Mid-morning the next day, or what would be if the Solar Moon wasn’t present and making everything appear the same whether day or night, Lukas is ambling down the dirt road heading north. He’ll cross the border out of Bovinden and into whatever the free city state is that is across from it. He doubts it’ll possess the same name it did when he last saw the layout of the continent all those years ago. The free city states rarely keep the historical names they once possessed and in some instances don’t even retain the names chosen for them when they exchange leaders.
Lukas would find that exhausting and has no idea how the citizens can keep up. But at least it can’t be like Bovinden with this Order of Sacred Flame. He hasn’t seen any more of their ilk. In fact, he hasn’t seen anyone on the road. He still marks that as odd. Maybe the Order is the cause of such things. If that is true then the mercenary wonders how the small kingdom manages trade. It seems impossible that an area as limited as Bovinden would possess within its borders all that is necessary to keep the citizens fed and clothed. After all, it is a single town of middling size surrounded by woods and forests.
Lukas shrugs. He hasn’t a clue and it isn’t his problem. Such things are worries reserved for Kings, Queens and apparently Grand Imperators. Though, Lukas would be lying if he didn’t admit he is curious about this Grand Imperator. From the wooden disk he found on the dead man who’d once been atop a horse, it seems as though the man is ruthless. Yet, there have been many an occasion when royal linguistic statements have insinuated harsher terms than are the reality. This could very well be one of those times.
Suddenly Lukas looks down from the tree canopy above, which is peppered with tiny pinpricks of red light rays, to see a carriage. It’s large, carved and painted a flawless white. But Lukas is suspicious of it. The carriage is stopped. Carriages like this one never stop, until they reach wherever it is they are headed. That’s probably because they carry rich and powerful aristocratic elites, and stopping vastly amplifies the possibility of bandit attacks.
The mercenary wonders whether he should investigate when all of a sudden a shrieking scream that without a doubt belongs to a woman, rings out across the otherwise still air. It seems like too much of a coincidence that a carriage such as this would be static and a scream from a woman rings and them not in some way be related.
So, Lukas breaks into a sprint heading in the direction he thinks the scream came from. He bats branches out of his way as he dodges and leaps exposed protruding tree roots some three times thicker than his forearm. They weave all over this forest, unchecked and unaffected by the troubles of man as they feast upon the red light of the Solar Moon that looms low in the cloudless bronze coloured sky. It’s a sky that Lukas has not got a single glimpse of since he crossed the tree line.
Finally, Lukas hears laughs. They’re more like cackles, but Lukas hears them all the same and drops into a squat to keep himself low and out of sight. He unslings his bow and draws an arrow, notching it. He doesn’t raise the bow or draw the string. He needs to watch first, but so far he’s established that these men are bandits and that they have managed to trap some poor woman whose limbs are bound to wooden pegs that have been driven deep into the dirt in a small open area ringed by a dozen enormous oak trees.
The woman, who in appearance seems to be of a similar age to Lukas’ own, is snivelling and weeping as tears stream down her face. Her mascara has ran as a result of the tears causing thick black lines to be smeared down from her eyes, while dirt and small slithers of twigs cling in her raven coloured hair as she wriggles and struggles. It is clear that her hopes of breaking free are naught, yet as Lukas watches one of the still laughing men fasten his fly, it is clear what this poor woman has been subjected to. Lukas feels anger boil up inside him, but is able to easily keep his emotions in check. He learned and conquered them long ago by focusing them into keeping his aim true.
“Sorry love, nothing personal. But…you know the Grand Imperator can’t have you running around mouthing off. He rules these lands. Your family even supported once, so I hear. So you must understand.” The big burly man says. He has a wide chest that is covered in leather, a set of skin tight trousers over his legs and metal pauldrons covering his shoulders, while a scabbard hangs off his waist.
“I would ask if you have any last words. But…well, I think you sounded best a few moments ago screaming like a little witch.” The burly man says chuckling. The other armed men around him chime in with laughs of their own to create a chorus of cruel mockery.
Lukas has seen enough. He raises, draws and then without warning lets the notched arrow fly. Within a couple seconds it crosses the distance with barely a whistle.
The metal head of the projectile stabs deep into the left side of the burly man’s chest. In response the burly man, who was in the process of pulling his sword to murder the woman, stops and lets out of outward release of air that can be heard by all. It sounds similar to a sigh, but at the same time not.
The woman, still weeping, freezes in shock. She cannot comprehend what is going on. She can see the man and the sudden addition of something in his chest but her eyes are filled with tears which have violently blurred her vision. She wishes she could wipe the tears away but it’s impossible with her hands restrained like they are.
The burly guy staggers forward, releasing his grip on the hilt of his sword, then he stumbles before finally dropping to his knees. The burly man looks up from the arrow shaft that is protruding from his chest and stares at Lukas who he finds quickly and sees has already notched and drawn another arrow. Lukas winks at the dying burly man and then releases the string.
The second arrow flies faster than the first before spearing through the injured man’s throat. The burly man’s eyes glaze over before a series of wet chokes escape his lips, bringing up sputters of blood before he topples onto his side dead.
The burly man was the only member of the group wearing any sort of armour. The others are dressed in robes of white. Yet, it is clear that he was in charge of this band of violent thugs who quickly pull their swords and hatchets before running at Lukas, who has risen to his full height and revealed himself.
The armed men howl and scream profanity as they bay for his blood. Yet they die as easily as those who had surrounded him in the forest the day before as Lukas notches a trio of arrows and looses them. Each claims a life. It’s a process the mercenary repeats twice more but doesn’t have to commit a third time as the attackers are all dead.
Lukas sniffs. He feels nothing for these men except contempt. But now they’ve got what they deserved. That is why Lukas descends from the slight incline he’d settled into so he can help the woman.
“Be still I will set you free.” Lukas assures with a low rumbling voice as he nears her.
“No! Stay away! You’re just like them! You’ll rape me just like they did! I will not let another man lay his hands upon me!” The woman screams hysterically at the top of her lungs. It seems she has found her voice and is unwilling to quieten now that it has been rediscovered, even if she is being offered help.
She doesn’t believe this man, this killer. Sure he dispatched the men who did this to her, yet her fear, terror and mistrust will not ebb. And no one could blame her for such a reaction. If you were in her shoes you too would be mistrusting of any supposed saviour that appears from nowhere at a time seemingly too good to be true.
Still, Lukas is inclined to ignore her hysteria as he assures, “I mean you no harm. I am simply here to set you free. I want nothing. Not even a reward.”
The woman refuses to listen and thrashes about cursing and damning all men for existing while hoping they all burn in the fires of the afterlife for the brutality they inflict on all those that surround them.
“Do not touch me! I will bite!” The woman declares before gnashing her teeth audibly.
Her teeth are of no threat to Lukas. Though, it is clear he isn’t getting through to her. He doesn’t need to and so he releases the ropes wound around her ankles. His intention is to prove he means her no harm. If he does that then maybe she will calm, if only towards him for a short while.
“I’ll kill you!” The woman howls suddenly able to kick.
She’s surprised at the development and lifts her head just enough to see the bonds have been untied. Because of that she pauses her wailing threats and cries and instead simply watches.
“If you calm I can release your hand. Just the one. Then you’ll be free to release yourself. How does that sound?” Lukas says hoping to reason with the woman and call a temporary truce so he can help her and maybe get some answers. It seems likely now that she has taken a pause from her flailing and raged filled bellows. Yet, he doesn’t quite trust that she isn’t waiting for just the right moment to deliver a hard kick to his face.
“Just the one and then you back away.” The woman blurts in response, while suspicious and sceptical of Lukas’ intentions.
If he doesn’t back up immediately she will lash out at him. She has no clue what damage she might be able to realistically cause, but such a thing doesn’t enter her head. She is angry and afraid, like a cornered animal, and that is when people are at their most dangerous and unpredictable.
Lukas, making sure to keep back as far as he can so the woman doesn’t have reason to believe him a threat, releases her right hand and then backs away immediately. The woman is shocked. She was convinced this man meant her harm and had been lying to her. However, is seems thus far he is a man of his word. Yet he killed those men, in cold blood and without warning. Those are not the actions of an honourable man. He saved you, the voice in her head spits ferociously. And yes while that is true, the woman cannot get out of her head that this man must want something. Men always want something. Still, she wastes no time in releasing her left hand from its bonds, granting herself freedom.
“I can give you aid, if you like? Help you with those wounds.” Lukas offers indicating to the lacerations that the ropes have caused predominantly across his wrists. The deep lacerations are weeping rich crimson blood.
“No, I’m fine. I can take care of myself.” The woman replies bluntly.
“Ok, then can I be permitted to pose a question?” Lukas asks without a seconds thought.
“You may. But make it swift and ensure you keep your distance.” The woman replies, her eyes flitting to a nearby sword that had once belonged to one of the now dead men who had attacked her. She knows exactly who sent them but can do nothing with the knowledge. Her only choice, as she had been attempting anyway, is to flee Bovinden, her home. There is nothing left for her here now except torment and pain. Her home is no longer hers. Whether it has been claimed by the throne or torched she does not know, but it doesn’t’ change the fact that it no longer belongs to her family, of which she is the last. The rest of her relatives are dead. She saw some of their heads on pikes and just the thought brings the images back, threatening to make her vomit.
“Who were these men?” Lukas says indicating the dead bodies around them.
“They are under the employ of the Blood Tyrant. He rules Bovinden now.” The woman gives her answer honestly. Yet, her words only leave Lukas with more questions. He was under the impression that a Grand Imperator rules Bovinden. That is why he asks, “And who is this Blood Tyrant?”
Before the woman can answer an arrow slams into her throat, cleaving her Adams Apple in two. Lukas groans, spins on his heels and casts his eyes across the scene ahead of him. Suddenly he sees movement and breaks into a sprint after the attacker who has killed the woman. Lukas would, if he didn’t have a pursuit to give, feel sorry for the woman. She survived trauma only to end up with an arrow in her neck. She’s dead. Lukas knows it. There is no way she could have survived it. That is why he leaps and bounds over the exposed roots which now seem to be reaching for him in an attempt to thwart him as he gives chase.
Lukas winds through trees, ducking and racing past low or stunted branches. His bow is in his hands, but he is yet to draw an arrow or notch it. Suddenly the attacker disappears only to reappear off to his left a few short moments later. Luckily, Lukas catches sight of the figure almost immediately seeing as the figures reckless bounding resulted in a number of twigs breaking under foot. Lukas smiles, pulls an arrow and returns to the chase.
He ducks a thick gaggle of interlinked branches then is forced to drop to one knee and slide to avoid an arrow loosed his way. The arrow goes wide. That tells Lukas that the archer is not as skilled as he. It isn’t a surprise, yet he expected more for some reason he cannot give as he steps out on the slide and back into a blistering run.
The mercenary is gaining on his target when they disappear behind a tree trunk only to re-emerge soon after. Lukas marks their attempts at fleeing as curious. Nevertheless he has the opening he needs as the attacker bursts through a narrow gap between two leaning and interwoven oak trees partially felled by some long ago storm.
Once past them the attacker is in a clearing. But they don’t stop. Instead they continue hurling along, going as fast as their legs will carry them. Meanwhile, Lukas has come to a halt, his bow is raised, the arrow notched and the string drawn. Lukas gauges any factors that might throw off his aim, but there are none. He smiles as he reaches that conclusion and then releases the tension on the bowstring.
The arrow flies and quickly sails through the air, cutting a straight path right toward the fleeing archer. But the arrow is not aimed at the targets back or head. Instead, the arrow plunges into the Achilles heel of the fleeing figure, severing it.
The figure manages one more step, achieved because that is the heel without an arrow lodged in it, and then flops to the floor with a wailing cry. But the figure is not done. They refuse to give up so easily, which is why they begin to crawl, using their one good leg and both arms to haul themselves along. It’s slow, exhausting progress and futile when compared to Lukas’ own mobility.
The mercenary swiftly covers the distance and then steps in front of the figures path to block their attempts of furthering their withdrawal.
The figure, a man who looks just like a bandit would normally, glares up at him with a snarl and then spits.
He even decides to reach for Lukas hoping to grab a hold of the mercenaries’ ankle and wrench him off his feet. It fails and Lukas having stepped out of the futile counterattack kicks dirt in the injured archers face. The attacker screws up his pale face and curses in the moments before he tries to rub the dirt from his eyes.
Lukas ignores the ranting expletives that leave the injured thugs mouth and demands, “Why did you end that woman’s life?”
“She was a heretic! A non-believer! She questioned the great Grand Imperator after he gave her family everything! For those crimes alone she will burn for eternity, as should all who question him!” The injured man is clearly a zealot and spits angrily as he fumbles about trying to seek out a knife he can plunge into Lukas for revenge.
The zealot finds the knife along his waist and pulls it before attempting to slash at Lukas. But the mercenary sidesteps the attack and in a single swift motion pulls his own knife and skewers it through the man’s gut now that he is on his side. In an instant the zealot’s grip of his own blade fails. With him now disarmed Lukas queries, “Who do you work for? Give me a name!”
Unfortunately, Lukas gets no such thing as the zealot instead babbles, “Oh great ruler of the other side, welcome me with open arms for having bathed your enemies in the flames of justice. I offer myself to thee.”
Lukas curses. The zealot is dead. That much is clear and all he learned is that he was some sort of extreme religious fanatic.
His utterings were unlike any he has ever heard before. Whatever faith he follows is new to Lukas. It shouldn’t be a surprise. Many similar ‘new faiths’ have risen in recent years and each seems to be more fanatical than the last.
So, unable to learn anymore, Lukas wipes his knife clean of the dead man’s blood, using the dead man’s robes to complete the task, and then ventures back toward where the dead woman should still be laid.
It doesn’t take him long to get back there. In fact, it seems he spent more time running in circles in pursuit of the zealot archer than anything else. He wonders if that was by design or because the zealot himself was lost and did not know these woods as well as perhaps he believed.
Still, the scene he is faced with is exactly as he left it. The woman is indeed dead. Blood having pooled around her top third is deep in colour and has stained her already ragged, dirt stained, ripped turquoise coloured dress. Lukas shakes his head and sighs a growl. He really thought he might have saved her, but it seems all he did was delay the inevitable. However, she can afford him no answer, so the mercenary heads to the closest corpse that had attacked her in life.
The body is, like all those but the burly dead man, wrapped in white robes. Lukas rolls the corpse onto its stomach now that his arrow has been retrieved. He’ll do much the same to all the others now that the air is still and he is the only person still breathing.
As soon as the man’s back is visible and Lukas lays his eyes on it, he recognises the symbol. This time the blazing flames are red and surrounded by a deep orange coloured circle. Yet, there is no mistaking that it is the same symbol. But it’s not enough. He can surmise as to who this symbol belongs to. But he has no surety that this is the fault of the Grand Imperator. Lukas can’t imagine it can be anyone else, though he feels he must be sure.
He has to search the bodies of three more of the dead robe wearing men before he finds a parchment. Surprisingly the body was in the possession of the burly man. Still, the mercenary does not delay in unravelling the parchment and then reading the finely written words scratched onto the brownish surface.
The parchment reads: Due to the prevalence and severity of the heretical presence that lingers within Bovinden, I, Grand Imperator Varsius, call for the immediate execution of individuals who pose a threat to our divine way of life, and that call in to question my unparalleled wisdom as ruler of this kingdom.
Lukas rolls his eyes at the flowing insanity that is contained within the words that have been scrawled onto the parchments surface. Parchment which he soon screws up into a ball and then condemns to the dirt, where in his mind, it belongs. Especially, as Lukas now has the answers he needs. It only confirms what he believed and that’s why he knows exactly where he is heading next.