfire. He had neither a tent nor a bedroll, only a long coat which he wrapped around himself. The traveler prodded at a cast-iron pan ensconced in the fire, encouraging his bacon to cook faster.
His travelsack rested at his feet, but he carried no weapons on his person, no axes, no spears, no thick book that might mark him as a Namer or a Juror. His assailants thought nothing of his helplessness, when they should not have been thinking nothing, or to be more succinct, they should have been thinking something indeed.
The fiends drew close under cover of darkness, startling the man's horse. The horse jerked and snorted, but drew no reaction from the oblivious traveler. Grinning a smile, the thieves crept forwards, drawing their weapons as they suddenly leapt forth from the treeline into the circle of light cast by the campfire. The traveler didn't even bother to look up at them.
The men looked mildly disappointed, but recovered quickly. The shorter of the two drew his free hand through the balding whisps of his hair, while he gestured to the traveler with the notched and rusted head of his axe.
"So sorry to interrupt your dinner, my good sir, but we've got a bit of business to take care of with you."
The larger of the two nodded in agreement, sliding the point of his long dirk along the tips of his fingers. He gave the impression of a man casually cleaning his fingernails, an illusion that was ruined entirely by the fact that he was wearing thick leather gloves.
"Sumfin of a tran-saction, " the lumbering thug added helpfully.
The traveler continued to disregard them, keeping his eyes instead on his cooking. With disaffected calm, he tore a chunk off of a loaf of bread before topping it with a piece of bacon from the pan.
"I don't have anything worth taking, " he replied dismissively, spreading Fancy Mustard onto the bread.
The smaller man laughed at that.
"Well, my associate and I will be the judge of that. But I digress. " He hefted the axe and menaced the man with it, shaking it slightly, to reinforce the fact that he was armed and by extension, dangerous.
"If you don't want things to get messy," the bandit growled, "You'll give us what we're after.
The traveler looked up at them at last, as he placed a long strip of pickled gherkin and a sprinkling of caramelized onion onto his sandwich.
"And what, pray-tell, are you fine gentlemen 'after'?" he asked, taking a bite of his meager field rations.
The large bandit laughed, a deep baritone that burdened the ears.
"What we want.... is 20% of what you gots."
The fire crackled quietly in the night. The sun had set fully, and though you could hardly see it through the heavy canopy of trees, a tableau of stars hung in the night sky. Somewhere, an owl hooted for nobody's sake but its own. Chewing industriously, the traveler finished his bite of sandwich, then took another.
The big man frowned, furrowing his brow and working his jaw before he turned to his compatriot. This wasn't the reaction he had been looking for. The traveler also hadn't offered him any sandwich, which was just plain rude. He nudged his more experienced partner with one beefy arm, signalling for him to take the reins. The smaller man cleared his throat and stepped closer to the fire.
"You're a stranger to these parts, I can tell," he remarked casually, with a flippant waggle of his axe. "I've never seen you before, so I don't know much about you. Maybe you're one of those folks who happen to be, ah, hard of hearing."
The traveler took another bite of his sandwich.
"What my associate said was, we want Twenty Perce-"
"I heard what he said," the traveler interrupted around a mouthful of food.
"Oh!" the small bandit said, "Good! In that case, hand it over before things get ugly." He prodded in the travelers direction with his axe. The large man sighed in relief. This was more his speed. The fire seemed to die down, and the horse watched with interest, as the two bandits loomed over the seated man.
The traveler sighed and reached into his rucksack. The men tensed for a moment, then relaxed as he withdrew a finely detailed ceramic plate, before depositing his sandwich on it and balancing it carefully on the log next to him.
"I have one question for you boys, first."
The bandits waited politely for him to continue, as the larger one cracked his knuckles. The traveler looked from one of them to the other, jaw shifting as he cleared the last bits of stuck bread from his mouth. He tossed a bit of crumb into the fire, and stood up to face the pair.
"Who the fuck are you gentlemen?"
Not so far away, but a rather long time ago, a small village had been built around the base of a large mountain. The village went by the name "Mount's Ankle." This fact was a contentious one, as the mountain itself was known as Mount Durgen, and the village was built around its foot, hence the name. Of course, the villagers would inevitably have to explain to visitors that the name was "Mount's Ankle", not "Mount Ankle". The mountain was Mount Durgen, and no, the village was not named... no, the village's name isn't... because it's a foot, you see, so...let me start over.
After 6 generations of this, most had given up, and had accepted that both mountain and village were now known as "Ankle". At this point, most were simply thankful that the village founders had decided to build the village at the base of the mountain and not halfway up, near the mountain's proverbial beltline.
The village of Ankle sat in a hush, with most of the elders gathered in its single modest tavern. They drank quietly, and no songs were sung. A dark gravity hung about the inn, so severe that the mysterious cloaked stranger had ventured from the shadowed corner of the inn, and now sat along one of the walls.
The blacksmith set his glass down on the bar with a loud thunk, breaking the silence and causing a few of the other elders to look up at him.
"Enough of this," he barked, "We've been sitting here fretting away for hours. What is to be done about the Dragon?"
The Miller looked up at him, mouselike eyes blinking behind wire glasses.
"I... I still say that we should tell the Baron," he squeaked out.
“We already told him a week ago,” Praer Gordon sighed. “He just told us to take care of it ourselves."
That earned a round of angry mutters from the gathered crowd, and the Blacksmith turned his head to spit on the floor. The Barkeep slapped him on the back of the head, and gave him an incredulous look.
The growling died down as the gathered men nursed their drinks. After a time, the village Headman looked up again, brow furrowed.
"A week, you said?"
Praer Gordon nodded back to him. "Thereabouts, yes."
"Huh..." The Headman rubbed his beard thoughtfully. "Well, that explains the "exotic animal preserve" tax that was levied last week."
The Blacksmith slammed his stein on the table, immediately harshing what little mellow remained in the room. He stood, pushing out his chair, and spoke to the room at large.
"Enough is enough! Are we just going to stand here and wait for the dragon to burn our women, eat our fields, and kidnap our livestock?"
Praer Gordon opened his mouth as if to speak, raising one finger as he frowned in confusion. The Blacksmith interrupted him, bowling over him as
"Are we going to just sit here until the entire village is torched to the ground?" The crowd began to murmur in agreement, and the Blacksmith rode the energy, proverbially hanging ten on his dialectical longboard.
"We need to take care of it ourselves? I say we go above the Baron's head, and hire somebody from the Capital!"
The murmur intensified, as his words sent a ripple through the crowd. Could they even afford to hire somebody of that caliber? The Knights were world-renowned, and any Adventurers that would hang around the Capital would be ELO 2500 at least.
"Do you know how much that would COST?" the village Cobbler asked incredulously. The Blacksmith glared at her.
"Oh, and what do you suggest? Do you expect that somebody capable of killing a Dragon will just walk on through those doors?!" The Blacksmith gestured venomously towards the double-doors at the front of the tavern. The crowd watched him in silence.
Suddenly, and with no warning, the doors remained completely motionless for a good 30 seconds. The crowd stirred, looking sheepishly down at their feet, or at the kitschy decorations on the walls.
The village Plumber cleared his throat and shifted his weight from one foot to another.
"Well," he agreed, "I suppose nobody's going to show up without us calling for help first."
A chuckle split the tension like a check at a restaurant, as the mysterious stranger roused from his seat on the side of the bar.
"Looks like you're in something of a pickle," he mused to himself, grinning beneath the shadows cast by the hood of his cloak. The entire bar turned its attention to him, turgid in their anticipation.
"You... are you able to kill the Dragon?" the village Headsman asked desperately. He strode over to the table, and stared at where he imagined the man's eyes would be beneath his cloak.
The man jerked, leaning away from the Headsman as he held up his hands defensively.
"Me? Yeah, no way. Not a chance. Are you crazy?" He laughed beside himself, causing the Headsman, and the rest of the bar, to deflate.
"No way in hell am I going to even attempt that. What a thought." The stranger chuckled in nervous amusement, before falling silent. He lifted his drink and took a sip, quietly, before finally giving one slow, thoughtful nod.
The dejected village elders looked up at him as he spoke, staying as still as possible, to avoid jinxing it.
"I can't kill your Dragon," he began, "But... but I do know a guy."
"Let me make sure I'm understanding this correctly, Mr. Cagle," the traveler summarized. The smaller of the two bandits waited politely, gesturing with his axe for the traveler to continue.
"You and your associate Mr. Punchkill."
"It's pronounced "Pon-sheel", actually," Mr. Cagle corrected.
"Yes. Of course. You and your associate are employed by the Baron of this region as... taxmen." The traveler eyed the men in their leathers, stained in places by suspicious dark patches. He glanced at the array of knives on the belt of Mr. Punchkill, at the rusted and stained axe in Mr. Cagle's hands, and the complete lack of pinstripes on either of the two men.
"Right ya are," Mr. Punchkill affirmed, "We collect his road tax. 20% fer the traveler passin' thru at night. You give us that, then we give you a receipt."
The traveler steepled his fingers and brought them to his mouth.
"And this price is paid for the assured safety of the traveler on the road, to avoid being waylaid by bandits, correct?"
Mr. Punchkill nodded, with a big toothy (in that there was at least one toth) grin.
"Simple as," he agreed.
The traveler cleared his throat and leaned back, rolling his shoulders and stretching his neck muscles from one side to another.
"Well, that's a very direct business practice. Very efficient. I have to commend the Baron."
The two taxmen beamed, chuckling to themselves. The man looked at the two of them with something approaching sorrow, and shook his head, raising his arms in a plaintive shrug.
"But, alas, I'll have to opt out of his services. You see, I'm more than capable of fending for myself on the road. Please bear to him my thanks for the thought, however." He leaned down and picked up his plate, brushing a piece of campfire ash from his sandwich as he lifted it up.
Mr. Cagle shook his finger, turning away from the man to strike what he hoped against all evidence would be an imposing figure.
"Now, see, that brings us to option B. As charged by the Baron, if somebody were to decline his hospitality, then well, we'd need to confirm their claims, and show them the sort of dangers one faces on the road without our protection. In which case, by means of demonstration, you understand, we'd be taking everything you got.” He thought for a moment, then added “And giving 20% to the Baron.”
The traveler sat down, placing the plate on one knee, and lifting the sandwich to take a bite.
"Is that so? That sounds like a threat, you know," The traveler observed, before chowing into his sandwich once more.
Mr. Cagle winked at him. "Now you're gettin' it! So, allow me to ask once more. Will it be 20% of what you got, or are things going to have to get ugly?"
The traveler sighed, and flipped his coat open, revealing the set of fine Battle Denims he wore beneath. Mr. Punchkill glanced at the leather strap the man wore at his waist, and his brow furrowed as the gears worked inside his head.
"I'm afraid you'll have to relay to the Baron that I'm not partial to his terms." The traveler replied.
"Hey, boss, hang on a sec..." Mr. Punchkill muttered. His words went unheeded, as Cagle's eyes lit up, and his teeth bared. He laughed cruelly.
"I was hoping you'd say that!" he growled, drawing back his axe and rushing forwards. "I'll make sure to put that in your obituary!"
The axe caught the light of the campfire as Mr. Cagle rushed forward. The traveler stirred in his seat, and with one smooth motion, pulled out his Desert Eagle from its Holdster, and shot Mr. Cagle in the fucking head.
Mr. Punchkill jerked upright as the shot echoed through the forest, and the thin trail of smoke stirred from the end of the gun's barrel. The traveler lowered the gun, and took another bite. After a few moments of thoughtful chewing, he turned his gaze to pierce the dead man's associate.
Mr. Punchkill stared in transfixed horror as the traveler ate. He was horrified about the shooting, not the sandwich.
"How about you? You gonna fight me with that thing?" The traveler gestured towards Punchkill's dirk with a casual twitch of his gun. The blade fell from the man's fingers as the hand holding it sprang open, and it landed in the dirt with a soft thud.
"N-no sir!" Mr. Punchkill stammered, raising his hands above his head, "Not at all, Mr. Gun Knight, sir."
The Gun Knight nodded as he finished off his sandwich, licking his fingers clean, while his other hand calmly held his gun pointed towards the ground.
"Tell me, are you boys actually working for Baron Durgen?"
Punchkill nodded emphatically. "We are! Swear on me mum! I've never told a lie in my life save for the ones I've already told, and I only steal the things what I need, or want. I'm an honest lad."
"I'll have to have a word with him about that..." the traveler mused. "Now, as for you-"
A sudden, sharp chirping rang out from the direction of the Gun Knight's knapsack. Its owner made a noise of exasperation, and started rummaging through it. The noise grew louder as he uncovered its source: a fist-sized conch shell, light pink in coloration. The shell vibrated in his hands, as the edge of the opening shimmered with irridesence. He raised the shell's mouth to his ear, and pointed the tip towards his chin.
"Moshi moshi, Rathus Desu," he said out loud. Words emanated from the mouth of the conch, a quiet murmur such that only the Gun Knight could hear them clearly.
"What kind of job?" he replied. He stood to brush the crumbs from his lap as the man on the other end of the conversation continued.
"Wait, whose ankle?"
Mr. Punchkill slowly edged towards the clearing as the Gun Knight's back was turned. The Gun Knight tensed up suddenly, and the taxman broke into a run for the safety of the forest. His once-target did not even spare him a glance.
"A dragon, you say?" Rathus asked, placing his Desert Eagle back into his Holdster, "Yes, that DOES catch my interest. I'm not too far from there, actually."
Inside the bar, the mysterious stranger spoke into his own conch, to the curious stares of the villagers.
"Is that one of those Talking Shells I've heard about?" the village Notary muttered quietly.
"Be quiet!" Praer Gordon hissed.
The stranger leaned back. "Okay, so what should I tell the villagers?"
Lit by the dimming embers of his fire, the Gun Knight looked around his campsite, ruined as it was by the inclusion of a dead tax agent.
"Tell them that I'm coming," he said decisively.
"Tell them to expect Rathus McGaff, the Imperial Gun Knight."
The Riddle of Lead
Requiem of the Gun Knights