Well, I mean, what is there to say? Chapter Two, hot off the presses. On time, no less.
Chronicles of Koeleth: the River’s Tale
“Cleopatra Horsekeep?” the barman asked to no one in particular. “That’s my grandmother’s name. Could they be the same person?”
“The very same,” the old man confirmed. “That crazy old lady’s had her fair share of misadventures herself. Don’t let her fool you.”
“I heard that, ya senile idiot!” an elderly voice called from the upper floor. “Yer lucky I’m so busy right now! Else I’d come down there and give ya the whoopin’ ya deserve!”
“You’ve been saying that for decades now! You still ain’t done it!”
“Anyways,” the barman interrupted, redirecting the conversation. “Since you seem to know so much, why don’t you tell me how Tom and my grandmother met?”
“Ah, well, that is an interesting story,” the elderly gentleman replied.
To hear it from Tom, you’d think it was no big deal, that he saved people’s lives everyday. To hear it from Cleo, however, you would think it was downright miraculous. Regardless of whom you heard it from, the fact of the matter is that Erwin and Cleo owed their lives to the wandering warrior’s timely appearance. It happened roughly six months prior, and it is an adventure that he would not soon forget.
Tom was returning home to the town of Lilly Pond, in the marshlands of Sorowa’s Cradle, when he found himself passing through the unassuming village of Pasture’s Edge. The sun was still high in the sky, and Tom had ample energy to continue his travels, so he had planned to go as far as Cronehall before resting. His instinct, however, told him something was not quite right. Taking the time to look around, he soon observed what was so off-putting. A preternatural silence hung over the town. The streets were void of life, the shops were boarded up, and the mules and horses were restless. Out of the corner of his eye, a small figure—a child, most likely—darted from a nearby shed into the shelter of a house. A chained dog was growling and foaming at the mouth, but it was not directed at Tom. Following the dog’s paranoid gaze, Tom discovered the source of his distress. A commotion was coming from a larger building, a tavern or inn, if Tom had to guess.
As Tom cautiously approached the weatherworn structure, he noticed the rotted wooden sign with “The Drunk Skunk” painted in faded green lettering. Shortly before reaching its porch, Tom stooped down and stealthily crawled to a window. He peered over the sill and caught sight of a troublesome scene. A brown-haired, clean-shaven young man dressed in light leather armor was standing over a middle-aged man with an orange beard as thick as his voluminous belly. Eleven other similarly dressed men were scattered about the room, guarding doors and exits. Two other men were holding a young woman down at the bar itself. Tom listened intently to the conversation but could only make out small segments of it.
“…any idea how expensive it has become to be a bandit…don’t want us going out of business, do ya?”
“Let her go, you!! I demand—“
“Demand what? You’re in no position…a damn thing!”
Generally speaking, Tom found banditry deplorable, which was a driving factor behind his choice of career, but it took a special kind of evil to do this. As if humiliating and beating a man weren’t enough, they were also threatening to do unspeakable things to his daughter while he watched. Tom would not allow these scoundrels to get away with such an abhorrent crime. When he initially approached the inn, he noticed that the sides of the inn were windowless and a simple stable stood out back. Rounding the corner of the inn, he picked up a large rock from the ground and lobbed it at the stables. The stone struck true, causing a distractingly loud thud.
“What was that?” a few faceless bandits shouted.
Tom normally did not resort to misdirection or trickery, but one does what one must when outnumbered. The bandits had resumed their unlawful business, so Tom grabbed up another rock and once more stoned the lean-to animal shelter. Once more, the tactic only briefly caught his foes’ collective attention. The third rock stirred the rogues to action. Three were sent outside to deal with the problem. Tom slipped out of sight, scooping up a handful of pebbles. He tossed the gravel at the bandits, drawing their attention to the windowless side of the building without being seen. The three men charged towards the front of the building. One bandit was notably quicker than the others two, and Tom deftly tripped him up with the hook on his halberd. An unfortunate meeting between head and rock immediately rendered the hapless bandit unconscious. The two other thugs, having observed the fate of their compatriot, rushed into action, one running back to warn the others, and one staying to fight. Using the length of his halberd to his advantage, Tom easily defeated his knife-wielding foe. All it took was a well-placed blow from the shaft to the bandit’s forehead to make him see stars. A rapidly formed water barrier effectively and efficiently impeded the final bandit’s progress, and a repeat performance of the previous battle ensured that Tom went undetected. Tom approached the rear door, now unguarded do to the absence of its former stewards, and listened.
“The boys should have been back by now. What’s taking so long?” one of the bandits on the other side of the door muttered, apparently to himself.
Tom solidly knocked tree times then stepped to the side of the door.
“Is that you, Paul?”
Tom grunted in response. To his bafflement, the bandit fell for it.
“What are you waiting for? Get in here!” the bandit said opening the door. “Wait a second, where—“
He was cut off by the outward opening door slamming into his face, knocking him to the ground. Tom grabbed his victim and dragged him outside, knocking him senseless. Fortunately, this went unnoticed due to a small wall that hid the backdoor from view.
“Four down,” Tom whispered, “eight to go.”
The barrier only proved to hamper vision, however, and the sound of a falling body was still heard. Tom crept into the door just far enough to overhear the bandits.
“What happened!? Jerry!” one man shouted. “Ted, go check it out. Al, Jimmy, Boris, Dev, go out the front and work your way around the building. I don’t want any interlopers escaping. Billy and Jed, stay on the girl. Paul, Jonas and Craig haven’t come back, and I don’t like it.”
Tom slipped back out again and closed the door quietly. Heavy footsteps pounded towards him. He heard the floorboards creak as the thug named Ted crouched down to pick something up.
“Boss! I found Jerry’s knife! He’s not at his post!”
“Damn it! We’ll get this bastard! Ted, take over Jerry’s position and don’t let anyone through that door!”
Tom knew he had very little room to breathe, so he got creative. The inn, despite its humble appearance, had a second floor, and it was not difficult for Tom to hoist himself up into the window of the closest room. Despite the unexpected extra weight, the floor gave off no discernable sound.
“Hey! I found ‘em!” one of the bandits shouted. “They’re out cold! Someone’s here and taking us out! Catch the bastard!”
Tom silently searched the room for anything he could use. A broomstick sat in one corner, twine was in a drawer, and he had swiped a dagger off of one of the bandits earlier. It did not take a genius to figure out where this was going. He broke the head off the broom and secured the blade to it. His hastily made javelin was not pretty, but it did not need to be. Two of the remaining bandits rounded the corner of the building, weapons poised at the ready. Predictably, they rushed towards their incapacitated friend to check on him. From his window perch, Tom was able to lob the spear into the chest of one, but neither was the blade sharp enough nor was the shaft heavy enough to wound or kill his foe. It did, however, serve to topple him and confuse his friend. In the middle of the pandemonium, Tom jumped down and incapacitated them both. Unfortunately, he had forgotten about the other two searchers, who had just witnessed his exploits. One of them snuck up behind him tried to stab him in the back, unaware that his ragged clothing hid a breastplate underneath.
“Agh! Dammit! My hand slid! I cut myself! Boris, he’s wearin’ armor!”
The first bandit scrambled away from Tom while Boris, a rather large man, lumbered forward, an axe in his hand instead of a simple dagger.
“I didn’t think unlicensed thieves were allowed to use war axes,” Tom pondered aloud.
“I’m going to warn the boss,” the wounded bandit said.
“Can’t let you do that, friend,” Tom declared.
“You’ll have to get through me first!” Boris barked.
“Easier done that said,” Tom quipped as he expertly delivered an unfair blow to the large man’s nether regions, crippling him.
A solid punch to the jaw ended Boris’ fight. The other bandit was paralyzed with fear as he realized this man had taken out seven of his colleagues. Tom approached him and put him a sleeper hold. When the bandit was snoring, Tom moved once more to the backdoor. Tom did not bother to knock this time, instead opting for a more forceful approach. He jammed the spearhead in between the wooden door and the doorframe. With some effort, Tom rent them apart. As soon as Ted noticed him, he shouted. His shout was cut short by a kick to the stomach, followed by a knee to the face. A punch to the jaw left him just as useless as his brethren. Emerging from behind the wall, Tom revealed himself to his foes. One of the men guarding the lady readied a throwing knife. The man Tom saw through the window, the leader apparent, gestured for him to wait.
“Billy, keep your knife ready, but at least give me a chance to talk to the interloper who took out our gang,” he said in a surprisingly smooth voice. “Impressive. You’re a natural wrecking ball. Took out all my men. May I ask the name of the man who felt the need to involve himself in something that doesn’t concern him?”
“Thomas Riversedge, at your service,” Tom bowed.
“At my service, eh? Well, do me the service of getting lost.”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that, Mister…?”
“Julian Whitehorn. Perhaps you’ve heard of Julian the Greedy, of the Greedy Grove Bandits?”
“I’m afraid I haven’t, and with a cheesy name like that, it’s no wonder. You’re second rate at best.”
“Harsh. Well, what’s your claim to fame, then?”
“Oh, nothing. Just cleaning the world of scum like you.”
“Oh, scum am I? Billy, Jed, take him out. Then we can clean out the old man and have our way with his daughter.”
The knife thrower launched his blade with surprising speed and accuracy, hitting Tom squarely in the chest. Had he not been wearing armor, it would have pierced his heart. Instead, it bounced off harmlessly. He readied a second one, but Tom ducked behind an upturned table. Two thuds indicated Billy had spent two more knifes. That did not help Tom figure out how many he still had, though. Jed, the other bandit, jumped over the table, swinging a sword downward, narrowly missing Tom’s head. Jed landed safely and quickly turned, a second sword slicing towards Tom’s face, which Tom just barely had time to block with his own weapon. Tom’s combat skill was put to the test as he simultaneously dodged Billy’s knives and parried Jed’s swords. Somehow Tom knew that those two were not going to hit each other. They knew each other too well, trusted each other too much. Finally, he saw an opportunity and took it. Jed had to take a step back after Tom parried both his swords at once, which allowed Tom to hook Jed’s leg and pull his feet out from under him. Tom stepped on his chest, restricting his breathing, while deflecting the seemingly endless supply of knives from Billy. When Jed finally stopped struggling, Tom charged towards Billy, leaving his foe’s unconscious body where it lay. He erected a barrier to protect himself, then, when Billy stopped throwing knives, he broke through his own barrier and rammed into Billy, slamming his head into the wall behind him, immediately debilitating him. The woman ran over to her father, but Julian kicked her away.
“Good thing I took care of him,” Tom sighed, starting to feel the effects of his exertions. “Not sure how much longer I would have lasted if I let him keep going.”
“You’re good, I’ll give you that,” Julian praised, approaching Tom. “You didn’t kill any of them, did you? Don’t think I didn’t notice. I can see Billy and Jed breathing, and I’ll bet all my other boys are alive, too.”
“Yeah, I figured it would be too unfair to just kill them outright. Give ‘em a fighting chance, you know?” Tom said, trying to catch his breath.
“Ha. No, I don’t think so. You’re that guy, aren’t you? The mercenary that never kills. Something about your conscience tells you that you can’t kill unless forced to.”
“Fine. You got me. Didn’t realize I was famous, though.”
“I’m afraid you won’t find me as easy to dispatch as my subordinates,” the bandit leader said, drawing a peculiar looking sword.
Tom immediately recognized the bizarre weapon. A slight swagger as the sword was drawn told Tom that it was not a solid piece of metal. The broadsword had hairline cuts in the blade, indicating it had been divided into segments. It was a snake sword, a style of sword notorious for its ability to separate its segments and expand into a whip like chain of blades. To Tom’s knowledge, it was unheard of to see a non-magical variety, due to its hard to control nature and the near impossibility of forging such a weapon, so he could only assume that this was blessed artifact. His suspicions were soon confirmed.
“Like it? It’s called the Envious Serpent, and it’s a lovely gift from the lesser guardian Gred,” Julian boasted.
“A servant of Desiren, eh? Unusual for a lesser guardian to bless people.”
“I guess he just really liked me. I do love to pilfer wealth.”
“So, what’s it do?” Tom inquired, appealing to Julian’s sense of braggadocio.
“I’m glad you asked,” Julian said, with a maniacal grin.
The bandit swung back his arm, his sword extending, the fracturing segments revealing a cord that held them together. Upon the downswing, it extended to its fullest length, approximately seven feet, and narrowly grazed Tom’s face. A thin trail of blood flowed down his cheek from the small cut. Sweat had started to flow from his pores, a combination of his slight exhaustion and the oddly humid environment.
“Do you feel that?” the bandit laughed.
“You’re a bit hot under the collar right now, I’ll bet.”
Another swing, but this time Tom deflected it. Still, he felt warmer now then before. He saw the bandit raise his arm once more, but he did not plan to let another blow get through. Tom had a formidably lengthy weapon himself and jabbed the exposed cord to disrupt the blade’s extension. The temperature in the room continued to rise, however. It was then that warrior realized what was going on. The snake sword was heating up the air, and every time it touched anything, it grew hotter. He knew it was not just him, either, because both the young woman and her father were sweating. It did not seem to affect Julian, however.
“I hope you’re comfortable!” Julian taunted. “It can get a bit chilly in these parts. I can turn up the heat, if you like!”
“Actually, it’s nice and cool over here, thanks,” Tom gasped, the heat starting to affect him.
“Hmph,” Julian frowned.
The sword once more lashed out at Tom, who only narrowly managed to block it with his halberd. Tom was trying to think of how he could turn this around. He was exhausted, overheating and had a number of things to focus on. Tom knew he would have the upper hand if he could get close, but he had to do this without harming either of the innocents. As he was mulling over his strategy, the snake sword sprung forth once more, but rather than hitting him, it wrapped around his halberd. Tom struggled with his foe over possession of his weapon, until an idea struck him. He did not need his halberd, necessarily. Tom mustered up enough mental energy to summon a wall of water, but he allowed it to be vaporized by the insurmountable heat. The unusual tactic resulted in a screen of obscuring mist, not enough to completely hide him, but enough to make him harder to hit for a few seconds.
“Damn it, why won’t you stay still?” Julian angrily shouted, as he wrenched the halberd from Tom’s hands. “You’re defenseless now!”
“I guess life threatening situations make me just a little bit restless!” the mercenary shouted as he dove towards Billy’s unconscious body. Grabbing the thug’s twin swords, Tom quickly assumed a new battle stance.
“What are you gonna do with those?” the bandit leader jeered.
“Win,” Tom declared grimly.
Tom rushed towards his opponent, relying more on instinct and training than actual thought. He could not afford to waste energy at this point. Julian was not expecting the reckless charge and was unable to contract his sword in time to effectively block Tom. He did mange to deliver a powerful punch to Tom’s jaw when he came in close.
“Good show,” Tom said, spitting out some blood. “But I can’t let you beat me.”
“You’re barely conscious. I doubt there’s much you can do.”
Tom, in a remarkable display of skill, unleashed a hailstorm of blows on Julian, who was forced to use his whip sword creatively to block them all. When Julian tried to shrink his sword, Tom saw his chance; he shoved one of Billy’s swords in between two closing segments, which jarred his opponent enough to pull the weapon out of his hands. The stifling air quickly returned to a more tolerable state.
“Don’t move,” Tom warned, the twin blades positioned like a sets of scissors around Julian’s neck.
“Alright, I give,” he replied, lifting his hands into the air.
“Get up,” Tom commanded. “Slowly. No sudden moves.”
Julian obeyed, not wishing to trigger the man holding swords to his neck. Tom tossed one of his swords across the room.
“Grab your sword and give it to me. Good. Now, walk.”
Tom tossed away Billy’s other sword and grabbed Julian by the collar and pushed him towards the front exit of the tavern. When they reached the door, he gave an edict.
“Now, I’ll give you two options: you can leave and never bother this town again, or I can end your criminal life right here. I’m not a big fan of criminals to begin with, but people like you, who threaten innocent men’s lives and rape young women, deserve only the worst of punishments. So, I’m cutting you a break. I would take this opportunity at life, if I were you.”
“Heh. Fine. I’ll go. I’ll never touch this town again,” Julian laughed in response.
“Glad we understand each other.” As they reached the door, Julian pulled something out of his jacket pocket. He swiftly turned and jabbed a dagger into Tom’s unguarded left shoulder. Tom winced and took several steps back.
“Ha! That’ll teach you to tell me what to do! You have no idea what you’ve done! You thought you were saving this place, but now I’m going to come back with the full force of my gang and raze this town to the ground, starting with this tavern! I’m going to destroy the lives of every single soul in this town! The men will be our slaves and the women our playthings! And before I kill you, I want you to know it will be all your fault, Thomas Riversedge! Hahahahaha!”
Suddenly, a sharp pain in his gut interrupted his maniacal laughter. Looking down, he observed that his own sword was sheathed in his stomach, blood adorning the blade. Tom was standing over the now crouching figure, a mixture of disdain and regret in his eyes.
“I gave you fair warning. I gave you a chance, Julian Whitehorn. I didn’t want to kill you, but you had to go and pull that stupid stunt. That’s my strong arm, too.”
Julian’s only response was to let out a groan. His final breath spoke of rage and humiliation at his loss, but more than that it spoke of the fear of his impending death. His lifeless form collapsed onto the ground.
“Ya know it’s a shame, really,” a voice lamented over Tom’s shoulder.
The middle-aged man was looking his way. His daughter was helping him up. Beaten and bruised as he was, the man walked over to the young man’s still warm corpse.
“That Julian, he was always a troublemakah, but we nevah thought he’d go this far. He went missin’ about four years ago, but last year he turned up with a gang of ne’er-do-wells. Started makin’ all sorts of trouble for the townsfolk. At first, it was just minor things, being a general nuisance, but then he started harassing travelers, mugging villagers, even robbing businesses, as ya just saw. It gets worse every time. I’ve nevah had him threaten my daughtah like that before, though. If ya hadn’t come along, I’m afraid to think what would’ve happened. Thank you, Mistah…?”
“Thomas Riversedge,” the warrior replied. “Don’t thank me too much, though. I still had to kill a man. Not a proud day.”
“Don’t let it burden ya too much, son. He was a lowlife, a scoundrel. The world’s a cleaner place with him gone.”
“I just…” Tom began glumly. “Even if it was deserved, no man has the right to mete out his own justice.”
“Ya may be wisah than even some of our elder folk. That bein’ said, there are few guards out this way, and we’ll take whatevah help we can get. Ya saved me and my daughter, so I feel I owe ya. Yer a mercenary, right? Let me pay ya. How much?”
“Look, you didn’t hire me. I did this out of the goodness of my heart. I happened to be passing through, saw your situation and intervened. You owe me nothing.”
“Umm, well, I guess it’s a bit late in the day to keep travelling, so if you give me a discount on a room tonight, we can call it even,” Tom offered.
“A discount!? Nonsense! Ya can have the room for free tonight! And all the food and drink you want, too!”
“Well, um, at least let me help clean up this mess.”
“I won’t turn down that offer. I’m certainly not young or strong enough to handle all these bodies on my own. Personally, I think ya should’ve killed ‘em all, but we’ll send a messengah to get the guard.”
Before he could go anywhere, Tom heard a quiet voice call his name.
“Um, Mistah Riversedge?” the young woman from before squeaked shyly, blushing. “Thank ya so much!”
She wrapped her arms around Tom so tightly that Julian’s suffocating magic felt like a breath of fresh air in comparison.
“Can’t…breathe…!” Tom choked, his already bruised body ready to give up his spirit.
“Cleo! Cleo, give the man some air!” the barman intervened.
“Oh! Sorry…” she bashfully muttered, releasing her victim.
Her already red face now turned to an unnatural shade of crimson.
“That’s…that’s quite alright, Miss…?” Tom gasped.
“Oh! I’m, uh, well, um, I’m, uh…!”
“That’s right! I haven’t introduced myself neither!” the man said, saving his daughter from her own embarrassment. “I am Erwin Horsekeep, and ya already seem to be acquainted with my daughtah Cleo. She can be a bit dramatic.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet the both of you,” Tom politely responded. “Cleopatra, huh? That’s an interesting name. From a Nagyb language. Ygimi, I think. Beautiful name, but not one I would expect in the heart of Koeleth.”
“Yeah, it was her mothah’s idea. She loved the name. We decided that if we evah had a daughtah, we’d name her that. And then we had our adorable Cleo!”
“Daddy! Stop!” Cleo cried. “Please, just call me Cleo.”
“Well, Cleo,” Tom began. “I’m glad I was able to help you out. Please, no more headlocks, though.”
“Yessir, Tom!” Cleo shouted.
“Oh, it’s ok to talk to a stranger as if you know them, huh?” he said jokingly.
“Well, sorry! Mr. Riversedge, then!” the girl said with a huff.
“I like you. You’re funny.”
She blushed again.
“Oh, Erwin, there is one more thing I would ask of you.”
“Anythin’ ya want,” the old barkeep said.
“I would like to keep Julian’s sword, if that’s alright by you,” Tom requested, eyeing the blade suspiciously.
“Take it! He’s caused enough trouble, and that blade is only a remindah of that! Stupid kid, he could have done somethin’ with himself.”
After safely securing the snake sword in his pack, Thomas went to work on tying up the bandits while Cleo and Erwin cleaned up the bar as well as they could. He took up Erwin’s generous offer and stayed at the tavern free of charge. He left early the next morning, and Erwin and Cleo saw him off. Over the next several months, he found himself travelling through Pasture’s Edge quite a bit, and he developed a strong bond with the Horsekeep family. Inevitably, Cleo confessed her affections to Tom, only to be rejected, on the grounds that he saw her more as a little sister than as a potential girlfriend. This did not deter her, and she always made sure to express interest whenever he was in town.