By Brian Bigley
You can never be too cautious, she thought, when stepping through a mage gate. Rationally, she knew that the doors only opened into well established safe areas and that no one and nothing that would mean her harm would be nearby when the doorway opened, but Zea took nothing for granted anymore. One rarely did when one was a three foot tall bounty hunter in a world of much larger humans.
“Everything okay, Badger?” a rich, deep baritone spoke from the doorway. Zea looked towards the door at the sound of her nickname.
A tall silhouette appeared in the white limning of the door, and moved through unconcernedly. Although the mage door was over six feet tall, the figure bent his huge frame to get through. His face still held the roundness and baby fat look of youth. His slow measured speech, coupled with his body size, bespoke those individuals who are often born addled of wit and slow of mind. Hands the size of ale barrels gripped a sheathed greatsword. Oiled leather armor creaked quietly as he straightened to his full height. His almost permanent grin reappeared as he ran his thick-fingered hand through his blond hair.
“Yes Mud, it’s fine. Bring Asha, would you?” the slight woman replied as she broke cover and stretched, her head not quite reaching the top of the bush nearby. Zea Andropogon, “Badger” to her friends, kept her eyes on the nearby marshes, still looking for signs of movement, but was more relaxed than moments before. She was a diminutive figure, typical for gnomes, only three feet tall. From a distance, she would appear to be a half-size human woman with a dark tan, but upon closer inspection, her face showed the features common to hill gnomes. Deep set brown eyes under a thick line of eyebrows watched the marshland around her, and any beauty to the human eye was broken by the thick, almost bulbous nose so common to gnomes.
Relaxing her guard, she untucked the thin wisp of patterned silk that served as her cloak and removed the hood from her head. She saw no signs of danger around her, and the only sounds heard were of insects buzzing in the tall grasses. Of course, having her partner, a fighter the size of a draft horse, at her back always increased her calm.
She tugged at the braid of dark black hair tucked into her collar, freeing it. A stripe of white shot through the braid, a single inch wide path of colorless hair from forehead to spine that had garnered her nickname ages ago. It was the result, long ago, of a magical prank gone awry, leaving her a visible reminder of her youthful indiscretions and jocularity. She flipped the braid behind her, feeling it settle down her back, as she waited for Asha to come through the mage gate.
Mud’s smile widened and he whistled quickly. In the doorway light a dog appeared, massive to the size of a small pony itself, and slowly moved through the light of the mage door. She moved up next to Mud, her shoulders waist high to the tall man. Mud absently scratched the dog’s head, it feeling like a fur covered wine keg under his hand. The huge riding dog stopped only an instant to enjoy the attention, then plodded forward into the clearing toward her dark-haired owner. The light of the mage door faded behind them.
The large man settled a small backpack over his shoulder, containing most of their supplies. Long experience together had taught them to pack light, and their magical abilities allowed them to travel even lighter than most others. Zea was glad for that.
Long ago, before she had trained her partner in some simple earth magic, it would have taken two packs, twice as large, simply to carry enough food for him. But several years of training in the mage arts now meant that Mud could conjure his own food each day, relieving them of the need to pack a cook cart each trip. A bit of shelter, insect screen, and some emergency rations for him and the people they had been hired to rescue were all that was needed on this outing.
Asha waited next to her master, nose quivering at the new smells around her. She was excited as well, Zea knew, always alert and eager. Besides being an excellent riding mount for the small gnome, Asha was highly protective of her smaller master, serving as an excellent guard and companion on their treks.
“What now, Badger?” the large man asked.
“Now we track” Zea said as she scratched the ears of her companion Asha. The dog stood silently enjoying the attention. She was larger than the small woman, large enough to serve as a mount when she needed it. Her brindled colors muted well into the grasslands and forests they tended to haunt together. “They shouldn’t be too far ahead.”
Zea slapped at a flying bug “And we try to not get eaten alive by the bugs.”
Mud chuckled. “They never seem to bother me. I don’t know why.”
There was a swarm of them now, hovering just out of her arm’s range, apparently brought to this piece of marshland by the introduction of three warm blooded meals. They surrounded the area in each direction, a semi-solid black wall of parasites waiting to make life miserable for any travelers.
“Just stay with Asha, and don’t wander off, please, Mud?” she asked. “Stay in sight of her.” She worried about her companion, not constantly, but often. Despite his physical age, he had never fully grown up. She knew he was really a boy at heart, and in his head. Mud was just “himself”. Which is not a bad thing to be, she thought. At least, Mud was almost always happy.
“I will, Badger. And I bet Asha and I find the princess first!” His boyish face split with a bigger grin. Asha moved off to one side of a nearby hummock, nose to the ground, and the large fighter followed happily into the muck, heedless of the mud and wetness underneath his feet.
Badger shook her head as he moved past a small bush. “I’ve told you Mud, she isn’t a princess. She is just the daughter of a baron and we need to find her.” She found herself talking to his large back as he slogged his way through the mud of the marsh. She gave up the argument, knowing that to Mud, every job they took was finding princesses and slaying dragons. It didn’t matter how mundane their current job was; to Mud, the world was one of constant adventure— fighting bandits, finding treasure and rescuing damsels in distress from evil monsters. His world was very simple, and Badger had learned to live just inside it enough to keep Mud safe from real harm.
Asha had learned that lesson as well, she knew. The dog loved him more than anyone, and she would make sure nothing happened to him while he followed her. Left alone, Zea knew he would likely get lost in the swamp inside of ten minutes, but with Asha, she had no worries. Instead, she gathered her thoughts and took to the other side of the small game trail, looking for signs of a larger party that may have traveled through in recent days.
Zea focused her mind on the magical energies running under her feet through the earth. Faint traces of energy floated in lines through the air as well, also usable by her mage skills. Working quickly, she gathered them together and bound them with a quiet word of power, and released them into a spell. She had always been more attuned to earth and air than the other nature sources, but she could pull from water when needed. Fire magery was still beyond her. Her spell formed into small air sprites, invisible wisps of energy barely sentient. She sent them ahead of her, scouting the area for signs of disturbance as she moved. Controlling them took little effort, and left her mind free to wander as she moved through the grasses and waterways.
Anissette Levaugh, daughter of Baron Karulin Levaugh, had been traveling by coach from her cousin’s summer estates in the mountains to her father’s baronial holdings on the coast. Unfortunately, she had not arrived. Scouting parties had found the coach, stripped of every ornament and gilding worthy of resale, dumped off the road into a swampy fen. Bodies of the baroness’s guards were not found, but Zea knew, they might never be. Saltmere Marsh was not known for giving up its dead once it had them.
Desperate to recover his daughter, Baron Levaugh had sent troops after the bandits. His guards had been partially successful, having slaughtered half of the bandit clan and recovering two prisoners who had been caravan guards for the baroness. However, they failed to stop a smaller party of raiders from escaping the camp, taking the baroness and her two maid-servants with them across the marsh. It took no intelligence to realize the party was headed towards a rendezvous with a ship off the edge of the swamp, and even less intelligence to realize there was no possible way a group of soldiers could travel through the swamp itself in time to catch them.
That was when the Baron turned to the mage guild at Almere. For a hefty price, the mage guild was known to recover almost anything; artifacts, lost treasure, stolen property, people, spell components, anything remotely legal. And when it came to the Saltmere Marshes, the mage guild turned to Zea. Her reputation as a tracker and scout in the wild lands was well earned, and she had spent over twenty of her one hundred plus years of life in the Saltmere. Together with her partner, their reputation for getting jobs done was practically unmatched in the Almere area. It was that record, and a hefty payment of gold florins, that led them to this spot in the swamp.
She looked to the swamp floor carefully for signs of disturbance, looking for tracks, disturbed pools, anything that would indicate the kidnappers had passed through. Strands of dark hair, sweat-slick, fell into her face. She brushed them back with the same hand that swatted at the innumerable bugs attacking her.
She had a good idea where the bandits were headed as there was only one way out of the Saltmere to the north, and that was by ship. And, she knew as well that there were only two places with deep enough harbor to draft an ocean going vessel close to shore. They would have to pass through this area, somewhere, if they were going to get out of the swamp. And she knew, if they passed, they would leave a trail. Either she or her sprites would find some sign, soon enough.
She continued searching, expanding her route in a slow, half circle. Her sprites increased her search area, but they could not range
too far from her, their source of energy, without fading. And Zea knew they were barely intelligent, and easily distracted, so although they would likely see any signs, there was a chance they would miss something subtle. Scouting using magic was helpful, but magic could never replace the keen eyes and senses of a true hunter like Zea.
She knew Asha was working a similar pattern, only the dog used her keen sense of smell more than eyesight. Anything passing through the swamp would disturb the mud, splash the murky water, and create a plethora of scents that Asha would recognize as ‘out of order’. If they had passed, Asha would find signs.
Zea slapped at the swarm of black pests hovering around her, silently wishing she shared Mud’s ability to simply instantly heal the tiny bites and stings they inflicted. The sweat running down her face only served to attract them and make her life more miserable. She wondered if all the bugs in the swamp had given up attacking Mud, and had swarmed to her instead. It certainly seemed that way.
She knew why the bugs didn’t bother him, even if he didn’t know himself. The bugs bit him, but his personal power instantly healed the bites and irritations. It was part of his special gift, his ability to heal himself and others with just a touch and concentration. She had seen priests and clerics do the same thing, but Mud had no special training or connections with the priestly magics of healing. He just
could. Just as she could draw earth magics to cast spells and make her steps invisible, Mud could heal himself and others with a touch.
Zea knew he also had more power than any three priests she had ever seen. She had seen him heal the nearly dead and dying, and she herself had been pulled back from mortal wounds by his touch. He could not raise the dead, at least, she thought, not yet. The limits of his gift had never been fully tested. And she hoped it never would be.
She paused her futile efforts to kill the swarm to daub herself with mud. It smelled awful, of course, reeking of rotting swamp and vegetable matter, but the layer of muck would serve to protect her from the assault of the vermin hanging in the air. It also added to her ability to blend into the surroundings, looking like a half-man lump of mud and swamp grass. Zea smiled at the thought of her mud covered self moving through the marsh, chasing after the kidnappers. I could probably walk up to their damn camp and they wouldn’t see me now, and if they did, they would think I was fenfolk or something. Certainly not a bounty hunter.
An hour of humid heat and buzzing insects found Zea still searching for signs of the kidnap party. The slight sound of parting grass and the drip of water falling into the swamp brought her to a halt. To her left, the head high grasses parted to allow Asha’s head to poke through. Wordlessly, Zea stopped her searching and followed the dog across the marshlands. “Finally” she thought. “One of us found something. Of course, it had to be Mud and not me.”
A short bit of travel brought the pair to the edge of a large tree covered hummock, rising from the sea of grass. Mud sat happily on the ground, playing absently with a piece of wood broken from a tree. Zea watched his face scrunch in concentration as he moved his hands over the wood, stroking it slowly along the grain. The wood itself was smooth in his hands, so Zea knew he had been working it for a while, shaping it with the bits of magic she had taught him. She opened herself to the flow of magics through the swamp, and could see the weak lines moving towards him, being woven around the wooden stick. Mud himself glowed faintly, the result of his internal magic ability, constantly “on” in her sight.
“Hi Badger!” Mud spoke. His concentration on the item in his hands broken, Zea could see the spell’s magic fade away to earth again, the weaves disappearing and the mage lines returning to their normal flow.
Mud laughed. “You look funny, Badger. All covered in mud. Did you fall?” He held the vaguely bird shaped block of wood in his open hands for her to see. “We found the princess’s track, and I am making her a swan for when we find her.”
“That’s good Mud. But you will have to finish that tomorrow though. We need to find her first, and now that you have the track, we must move quickly. What did you find?” Asha moved over to the far side of the low hill, where Zea could see tracks in the mud and imprints of packs and poles in among the tree roots.
“Good job, girl.” She praised her dog with a quick scratch under the chin as she looked at the area. Grass and reeds lay flat, most still broken, on the hummock. “Someone rested here.” A quick search of the area gave Zea an idea of numbers, finding at least ten separate booted footprints and three sets of slippered ones. “It’s been a day, Mud” she said. “We need to move fast to catch them before they reach the coast. Are you ready?”
The large man had already shouldered his pack, and again carried his sword in hand. He simply nodded, as Zea moved through the grass, following the trail of broken reeds. Zea passed through the tall
grasses and reeds without seeming to leave a trail, the grasses bending aside gently as she moved, springing back with almost no sign of passing. She knew her tracks would be nearly impossible to follow; only a fellow tracker stood a chance. However, the mud holed footprints left by her companion marked the trail like a beacon for anyone else. She knew there was nothing she could do about that; Mud was just not a wild tracker, as she was. His talents lay in different arenas.
Six hours of movement through the swamp brought nightfall coming quickly to the swamp. Sensing the need to stop, Zea finally halted their march at a small rise of earth, dry among the marsh around it. It looked inviting, a drier spot in the wet marsh, a bit of firmer ground to camp on. She looked around the hummock, paying attention to the ground near the gnarled roots of a large smoke tree. Satisfied, she knelt on the moist earth, cast her small arms wide, and began speaking in a soft, chanting voice. Mud moved up behind her, Asha in tow, and stood, watching.
Zea’s soft voice continued chanting the words of her spell, and soon, a small creature inquisitively poked a long nose out of the barrow beneath the roots. The nose preceded the furred body of a marsh rat, cat size with a naked tail running behind it into the burrow.
“You called, earth sister?” The voice was high and hesitant in Zea’s mind, scared but cautiously curious. It came from the marsh rat before her.
“Yes. I come in peace, and wish to rest here the night. Is it safe?” Zea projected the image of her party, including Asha, to the smaller rat. She knew that the dog too would look frightening to the colony here, and didn’t want any misunderstandings when making friends.
The rat hesitated in thought. “There is death from the sky, day and at night.” It looked upward suddenly, as if afraid merely speaking of the threat might bring it. “And occasionally a legless one steals one of us, but that is all. It is safe for such as you.” The images in her mind were of a marsh hawk and an owl, not a threat to her, and a snake. The snake could be a problem, if it were large enough, but the odds were against that. They would take their chances. Besides, she thought, what snake could swallow Mud?
“Then we will stay, and we will share our food. Thank you.” Zea closed her mind to the spell before it could start a headache.
“Badger, Badger” Mud spoke excitedly. “Can you make it stay? Can you make it stay and play?” He pointed his huge finger towards the now empty hole in the ground. “Please?”
Zea shook her head. "Mud, you know that we do not force creatures. We ask of them, and they give what they will. All creatures have free will Mud, even marsh rats." She stood up and looked around the hummock. “But, if you do your chores tonight, I will help you with the spell, and you can ask him.”
Another smile broke through his face, and his eyes
danced in the setting sunlight as he gathered moss from the nearby trees for
bedding. Zea set up the small cold camp
and laid out blankets on the moss Mud brought back. Soon enough, they had a tidy camp set up at
“We could all do with a nice meal, Mud.” Zea spoke slowly. “Do you want to conjure up food for all of us?”
His face beamed. “Yes, Badger! I will. I will do food and water, and then I can ask the rats to play?”
“Yes, that is fine. You do that, and I will clean up a bit. Remember to conjure some nice treats for your new friends, should they come to play.”
Zea watched him finish settle into a light trance. She had taught him the several minor spells he knew, all from her wildland magic. He learned slowly, very slowly compared to natural spellcasters, each spell taking several months of practice and patience rather than days or weeks for most. He was still expanding his skills but had yet to grasp the complexities of anything except the most basic conjures. She smiled to watch him mouth the words, twisting his lips around the strange sounds.
Part of the problem was that he had no knowledge of what the words meant. To him, it was simple rote memorization. He spoke words, and if he got the sounds just right, magical things happened. It was the same as singing songs in a foreign language. One might sound out the words, and sing perfectly, but still have no idea what the words really were that were being sung.
She stripped out of her own clothes as Mud focused on his spellcasting. Setting them aside on a root stump, she cast her own spell. Mage energies collected at her hands, flowing through her, and a small pseudo-sprite, made of air and mist, appeared before her. She commanded it to attend her clothing and clean the camp, then dismissed it to work. A magical construct, it was not a living creature, just a bit of focused mage energy taking common form. She conjured another one and sent it to pick the mud and ticks from Asha, and a third to flit about the camp and stand guard.
Mud had succeeded in creating a large platter of food in front of him, and a large cask of fresh, pure water. A thought from Zea sent a pseudo sprite to pour the water into their skins, refreshing them for the next day. It emptied several cups into a large flat bowl near Asha, who stood up from her grooming to lap at it. It also carried a cup to Zea for her enjoyment, and some fresh fruit from Mud’s conjuration She noted with a smile a large assortment of cheeses and breads, along with oats and grains for the marsh rats. Asha wandered over to the pile of food, and began to devour the meats and sausages Mud had conjured for her.
By the time Zea’s clothes were cleaned and she had been wiped down head to toe by her helper sprites, Mud sat on the blanket with a dozen marsh rats crawling nearby him. More adventurous ones were in his lap, and one sat carefully balanced on his huge shoulder, being fed bits of dried corn. Others scampered back to their warrens with bulging cheeks and bits of food in their paws, storing it away for later. For their cooperation in sharing their territory, they were being given a season’s worth of food.
“They tickle” Mud said as one ran up his arm to perch on the other shoulder, bravely demanding an equal share of grain. He scratched one under the long snout and mouth as it took the food proffered. He giggled like a small child, and Zea thought for a moment that he truly was a small boy trapped forever in a man’s body. She continued to hear him giggle quietly with his new found friends until she fell asleep.
The following day was much like the first in the marsh; grass higher than Zea’s head, mud deeper than her knees waiting for a single misstep. They were up before dawn, Mud quickly ate breakfast and broke camp, settling the blankets into his pack, then carefully placed the last scraps of bread crumbs and cheese near the rat warren entrance. Then they left the small hummock and followed the trail left by the kidnappers.
Half the morning later, Zea found the abandoned campsite. She circled carefully, looking for traps. Finding none, she signaled Mud to enter. They carefully scoured the area, Zea noting body impressions in the grass and scrape marks on the small trees that showed where the captives had been tied.
Mud was the first to find the signs of trouble. “Badger, over here. Someone was hurt.” Zea moved to examine the area. Blood, only a few hours old, stuck to the marsh grass. That wasn’t a horrible sign, Zea knew. Traveling through the marsh was hazardous, and injuries were common enough. It would only be worse for the baronesses and her ladies, unaccustomed to the rigors of a forced march and captivity.
What concerned her more was that it might not be swamp related, and that one of the captives had been beaten, or worse, by the bandits. Of course, the blood could be from one of the bandits, but already she
doubted it herself based on the small knee imprints in the ground where someone sat kneeling and bleeding. The many smaller footprints moving in the area told of various ladies standing near, providing support and comfort. She rather doubted they would care that much for their captors anguish.
“I hope they are all right” Mud said. “Was it the princess?”
“I can’t tell Mud.” Zea said. “But they are hurt, and they need us even more now. We best be going.” Zea took a long pull at her waterskin, offering some to Asha after her drink. Mud followed her example, draining half a skin in his drink. Zea was glad she had taught him some basic magic, how to create pure water and food for a small group each day. It relieved her of the effort, and allowed her to expend her mage energy in other useful areas. The complex spells and rituals of greater magic were well beyond him, but in their few years of travel he had learned a half dozen simple spells to make life easier for them.
Midafternoon brought the scent of the ocean breeze to Zea’s nose. The land under their tread had been drier and higher for the past sun mark, and she knew they were close to the coast. Stands of needle-trees marked the edge of the horizon, their tiny needle-like boughs blowing gently in the breeze. They formed a living border, edging the open grass with a tall hedge of dark green, separating it from the sandy dunes beyond. The trail they had been following had not twisted or curved since the marsh faded underfoot, being set directly for the nearest stand of trees on the horizon.
“We must catch up, before they take to the sea.” Knowing that running on her small legs was not her strength, Zea moved towards Asha and grabbed onto the dog’s harness. Swinging up easily onto Asha’s back, she urged the huge dog forward. Mud hurried along behind her, his huge strides eating up the distance almost as fast as Asha.
Zea’s plan was to slowly approach the beach she knew was ahead and carefully plan a rescue of the women. As with most plans, it failed immediately. As they neared the stand of needle-trees, a scream rang out, carried by the wind, followed by the cursing of a man and the thick wet sound of a blow being struck. Zea started to slow Asha down, but Mud cried out “Princess!” and raced through the thin woods, bursting onto the grassy dunes and sand beyond. He was gone before Zea could stop him.
Zea could hear him crashing through the leafy boughs and short sea grass. She knew he would appear practically on top of the raiding party, probably surprising them by his outburst. So much, she thought, for the element of surprise. Zea lept from Asha, pulling the tendrils of magic about her. “No plan survives its’ birth,” she thought, “we’re in the thick of it now. We are going to need help.”
She arrived on the beach just in time to see Mud toss a bandit nearly headfirst into the sand behind him, and two more approach the big man with sabers drawn. The nearly seven feet of muddied young man stood yards away from the remaining bandits, shouting “Stop that. Don’t hurt the princess!”
Quickly counting the three engaged with Mud, Zea could see five more bandits on the beach, armed with daggers and swords, with crossbows slung across their shoulders. That made the odds 8 to 2, in favor of the enemy, a well armed enemy at that. Not great odds, and now they had lost the advantage of surprise as well.
Two of the bandits were busy with the captives, being responsible for the slap and scream that brought Mud on top of them. They were attempting to tie them into a beached shore boat, one of two floating oddly in the sand and water just below the tidemark. Two of the women were struggling vainly, one having been knocked to her back into the boat already. The shore boats obviously came from the ship drifting half a league away, at the edge of the reef.
One man grabbed a woman harshly and lifted her off her feet. Kicking and screaming, she flailed against him in vain, and he practically slammed her onto the seat of the longboat. A hard slap from the man’s fist knocked the last woman off her feet and into the floor of the boat. Another raised fist, threatened in their direction, quieted them quickly. Their struggles diminished, and the first man began wrapping the ropes around a boathook, moving rapidly to secure them into the boat. The other climbed into the rear of the boat and swung his crossbow into place, covering the women and the spread of beach before him.
Glancing quickly towards Mud, she saw that he was facing a small circle of three men, one rising slowly from the sand. His size and greater reach was giving them pause for the moment as he feinted towards one, then the other. That left three bandits for Zea to contend with. Not impossible odds for her, but not good ones either. Three to one was not her favorite game of chance, but one she hoped she might survive. Her first action was to cast a summoning spell. The extra help it brought could make the difference.
She cast the spell, releasing the energy from her mind, forming a summons to the spirits for an ally. It would take several moments for the spell to be answered and a summoned creature to come, she knew, moments she could not waste. She immediately readied a second spell, albeit of far less power. Drawing her weapons, she sprinted towards the captives. The three bandits heard her shout, but lost a valuable second of time in re-looking in Mud’s direction, then back to the diminuitive woman dashing across the sand towards them. Zea’s second spell completed, she focused the energy onto creating a dazzling, sparkling energy that raced across the metal of her two swords. Blue electrical sparks arced between the blades, with crisp audible pops and snaps. It was all for show, but only Zea knew that. To the bandits, her blades had to look deadly and magical.
Zea glanced at Mud, hoping for the best. Mud was huge, and strong as most oxen. He was also well trained as a warrior, but it was never certain that he would remember his training in a brawl. His first victim rose unsteadily, searching the sand nearby for signs of his weapon, lost in the first attack. The other two men, blades in hand, spread further out, and circled him warily, trying to surround him. They moved slowly, staying out of the reach of the bigger man’s hands. Mud stood in the center of them all, eyes narrowed in concentration, his large hands holding tightly to his sword and scabbard.
Mud suddenly moved, and gripped only the hilt of his great sword. He swung it in a fast arc across his body, snapping his wrists at the last moment to send the sword scabbard flying from the blade. It hit the first swordsman directly in the chest, catching him by surprise. A loud cracking sound echoed across the beach, over the muted sound of the ocean waves.
The bandit sat heavily in the sand, breath gasping for air as his wind was knocked from him. Zea smiled broadly; it was a trick she had taught him. Mud’s scabbard was weighted at the end with iron, several pounds of it. The additional weight didn’t bother a man of Mud’s strength at all while being carried, but it added an immeasurable impact to the force of it when thrown. The bandit swordsman just experienced the effects of catching a war hammer directly with his chest, an unpleasant experience to say the least. The fleshy cracking noise upon the scabbard’s impact told her that the man’s chest was broken, and he would be likely out for the fight.
Her own opponents hesitated as she approached, still torn between duty and fear. They glanced one last time at the other battle, then at
the captives to their right. That second was all the delay needed to bring one of them to death, as Zea’s curved saber blade slashed across his stomach, flipping blood into an arc across the sand. The bandit fell forward, hands gripping his guts as they leaked onto the sand. Zea immediately moved into the area he had occupied, taking the battle to the enemy.
Zea planted her foot in the soft sand, and twisted her body tightly. In her other hand, her ocera, a miniature version of the gnome saber she wielded in her other hand, with the cutting edge on the inside of the weapon, caught the other bandit’s blade and twisted. It wasn’t enough to disarm him, but it was enough to let her saber slip in under his guard, and slice into his thigh. He grunted and swung again, slashing ineffectively at her smaller form.
The third bandit slashed at Zea with a long dagger, scoring a cut on her back as she moved out of his line. A soft popping sound behind him, barely audible, signaled the arrival of the summoned Spirit Zea had called at the start of the fight. A ghostly white wolf stood for only half a moment in the warm sand, orienting itself to the need that had summoned it. Then, it immediately leapt onto the back of the second bandit, savagely tearing at his neck. Face down on the beach sand, the bandit had little leverage to move the savage beast from his back. He rolled over in the sand, tossing the animal to the side, but before he could recover his wits, the beast attacked again. In seconds, his life was over, bled out on the sand like his compatriot earlier. The wolf shook its head savagely once and then eyed the other bandit moving in front of Zea. Its powerful legs coiled under itself, it moved forward to engage. Suddenly, a loud “snick” sounded, and a crossbow quarrel blossomed in the beast’s white chest. A second one followed a moment later, fired from a bearded bandit guarding the women. No blood appeared from the spirit wolf, but it slowed, then stopped, and wavered
unsteadily. Then, the beast fell to the sand and disappeared, the spell dissipated by the damage taken.
Zea warily circled her last opponent. From the corner of her eye, she saw one of the bandits reloading his crossbow, struggling to lock the arm in place. The soft footing of the beach sand made it difficult to get purchase and leverage for the feat. A second bandit was shouting to the others, and struggling to push the boat further into the surf. Zea moved around on the sand, feinting with her saber and then defending with her ocera. Her small size gave her an advantage, she knew. She was a smaller target and thus harder to hit. To her, everyone else was a large target, and relatively easy to find opening and vital areas on. Circling again, she put the bandit between her and the shore boat, in case the other bandit managed to load and aim his crossbow. It wouldn’t do to be shot in the back by one while being skewered on the blade of another.
Her opponent attacked, pressing forward after her feint, thinking he saw an opening. Zea parried easily, sweeping past his guard and stepping forward. He lunged past, over her head literally, as she darted through the opening to his side. With a back hand, she sliced at his calf with her ocera, the inside sharpened edge of the reverse saber slicing into his muscles and tendons. He fell with a scream, leg muscles severed to the bone. He would not be rising again, forever. She knew from experience that the man would bleed out in seconds from the severed artery in his leg. Dismissing him as a threat, she moved forward towards the boats with the hostages.
Mud shouted, and Zea turned to see him beating back his two opponents. Their sabers made harsh ringing sounds as Mud’s sweeping blows beat them back. The bandits were tiring already, much of their energy spent merely absorbing the tremendous blows being taken by their blades. Mud swung through them again. Then, almost impossibly quick,
reversed his blade arc and brought it back through. The look of surprise on the bearded face of his opponent was frozen in time as the edge of Mud’s huge sword severed the man’s head from his body. It hit the sand seconds before the bandits own body fell nearby.
The crossbowman succeeded in arming his weapon, and fired at Mud, the larger target. The bolt buried itself into Mud’s side, below his chest. Just the fletchings remained outside, caught on the strips of leather in Mud’s armor. Mud grunted in surprise, and his last opponent took the opportunity to stab with his saber towards the big man. Mud swung his sword and caught the blade, blocking it downwards, where it slid into his massive thighs and buried itself. Staggered, Mud screamed in pain and swung his fists upwards, heavy sword hilt catching his foe under the chin, lifting him off his feet and knocking him backwards into the sand. The bandit lay there crumpled, jaw broken, blood draining from his mouth.
“Hold!” The bandit in the boat shouted. “Hold or I kill the maidens”. To emphasize his point, he pointed a loaded crossbow towards the women in the boat. “I will kill her, and the other, if need be. I really need only save one for payment.” Zea gave him credit for tactics, and knowing that his remaining crew was woefully outclassed in a fight. She credited him with being the captain of the party, if not worthy of a ship.
Mud hobbled forward, but stopped at Zea’s command. “It’s okay Mud. We will let them be for now. You are hurt. Tend your wound.” She stepped towards the boat, and the bearded man pointed his newly reloaded weapon at her. “Stay,” he warned. She stopped, respecting his accuracy and the deadliness of the weapon.
“Let them go,” Zea said. “You cannot escape. You will never make your ship,” she pointed to the galley in the harbor, “and most of your crew is dead. Do you really believe the three of you can make the ship?”
She stalled for time, using the moments to gather magical energies around her again. She had never summoned a sea creature yet, but she had to try. Something to stop the boat was all she had left. She could swim, barely, but not fast enough to catch a boat. Besides, she knew there was no tactical advantage to catching a boat held by your enemies. There was no way to take it.
Mud grunted and gripped the saber still buried in his leg. The huge slash across his thigh was bleeding freely, but the flow of blood was already slowing down. He pulled, and with a wet sound, the saber came free. Another gush of blood followed, but slowed to a trickle almost immediately. The upper, more shallow end of his wound was already healing, slowly mending itself as he stood. The two bandits at the boat paled slightly as they watched.
Mud’s last victim moaned softly. Blood dripping from his broken mouth, he began crabbing his way across the sand towards the boat. His eyes never left the sight of Mud, saber dripping blood held lightly in one hand, massaging his injured leg with his other. By the time the man had backed into the gunnel of the boat, Mud’s wounds had stopped bleeding.
“Impressive” the lead bandit said, nodding his head towards Mud. “But still, I must be leaving, me and my remaining crew. Atur, help Janos into the boat,” he directed the healthier bandit. The crossbowman, Atur, Zea now knew, carefully handed a loaded crossbow to his injured partner, who carefully aimed it at Zea.
The leader spoke again. “We have our prize, and you are welcome to what you can get from them,” he indicated his fallen comrades. “I am sure there is some gold in their pouches for a battle well fought”
“I can’t let you leave,” Zea said. “Not with the ladies.” She spread her hands wide, weapons drawn but down. She watched the crossbowmen carefully, waiting for a slip in concentration. Out in the
sea, among the waves, she felt the power come in answer to her call. Somewhere out there was a spirit beast, summoned to help her. What it was, she wasn’t sure. Spirit beasts always took the shape most needed for the situation, but since Zea had no idea what animal would be most needed here, she couldn’t guess what form her spell might take.
“Don’t we want prisoners?” Atur asked. “These two would fetch a nice price at the markets.” He finished helping his wounded comrade in the boat. Janos moved to the aft seat, and began locking in oars.
“These two?” the leader answered. “And how do you expect to take them prisoner? There’s three of us, two of them, and five dead bodies on the sand. You like those odds? Are they better now than when we had them eight to two?” He spat into the water in contempt. “Hell, Roger buried his sword right into that one, and he’s healed up already. He’s got a bolt in his guts and still standin’. How do you plan to capture them?” Not waiting for an answer, he continued. “These two won’t try anything ‘cause they know we will kill the ladies if they do.” He looked at Zea on the shore for confirmation, and inclined his head in a mock bow.
“Push off” the bandit ordered. Janos grabbed an oar and began poling away the boat. Atur began pushing the boat into the surf as well, shoving until he was waist deep in the surf before crawling over the side himself. He sat in the middle of the craft and rapidly assembled an oar in the lock.
The lead bandit shoved his hostage to the seat in front of him, and sat. He kept his weapon aimed towards the captives, tied in the front of the boat. “Don’t try anything,” he raised his voice over the surf. “I can still kill one,” he indicated, “faster than you can do
anything.” The two crewmen bent themselves to rowing the boat into the waves. Zea watched as the boat slipped into deeper waters.
Zea had moved into the waves at the edge of the beach. The ocean broke against her small frame, each wave nearly knocking her over. She felt out along the lines of magic she had cast, searching for her spell’s power to have formed. It was frustrating to her to have to let them slip away.
“Badger?” Mud said. “We can’t let them take the princess.” His voice rose. “We have to stop them!” He stood ankle deep in the ocean, big knuckles cracking with nervous energy.
“I am working on it,” Zea said quietly to her friend. “Just be ready to grab the women and get them to away.” Mud moved up beside her, and she steadied herself on his strong form. Waves waist high to her were barely to his knees. She noted absently that his thigh was almost healed, pink flesh running in a thin scar beneath the gash in his pants.
Sheathing her weapons, Zea watched the boat ease into the waves, the two lesser bandits poling away from the beach. Once they reached waters deep enough, they locked their oars into place, and began rowing. As they passed the breakwater mark, dozens of yards off shore, the lead bandit smiled. “You will never make it, little one,” he said and lowered his crossbow. “We win.”
“Not yet,” Zea said to herself, watching the waves intently. Just then, her silent command to her spirit beast was answered. Ghostly white tentacles rose up from beneath the boat, each as long as a man and as thick as a tree. The first one grasped the side of the boat and wrapped around an oar and oarlock. A second reached the wrist of a seated man, wrapping itself firmly around it. Two more tentacles flailed in the air, reaching for contact with the other men in the boat.
“Now Mud!” she said. “Get to the boat!” Zea moved into the waves, diving into the foam and stroking against the tide. She struggled for only a moment before Mud ran through the water easily, grabbing her small body by her soaked clothing, and moved further into the surf. He carried her easily in his hand, striding into the waist deep water, pushing against the breaking waves.
Zea glimpsed the boat tilt drastically, unbalancing the crew, who scrambled to stay in place. Janos shrieked through his broken jaw as a second tentacle joined the first to grip him fiercely. His cries rose in pitch as he as lifted from the seat, and carried over the side of the boat to disappear in the blue waters.
The leader fired his bolt into the white terror rocking his boat, then grabbed for his sword. Atur stabbed at the tentacle reaching for him, spilling black ichors across the boat. The tentacle weaved back, searching for a new path to attack. Hacking at the tentacles pulling the boats side, the bandits fought against the pull of the creature. The sea churned as the boat rocked in the beasts grip. The women screamed as the boat rose and fell in the waves. Zea could hear the cracking of wood as the creature tore the boat apart.
In seconds, the boat split apart, dumping the bandits and hostages alike into the frothing waves. The tentacles rose once more above the wave crests and then splashed into the water, wrapping around each screaming bandit, and dragging them under. The ladies screamed as they struggled against the chains holding them to the boat, splashing in the sea to keep their heads above the water line.
Mud abandoned Zea to the waves, and swam strongly to the boat. Zea followed behind, paddling weakly in the tide. Mud’s side bled again, as his exertions reopened the wound around the bolt in his ribs, staining the water briefly with bright red streamers. Reaching the remnants of the boat, he grasped the chains in his hands, and pulled. The women jerked towards him as he reeled them in closer to the prow of the shoreboat. Sputtering and coughing, they grabbed for purchase to his shoulders and to the remnants of the boat itself.
When they were all holding tightly, Mud ripped at the bolt holding the chains in place to the deck. Tossing in the waves, he anchored his feet against the flooring, and pulled. His head disappeared under water, as Zea swam franticly towards them. The boat prow disappeared as well, pushed down into the ocean under his feet. The women floated weakly, swimming as best they could as their flotation and salvation disappeared under the waves. Long seconds passed without signs from under the waves. Zea paddled closer, cursing the tide and her tiny body.
Finally, gasping for air, Mud surfaced. His lungs full of air again, he beamed at the women around him. “Princess,” he said to the entire handful of bedraggled women before him, “You are free again.” He held the chain bolt in his hand, pieces of the wood deck still attached. He motioned with his head to the shore. “Grab me, I will swim.”
Half an hour later, everyone was warm and dry on the shoreline. Zea’s magic had driven the water from their clothing, and dried the worst of the ocean from their skin and hair. The rest could wait until they had transported back to the guild halls through the gate. Mud had healed the worst cuts and bruises on the women, under the watchful eyes of the baroness. Rescuer or not, she watched Mud around her two maid servants like a hawk watching a field mouse, Zea thought.
They finally gathered near the shelter of a needle tree to begin their journey home. Zea pulled a bone white ivory rod from her pouch, and checked one last time on the party. Mud hefted his backpack, heavier now with the gold and silver from the bandits’ bodies, and weighted down with the best of their weapons for barter. Zea patted her own pouches, fuller now as well with coin, and scratched Asha’s chin.
“Ladies?” she asked. “Are you ready to return home again?” At the unanimous nods of the group, Zea triggered the mage rod, and a glistening white doorway formed in the setting light of the sun. “Well then, after you.”