Chapter 8: What Comes Around…

(No sex in this one. Pure plot)

Heim gave a yawn and a stretch, then leaned over against Helen as she drove the wagon, nestling against her side and closing his brown eyes. “A fine time to be napping,” the woman whispered.

“Can’t help it. ’M tired,” the dwarf answered softly, pressing himself harder against the woman.

So was she, but Helen was not about to admit it. The axle that had broken earlier in the day had cost them time, and they should have been safely within the walls of the village of Tael by now. Instead, the setting sun gave lie to their progressing, dipping further and further behind the horizon they rode towards.

“A fine time to nap indeed,” she muttered, unable to truly be angry with her lover of the last four years. It wasn’t common to find a soul who enjoyed traveling the road as much as she, even if he wasn’t human. The thought didn’t trouble her the way it might have several years ago. She had no idea why they even called themselves dwarfs… they certainly weren’t that short. From what she understood their average height was about five feet, which made them just barely shorter than the average woman and just an inch shorter than her… and Heim matched her height exactly. Besides that, they didn’t act significantly different that any humans she had met, and — she blushed — their chemistry were certainly compatible. Maybe another person would be unhappy with their relationship, but how could Helen be uncomfortable with her soul mate?

Still, the darkness did make her uncomfortable. Helen dropped one hand from the reins and slid it under the front lip of the wagon seat, closing reassuringly on the hilt of a sword. She took more than a little comfort from the presence of her fathers blade.

Even so reassured, she still jumped in her seat as three men stepped from the shadows to stand before her wagon, torches blazing suddenly to life in their hands. “Stand and account!” A hail came, and Helen tugged back on the reins to bring the wagon to a stop. Heim put a hand beneath him and pushed himself to a dignified sitting position, rubbing the weariness from his eyes.

“It seems you are lost,” one of the men called. All three men wore dark leather armor, shining with studs of blackened iron. Well used swords rested on their belts, with naught a scabbard to be seen.

“This road can be dangerous after dark, you know. We’d be pleased to help ye get where yer going,” said the tallest man, standing in the center, redheaded and with a beard that reached nearly to his belt.

“But fer a price,” explained the rogue to his left, the largest of the three.

“A price?” Helen asked.

“A price. Your wagon will suffice,” said the first again, the most cultured of the group in both accent and appearance. Unlike the other two men his hair was groomed, his beard trimmed carefully The blade on his belt both newer and cleaner than that of his companions.

“Damned bandits,” Heim growled beneath his breath.

“Dac, she’s awful pretty,” the big man on the left remarked, showing an eager, gap-toothed smile. The other two men smiled evilly as well and Heim’s knuckled grew white as he clenched the wood of the bench.

“Your wagon will, perhaps, suffice,” the refined highwayman corrected, his smile savage. “And all that’s in it, of course,” the refined highwayman went on. “A pity we must accept a donation of your goods, but I fear that is lonely work out here, protecting lost travelers. You could keep us company for a time.”

Helen’s throat was dry as Heim answered the bandits. “Is guards what you be? I’d’ve marked ye out as a bunch o’ worthless cretins and thieves, miself.”

A cruel laugh escaped the woods around them, betraying the presence of further men. “Be silent dwarf, lest you be found to have wandered off the road the tripped somewhere in the wilderness,” he refined man spoke. “It might be ye’ll not be found until the spring thaw.”

Then with a snap and a hiss and a weighty thump, an arrow embedded itself in the man’s throat, and all pretense of order in the situation ended.

‘He’ll be the most formidable,’ Alassiel told herself, biting her lower lip as she looked to the rogue on the right, the most refined of the trio. ‘He needs to die first.’ Her gaze flowed to the other end of their line to the huge man. She didn’t doubt for a moment that he could cut her in twain with that sword of his. He would have to be the next to fall.

Alassiel had been roused from her uneasy sleep in the rear of the wagon by the voices of the the highwaymen. Blue eyes staring out into the torch-lit darkness, she had slowly drawn an arrow from the quiver on her back, careful not to draw attention to herself and letting the noise of the conversation mask what sound she may have made. When she heard the laughs from the woods, the elf rose quickly and with a smooth motion wrought of long practice drew back the bow and loosed, the arrow flying to instantly strike down the speaker.

The revenant drew another arrow as chaos erupted on the road, turning to face the large man on the road. She placed arrow to string before a flash of motion from the woods drew her attention and she flung herself to the side. The elf slipped over the lip of the wagon as an arrow sliced through her trailing hair, ripping a few red stands savagely from her head. Alassiel landed on her feet, again raising the bow to fire and shot.

The second arrow was not as accurate as the first, only striking the man in his shoulder and sending him spinning to the ground. Movement from the woods to her left robbed all thought of a third shot from the elf and she spun, twirling the bow in her left hand in time for the stave to knock aside a descending blow from a highwayman’s blade. Alassiel continued to spin, her right hand drawing her sword from its scabbard and flicking it to the left to intercept a second swing from the man. Three thugs had emerged from the woods on the left side of the wagon and closed on the lithe elf, her scars shining in the flicking firelight.

Alassiel spun in a continuous circle, silent as a ghost save for the ring of steel on steel and seeming almost to float as she dropped to a crouch, taking a man’s legs from beneath his guard, then jumping over a low thrust another man had intended to skewer her belly.

“ ‘Ere, get her!” the thug cried just before her blade took his head from his shoulders. Other highwaymen began to run around the wagon towards the solitary elf, and three more surrounded the revenant. Their movements, two stabbing thrusts and a wild slash, were uncoordinated and awkward, but deadly for the quantity of sharp steel they offered. Alassiel’s right arm went straight out to the side, presenting her sword at a perfect angle to deflect the sidelong slash way up high, and her gloved left hand slapped out, driving the palm of her hand against the flat of one stabbing blade, driving it into its partner and fouling both thrusts.

Down came the elf’s sword as she retreated back a pair of steps, striking against the extended swords and driving them down. The elf spun one last time, her leg lashing out high and taking one of the now unguarded men in the face with a savage kick. He stumbled back, bleeding from his nose as she brought her sword around in another parry to knock the remaining outstretched black back high. A smooth dip and and another retreat brought the revenant’s head clear of another slash from the outraged thug, and Alassiel snapped her sword up quickly enough to just nick the man’s hand as the swords whistled past one another. The thug howled and let go, his sword flying free, and the elf finished the movement by pulling her dagger from her belt and hurling it at the man clutching his face. The shining steel vanished into the man’s belly and he collapsed.

Terrified, the disarmed man turned to run, crashing into the forest… but Alassiel did not have time for him. The remaining untouched pair of men, whether out of fear, anger, or stupidity, came again at their outnumbered but not outmatched target, their swords working furiously, forward in, and then slashing out at the fire haired woman who seemed to move like a serpent. No matter where they attacked the elf was no longer there by the time their blades arrived.

A brief hesitation came in the attack, doubt seeping into the thugs, and it was into that slight pause that Alassiel retaliated, stepping forward with a thrust then back, then forward again but higher, driving the parry up under suddenly crouched, a roundabout turn driving her heel into the knee and he screamed. The other thug drove her away from his companion with a low thrust and she dropped prone to avoid the blow. With a victorious howl the highwayman drove his sword straight down, intending to skewer the elf like a slab of meat.

The moment the large bandit was struck in the shoulder with Alassiel’s arrow, Heim leaped from the wagon, his fists leading the way as he tackled the highwayman in the middle of their original formation. His fists pummeled wetly into the man’s face as he tried fruitlessly to draw his blade, his nose disintegrating beneath the savage assault.

“Threaten me wife, would ye?!” he screamed, raining savage blows on the brigand with a ferocity he never suspected lay within him. “Ye. Will. Never. Touch. Her. You. Filth!” he screamed, his anger only growing.

The big man groaned, the arrow in his shoulder burning as he tried to rise to his feet. The touch of steel at his throat stopped the movement. Helen stood above him, her father’s sword held inexpertly but solidly in her hands, and her eyes were furious. The man froze in place, and seemed to be whimpering. “You would do well to lie back down, and to stay that way,” Helen said with ice on her breath, and he did.

The highwayman struck down, intending to end the fight in that instant… but Alassiel was, impossibly, no longer there. Instead of simply hitting the dirt and perhaps rolling like any normal combatant, the revenant had instead thrown her body into a convulsive, wavelike movement the instant she contacted the ground, her arching back and legs bouncing her off the packed soil and into a backwards flip, coming to her feet with her sword already driving forward. Cold steel piercing his chest, the hard leather providing no protection against a direct stab from the sharp blade.

Alassiel knew the final highwayman would be coming at her back, and she spun into a desperate parry, just catching the blade with her own an instantly before it would have caught her.

She came ahead with a thrust, and the thug knocked it aside, pulling back his own blade to defend. Alassiel strode forward powerfully, presenting her self too far forward and open, or at least she knew it would appear that way in the eyes of the brigand. Despite the bodies laying on the ground, despite the deadly displays of competence, she knew that this one would underestimate her. The laughing comments of the band had told the revenant all that she needed to know about the way they thought of women.

The man did not disappoint Alassiel. Taking the bait, the thug shoved out with his sword, pushing aside the advance and preparing to lethally check the movement with his own blade, slamming it into her belly to the hilt. A planted foot and a shift of her body took Alassiel by the strong but slow attack, and while she could have slain the man immediately there, driving her black through his heart or neck, she instead lashed out with her foot, kicking him in the crotch.

Alassiel dropped back then, and with a groan the man set himself again. The revenant waited, waiting for the man to take the offensive again. Predictably, he worked his way around to launch another mighty horizontal slash. This time Alassiel backed away only enough so the flying blade barely missed her. She turned as she came forward past the man’s extended reach, pivoting on her left foot and back-kicking with her right, again slamming the man in the crotch.

She didn’t really know why, but she just felt like doing that.

Again, the woman was out of harm’s way before the thug could begin to react, before he had even recovered from the sickening pain that was likely rolling up from his loins. He did manage to straighten, barely, and he brought his blade up high and roared, rushing forward, the attack of a desperate opponent. The revenant’s blade slipped its hungry tip into the man’s belly, stopping him short. A flick of Alassiel’s wrist sent the deadly blade snapping down, and a quick step had the woman right up against the man, face to face. “Bet it hurts,” she whispered softly, her free hand cupping his face in the hold of a lover. Up came her knee in a final blow, and the man collapsed to the dirt, his eyes rolling back into his skull.

Without sparing the thug another glance Alassiel whirled and ran into the woods, following the trail of the fleeing brigand.

Heim watched without pity as the elf emasculated the thug beside the wagon, the thief beneath him having long since fled consciousness. The dwarf looked to his woman, standing so beautiful and strong, keeping the wounded bandit in place. “Glad am I that we offered that one a ride to the next town,” the dwarf said, breathing hard.

Helen nodded, her eyes wide but dancing with a happy light as she looked to her husband. “As ’m I, m’love.”

Twenty minutes of chase later Alassiel slowed her pace to a prowl. She could see light ahead, likely that of a fire. The escaping rogue had been easy to follow, the way he crashed through the brush marking his passage as easily for the elf as though he had led her at no more than arms length away. The old habits and practices of stalking through woods came back to the former druid easily, and she felt another pang of loss as her scars began to itch at her thoughts.

Creeping around a ring of boulders revealed a hidden encampment. Two people stood in the clearing ahead, she saw. The man she had disarmed was closest to her, still wrapped in a muddy cloak as he cradled his hand protectively. He stood between her and the second figure, blocking her sight as he spoke insistently. Alassiel crept closer, trying to make out the words.

A woman’s voice suddenly screamed out and a shining point erupted from the back of the man’s chest. “Help!” she screamed, frantic. “Help!”

As the man collapsed, Alassiel could see the woman on the other side of him, bloody sword pulled from her grip by the falling thief. The elf was not ashamed to say she was the most beautiful woman she had ever seen.

The woman was tall, maybe just below six feet, and every inch of that body screamed feminine beauty. Her skin was bronze in the firelight, the flickering flame darkening the perfect tan. Not an ounce fat showed on her body, yet her entire form appeared soft and delicate, unlike Alassiel’s own lithe form. Lush, full brown hair that perfectly matched her eyes cascaded down the humans shoulders and halfway down her back, shining lightly in the dim lighting. Her face seemed permanently locked in an expression of sexual interest, with just enough of a hint of innocence to make an observer wonder if she knew the level of sexuality she was expressing.

This was the perfect woman.

“Help me!” She screamed again, and Alassiel walked into the circle of light, her sword still drawn.

“Oh thank Caer,” the woman cried, a single perfect tear dropping down the perfect curve of her cheek, leaving a single trail of wetness that glistened beautifully in the firelight. “Please, save me! These men… they are monsters, they were going to sell me to a brothel!”

Alassiel smiled, but the predatory grin did not touch her eyes. She flicked her gaze down to her own arms, then back to the woman. “I think not.”

The beautiful woman, who had been walking towards the elf, suddenly stopped, swaying quickly in place. She her tongue briefly flicked over her lips as her face took on an appearance of anxiety.

She looked like a child, Alassiel realized suddenly. Her manner, her innocence, her beauty… the way they were combined was much like that in a child, the combination of characteristics that instilled an instinctive desire to protect their possessor.

There was something very wrong with this woman.

The perfect brunette spoke at last. “What do you mean?”

Alassiel walked further into the firelight, exposing the vicious scars that covered her form. Then she pointedly glared at the woman’s flawless skin and brushed hair. “You don’t look like a slave to me.” She raised her sword to a guard position.

The brunette raised her hands higher, staring at Alassiel’s masked face. “You would murder an unarmed woman who offers you no violence, revenant?” she said slowly, her face never showing anything but, the elf was confident, a mask of concern and fear. “Caer would not approve.”

The elf looked at her for a few moments longer, biting her lower lip, before she lowered her sword. She nodded to the coil of rope by the fire. “Bind yourself.” The brunette woman did so, with brisk efficient movements that left the elf with little doubt that she was very familiar with knots and bonds. “What is your name?”

She gave a coy little smile and ran him tongue over her lips. The sensuality of the movement struck Alassiel like a wall, and the elf felt her heart flutter despite herself. “Alissandra,” the woman said.

Alassiel was in a foul mood. The wagon had arrived in Tael without further incident, and they had promptly turned the surviving bandits and the strange woman over to the guards… who had then promptly forbade her from helping to interrogate the brigands and ask her own questions.

Then, she thought sourly, when they did see fit to talk to her in response to her frequent queries, they informed the elf that no, the bandits were not followers of Sanguinar. They worked as independent thieves and slavers, and while they had sold to the Daggerport brothel before, they claimed to not work for them.

They also claimed that the woman was the one who gave them instruction, a fact that the town guard seemed reluctant to accept but that Alassiel had no difficulty with. Her mood grew fouler still when the guards informed her that the woman had jumped from a window when she was being moved and dropped into the frigid lake around the town. The elf knew well the danger of the cold waters during winter, but despite the assurances of the guards that she had surely perished, Alassiel was uneasy. No body had been found, and there was something wrong about that woman that the revenant simply couldn’t put words to.

Alassiel did not like being unsure.

She was ready to depart this damned town. The excitement on the road was a distraction from her mission, a distraction she could ill afford if she was to kill the high priest of Sanguinar. Before the elf was aware of her preparations, she was on her feet and gathering her sword and bow and heading for the door… and that was when a knock came at the door.

The elf opened it to see Helen before her, her eyes focusing uneasily on the black mask Alassiel wore before she saw the sword and bow. “You’re leaving?”

Alassiel tilted her head, unsure how to respond to the woman. “I am…” she said slowly, stepping into the hall. Heim was next to his wife, also looking at the slender elf as she came into his view. “I have to get back to my task.”

The woman chewed her lip. “It’s still dark, and cold. You can’t wait until morning?”

“No,” the revenant answered, with no room for disagreement in her voice. As she stood there, she became more and more convinced that she was right, and that it was time to go. “I need to be in Daggerport without delay.”

Heim exchanged a glance with his wife, then said, “Can ye wait twenty minutes?” When the elf was silent, he looked again at the woman beside him. “Prepare the horses, I’ll gather our goods.”

As Helen walked briskly down the hall, Alassiel looked down at the determined dwarf. “You don’t need to do this…” She stopped when the dwarf held up a hand firmly.

“You saved me life, and protected me wife, which be more important,” he said in the same bedrock of a voice that she had used earlier. “An’ I pay me debts, miss.”

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