The armored figure sat silently atop his horse as it trotted, mulling to himself, I wonder if this village will be more enthusiastic than the last?
He stroked his horse's mane, and lightly tapped his horse with his boot. The horse nickered and increased its pace, galloping down the road towards the village.
The village of Vimml was not much to behold. The village hall was the largest building in the area, located along the main road leading into and out of the village. Small cottages were scattered across the countryside, and small numbers of people could be seen working their fields in the hot summer evening.
The armored man and his horse drew attention as they approached the village. Some of the villagers stopped their work and looked up, wondering if the lone man had come to raid their coffers. Unfortunately, or fortunately, the village consisted of simple folk with little to spare in terms of coins and material goods.
As the horse came to a stop outside the village hall, a small group of villagers gathered. Many were holding their pitchforks or other farming tools, and a small number had sheathed swords by their side. Poor or not, the villagers were not intending to be raided without a fight.
The man pulled off his helmet and announced, "Fear not, fair citizens of Vimml. I am Sir Rohea of the King's Honor Guard, and I am here in peace."
Several gasps were made by the villagers, and many stood in shock and awe. What was a knight, especially one from the Honor Guard, doing in their small village? After a few seconds of silence, a burly villager stepped forward.
He challenged, "What proof do you have that you are indeed Sir Rohea? I for one don't believe that one as esteemed as Sir Rohea would travel alone to our village, especially without his royal colors."
The other villagers looked at Rohea and his horse, and hushed whispers began spreading about the small group. Some tightened their grips on their weapons and tools.
Rohea gave a small laugh, and reached for the small pack hanging beside the saddle. He opened it to reveal the characteristic gold and purple cloths associated with the King's Honor Guard.
Rohea stepped off his horse and said, "Displaying my colors would scare away all the would-be ruffians who terrorize the roads." Upon seeing the royal cloths, the burly man quickly bowed and apologized to Rohea. Rohea waved his hand and replied, "There is no need to apologize. Your caution is well-deserved, as are the rest of you." Looking across the group, he continued, "I am here to train your local militia in case the war–"
The villagers looked visibly shaken at the suggestion of war, and more than a few re-tightened their grips on their weapons. The burly man looked like he was about to say something when Rohea placed his hand on the man's shoulder in a friendly gesture.
"The war is still far from your village, but local thugs may take the opportunity and raid your stores, and it'll be best to be prepared. From the bravery you've shown me when I arrived, I believe that your village will be safe from anyone who seeks you harm."
"We are simple folk, but we will put up a fight if we have to."
Rohea smiled and agreed, "Of that I have no doubt. I'll be holding basic combat training tomorrow at dawn, and then a sparring tournament at the end of the day. For now, is there a tavern where I can get a drink?"
The burly man replied, "I am Tolil, the local blacksmith. We don't get many visitors at our village, so we don't have a tavern. However, my wife Lisg makes the best ale in this area, and I would be honored if you would have a drink with us at our humble home."
"I would be happy to," Rohea said. "Please, lead the way."
Rohea gave a polite smile as he drank Lisg's ale.
If this is the best ale around here, Rohea thought. I'm not sure I can survive the worst!
"Would you like some more?" Lisg asked as Rohea placed an empty mug on the table.
"No, thanks," Rohea quickly replied. "I've had enough for now. So, Tolil, have you made weapons before?"
Tolil replied, "Yes, during my apprenticeship I helped my master make many swords and axes for the war. Since I have returned here I've made and repaired most of the farm tools, and a small number of swords."
Rohea nodded and said, "We will need you to make a sword and shield for every capable man, woman, and child in this village." He reached into a small pouch hanging off his belt and retrieved a gold coin. He placed the coin on the table and said, "This should cover most of your expenses."
Lisg's eyes widened as she saw the gold coin. The villagers scarcely had a spare silver coin, let alone a gold one. She started to reach out to pick up the coin. Tolil gently caught her hand and placed it on the table under his.
"This is too much, we are a small village."
Rohea gave a small chuckle and said, "The people of Vimml are truly as honest as I've heard. If I were back in Wolle, that coin would have disappeared, and I would be asked for more. Nevertheless, this is the amount that the king has laid out for your village."
Tolil nodded, saying, "I will use what I must, and split the rest among the village. But, swords and shields for everyone in this village? That seems excessive for the occasional thug."
Rohea remained silent for a short period before answering, "There may come a time when those swords and shields will mean life or death."
"Do you think the war will come here?" Lisg asked nervously.
"I pray not, but it is best to be prepared. How many of your villagers have had fighting experience?"
Tolil thought to himself for some time. "I believe Yev and Ter worked as town guards in Toggir for a number of years. The rest of us have had the occasional scuffle, but nothing in the form of organized fighting."
"Then tomorrow will be a new experience for most. I can only hope that one day is sufficient."
"Is it not possible for you to teach us for a longer period?" Tolil asked.
Rohea shook his head. "I have but a limited time to travel the land, and there are many villages like this one."
They chatted for some more time over food and ale, with Tolil asking questions about the capital and the lives of knights.
"So how does one become a knight?" Tolil asked.
"Knight candidates are usually chosen from pages who show potential," Rohea replied, with a small smile on his face.
Lisg caught the smile and asked, "Was that how it happened with you, Sir Rohea?"
Rohea grinned. "No, when I was a young upstart page, I challenged my master to a duel as he walked past me training."
"He agreed to the duel?" Tolil asked.
Rohea chuckled. His eyes looked into the distance as he recalled the experience. "No, he ignored me and started to walk away. I started charging him with my practice sword, thinking that I could get a hit before he realized it. The next thing I knew, I was on my back, and my sword was in his hands. He stuck my sword into the ground, and told me to train harder. I sprung up, grabbed my sword and swung at him again. This time, he drew his sword and parried my attack. When our swords connected, it felt like time stopped for a second, and he looked me in the eye and asked for my name. After I answered, he grabbed my sword and stuck it into the ground again. As he walked away, he told me to continue practicing. I did so, and when I was of age, he chose me to be his squire."
The air was chilly the next morning, but a large crowd was gathered outside the village hall. Rohea stood outside the door, with his sword sheathed at his side, and a small number of weapons and shields arranged neatly beside him.
"Good morning, fair folk of Vimml," Rohea started. "Thank you for coming here this morning. I will be instructing you in basic combat skills. But before I begin, who among you have had training in this area?"
The villagers looked around at each other, and no one said anything for some time. Finally, a lone voice spoke out, "I am Yevra, and I served in the town guard of Toggir. I was trained in basic drills and stances. Teril also served with me at the time."
Rohea nodded in acknowledgment. He continued looking around but no one else responded. "Okay," he said and beckoned to Yevra and Teril. "Both of you will help me with instructing the rest."
Yevra and Teril stepped out of the crowd and stood beside Rohea.
"Notice where Yevra and Teril are standing," Rohea said. "The first lesson is that fighting in a group increases your effectiveness tremendously. If you are outnumbered, retreat and regroup with the others. Never fight alone if you can help it."
Rohea took a step forward and unsheathed his sword. "Now, when you hold a sword, make sure you grip it tightly, with both hands if necessary. Losing your sword could mean losing your life." He sheathed his sword and walked to the group of weapons laid out on the ground.
Picking up two swords from the ground, one on each hand, he continued, "These are practice weapons. The main difference is that the edges are blunt, so you won't cut someone by mistake. However, don't misunderstand that they aren't dangerous. As many of you will find out today, these weapons can give nasty bruises."
He threw the swords at Yevra and Teril. Yevra deftly caught his from mid-air, while Teril fumbled and dropped the sword on the ground. Teril cursed quietly at himself.
Rohea picked up another practice sword. "Now, attack me, both of you," he exclaimed.
Yevra and Teril shot glances at each other, and then nodded. They split up and circled around Rohea, trying to be on both sides of him.
"Watch how they are positioning themselves," Rohea explained. "If one of them gets behind me, I'm done for. Never leave your back unguarded. This goes hand-in-hand with the first lesson of never fighting alone."
Yevra and Teril nodded again at each other and charged simultaneously. They swung quickly at Rohea, but their attacks were parried. Rohea kept his eyes on both of them, and slowly stepped backwards as he parried their subsequent attacks.
"Look what has happened," Rohea said to the crowd. "Both of them are now in front of me. This makes it much easier for me to do something like this."
After he finished his sentence, Rohea quickly stepped forward, parried a slash from Yevra, and kicked Teril to the ground. He then swung and landed a hard blow on Yevra's shoulder, causing Yevra to drop to one knee, and used the sword to support his weight.
Rohea carefully put his sword down on the ground, and extended both arms to Yevra and Teril. "Good job, both of you," he said and he helped them to their feet.
Turning to address the crowd again, Rohea said, "Now, there aren't enough practice swords for everyone. However, I want you to get into pairs, and spar with another pair. Use your hands and legs if necessary, but remember that this is not a brawl. Strike hard, strike fast, but stay alert to your surroundings. One group will be the aggressors and try to flank the other. The second group will be the defenders. Stay close to each other, and watch your backs!"
As the rest of the village started to pair up and begin sparring, Rohea turned back to face Yevra and Teril. "Now, based on just now, I think both of you should do fine with this task. I want you to individually walk to groups and offer advice on their techniques. After that, challenge the four of them to attack you. Do you think you can take on four at once?"
Yevra quickly nodded. Teril looked a little unsure, but nodded. "Will we be using our swords?" Teril asked.
"If you think you need to," Rohea replied.
Teril picked up the sword from where he had dropped it when he had fallen. Yevra looked at Rohea and shrugged. Yevra was still holding on to his sword and did not have any intentions of letting it go, especially when he was going to fight four at once.
Rohea walked from group to group, offering advice on how to improve the coordination between the pairs. He did not challenge any groups to spar against him. He turned to look at Yevra, and saw that a small group had formed around Yevra and the four he was sparring against.
The four villagers around Yevra tried to form a circle around him, but Yevra was quick and attacked those that were close to his sides. He managed to keep the four of them to the front of him, but was unable to gain any advantage beyond that.
Rohea walked over and observed for a short while. "Work as a team," he encouraged. "Yevra only has a certain reach. Two of you distract him, while the other two go behind him."
One of the villagers directly in front of Yevra gave a slight smile, and charged at him. Yevra deftly stepped aside and kicked the villager to the ground. Sensing that he had an opportunity, Yevra quickly attacked the remaining three and soon all four were on the ground, gasping for breath.
Teril, on the other hand, was not faring as well. The four he had engaged had already surrounded him, and Teril was being attacked from four directions at once. Try as he might, he could fend off one or two attacks, while the others landed kicks and punches. Rohea stepped over and gestured for them to stop.
"Good work, the four of you. You too, Teril," Rohea said. "Once you managed to surround him, there is little that Teril could have done."
The villagers nodded in response. "Yes, we sensed an opportunity and started to run around Teril. Teril couldn't keep up and we managed to surround him."
"The fact that you used 'we' shows that you were thinking as a team. Excellent!" Rohea commented.
The rest of the morning continued with Rohea, Vevra and Teril instructing the groups on their techniques and teamwork. As noon arrived, Rohea headed towards the village hall, turned to face the villagers and clapped his hands loudly.
"Everyone, excellent work with your practice today. You show great promise in working as a team. Remember that unity is strength! We'll break for lunch, and continue with more practice after."
"Okay, now that we are rested, I want to talk more about swords and shields." Rohea strapped a shield to his left arm, and picked up a sword with his right hand. "Swords and shields go hand-in-hand," he said as he hit the flat side of the sword against the shield. "If someone attacks you, you can parry it with your sword, or simply block it with the shield."
He gestured to Yevra and Teril to also equip themselves, and then continued, "Again, teamwork is key. While a shield can protect you, having multiple shields protects the entire group." Turning to face Yevra and Teril, Rohea asked, "I trust you are familiar with the locked-shields drill?"
Yevra and Teril nodded, and stood side by side, with their shields pressed together with no gap in between. Their swords were held firmly on their right arms, but behind the shields.
Rohea addressed the crowd again, "In this formation, no direct attack will succeed." He swung his sword at them and hit their shields with a loud crash. "However," he continued. "This allows them to strike at me together."
Yevra and Teril moved their shields apart quickly, and their swords came slashing outwards. As soon as it begun, the swords returned behind the shields, which were in their locked positions again.
"This drill gives you a good defense, and quick attacks that usually results in little to no loss on your side. However, if you encounter an enemy doing this, the best strategy is to retreat, and attack from their flanks or back."
Rohea looked around the crowd and spotted Tolil. He gestured for Tolil to approach him. "Tolil will be constructing swords and shields for everyone in this village. Practice fighting in groups, as well as this drill that Yevra and Teril demonstrated."
"Now, I want to move on to the second part of today. I want to see how much you have learnt about swords and shields. One at a time, pick up a practice sword and shield and come at me."
A line quickly formed as the villagers sparred with Rohea. He easily dispatched most of them without breaking a sweat. As the day progressed, he looked visibly tired, although this was more due to boredom than actual fatigue.
"Sir Rohea, if I may, I would like to spar with you," a soft but confident voice said.
Rohea looked up and actually paid attention to his challenger. A young woman walked towards him with both of her hands grasping a sword. She was slightly tanned, most likely from the long hours out in the fields, but the weight of the sword was obviously affecting her gait.
Rohea nodded to her, but did not expect much from the exchange, especially since she could barely carry the sword, and did not have a shield. She took slow steps towards him, almost dragging the sword with her. However, once she was close, she suddenly lifted the sword as if it was weightless, yelled and sprinted the remaining ten feet towards Rohea.
Rohea was taken by surprise, but quickly recovered and hopped backwards. The woman raised her sword as if she wanted to swing downwards, but just as she was about to do so, she quickly switched stances and pulled her sword towards herself, and then made a quick stab towards Rohea. Rohea noticed the change and parried her attack, pulling both swords in an upward motion.
When their swords connected, Rohea was surprised as he felt a familiar feeling wash over him, reminding him of his spar with his master. The woman similarly blinked for a second, as if she felt something as well. Now that the woman's sword was swinging up, Rohea grabbed her wrist with his free hand.
"Good," Rohea commented. "What is your name?"
"Maes," relied the young woman.
"How old are you?" Rohea asked as he released her arm.
"This is my eighteenth summer."
Rohea asked, "Are you married? Are your parents here?"
"No, my parents passed away three years ago, and I have been tending their fields since," Maes replied. "No man from this village deems me worthy of marriage, as I've never done the rite of adulthood."
"What about your other relatives?"
"My father had a brother, but he left the village many years ago to seek his fortune. My parents did not have any other children."
"So," Rohea started. "Are you interested in becoming my squire?"
There was a gasp from the villagers nearby, it was unheard of to pick a squire out of Wolle.
"Yes!" Maes answered enthusiastically. "I am tired of staying in this village. I want to go out and explore the world."
"A woman squire is rare but not unheard of," Rohea said. "You may be old," he continued, which caused a scowl to form on Maes' face. "For a squire, that is, but the road will be long and tiring. Are you sure you're prepared for this commitment?"
Maes nodded. "I've tended the fields long enough to know how tiring it can be. Surely being a squire can't be much worse."
Rohea chuckled and said, "You'll be surprised. Come," he said as he clapped her on the shoulder. "Pack your things and we will be off."
"Today?" Maes asked.
"Time is of the essence. There is little point in staying here any longer than needed."
Rohea looked towards the line of people still waiting to spar with him. He continued sparring with the villagers, and easily defeated them as he pointed out their flaws. At the end of the day, the villagers were exhausted, but they thanked Rohea for his time and training, and dispersed and returned to their homes. As they were walking away, many commented that it was odd that Rohea picked a woman as his squire, over many of the large, strong men that sparred with him today.
"Will we be walking the entire way, Sir Rohea?" Maes asked as they walked out of the village.
Rohea's horse kept pace with them, while carrying two large packs – one containing Rohea's armor and belongings, and the other containing Maes' belongings. Rohea had decided not to don his armor for the long journey ahead.
"We're traveling to Toggir, first. There we will get a horse for you," Rohea said as he gently patted the horse's back, "Feisty here is kind enough to carry our packs, for now; but she's a warhorse, not a pack mule. I trust you know how to ride a horse?"
Maes nodded. "When my parents were alive, we used to own a horse to bring our harvests to the markets. I had to sell the horse after they passed away to upkeep the fields. What will be my duties of a squire?"
"You will provide assistance in my day-to-day duties, and I will train you in matters such as combat and courts. For now, I will instruct you in how to behave in the court, for I fear that you have had little experience dealing with the intricacies of court life."
"How is court life different?" Maes asked.
"We serve in the King's Honor Guard, which means our primary duty is to protect the King. Knights only take orders from the King, but some officials in court think otherwise," Rohea said with a wry smile. "When they ask us to do things, it takes a certain tact to decline politely."
Rohea continued without pause, "The court is full of nobles trying to outdo one another in front of the King. The guilds, especially the Mage guild, hold much sway. The King listens to their suggestions and ideas when making key decisions. As part of our duties, we try to learn information about those in court and their motives. We advise the King, too, though usually in private."
"This sounds very complicated," Maes commented.
Rohea smiled. "As a squire, you won't have to deal with most of it. You are just beginning. You can always decline by saying that you have to get my permission. However, it is never too early to learn about the ins and outs of court life, especially if you want to become a knight in the future."
They continued walking for a few more hours, most of it spent in silence as Maes absorbed Rohea's words.
As the sun was close to the horizon, and its orange rays cast long shadows on the ground, Rohea stepped closer to Maes and whispered, "Act as normal, and don't look back. There are two people that have been following us for a while."
Maes asked, "Are they going to attack us?"
"I suspect that they will within the next hour. Most likely there is another group waiting in ambush along this road."
"What should we do?"
"They probably think that we are simple farmers traveling to Toggir to make a trade. They'll learn that waylaying a Knight is not a smart thing to do," Rohea replied.
Sure enough, before long they reached a bend in the road. As they made the turn, four people jumped out of the nearby bushes, with swords in their hands.
"Hand over all your money, and we'll let you be on your way," a small-statured man said, while waving his sword around. He was most likely the leader of this pack.
"I'm afraid that's not possible," Rohea replied. "Put down your weapons and no one will get hurt."
The men laughed. "Who's going to stop us? You?" The leader whistled loudly, and the two men behind Rohea and Maes revealed themselves, also brandishing their swords.
Rohea quickly drew his sword out of its scabbard hanging on Feisty. "Stay behind me," he instructed Maes. Addressing the six men, he continued, "I am Sir Rohea of the King's Honor Guard. Surrender now and your lives will be spared."
The men laughed again, thinking that Rohea was bluffing. The leader waved his sword at Rohea, and two of the men In front approached them.
The two men walked towards Rohea with their swords held vertically. Once they were close, both raised their swords and swung at Rohea. Rohea easily stepped to the side, and slashed one of them. Blood spurted out of the man's chest, and he tried to stem its flow, but soon dropped to his knees, and finally laid motionless on the ground. In a fluid motion, Rohea flicked his sword up and removed the other man's sword – with his hand attached. The man screamed and dropped to his knees, his left hand holding on to his right wrist and he stared at it.
The leader whistled again, and the four remaining men started to close the distance to Rohea and Maes. The man beside the leader walked unsteadily, looking unsure about whether to engage Rohea.
Rohea repeated again, "Lay down your weapons, now."
He whispered to Maes, "Take one of the practice swords. The blades are dull, but they can still hit hard. Stay close, and keep your back to Feisty. She'll watch your back."
Rohea stepped in between Maes and the two men approaching them from the front. Maes held a sword tightly and faced the two coming from the rear. Rohea charged the two, decapitating the leader and slashing the other in a flurry of movement.
The two men approaching from the rear saw their leader and fellow bandit fall in a matter of seconds. They turned to each other, and quickly turned around and ran away. Maes gave a silent sigh of relief.
Suddenly, she gave a loud shriek and dropped her sword. The remaining man, who was missing his right hand, had sprung up from the ground and grabbed Maes. A small dagger was held in his left hand, pressed tightly against Maes' neck.
The man shouted at Rohea, "Stay back, or the woman is dead."
Rohea cursed himself for his oversight, and replied to the man, "Your life is already forfeit. Don't make your afterlife any worse." He calmly walked towards the man, with his arms outstretched.
Maes was pastel-white, and cold sweat formed on her forehead. She closed her eyes tightly, and clenched her fists. The man holding her captive gave a loud cry, dropped his dagger, and rubbed his eyes with his good hand. He momentarily forgot that his right hand was missing, and rubbed blood all over his face. Maes quickly ran towards Rohea, away from the man.
"My eyes! What have you done to me?" the man cried out.
Rohea glanced at Maes, and closed the remaining distance to the man. He swung once, and the man fell on his side. A large pool of blood formed around the man as his innards plopped unceremoniously on the ground.
Rohea wiped his sword on the leader's tunic, and made a low whistle. Feisty calmly stepped over the corpses and stood beside Rohea. Rohea patted Feisty, and returned his sword into its scabbard.
Turning to Maes, he looked at her intently as he asked, "Are you alright? Did you do something to that man?"
"I'm okay," she replied. "I didn't do anything. I was so scared. I thought he was going to kill me!"
"It's alright," Rohea said. "You're safe now. Looks like you got some real combat experience before your lessons begun."
Maes gave a small laugh.
"Come, let's continue on our way."
"Should we bury these corpses?" Maes asked.
"They were worse than animals. Their corpses will feed the creatures of the land, so at least some good will come from them, if only after they're dead."
Pyar's eyes snapped open.
That can't be. Surely I must be mistaken?
She closed her eyes again and let her mind's eye loose, towards the source of the magical ripple she had felt. Her scrying left her tired, but she failed to sense any more emanations in the area. She shook her head to remove the cobwebs that had formed in her mind, and stood up.
I must inform Master Cyler about this, even if it turns out to be nothing.
Pyar exited the small circular room where she had been. Small parchments remained scattered on the ground, but the room was otherwise bare, save for a small window. Pyar hurried down the circular stairwell, across a long corridor, before running up a different circular stairwell, above which her trainer and master mage Cyler was located.
What is it with us mages and our towers? This is taking too much time, Pyar thought as she stopped for a moment to catch her breath.
"Ah, Pyar," a deep voice called out as she approached the top of the stairwell. "I was just about to call for you. How did your divination practice go?"
"Master Cyler, I think I sensed some dark magic!" Pyar exclaimed.
"Dark magic? Are you sure? We haven't had dark practitioners in the land for decades ... not since the last purging," Cyler said.
"I cast the divination spell as you described, and I was feeling the lay of the land. Suddenly, I felt a dark pit of..." Pyar broke off for a moment. "I can't describe it exactly, but it felt like fear and dread. It broke my concentration. It came from somewhere in the West. I scryed again but couldn't find anything. That's when I decided to come here to tell you."
"Hmm," Cyler said as he ran his fingers through his thick white beard. "That feeling you described does sound like dark magic. However, it is unlikely that any of them still exist. Nevertheless, you must find this source if it exists, Pyar!"
"Me? But I'm not even a fully-trained mage, yet," Pyar said.
"You could pass the trials today, if I let you," murmured Cyler as he rummaged around his desk and drawers for some time. He pulled out a small gold chain that had an intricate symbol hanging off of it. "That is why you will be wearing this," Cyler said as he handed the chain to Pyar. "This necklace will protect you from the basic dark spells. Further, it will inform you if you approach an area where dark magic was used."
"How will it do that?"
"It will glow and start to feel warm. When that happens, inform me as soon as possible. Do not engage a dark practitioner if you see one."
"Didn't you say that the necklace will protect me?"
"From basic spells, yes," Cyler explained. "A trained dark practitioner will be able to overpower the protections if he targets you specifically. They typically cast spells to make people around them more agreeable to their demands. The necklace will protect you from that."
"How will I identify a dark practitioner?" Pyar asked.
"Your mind's eye has been opened," Cyler said, referring to the inner fount of magic that every mage possessed. "You will sense the darkness within, similar to the dark feelings you described before. However, do not cast any spells or anything magical. The dark practitioner will sense it, and you."
Cyler paused for a moment, and continued, "Now, pack some rations and go. Take a horse from the stables. I pray you will not find anything, but if you do, your safe return is of utmost importance!"
Pyar nodded somberly, whirled around and made her way down the circular stairwells, towards the stables.
Edited By TeNderLoin