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Chapter 7

Chapter Seven - c.o.

            Elle had elected, in fact, not to remove her clothes in order to divert any attention from her—goblins were not fond of human women anyway, and the magician certainly would wonder why a beautifully bare girl had wandered into his cave in the first place. Instead, she shouldered the bow and arrow and took off to the right, moving silently but speedily.

            Gabriel and Bariz watched her closely.

            “She’s got a fine rear on her, that one,” said Gabriel, quietly. “You’re a lucky one, mate.”

            “Pah, she’s a bit above my pay grade,” grumped Bariz. “That’s enough out of you, ‘mate’.”

            “Don’t you see she’s into that sort of thing? Manly types, yeah? She loves your beard.”

            “Gabriel?”

            “Yes, Bariz?”

            “If you don’t shut your bloody trap I’m going to remove your lower jaw,” said Bariz, straight faced.

            Gabriel said nothing further. Bariz was actually dangerous, when he wasn’t shouting and roaring about honor and gold.

            Elle, sticking to the shadows, had made it to the west side of the hall without being noticed by any of the goblins, who were focused rather intently on the magician. She notched an arrow and took aim at one of the primitive torches placed along the walls.

            That’s when the magician got up to speak, and that’s when Elle saw the ring on his right hand.

            Her father’s ring.

            With a grin he couldn’t control, Gabriel noticed it too.

            “Friends, goblins, countrymen—lend me your ears,” said the man, whose fiery eyes roamed his fifty-strong audience. “Well, those of you that have any left, anyway. It is time you left these dank caves, my comrades! It is time you flooded forth into a world that is rightfully yours!”

            The goblins cheered, or at least made a sound that, if you cocked your head to one side and closed both ears, could almost be cheering; otherwise, it was just a chorus of incomprehensible gurgles and whines.

            “And I, Malefure, will serve as your glorious leader!” cried the magician. “Follow me as we burn our way through Dram, our first stop in taking over the—”

            “Oh, for god’s sake,” snarled Elle, and fired, knocking loose a torch positioned squarely over Malefure’s throne.

            Had Malefure chosen, in his younger and more impressionable days, any other element to manipulate than fire, Elle’s plan would have worked perfectly. The torch would have landed neatly on his shiny crown,

            But, as Fate would have it (and He always does), Malefure was a fire mage, and therefore simply gestured at the falling flame. It leapt from the torch, gathered itself into a small sphere, and hurtled toward Elle at high speed. She barely avoided the incoming blast by leaping forward—which, of course, placed her within reach of six or seven very angry goblins. She’d interrupted their speech, and goblins loved a good speech. Especially if they could understand it.

            “Halt!” said Malefure, stepping forward. His face was young, but scarred; the remnants of his early experimentation with fire magic were all over his skin. “Who is this woman?”

            Bariz, who had been watching the entire affair from cover, shot to his feet but had one thick wrist seized by Gabriel before he could get close.

            “Stop—we’re going to need swords!”

            “If they hurt Elle I swear—”

            “They’re going to kill her if we don’t grab our weapons! Hold on a bloody tick!”

            Gabriel slouched from behind cover and moved toward the throne, where their weapons were kept in a bag.

            “Hold her still!” Malefure snapped at two goblins who were struggling with Elle. They couldn’t find a good grip.

            Gabriel inched closer and closer to the bag with their equipment.

            The goblins finally persuaded Elle to hold still by menacing her with a rusted sword.

            “Now,” said Malefure, his eyes flaring brighter. He swept down from the throne, robes billowing everywhere, and neared Elle. “Who do you work for?”

            “Better question: why are you wearing my father’s ring, you rat?” Elle growled.

            “Your father’s—wait a moment. That merchant!” An awful smile cracked across Malefure’s face. “That was your father? My word!”

            Elle’s face was a mask of shocked rage. “You killed him!”

            “Oh, well, I had to, y’see. He stumbled in here and was off to tell Dram of our carefully considered plans,” answered Malefure.

            Speaking of carefully considered plans, Gabriel had finally slunk back toward Bariz with their swords. Bariz snatched his up and hefted it across his shoulder.

            “Right,” he grunted. “Can I kill the bloody goblins now?”

            “Shh,” Gabriel replied. “Two at a time. Quietly. Jerk and slice. We have to get closer or that bugger will burn us alive.”

            “Which, unfortunately, so have you, for some reason,” Malefure continued. “Which means you’re going to have to die. Very sorry. Very unlucky.”

            Gabriel gestured at the two nearest goblins, who were cheering on the impeding execution. He and Bariz crept from behind their cover (insofar as Bariz could creep,) seized the indicated creatures by the throat, jerked them backward and cut their windpipes, all in a single, practiced motion.

            “What are you doing all this for?” demanded Elle.

            “Goblins are fascinating creatures,’ Malefure replied. “Wonderfully twisted things. Perfectly willing to follow someone who fries a few of them in a show of power. And if you have a bunch of….worshippers…well, what’s a man to do but make use of them? Dram’s just the start. It’ll be glorious.”

            Out of the corner of her eye, Elle had spotted Gabriel and Bariz finally sneaking along, downing goblins as they went.

            “You know what I’m obligated to say here, don’t you?” she said to Malefure.

            “What’s that?”

            “Surely you know, being a prospective evil overlord?” she asked. “You have to know these things, Malefure!”

            “Will you just go ahead and say it?!” he snapped. Thin trails of smoke began to curl upward from his ears.

            “Well, of course you, the villain, having explained his evil plan, are now perfectly poised to begin your evil work and all,” said Elle.

            “If you don’t hurry up and say whatever it is you’re going to say, I will burn your flesh from your bones!” Malefure snarled.

            Gabriel and Bariz had murdered their way along the peripheral of the room, where torchlight didn’t reach, nearing the throne from the right. They slipped behind a pair of pillars.

            “Now it’s my job, as the good and true heroine of the tale, to say you’re never going to get away with it,” Elle said, sweetly. “Which is perfectly true. Bariz!”

            Several things happened at once:

            Bariz burst through the pillar he was hiding behind, cutting a swathe through the small army of goblins as he charged Malefure. Gabriel continued along the wall until he was positioned directly behind the throne, flanking the mage. Elle disarmed the goblin threatening her with a flourish, ran him through, then lunged after the fire mage. Malefure, in response, raised his fist and slammed it into the ground; an explosion hurled both Bariz and Elle to the ground, where Bariz frantically swatted at a small fire that had caught in his beard.

            “Bariz, are you alright?” cried Elle.

            “Fine!” he replied. He’d gotten the fire out, at least.

            Malefure, in a rage, was rapidly gesturing and muttering, preparing an enormous fireball which hummed in the air in front of him. Goblins, often the victim of the mage’s wrath, backed away hurriedly. 

            Gabriel, in the rear of the action, bounced off of the back wall and grabbed the edge of the massive throne, slowly pulling himself up…and…over…

            The thief fell like a thunderbolt, striking the unsuspecting mage across the back with a vicious chop.

            Malefure arched in pain, and the fireball, no longer under his control, careened upward into the ceiling, where it dissipated against the stone. He crumpled, wailing.

            “Gabriel! The ring!” said Elle, climbing to her feet.

            Gabriel snatched it from the mage’s hand. That gemstone was massive.

            “Your father was a rich man,” he said. “Oi, you want to get a stab in for the old fellow? The mage isn’t going anywhere.”

            Elle was about to respond when they heard a rumbling from deep in the rock.

            The dumbstruck (and confused) goblins immediately fled the room.

            “The fireball!” cried Bariz. “The magic must have disrupted something!”

            “So the evil lair is about to fall apart?” said Elle, in disbelief.

            “About the size of it,” said Gabriel. “Shall we?”

            They hurried from the hall, where shortly after, the entire place caved in—which is just as well, since goblins never build anything to code.

            The corridors were not any better; the fire magic in the rock was causing spurts of flame to erupt from random places, which the party had to dance around in their mad dash for the exit. The roaring only got louder and louder, which finally prompted the panting Bariz to glance backward—

            Only to discover a river of fire rolling toward them.

            Add two parts adrenaline, one part fear, and one part sheer frustration at how badly your day is going, and you get a burst of incredible speed, if you should ever need it and Bariz had at least three doses of that concoction running through his system by now. Lowering his head, he broke into a dead sprint, snatching up Elle under one arm and Gabriel under the other as he went.

            “We’re not going to make—” cried Gabriel.

            “Oh shut up,” snapped Elle.

            Bariz took a flying leap through the entrance of the cave. While this looked dramatic, it wasn’t strictly necessary, because his sheer dogged run had placed him well ahead of the flames. They licked and crackled out of the cavern’s mouth for a moment, then disappeared back inside.

            “How in the hell did do you do that, Bariz?” breathed Gabriel.

            A few hours later, having distanced themselves properly from the cave, the party set up camp between two small hills.

            “You know,” Gabriel said thoughtfully, over the campfire. “That ring’s probably worth more than ten pounds of gold.”

            Elle grinned. “In a way, yes.”

            “So what’s to stop us from taking off with that instead of the money?” Gabriel asked, who felt he deserved a bit more than the agreed-upon payment, since he had also saved the town of Dram.

            “Gabriel, I’ll have no part in—” Bariz began.

            “Because I’ve got a better deal for you yet,” Elle said.  

            Both men turned eyes on her.

            “Well, I think we made a pretty good team back there,” she said. “We just saved the world, as far as I can tell.”

            “Are you kidding? That snot-nosed mage wouldn’t have made it past the nearest farmhouse,” snickered Gabriel.

            “You never know,” Elle continued. “But that’s not the point. The point is, gentlemen, I think we work well together, and thus I’m proposing a partnership.”

            “How, exactly, is this more profitable than simply stealing your ring?” Gabriel demanded.

            “Well, the ring will fetch you a single payment, which knowing you, Mr. du Vuerte, will last exactly three days, at which point you’ll be looking for more work. Poor Bariz here will remain broke because you’ll have snatched every pence.” She flashed a sweet smile at Bariz before moving on. “My proposal, on the other hand, is to start a mercenary company, which means constant work for constant profit.”

            “And constant danger,” Gabriel said, glowering.

            “I don’t know,” said Bariz. “I could do with some honest work, rather than raiding goblin and orc camps the rest of my life.”

            “You could also do with another smile from y’lass here,” Gabriel retorted. “That’s the only reason you’re going along with it.”

            “Certainly couldn’t hurt to keep some of the loot I’ve worked for,” Bariz returned.

            “You wound me, Bariz.”

            “Shall I finish the job?”

            “Gentlemen!” interjected Elle. “This is business, right? Gabriel, you can’t deny the money would be good.”

            “Well…”

            “And I’ve got a nice place in Elesia we could use, my father’s old building,” she continued. “Nice living quarters, no more paying for rooms, and imagine how the impressed the barmaids will be that you’re a mercenary!”

            “Fine!” Gabriel conceded. “Fine. But the food had best be excellent, or I’m leaving the next day. And we’re still getting the gold for this job.”

            “It’ll be the first job of the company,” said Elle. “What are we to be called?”

            “The Knight’s Sword,” said Bariz, suddenly speaking up.

            “What?” said Elle and Gabriel at once.

            “The Knight’s Sword,” he said again. “Like you could say, if you need something done, hire the Knight’s Sword!”

            Elle turned the idea over in her mind. She liked it. Then again, she liked Bariz.

            “Bariz, where did that come from?” Gabriel asked.

            “Dunno,” Bariz admitted. “Just somethin’ that showed up in my head.”

            “Well, I like it,” said Elle. “Is it agreed?”

            “Whatever you want to call it, as long as I get paid,” Gabriel said.

            “Right,” said Bariz.

            Everyone shook hands, and in a small valley south of the sleepy village of Dram (who would be talking about the cave’s implosion for days after) the mercenary company The Knight’s Sword was born.

            Thus the world was made a, if not strictly better, more interesting place.

chapter 6

Chapter Six - k.p.

            “An army?” she gasped. “What reason does a magician need to breed an army?”

            “No idea,” replied Gabriel. “But he’s got them quite well trained. They might be as smart as this lass here by the end of the night.”

            Elle glowered at him. “Oh, how funny you are, Master Gabriel,” she spat. “I might remember to laugh before those goblins gain my intelligence level, you bitter-“

            “That’s enough, Elle,” Bariz intervened, growing steadily more and more irritated by their bickering.

            She folded her arms across her chest and stuck her tongue out at Gabriel who returned the gesture with an elaborate raspberry.

            “You’re disgusting!” she cried, and turned away from him.

            ‘I’d say the same about you, Elle, dear,” replied Gabriel, donning a charming smile suddenly. “But it just wouldn’t be true.”

            “Don’t try flirting with me,” she retorted. “I’m not one of your tavern wenches. Plus, you don’t have enough…what is it? Oh, yes. Beard for me.”

            “That’s fine,” he argued. “I’m not into blondes anyway.”

            “You do realize that you are, yourself, a blonde?” she pointed out.

            “Please, Elle,” he said. “I am not so conceited as to be into myself.”

            She rolled her eyes and looked at Bariz. “How do you put up with him?” she inquired.

            “I usually just don’t argue with what he says,” he told her as he looked into the spyglass once again to see if the magician had disappeared. He was still there, directing this new army of goblins.

            “How are we going to get inside the cave with that magician there?” Elle wondered aloud.

            “It’s not so much the magician I’m worried about,” Bariz replied. “That goblin army is a little more intimidating.”

            “But if we get rid of the leader,” she pointed out. “We get rid of the source of the problem.”

            Bariz was about to agree with her when Gabriel interjected.

            “Well, in order to get to the leader, we have to get through the army, silly girl,” he retorted. “So, Bariz is right.”

            “Well, I was just saying-,” she began, but Gabriel interrupted her.

            “He’ll never be your boyfriend if you keep out smarting him,” he told her in what he attempted to sound like fatherly advice.

            She rolled her eyes at him, and turned back to Bariz.

            “Can we please focus?!” Bariz nearly yelled. “We’ll never get in the cave if you two don’t stop your ceaseless squabbling!”

            “She started it!” Gabriel objected.

            Elle opened her mouth to voice her disapproval, but Bariz held up a hand to stop her.

            “Now, we’re going to come up with a plan, and if you two continue your power struggle during that, then I’ll come up with it entirely on my own, and you two will just go with it!” Bariz continued, his voice continuing to rise. “Do you understand?”

            Both nodded before he went on.

            “Now, we need to get through the army in order to get to the magician,” he started. “Any ideas of how to do that?”

            Gabriel took the spyglass and looked toward where the goblin army and the  magician once stood. They were gone now.

            “It appears they’ve called it a day on the training,” Gabriel told them. “They’re not there anymore.”

            “So, can we get in the cave?” Elle asked, stretching her neck in an attempt to see what Gabriel was seeing.

            “I think we can, no one is lingering in the entrance,” he informed them. “But that’ll only make it more difficult once we do get in.”

            Elle and Bariz nodded in agreement. “So what do we do?” she asked.

            “I’m not entirely sure,” Gabriel replied. “I think we’re definitely going to have to go stealthily since the army is well-trained for a full-on attack, plus there’s too many.”

            “What about that magician?” Bariz questioned.

            Gabriel thought for a moment. “We’ll cross that bridge when we get there,” he decided.

            “Well, let’s go then,” Elle suggested.

            The trio went bent down and army crawled toward the cave as softly as possible. Gabriel poked his head in the cave and saw that there were only two goblin sentries at the front. He motioned for Bariz to join him to kill them quickly.  The two men rose to their feet quietly, then slipped in near the walls, and slid toward the unsuspecting goblin sentries. Gabriel and Bariz managed to cut their throats with barely any sound.

            ‘Well done,’ Elle mouthed as they slunk farther into the cave. However, before they could continue, there was a loud CLANG from something coming into contact with Bariz’s helmet. Then there was a thump and Bariz fell to the ground. Then another as Gabriel joined him. Elle drew her rapier but was just as easily knocked out.

            The trio awoke in total darkness. Unable to see, they all felt around frantically for their weapons, only to find that they had been robbed. Gabriel let out a cry of despair.

            “They took our gold!” he shouted, and voice echoed on the walls. They knew they were inside the cave.

            “I can’t believe they took it!” he nearly wept. “Five pounds of gold! Five! Oh, the things I could have spent that on!”

            “You mean we could have spent it on,” Bariz corrected.

            “I don’t know about you two,” Elle piped up. “But I’d be more concerned about that fact that we have been robbed of our weapons. And we have no idea where we are.”

            “We know where we are!” argued Bariz “We’re inside the cave!”

            “I mean, where in the cave we currently sit,” she told him. “We don’t know how deep it is or how much the goblins have delved. Now, we need an escape plan that doesn’t require weapons-and stop your wailing Gabriel, I’ll reimburse you when we return to Dram.”

            Gabriel instantly calmed down. “Okay, escape plan. How can we do that if can’t even see and we have no idea where we are?”

            “Well, we haven’t had any part of us bound, so that’s a plus,” Bariz pointed out. “Why don’t we just walk around and get a feel for our surroundings?”

            They all seemed to think it was a good idea so they rose to their feet and began to walk about, hands outstretched, searching for a wall, a door, or anything really. Elle suddenly felt a soft texture beneath her hands.

            “I feel something!” she called to them. “Like fur or a rug!”

            “That would be my beard,” said Bariz sheepishly.

            “Oh,” she said, feeling very foolish as she released his beard. “Right. Sorry.”

            “Quite alright,” he reassured her. “After all, I did give you permission to touch it.”

            She was very glad it was too dark for him to see the blush spreading across her face. “Yes, I remember,” she said turning away to find a wall.

            Gabriel meanwhile, was howling with laughter. This made it difficult for him to help them search, as his hands were clutching his aching sides.

            Before he stopped, Bariz found the door. When he announced this, Gabriel immediately stopped his obscene giggling and fell silent. Bariz tugged lightly at the handle, and the door swung open to reveal a corridor, lit very little by measly torches on the walls. Their eyes had to adjust, but that didn’t take too long, and they stepped cautiously out into the hall.

            “What if there are traps?” asked Gabriel in an undertone.

            “Like that’s ever stopped you,” Bariz whispered back.

            “Right,” replied Gabriel.

            “Bariz: one, Gabriel: zero,” Elle joked.

            “Since when were we keeping score?” Gabriel demanded.

            “Since now,” she retorted.

            Gabriel scoffed at her before continuing down the hall, leaving Bariz and Elle to walk side by side, which neither minded. In fact, they were growing rather fond of each other. Gabriel walked in front, since he was the best at escaping traps and therefore it was his job to get them out of the way. This tactic had proven rather useful in the past when Gabriel and Bariz traveled just the two of them. Of course, this made it easier for Gabriel to trick Bariz, but the bearded man was willing to take the risk for treasure.

            At the end of the corridor was a white light. The immediately took that for the exit, but soon learned that was a misconception. The reached the end, and realized that they were very high off the ground and the end of the hall was a sort of cliff. At the bottom of the cliff was the floor of what appeared to be a Great Hall. The corridor, were it on the bottom, would have seemed like a mere rabbit hole. Of course, since it was very near the ceiling, none of the goblins nor the magician noticed that the prisoners had escaped from their dungeon.

            In the middle of the Great Hall was a grand throne-like chair. It was taller than Bariz and could have sat three men sitting abreast. In this chair sat the magician, his bald head gleaming in the bright light of the hall. It looked as if even the goblins disliked this amount of light and the way this new master was treating them. Beside the magician’s throne was a spear with the former goblin chief’s head on it. The sight of this made all three of them wince.

            “I think we should just jump,” Elle put forth, her eyes sparkling with excitement.

            “Are you mental?” demanded Gabriel. “We can’t just jump down there, we’d be jumping to our doom.”

            “There’s no other way to get down,” she reasoned. “And we have to get down. I can see our weapons and the bag of gold from here.”

            “Where?!” gasped Bariz.

            “On the other side of the magician’s seat,” she told them, and pointed.

            “I see it,” Gabriel reinforced.

            Bariz eventually saw them as well.

            “So, are we going with my plan, or are we going back to being prisoners?” she persisted, very intent on feeling the thrill of falling from this height.

            “You want to jump?” asked Gabriel. “Go ahead.”

            She looked down toward the floor, and her face screwed up in concentration as she tried to estimate the distance. For several minutes, she looked down, then at Bariz, then down, and Bariz again, and so on.

            “I think the distance is about thrice Bariz’s height,” she concluded. “We could totally jump that.”

            Both men gawked at her. Then Gabriel came up with a proposal that lessened the danger and took the “drawing attention” factor out.

            Bariz was laying on his stomach, his arms dangling over the edge. His hands grasped Gabriel’s forearms, and holding tightly to Gabriel’s ankles was Elle. She was to jump down (from this lesser height), sneak to another tunnel, steal a bow and arrow, find some rope, attach it to the arrow, shoot it toward the corridor where Bariz and Gabriel were waiting, and then they could just climb down. Since there was no guarantee that she would find those things, the plan was a little inadequate, but they decided to go with it anyway.

            Elle landed lightly on the floor of the Great Hall, gave the guys a thumbs up, then stole away toward a tunnel on the same side of the Hall. She tiptoed inside it, and found two goblins, one with a bow and arrow, and another with a rapier. How convenient, she thought. Swiftly, she got the one with the rapier in a headlock. The other was distracted by something going on the Great Hall, so she got the rapier without much difficulty, and set the dead goblin on the floor, so the one with the bow and arrow wouldn’t hear her. She creeped up behind it and ran it through with her rapier before stealing its bow and arrow. All she needed now was rope.

            She found that if she tied the goblin’s belts together, she could make one. It wasn’t nearly long enough to get Gabriel and Bariz down, so she decided more belts would be necessary. Carefully, she slew two more, stole the belts, and added them on. She then hurried back to where Gabriel and Bariz were waiting for her.

            Bariz saw her coming first. He was surprised that now one had seen her yet, but ignored this. He watched anxiously as she tied what looked to be like several goblin belts knotted together to her arrow, and she fired it up. She had perfect aim, for it lodged right above the top of the opening to the corridor. Straight away, Gabriel seized it and slid down to join Elle. Bariz followed.

            “That worked out nicely,” he pointed out.

            She beamed at him before they scurried to a corner of the Hall for cover to come up with an escape plan.

            “Alright, we need to get out of here,” Gabriel stated.

            “And we need to have my father’s ring,” Elle added.

            He gave her an annoyed look before continuing. “Right, so Elle, we must rely on you once more. I think you should walk by the magician, and take off your clothes. Then, Bariz and I grab our things and shuffle on out of here.”

            “What about getting me out of here?” she asked.

            “That’ll be your problem, won’t it?” he returned.

            Bariz shook his head. “That’s stupid,” he said. “We are not exploiting Elle to get out of here. We are sticking together, and we ought to take down this magician so that his goblin army cannot harm anyone else, alright?”

            “Will you EVER let me have fun?” Gabriel exclaimed.

            “Will you ever deserve it?” Bariz responded, then turned to Elle. “If you would, cause a distraction, then Gabriel and I will get our things back and our gold, then we’ll slay the magician where he sits, and fight our way out of here.”

            “I can deal with that,” Gabriel agreed.

            “I can too,” said Elle, for she liked the taste of danger.

            “Alright,” said Bariz. “Are we ready?”

            They nodded.

chapter 5

Chapter Five - c.o.

            The next two days were largely uneventful, save for an incident in which a drunk Bariz launched Gabriel from the second floor of the Dram Inn to the first floor (the table Gabriel landed on was more damaged than the brigand himself.)

            The unlikely pair showed up at Dram’s southern gate just as the sun was spilling over the horizon—well, Bariz showed up, carrying the snoring Gabriel across his shoulders. Upon finding a suitable spot to stand, the bearded man dumped the thief unceremoniously on the cobbles, which served as excellent way to wake him up, it turned out.

            “Uuunnnnff,” grunted Gabriel as he staggered to his feet. “What d’you do that for?”

            “Time to get up,” muttered Bariz. He took up residence against the gate wall and eyed the sentry, a rattled young man who quickly resumed watching the plains beyond.

            “But it’s so early,” whined the thief, stretching. “Couldn’t we have started this expedition, I don’t know, after lunch? A nice lunch goes a long way toward a successful expedition, you know.”

            “Shut it, Gabriel,” Bariz growled. “The only thing it’s too early for is your mouth.”

            “You better brighten up, m’friend, before that lass gets here. Nobody likes a grump,” concluded Gabriel.

            “Gabriel?”

            “Yes, Bariz?”

            “I haven’t had breakfast.”

            “I’m aware, Bariz. I was smart enough to bring a bit of bread.”

            “I, unfortunately, was not,” said Bariz, suddenly breaking into a mad, frightening grin. “If so provoked, I imagine I could stomach a bit of thief or two…”

            Gabriel, entirely unused to anything resembling wit coming from his partner, indicated he understood the implied cannibalism with a gulp and a nod. Bariz resumed looking faintly irritated.

            The two stood in silence for ten minutes—the longest Gabriel had remained quiet in a long time—before Elle showed up, once more dressed in leather armor and wielding her rapier in one hand, lugging a sack in the other.

            “Gentlemen!” she said brightly, sporting a brilliant smile. “Fine morning for hunting, isn’t it?”

            The men, who were nursing two and a half hangovers between them, merely nodded in reply.

            “Alright,” said Elle, tossing the bag at their feet. “Five pounds of gold. You’ll have to forgive its congregation in a single sack, I’m afraid. I don’t make a habit of parsing my currency out.”

            “Bariz, check it out, will you?” Gabriel said, gesturing at the bag. Bariz hefted it tentatively, and nodded.

            “Five pounds or more,” he said.

            “Right,” said Gabriel, rubbing his temples. “So how far’s this bloody cave?”

            “Two days south of here, assuming we keep a good clip,” replied Elle, removing a map from the pack along her hip. “Took me forever to track down the place.”

            “And it’s got goblins in it, right?” said Bariz, rather hopefully. As clever as the little buggers were, you knew where you stood with goblins. Besides, he never got tired of hitting them.

            “Well, yes,” said Elle. “Goblins are what got my father.”

            “So, just goblins?” inquired Gabriel.

            “Not a clue,” Elle chirped. “Could be any number of things hiding in a deep, dark cave—which is why I’m bringing a warrior like Bariz along.”

            If it were possible for a man as massive and bearded as Bariz to preen, he would have done so here.

Gabriel snorted, shouldered the bag of gold, and headed for the gate.

            “Oh my, is he jealous?” Elle asked.

            “I’d imagine so,” said Bariz. “First time in history a woman’s complimented me over him. Don’t think it sits well with him, poor fellow.”

            “I don’t know if you noticed, but I’m lugging half our pay here,” called the thief. “If you’d like, Bariz, you and the lady there can go earn the other half on your own, eh?”

            Bariz and Elle hurried after him, fully aware Gabriel would happily take off with the money.

            For the first day, they traveled a well worn road through the serene, sunny plains south of Dram. A mild breeze caressed them gently as they walked. The day proved to be a beautiful one, which Gabriel took as an opportunity to do what he did best: talk as though talking were going out of style.

            “So, Elle, dear, madam, miss,” he said, over his shoulder. Their formation had conveniently left the brigand as point man, with Bariz and Elle walking alongside each other behind. “How did you manage to track down this particular ring, eh?”

            “Eliminating the impossible,” she replied coolly. “I knew my father was heading for Dram when his letters stopped coming; the Dram town watch reported finding his body near the south gate, which told me where he was coming from. I came to town shortly after and took up a job as a barmaid.”

            “Sound reasoning, aye, very sound,” Gabriel said. “But y’see, madam, your story’s a bit…incongruent, shall we say.”

            “Gabriel, that’s enough—“ began Bariz.

            “Bariz, all I wish to know is who, exactly, we are working for,” the thief said, turning on his heel to face them. “She works as a barmaid, but in her spare time she apparently swordfights and moonlights as a bloody detective! Hardly your average damsel in distress, I’d say.”

            “In that, you would be correct,” Elle said, sweetly.

            “See? Ergo, it would not be entirely out of the question that once she’s done stabbing goblins, she might make an attempt to stab us,” Gabriel said. “To that end, I’d feel considerably more comfortable at least knowing who it was that stabbed me, yes?”

            Bariz started to protest, but Elle interrupted him. “Gabriel, dear, lord, sir,” she said. “I come from the Royal City Elesia. Since my father was a traveling merchant, that often meant I was limited to two options—spend all my time in my room, protected by entirely uninteresting bodyguards, or out in the streets, where rogues such as yourself tend to look for prey.”

            “Oi, it’s not ‘prey,’ it’s called romance,” Gabriel retorted, rather feeling he ought to stand up for the art of ravishing innocent maidens.

            “Whatever you call it, I had to learn to defend myself,” Elle continued. “I forced one of the bodyguards to give me a sword, and when he gave me a rapier in jest, I learned to use it to spite him. As for my ability to deduce things, dear friend, one does not spend one’s childhood with a merchant without learning to spot the flaws in both goods, stories and people.”

            “There,” exclaimed Bariz. “You have your answer. Now you can stop hounding the poor woman?”

            Gabriel gave her a narrow glare, turning the story over in his mind. Seemed to hold water well enough, but nobody knew better than a thief when someone wasn’t dispensing the whole truth. Even if she wasn’t explicitly lying, per se, she was holding something back.

            She simply smiled back.

            They resumed walking.

            The land gradually rose into a series of hills as they ventured further south, and it was at the crest of one of these low, grassy hills they made camp for the night. Gabriel sauntered off to stand watch (without the gold, Elle insisted,) while Bariz and Elle sat by a flickering fire.

            “Your friend seems awfully suspicious of me, Bariz,” she chuckled.

            “He’s suspicious of everybody,” Bariz replied. “Mostly because he assumes they’re as shifty as he is.”

            “You’re not shifty, are you?”

            “No, madam,” he said, honestly. “I rather prefer to leave the shiftiness up to Gabriel, honestly. Not clever enough for it, m’self.”

            “I think you’re more clever than you let on, Bariz,” she said.

            “Looks can be deceiving,” he said nervously, trying to keep up.

            “Speaking of looks, I’ve never quite seen a beard like yours, either,” she said, placing a hand on his arm.

            “Er—raised by dwarves,” he stammered. “Found me in a cot left outside of the mines. Parents thought they’d make a good man out of me, I expect.”

            “Ooh, really? That explains your…machismo,” she cooed, leaning closer. “It’s not often I meet a man not obsessed with being prettier than I am.”

            “Oh?” Bariz asked.

            “Oh, you know the type. Foppish. Long, flowing hair, elegant armor, plumes sticking out of their helmets.”

            “Oh, well, see, goblins and orcs tend to erm, uh, grab, at anything they can to get an advantage in a fight,” Bariz explained, hurriedly. “Bein’ showy just ends up getting you killed, y’see.”

            “But what about your beard?”

            No one touches the beard,” he answered, simply.

            No one?” she asked, reaching up and tugging playfully at it.

            “Er—well—I suppose you can, if you really want,” Bariz conceded, blushing deeply. His inexperience with women was obvious, but Elle found it rather endearing. Certainly more interesting, she’d decided, than the suitors she normally attracted: elegant, charismatic fellows whose attempts to charm and manipulate her only served to disgust her.

            “Oi,” came Gabriel’s voice, from over the ridge where he was standing watch. “You two lovebirds may want to see this, eh? And bring a spyglass, would you Bariz?”

            Bariz snatched up the requested equipment and hustled up the hill to where Gabriel was waiting, Elle trailing behind.

            “Take a look, Bariz—just south. For one, I believe I found our cave. Secondly,  the goblins have apparently made a friend.”

            Bariz directed the spyglass where Gabriel was pointing. Indeed, gesturing at several squads of the little creatures was a tall, bald man in a crimson robe, who looked for all the world as if he were giving orders. Fire crawled through the air, trailing his finger tips, and his eyes glowed orange and red.
            This, however, was not the most troubling thing about the scene—instead, it was the way the goblins moved with uncharacteristic discipline, in small groups of three or four.

            The little bastards were running military drills.

            “What is it? What’s going on?” asked Elle.

            “There’s a magician, specializing in fire, by the look,” said Bariz. “If I had to take a guess, I’d say the right bastard was building an army.”

chapter 4

Chapter Four - k.p.

            Elle kept them in suspense momentarily before answering them. “I’m looking for an ancient ring. It belonged to my father, who was a traveling merchant. He was slain unexpectedly by goblins on one of his travels and it was stolen from him. I came to this town because I happen to know that it is in a nearby cave. However, being as inexperienced as I am at going through caves and such, I was thrilled when I heard that Bariz here liked to look for gold. So, if you two help me find the ring that is rightfully mine, I will pay you.”

            “How much?” demanded Gabriel.

            “How much do you charge?” she retorted with a smirk.

            “I like her,” he said simply.

            “You’re saying we can name our price?” asked Bariz, just to assure himself of what he had just heard.

            She nodded. “However, I’m only going to give you part of the gold now. So you don’t go making off with my ring, I’ll pay you the rest when I have said ring in my possession. Do we have a deal?”

            “Can we charge interest?” inquired Gabriel.

            She rolled her eyes. “No. I’m not that generous. Just name your overall price. Half now, half when I have what I want. Deal?”

            Gabriel looked at her. “Can we discuss it first?”

            “What’s to discuss?!” exclaimed Bariz, who appeared to regain his voice after several long moments in shock. “She’s saying we can ask for as much as we want, and who needs to charge interest when you have that kind of deal? Of course have a deal!”

            “We could make more if we charge interest…” grumbled Gabriel.

            “Will you shut up about the interest?!” shouted Bariz, now flabbergasted that his partner thought this offer was insufficient.

            “Alright, alright!” Gabriel gave in. “I just didn’t want to rush into anything simply because you’re enamored with her.”

            “I am not!” Bariz argued defensively, but the redness on his face gave away that what Gabriel said was true.

            “So, you’ll help me?” she asked to check that the decision was what she wanted.

            “Yes,” Gabriel assured her.      

            She beamed at them. “Wonderful. Now, what I need you guys to do is-“

            “Hold it right there, missy,” Gabriel interrupted her. “We haven’t named our price yet. “We need to establish that before making any plans.

            “Alright,” she agreed, though she wanted to plan the expedition as soon as possible in order to redeem her father’s ring. “How much do you require for the task I have asked of you?”

            “Now, we need to discuss,” said Gabriel, grabbing Bariz by the arm and leading him away from the girl. “How much should we ask for?”

            “I don’t know…” Bariz trailed off.

            “I think we should rid that skinny little temptress of all she’s worth!” suggested Gabriel enthusiastically. “Take advantage of this ‘name your price’ thing she got going.”

            “That seems a little…I don’t know…MEAN,” scolded Bariz. “She is just a woman after all. I’ll admit, we should ask for a little more than we normally get from our misadventures, but let’s not rob her of her worth. We don’t even know how much money she has…”

            “That’s a good point,” Gabriel noticed. “We should ask her.” He turned around to shout at her his question, but Bariz stopped him.

            “We’re NOT taking all of her money,” he said very seriously.

            “You never let me have any fun…” complained Gabriel.

            “Get over it,” Bariz replied, giving his friend a light slap on the back of the head.

            “So, how much should we ask for, oh chivalrous one?” Gabriel asked.

            “Ten bags of gold. A pound a bag,” Bariz suggested.

            Gabriel nodded his agreement and they strode back over to the awaiting woman.

            “How much?” she asked.

            “After much deliberation,” Gabriel began dramatically.

            “It wasn’t that much,” Bariz whispered to her, earning a giggle.

            Gabriel scowled before continuing. “After much deliberation, my dear, we have decided that we would like ten bags of gold. A bag must consist of one pound of gold coins. That is all we humble thieves ask in return for our services.” He then bowed at her in sarcastic matter that matched his voice when he spoke.

            “That’s fine,” she said shrugging. “I’ll give you five of the bags before we embark and then you’ll get the final bags when we get back and the ring is in my possession. And just so you know, don’t even think about ‘accidentally getting me killed. If I should die, you won’t be getting the rest of your money because I willed all of my money and things to my niece. Understand? No tricks. No deception. I’ve already worked around that.”

            “She’s good,” Gabriel muttered to Bariz, who nodded in agreement.

            “Do we have an understanding?” she demanded.

            Both men nodded, a little frightened by her sudden business-like tone. When she was out of earshot, Gabriel leaned toward Bariz and whispered, “What a ball-buster…”

            Bariz glared at him.

            “When will we receive our down payment?” Gabriel asked.

            “To assure that you don’t leave with my money, you will get it when you show up at the town entrance at dawn two days from now,” she replied.

            “Well, now you’re taking all the fun out of it,” Gabriel whined.

            “I refuse to be cheated,” she argued, giving him a stony look. “I’d only ever agree to pay you as much as you want if I expect a good job and my money is not going to go to waste. Also, I don’t want to pay you only to get me killed and take everything I own. But I’m having fun.”

            “What’s fun about what you’re doing?” insisted Gabriel.

            “Taking the fun out of it for you,” she countered. “Anyway, dawn. Two days from now. You get your money. I get your service. No mischief. I’ll come up with a plan, and let you know at that time.”

            “Don’t we get a say in how we go about retrieving this ring of yours?” Gabriel dared to challenge.

            “As much as I’m paying you,” she returned. “You really shouldn’t ask for a say in anything. But, if you insist, you two may come up with a plan as well. That being said, I must insist that I approve of your plan so that I am not a victim of some scam.”

            “That seems agreeable,” Gabriel yielded.

            “It better be,” she retorted, a threatening gleam in her emerald eyes.

            Bariz had known Gabriel for a long time and this was a first: Gabriel was speechless.     

            “He actually has nothing to say,” Bariz cried in sheer amazement at Elle’s ability to silence his friend. “That little git has absolutely nothing to say. You, miss, have just accomplished what no other could, and for that I salute you.” He did exactly that and brought is hand to his brow and snapped it back down.

            She grinned at him, her dimples making her appear as if she could never have shamed a man, for she was just too cute. “Well, I shan’t hold it against him,” she said sweetly. “However, I think it is best now that I get home and prepare for the journey. You two would be well to do the same.”

            They bid each other farewell before she departed to her house to do just as she had said. Bariz rounded on the still thunderstruck Gabriel.

            “She got you!” he shouted with pure delight. “Oh, I can’t believe she stumped you! You realize, of course that while she may not hold that against you, I certainly will. This is too wonderful to let go! I shall etch it forever into my memory: Gabriel silenced by a woman.” He doubled over and held his sides from laughing so hard.

            “You know what your problem is, Bariz?” asked Gabriel. “You have this thing where you don’t let things go. First, when I stole your gold and left you to fight goblins, and now this.”

            Bariz was hardly able to respond amidst his laughter. “You…(several spurts of laughter) leaving me with the goblins and the gold…(chortle) just made you a prat…(guffaw) This, mate…(laugh) this is just hilarious.”

            “Keep it up, Bariz,” warned Gabriel. “Or you might end up with worse than goblins on this next adventure.” With that, he stormed off toward the inn they were staying at, leaving Bariz to cackle in the dark.

chapter 3

Chapter Three - c.o.

            The village of Dram was a tiny little slice of nowhere, so word of Elle’s conversation with the bearded fellow spread like wildfire (or, in fact, Bariz’s beard.) Ms. Elle Auria, the most eligible woman in the village, speaking with not only a half-mad berserker, but an ugly half-mad berserker? People were talking. Of course, it certainly didn’t help that Ms. Auria had herself settled in the town from a bigger city, claiming the hectic life didn’t agree with her mild demeanor.

            The general consensus was that the beautiful woman had been humoring the warrior, intent on standing him up the next evening during their promised “swordfighting lesson” (the obvious meaning of which earned titters from the more conservative members of the community.) So it was no small surprise when Elle turned up in the tavern courtyard at the appointed time with a rapier, a suit of fitted leather armor, and a smile.

            Bariz was probably the most surprised of them all. Gabriel, who had turned up to watch the proceedings, took a moment to admire Elle’s striking figure, then promptly fell from his perch on the nearby wall, laughing like a madman.

            “Bariz!” he breathed, peeking his head above the wall a moment later. “You have the worst luck!”

            Bariz, after locating and replacing his dropped jaw, glared in Gabriel’s direction and then turned to an expectant Elle.

            “You seem awfully…prepared, miss,” he ventured, gesturing at her weapon.

            “Yes, well, if you don’t mind me saying, Bariz, you’re a rather large man. I thought a little protection might be in order, lest you go too far,” she replied.

            “Er, well, I’ll be careful,” stammered Bariz.

            “That’s too bad,” teased Elle. “Shall we begin?”

            “Right.” Bariz set his feet, and drew his broadsword from the scabbard strapped across his back.

            “That’s a big sword,” said Elle. “Do try not to hurt me with it.”
            Gabriel’s laughter erupted again from behind the wall. Bariz blushed deeply and nodded, gulping.

            “Alright, then,” he said. “First, be careful how you’re standing, ‘cos if a big bastard like myself comes in from above, you won’t be able to fend him off.”

            “Right,” said Elle.

            “Of course, you have to know where your opponent’s attacking from, so you can react appropriately.”

            “Right.”

            “The best offense is a good defense, a lot of the time,” Bariz said. “Otherwise your opponent will go for the obvious hole.”

            This time, both Elle and Gabriel giggled, which only caused Bariz to blush even more. He was like to emit a faint glow if he blushed any deeper.

            “Here, I’ll just demonstrate, shall I? Prepare for a chop—hold yer sword horizontally, side to side, and brace yerself.”

            “Okay,” said Elle, following orders.
            Bariz demonstrated an arcing blow, which Elle obediently parried. He repeated the drill several times, as they made small talk.

            “So how did you and your amorous friend meet?” inquired Elle, continuing to parry strokes.

            “He’s not m’friend, let’s be clear,” Bariz answered, while Gabriel waved gaily from his seat. “On the rare instance I’m not out to kill him, he occasionally finds us a job or two. Of course, he then proceeds to take my cut, but I typically get it back from him at some point, so I suppose it works out.”

            He chopped once more, and she turned it with a more confident air.

            “Good!” he said. “Very good. Right, then, going to come at yer side now—”

            “I tell you what, Bariz,” Elle said, grinning widely. “Why don’t you surprise me? Like you would in a real fight.”

            “But—er—well…”

            “Don’t worry, I know you won’t hurt me,” Elle purred, fluttering her eyelashes. “Come on!”

            It must be said that several signals crossed in Bariz’s poor, beleaguered brain at this point. Firstly, he was loath to strike the first beautiful woman he’d ever dared to hope would have any interest in him—and after a lifetime spent staring at snarling goblins and orcs and the like, she was certainly a better prospect for a place to rest his eyes. Secondly, what self-respecting maiden, city-girl or no, possessed a full suit of (well-fitting) leather armor and a (rather nice) sword? For what? In Bariz’s limited experience with women, there had been damsels, and distress, and a simple equation involving the two. Damsels who could, by all appearances, cause distress played with a part of his head he had heretofore ignored. Thirdly, (and finally, because to think Bariz could handle more trains of thought was unnecessarily optimistic) she seemed rather confident, goading him on like that. Or was that flirting? If he held back, would she see him as weak? If he actually fought her, would that (literally) be coming on too strong?

            Women, Bariz decided, were bloody confusing.

            Never one to take a subtle approach to confusion, he simply obeyed orders and came at Elle with a move he often used to surprise his opponents—he banged the sword along the ground then hauled it skyward in an uppercut. Elle giggled and barely avoided the strike, moving quickly to her left.

            “Oh, my! I’ve never seen any moves like that,” she said. “You obviously know how to use your sword!”

            Poor Gabriel was now having a hard time breathing through the laughter.

            “Don’t stop now,” said Elle. “I’m learning quite a lot! Come at me again!”

            He did so by swinging at her right side; her rapier guided his broadsword off course as she dodged again.

            “That was a bit typical,” she teased. “You can do better!”

            Bariz attempted to go for her ankles with a low cut, which she jumped over with a pronounced ease and actually counterattacked with a thrust aimed at her attacker’s gut, which poor Bariz narrowly turned.

            “Quick, too,” she cooed, backing up a step. “I’m impressed.”

            Bariz, wide-eyed, set his feet more carefully. Gabriel, who felt rather guilty that his attempted matchmaking had nearly killed his sometimes-partner, hopped the wall and drew his own sword.

            “Who are you, woman?!” Bariz demanded, decidedly less polite now that she’d tried to kill him. Funny, what murder did to manners.

            “Someone looking for a favor,” she replied, twirling the rapier expertly. “I’m looking for something, and I want you two to help me find it.”

            “I take it this is a paying job?” asked Gabriel.

            “Are you serious?” snapped Bariz, rather put out that Gabriel was interested despite his near-impalement. “She just lied through her teeth to us!”

            “Strictly speaking,” Elle interjected, “I never said I was a meek and helpless maiden…”

            “Yes, see?” Gabriel said to Bariz. “Didn’t tell a single lie. ‘cept maybe that you were handsome.”

            “No, I meant that too,” said Elle. “I like his beard.”

            Bariz, unable to quite process the conflicting messages now careening through his skull, harrumphed in response.

            Gabriel turned back to Elle. “In his language, that means that as long as the job’s paying, we’ll take it. What’re you lookin’ for?”

chapter 2

Chapter Two

(by Kelsey Painter)

            Gabriel put his hand on Bariz’s shoulder as they drank the newly purchased beer. The liquid, as it slid down their throats, eased the tension from their recent fight. Both sat in total silence before Bariz spoke.

            “This isn’t really making amends, Gabriel,” he said, his glum tone echoing in his now empty cup. “You did buy this with my gold.”

            “How ‘bout this?” Gabriel began, his cheery tone ringing loudly in his former opponent’s ears. “How ‘bout I find you a girl, mate? Then we’ll say we’re even.”

            “That depends on the girl,” replied Bariz, still unwilling to trust this blonde bandit who had left him to fight the wretched goblins while the latter made off with the gold. “I don’t want to go forgiving you because you set me up with some troll.”

            “Worry not, Bariz,” said Gabriel removing his hand from his friend’s shoulder. “I will find you a most beautiful lady to heal your brutally damaged ego.”

            “Find the girl, first,” Bariz insisted. “Then I’ll consider making a truce. I’m not making any promises.”

            “Let’s make an agreement first-” Gabriel argued.

            “No!” Bariz replied, interrupting the blonde. “Last time I did that, I got stuck without my gold and having to fight relentless goblins. Find me a girl that is cute, smart, funny, has a good personality, and who isn’t likely to cheat on me. Then I shall CONSIDER your offer. That is all I’m willing to do.”

            “Fine,” Gabriel finally gave in, and turned his bar stool around to scour the tavern for a girl matching Bariz’s description. It took several minutes before he even found a cute one.

            She was very attractive. She had golden, wavy locks that trailed down to the small of her back. Her eyes were bright and emerald green and a sweet smile danced upon her lips, revealing dimples in her rosy cheeks. She was clad in a white dress and a gold belt hugged her slim waist. She was tossing her mane of gold hair behind her when she noticed Gabriel eyeing her. A soft blush spread across her pale face and she looked away.

            “Bariz, my friend,” Gabriel began. “I have found your girl.”

            Bariz whipped around and Gabriel pointed to the girl. Bariz seemed to become suddenly very embarrassed as his face went a deep scarlet and he quickly spun his bar stool back around, his bushy black beard spreading across the bar.

            “Could she be any more out of my league?” he demanded.

            “What?!” exclaimed Gabriel. “She’s just a person! Go speak to her.”

            “Wooing has never been one of my strong points, git,” Bariz snapped back.

            “Look, you ought to stop calling me that, or I won’t be so willing to help you,” Gabriel replied, trying to look offended.

            Bariz glared at him.

            “Okay, okay,” said Gabriel. “I’ll help you regardless. Come on, you took on all those goblins! How in the world is some girl so scary?”

            “I’ll take the goblins now,” said Bariz, his confidence slipping with each word.

            “Here, I’ll go talk to her,” Gabriel suggested. “I’ll get her to talk to you. Wooing is easy once you have their attention.”

            “I dunno,” Bariz replied skeptically. “Who’s to say you won’t charm her for yourself? You stole my gold, how can I trust you won’t steal this opportunity from me?”

            “How long are you going to hold this goblin and gold thing against me?” Gabriel demanded. “I’ve already got my eye on the twins on the other side of the room.”

            “Both of them?” asked Bariz.

            “There’s no other way to do it, mate,” answered Gabriel, and evil grin cracking upon his face. “Now, would you like me to get you that girl’s attention?”

            Bariz thought for several long moments before answering. “Yes. But no tricks! If you leave here with her, there’ll be no forgiving you, Gabriel!”
            Gabriel waved back at Bariz as the blonde approached the beautiful maid. She smiled at Gabriel as he began to talk. Her smile was positively radiant, Bariz noticed.

            “Hello, beautiful,” Gabriel complimented when he reached her.

            “Thank you, good sir,” she replied.

            “Tell me, beautiful, what is your name?” he asked.

            “Elle,” she told him. “And may I ask what you are called, sir?”

            “Gabriel,” he answered her. “But that is unimportant. I’d like to introduce you to my fried, called Bariz. He has a bit of a crush on you, you see, but he’s a bit of a shy person. He’s the man with the black beard, sitting at the bar.”

            “Aw, why is he so shy?” she asked. “He’s not that bad looking…Well, what you can see through the beard.”

            “Would you go speak to him?” he requested. “I’d love to go spend some time with those lovely twins over there, and I hate to leave him alone. It’d mean a lot if you would.”

            “Sure, I will,” she agreed, and strode over to where Bariz sat, hunched over the bar, her long locks swaying opposite her hips.

            Gabriel punched the air in victory and swaggered over to the twins he had been anxious to shag pretty much since he walked in.

            Elle sat down next to Bariz, who avoided her gaze. ‘I am really pathetic’ he thought as he turned away from her.

            She parted her pretty pink lips and said: “Hello, Bariz. My name is Elle. Your friend Gabriel asked that I come speak to you. Here I am. Is there anything you would like to say?”

            He turned to face her. He knew that girls liked to hear that they’re pretty, so he figured that would be the best direction to go. “Y-y-you’re beautiful, E-elle.”

            She giggled. It was such a sweet, tinkling giggle, he was sure his heart melted. She was so cute, he simply forgot about how he had just stuttered like a scared child.

            “Thank you very much, Bariz,” she replied when she stopped giggling. “I do think your beard is quite impressive. It makes you look very manly and tough.”

            “Thank you,” he responded, surprised at himself for his lack of a stammer.

            “Tell me,” she continued. “Why do I intimidate you so?”

            “I-I-I just have never seen a-a-anything as lovely as you,” he admitted. “I have b-b-been to many places and seen m-many maidens. None even compare to how beautiful you are. Not one” He realized that once he started conversing, it got progressively easier.

            “That is a very high complement, Bariz,” she said, as a smile unfolded across her face.

            “It’s only true,” he retorted, with a frantic nod, which he immediately regretted. “You are the most beautiful, elegant, radiant maid, flower, or anything really, that I have ever laid eyes on, Miss Elle.”

            “Thank you,” she said.

            She opened her mouth to say something else, but Gabriel suddenly approached, with two identical girls, one on each arm.

            “Well, mate,” he whispered to Bariz. “Have we made amends?”

            Bariz nodded and watched enviously as Gabriel waltzed out of the tavern. Someone was getting a shag or two tonight. ‘What am I talking about?’ Bariz scolded himself. ‘You are sitting with a beautiful girl that you could have something meaningful with. Why should you be jealous of his tasteless way with women?’

            “Well, anyway,” she said, to break the sudden silence caused by Gabriel’s interruption. “What do you like to do for fun, Bariz?”

            “I like to sword fight,” he answered quickly. “And hunt for gold. What about you, Elle?”

            “Well, I really like to read,” she told him. “And I’ve read about sword fighting, and I would really like to know more. Would you like to give me a lesson sometime?”

            He nodded. “I’d love to.”

            “Great!” she cried, clapping her hands together. “Meet me here tomorrow at sundown for our first lesson, ‘kay?”

            “Of course,” he said, still dazed that she was even remotely interested in spending more time with him. “Of course, yes.”

            “Alrighty,” she chirped as she hopped gracefully off the bar stool. “See you tomorrow.” With that, she turned and swept from the tavern, leaving Bariz quite stricken.

The Knight’s Sword: The Beginning, chapter 1

Chapter One

(by chesley oxendine)

Two men were swordfighting out in the middle of the street, as though a crowded street were the perfect place for such a brutal display. The affronted crowd surrounding them expressed obvious offense at the dangerous engagement through phrases such as “My word!” and “By the gods!” and “Get him! Get him! Get him!”

            One of the men was a lithe creature, hardly fit to be swinging a butterknife much less the length of steel he was currently dancing with. His opponent, on the other hand, was a monster of a man, possibly part-wolf if his full, dark beard and snarling visage was any indication, who made use of a heavy broadsword through, well, broad strokes—strokes that crashed against the smaller man’s guard, effectively shoving him around the circle of cheering and-slash-or jeering audience members.

            The victim, a blond man with a thin goatee and a bright smile, didn’t seem particularly panicked by his apparently impending death; instead, each time the man’s sword clashed against his own, his grin grew wider.

            “It’s all in the—owch—momentum, y’see,” he chuckled, barely turning aside a vicious swing that would have bereft him of his head.

            “Stop talking, you little git!” retorted the bigger man, temporarily ceasing his assault. “If yer sword was half as quick as yer tongue, Gabriel, mayhap you’d stand a chance!”

            “P’raps I should demonstrate,” mused Gabriel, taking precisely two small steps away from his opponent. “Come on, then, Bariz, the crowd loves a comedy.”

            Bariz growled, furthering suspicion of wolf-blood, and lunged after Gabriel with a new series of slashes. Gabriel shifted his stance and resumed defending, except instead of buckling under the force of each blow, he flowed with its direction, bending and twisting beneath the attacks so that Bariz ended up stumbling after his own sword.

            “Like a novice in a brothel,” breathed Gabriel, grinning even wider. The crowd twittered appreciatively; they did love a comedy, and the blond fellow was an able jester.

            “You steal my gold,” rumbled Bariz, now on the opposite end of their impromptu arena. His back was to Gabriel. “You steal my horse, and leave me to battle a set of goblins who, by the by, are not nearly as stupid as they appear. We meet goblins, of course, while looting a cave you dragged us to.” He turned around, which appeared to the crowd a bit like a mountain attempting to relocate. “More than that, I return to town to find you having spent my gold and sold my horse, so that you can blow it all reveling.” His voice rose with every mentioned offense, and his face—at least, what was visible beneath the incredible beard—contorted further with the growing rage. “But perhaps the most offensive thing of all, beyond all that, is that you now make a joke out of a duel for honor. You make a fool of me at every turn.”

            “Oi, there, that’s awful dramatic,” replied Gabriel. “Mayhap if you reveled a bit more you’d be less grumpy, eh?”

            “I think I’ll make a lute out of your intestines, Gabriel du Vurte, when I’m done gutting you like a pig,” sneered Bariz.

            “That won’t work at all, sir Bariz Darlac,” laughed Gabriel. “Intestines aren’t the right consistency for lute strings!”

            Bariz, appropriately enough at the mention of strings, snapped completely and set upon Gabriel with a throat-rending roar. His broadsword, held in both worn leather gauntlets, sang over his head in an arc. Gabriel stepped to his right as his opponent’s sword struck the cobblestones and smoothly drew his knee up, connecting with Bariz’s jaw. His head snapped back, whereupon Gabriel struck him in the exposed throat with the hilt of his sword. Bariz, suddenly making small choking sounds instead of shouting, went to his knees and dropped his weapon.

            “Finish him!” shouted one of the people in the crowd. “Come on!”

            “My word,” Gabriel responded, turning away from the gurgling Bariz. “Wouldn’t have expected such a sleepy little village to be possessed of such bloodlust…surely you wouldn’t have me eviscerate an unarmed man!”

            “Oh yes we would!” cried the crowd, in unison.

            “Well that’s just not fair,” Gabriel retorted, “and where would a thief be without a sense of fairness?”

            “Standing right where you are, most like,” coughed Bariz, who had taken the opportunity to roll over on his back. Audience members, convinced there was to be no blood spilled and rather disappointed by that fact, began to disperse. Gabriel knelt next to his defeated foe.

            “Buy you a drink, friend? To make amends?” he said, extending a hand.

            “You realize, you little bastard, that you’re offering to buy me a drink with my own…bloody…gold,” grunted Bariz, sitting up.

            “Semantics,” said Gabriel, flashing his smile again.

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