Erwell leant against the counter in a dingy bar, sipping on a warm pint of ale while Oliver argued with the barkeep. The conversation had progressed to aggressively jabbing a finger at a regional map and struggling not to swear. He had been at it for a good quarter of an hour so far, and Erwell was growing as annoyed as the spymaster.
If this was the first stonewalling they had received, it wouldn’t be so bad, but they had hit four mountain mining towns in as many days, and they had gotten the same response everywhere. Combined with a lack of sleep from constantly being on the move, Oliver seemed ready to beat the information out of the locals. Or try and have Erwell do it.
“Look, friend,” Oliver said, unconsciously grinding his teeth. “You’ve rejected my money. You’re refusing to say anything out of a sense of civic duty. You won’t even talk for the benefit of your village, so tell me, what will it take?”
The barkeep; a burly, mountain born Calandorian, all scratchy body hair and wind-blasted, sun damaged skin, just grunted and shook his head. “You aren’t getting it, mate. I’ve got nothin’ to tell ya. Now I suggest you leave. First my bar, then town.”
“See, that’s where you’re wrong,” Oliver said, locking eyes and leaning across the bar until he was well and truly inside the barkeep’s personal space. “You do know something. I have few skills in life, but I’ve been blessed with an uncanny ability to sense when people are bullshitting me. And right now, you a burying me under a veritable mountain of bovine waste. I know there’s a bad crowd somewhere around here, and if you tell me how to find them, I can have them removed for good. The caravans stop getting hit, and this shitty little hole in a hill you call a town is safe again. I really don’t understand why you aren’t getting this.”
He paused, reaching towards the man.
“Are you dense?” he asked, rapping a knuckle against the barkeep’s head. Erwell closed his eyes, exhaling hard through his nose.
Here we go.
The bloke snarled and snatched the fist, squeezing until Oliver let out a strained yelp.
Despite this, he smiled. “I thought… you mining town folk… were supposed to be strong?” he grunted through clenched teeth.
The barman grabbed him by the collar with his other hand and dragged him over the bar, snarling down into the spymaster’s face. “I’m trying to be hospitable here, stranger, but you’re testing my patience. How about I take your questions in my hand here and shove them right up your-”
“Sir,” Erwell interrupted, taking another sip of his beer. “I know my friend here is an insufferable prick, but if you threaten physical force, I’ll have to intervene. Could you please just give us what we need so I can drag him out of your hair?”
The barman glanced at Erwell, his gaze roving up and down his body. His eyes paused on Erwell’s belt, where his scabbard usually sat, and sniffed, clearly unimpressed.
I knew we should have brought weapons.
Oliver had convinced him to leave his sword and spear outside town in a cache. Some crap about making them more approachable, for all the good it was doing now. He opened his mouth to reassure the barkeep that he was a more than proficient pugilist, and that he would get a free demonstration if he kept manhandling Oliver, when the creaking of a door hinge somewhere in the back of the bar distracted him.
“Papa?” a tiny voice asked. Erwell turned his head and peered into the gloom, spotting the voice’s owner. It was a girl, around fourteen or fifteen years of age, looking for all the world like a miniature, gender swapped version of her father. Minus some weathering.
“Sweetie, I told you to stay out back until I say,” the barman said, the concern and compassion in his voice borderline comical given the gruff packaging.
“But that man said he can get rid of the bandits! You should tell him-”
“Penelope! Go back, now! They could show up any minute!”
“Who?” Oliver interrupted.
“I won’t tell you again, stranger. Get out of my bar and out of town,” the barman replied. They glared at each other, the barman’s grip tightening and Oliver’s hand creeping towards his belt.
“He’s talking about the bandits that shake us down for booze and money,” the girl said, breaking the tense stalemate. “They come by, same day every week. They’re due today at some point.”
“What? They’re bleeding us dry! The whole town, in fact! Why won’t you just help these men if they can get rid of them?” Penelope said, indignation plastered across her face as she planted her hands on her hips.
“Because they won’t help,” the barman replied, exasperated. “No one will. And if they do something and it comes back to us… I can’t risk it. Can’t risk you. So, get in the back room and let me handle this.”
Erwell saw an opportunity and prepared to leverage this new bit of information, when the tavern door swung open and flooded the room with light.
“Handle what?” a gruff voice asked. “Actually, never mind. I don’t care.”
A figure darkened the doorway, taking in the scene before striding inside. He was followed by a few more silhouettes, their features resolving as they let the door swing shut behind them.
Three of them, including the chatty one, were rough looking characters from the mystery army’s bandit contingent, sporting crude axes and a mace. The fourth was decked out in full plate armour. The three shit kickers weren’t much to look at, dressed in ragged outfits of leather and mail cobbled together with whatever was at hand, but the Aderathian knight looked like he had stepped out of a fantasy story.
His armour was shiny and new, not so much as a dent or scratch in the blued steel. His face was concealed behind a full helm, adorned with a tall plume of feathers dyed a vibrant blue. Most concerning to Erwell, though, was the long sword at his hip in a bejewelled scabbard.
“It’s been thirsty work this week,” the bandit said as he approached the counter, not caring one bit that the barman had Oliver dragged halfway across it. “We’re out, need more. Where’s the grog?”
He gave Erwell a brief nod as he leant against the bar, showing a jagged scar running from above his left eyebrow to the corner of his lip. Nasty looking customer, all in all. His two cronies stood behind him, a scowl on one’s face, a grin on the other. Erwell noticed the knight remained by the door, fidgeting and seeming distinctly uncomfortable.
“O-of course,” the barman stammered. “I’ll bring it right out for you.”
“Good man,” Scar said, doing a slow turn to search the room. He stopped when his eyes settled on Penelope, still standing in the corner. “And what do we have here? I think we’ll take her too.”
Erwell’s fingers tightened around his pint.
“I’m sorry, sir. But that’s my daughter. You can have anything else you want, but not her,” the barman said, the fear in his voice now tempered with resolve.
Scar spun, slamming his hands on the counter as he snarled. “Doth mine ears deceive me? Did you just tell me what I can and can’t take?”
“Hey now,” the grinning bandit behind him said, his smile fading and uncertainty taking its place as he put a tentative hand on Scar’s shoulder. “Maybe we should leave her. You know what the camp’s like, we can’t bring a girl in there.”
“Shut up!” Scar said, prompting Grin to shrink back. “I’ll do what I damn well please. Grog and your little girl, barkeep. Now.”
The barman looked stricken, his breath coming in rapid, ragged gasps as he looked around the room, before his pleading gaze settled on Erwell.
The captain shot a glance at the spymaster.
Oliver’s eyes darted from Erwell’s to the three men, to the knight, then back to Erwell. He licked his lips and shook his head.
Erwell rolled his eyes and slammed his pint into Scar’s face.
The bandit screamed and recoiled, clawing at his face as Erwell swiped the axe from his belt. He shouldered the wounded man aside and swung it backhanded into Scowl’s neck, then tugged it free, using the momentum to whack the side of Grin’s head with the blunt edge. Both bandits dropped to the ground, one of them unconscious, the other bleeding out from the gaping hole in his throat. Scar, meanwhile, kept blundering about, overturning tables and chairs as he wailed.
The knight was still in the doorway, his sword now in hand, but he made no move to help his comrades. His focus was solely on Erwell. It was hard to tell, but from his posture, he almost looked impressed.
“Gods damnit, Erwell! What the fuck was that?” Oliver shouted.
“I gave you the signal.”
“All you did was look at me!”
“That was the signal.”
“Well, I gave you the signal as well! The ‘sit the fuck down and let it play out signal’!”
“Sorry, that’s not an officially recognised Calandorian Marine Corps field signal.”
“And ‘let’s kill these random thugs in a bar’ is?”
“Not so surprising once you get to know us.”
The knight interrupted the exchange with a pointed ‘ahem’. The two Calandorians turned to him, Erwell hefting the axe, Oliver looking around for a moment before retrieving Scowl’s mace. Surprisingly, he looked quite comfortable holding it. The three men glared at each other across the bar, as Scar kept stumbling about until, by chance, he bumped into the knight.
“Baptiste, help me! My eyes!”
The knight turned his head to regard the man, looking him in the face, then down at the bloody hands pressed against his breastplate.
“Get your hands off me, you degenerate peasant!” Baptiste screamed as he backhanded the wounded bandit. Scar cried out as he fell to the ground, but quickly scrambled to his knees, his hands clasped before his ruined face as he begged.
Baptiste drew his sword and swung it down into Scar’s head, the blade cleaving it from crown to halfway down the forehead. With a grunt, the knight tugged it free, and the bandit keeled over, blood and clear fluid spilling from the gash and spreading across the rough wooden floor.
Erwell grimaced, while Oliver uttered a soft “by the gods”. Sure, Erwell had blinded Scar in the first place, and the mongrel had been trying to abduct a teenage girl, but turning on a supposed ally, especially one who was wounded and helpless, left a sour taste in his mouth.
“I apologise, mon adversaire, for these unsavoury characters. It is unfortunate that the General indulges the whims of the rank and file, but he insists on keeping them liquored up in between tasks. However, the responsibility of disciplining them was not yours.”
“Sorry, mate. But you seemed disinterested in doing it yourself. Isn’t that a violation of your Knight’s Code, or something?” Erwell asked with feigned innocence.
Even under the armour, the knight visibly bristled. “The Code is complex. I would not expect someone like you to grasp the nuances.”
“Right. So abducting little girls is conditionally permitted? I have to be honest, my image of the dashing Aderathian knights is diminished somewhat.”
“You have no idea what you’re talking about, filth,” Baptiste spat, shaking his fist at Erwell. “I would teach you a lesson and send you on your way. Maybe a missing limb or two would engender some respect.” He paused, taking a moment to calm himself. “But the General would frown on such lenience. I cannot allow your escape.”
“That’s funny,” Erwell replied with a forced chuckle. “I was just about to say the same thing. I might be persuaded to let you live, though. If you tell me where the General and his army are holed up.”
Baptiste cocked his head, his posture shifting from indignation to understanding. “Ah. I wondered when the authorities would arrive. The General will be pleased to know.” He paused, flinging the blood from his blade with a flourish and sinking into a fighting stance. “Once you two are dead, of course. En garde!”
He charged across the room with a shrill war cry, sword held high. Erwell waited until he was a few feet away before hooking a stool with his foot and flinging it into the knight’s path. With the helmet impairing his peripheral vision, the Aderathian didn’t notice as his lead foot come down in between the stool’s legs.
As his trailing foot kicked against the pinned seat, he toppled, his momentum carrying him face first into the bar. His chin caught on the lip of the counter as the rest of his body plummeted to the ground under the weight of his armour. There was a loud crack as his head snapped back at an alarming angle.
“Ah, shit,” Erwell groaned. He grabbed the knight’s ankles and tugged, the man’s head flopping to the floor with a dull clank. Erwell worked his fingers under the helm’s rim and checked for a pulse.
“Well, this is a fine mess you’ve made now, Captain,” Oliver said, standing over the corpse with a disapproving frown. “We needed information from him.”
“Settle down, we’ve got a backup,” Erwell replied, nudging the unconscious bandit with his foot and looking around for the barman. He was in the corner, Penelope gripped tightly to his chest. He jumped a bit when Erwell turned to him.
“You got any rope?”
A minute later, Grin woke up in the pub’s cellar, tied to a chair provided by the grateful barman. The bandit was sitting in the small pool of light cast by a pair of torches, while Erwell and Oliver observed silently from the shadows.
“Hello, friend,” the spymaster said, stepping into the light. “Got time for a quick chat?”
“Youuu,” the bandit slurred. “Wha? Where?”
“You’re in the bar, still. Do you remember what happened?”
“Uh,” he winced against the harsh light, blinking rapidly as sweat beaded his forehead. “We came for grog. Walked in, the boss was talking and then… that bastard!” he snarled, struggling against his bindings.
“Good!” Oliver said brightly. “He’s alright, if a little groggy. Memory still seems intact. So, I’ll cut to the chase. Tell us where the army is camped, or we kill you.”
“That’s it? No cajoling or promises or dangled carrots?” Grin asked.
“No need. I’m guessing you’re only working for the coin, so I doubt you’ll willingly surrender your own life.”
“There’s always risk being a merc.”
“This isn’t a risk. It’s a certainty.”
“Not necessarily. If you kill me, you’ll have no way of finding our camp.”
“Sure. For a couple of days. Then your comrades will get curious and send someone to find you.”
“They’ll send an entire platoon!” Grin snapped, leaning forward and struggling against his bindings. “Your friend did alright when he got the jump on us, but I doubt he can fight thirty killers.”
“I’ve never tried,” Erwell muttered from the shadows. “Did fight a dozen Skjar Hauskarls, though. Almost worked up a sweat.”
“Shush!” Oliver hissed, before turning back to a suddenly placid Grin. The bandit was staring slack jawed at where he imagined Erwell to be.
“Really? You killed a dozen Hauskarls?”
“I took some captive,” Erwell admitted.
“Please! We’re getting off topic!” Oliver said, shooting a glare at Erwell. “But my friend’s bravado aside, we won’t need to fight. Just follow them home.”
Grin licked his lips, eyes darting between Oliver and Erwell. “What assurance do I have that you’ll keep your word?”
Oliver sucked his teeth, but offered no reply. After a few seconds of silence, Erwell stepped into the light.
“You have my word as an officer in His Majesty’s Marine Corps.”
The spymaster turned to look at him, an incredulous scoff on his lips.
“Oh, well, I’m sure our friend here finds that reassuring,” he said, the sarcasm so thick Erwell could almost taste it. Despite this, Grin beamed up at the captain.
“Alright, that’s good enough for me,” he said. “We’re in the mountains, obviously. If you get me a map, I’ll mark it out. It can still be tricky to reach, though, so I’ll jot down some helpful directions.”
“Oh, uh, sure,” Oliver said, hastily presenting his map and a quill. He cleared his throat as Grin scribbled enthusiastically on the paper. “While we’re at it, how many of you are there, and what are you up to?”
“Let’s see…” Grin replied, tapping his chin with the wrong end of the quill, leaving a black smudge on his skin. “There’s about thirty of them duelist folks from Ris, a dozen knights, er… eleven knights, now. A hundred of us men o’ the road, and about three hundred men at arms brought across from Aderath.”
“That’s a pretty impressive force,” Oliver said.
“Oh! And there’s an earth mage, too.”
Oliver swore. “The mage from Politis’ court?”
“Couldn’t tell you, mate. I’m just a highway robber, don’t run in those circles,” he said with a chuckle and a shake of the head.
“It’s fine,” Erwell said. “The royal force will number at least two thousand.”
“That may be, Captain, but I have reservations… specifically, about fighting a bloody earth mage in the bloody mountains!”
“Which is why he will be dead before the army arrives.”
Grin snorted, a cruel smile on his face. “You’re a cocky one, aren’t you?”
“Not without cause,” Erwell said, waving a dismissive hand. “Now, back to my friend’s last question; what are you lot up to?”
“Ah. That. I dunno.”
“Need I remind you, I will kill you if you don’t talk.”
“Hey! The deal was just for me to tell you where we’re camped. The rest is just gravy. But I’d tell you if I knew, on my honour as a highwayman.”
“That’s an oxymoron if ever I heard one,” Oliver grumbled.
“Oi! No need for name calling! I’m being honest!”
Erwell shook his head. “Alright, let’s try this, then. What have they had you, specifically, doing?”
“Oh! That I can answer. Hitting caravans. Didn’t matter which ones, they’d just send us to a road somewhere in the province. We‘d slaughter the first caravan to come by, then cart off everything of value.”
“And? That’s it? What happens to the goods?”
“Not rightly sure, to be honest. The officers would go through it when we got back. Most of it they gave back to us to haul through the mountains. They’d take the odd bit here and there. Brass ingots mostly.”
“Brass?” Erwell asked, his brow furrowing. That didn’t seem right.
“Not brass,” Oliver interrupted, his face twisting into a scowl. “Resonance Ore. There’s a few mines in the region, not exactly high yield, but the exports from the province as a whole are significant.”
“By the Pantheon,” Erwell breathed. It wasn’t much, but it was a clue, and a worrying one at that. A force of almost five hundred soldiers, including a mage, was stockpiling the only known substance that could store magical energy and render it usable by non-mages. Of course, the secrets of enchanting Resonance Ore were supposedly restricted to a handful within the colleges, but these foreigners wouldn’t be doing this without purpose. “The earth mage might not be the only problem after all.”
“Yep! Honestly, I think you guys are fucked!” Grin piped up. “But I’ve held up my end of the bargain, so if you’ll just untie me, I’ll be on my way.”
Oliver glared at him before his expression broke into a sadistic smile. He started laughing as he advanced on the immobilised man, drawing a knife from his belt.
“I don’t think so.”
“Hey now, hey now! We had a deal!”
“You can’t honestly tell me you’re that naïve?”
“Not naïve! Old mate swore on his honour as a whatsyamacallit… Gentleman of His Majesty’s Core or something.”
“I’m sorry to say, that doesn’t count for much down here,” Oliver said as he stood over Grin, his eyes glinting cruelly in the torchlight.
“Actually,” Erwell said, seizing Oliver’s wrist and twisting it until the knife clattered to the floor. “It does.”
Oliver hissed through his teeth and whirled on Erwell. Or tried to, at least. The captain still had his wrist locked out in a painful position. “What the Pit are you doing?”
“You may have no sense of honour, but I do. I said he walks, he walks.”
“He’ll go straight to the camp and sell us out!”
Erwell turned to Grin, the bandit’s obnoxious smile back in place. “No, he won’t. He knows an army a few thousand strong is marching on the province. It’ll be a hard fight, but not one he’s likely to survive. He’ll scarper, won’t you, friend?”
“Too true! In fact, this experience has been so illuminating for me, I think I’ll tuuuuuuurn o’er new lee.”
Grin stopped and frowned, the side of his face drooping.
Without warning, his head flopped onto his chest, a trail of drool spilling out of his mouth into his lap.
Oliver and Erwell glanced at each other, then back to Grin.
“Uh… what?” Oliver asked.
Erwell walked over and checked Grin’s neck for a pulse. “He’s gone.”
“Not sure about the specifics,” Erwell said, straightening up and rubbing his chin. “But I’ve seen it before. Bloke gets a knock to the head, loses consciousness, wakes up relatively fine after a while, then keels over dead a bit later.”
“Well, how about that. Guess we’re both happy then?”
Erwell regarded him with a raised eyebrow.
“Your honour remains untarnished, and the little prick is dead. We both get our way.”
Erwell stared at him, his eyebrows raised, but after a few seconds, he chuckled.
“I mean, you’re not wrong. To the mountains?”
“To the mountains.”
- Townsville, Australia
Bio: Serving member of the military who writes in his free time. Current project is a full length fantasy novel and short story spin offs that I'll be publishing here! Aim is for weekly uploads for as long as I can keep it up, though I may be forced to drop down to fortnightly or take a brief hiatus to replenish the backlog. If necessary, I'll make sure it's communicated to everyone reading!