Delwind was walking through Thorsbridge when he saw them.
He lived on a farm a few minutes’ walk away from the little village, and had worked there all his life. His mother had raised him and his brother single-handedly. Delwind had never seen his father, and his mother refused to tell him his name, or talk about the incident that had caused his disappearance.
Delwind was fifteen, with shoulder length, curly blond hair and blue eyes. He was tall and skinny, well built and strong, tanned from days at work outside. His brother, Banech, was three years older than him, and they spent hours in the fields together, sowing in the crop, nurturing it as it grew, and taking the grain to market. Their takings were not bad, as their farm was the only one for miles around, but they did not have enough money to stay well-fed, and it was a constant struggle to earn enough to survive.
Delwind was strolling towards the butchers’ at his ease, when he saw two men standing in a corner, examining a roll of parchment. They were muttering in the coarse, thick accent of Ildar, and Delwind’s suspicions were aroused at once.
Delwind approached quietly, hiding against walls and peering around corners. Thorsbridge was easy to hide in, as the houses were set close together, and built onto terraces that cut into the rock and sat like a massive set of steps up the hillside. To gain height, Delwind climbed stealthily up a set of stone steps winding their way up the hill, and approached the terrace above the two men.
Cautiously, Delwind stuck his head over the edge of the stone railing, and listened with his sharp ears to their conversation.
‘– sure the map says to come here,’ said one of the men, tall and slim, with his face obscured by a black hood.
‘Well, you would think so, wouldn’t you?’ hissed the other, strangely short and sporting a sweating bald patch on his head. ‘We can’t have mistaken the map; it’ll probably have been those darned scouts that marked it wrong.’
‘No, it is definitely here,’ said the tall man, with conviction.
‘How can it be?’ retorted the short man defiantly. ‘They wouldn’t camp on this side of the mountains and journey all the way across it every time they wanted to spy on us! What a waste of time.’
‘There are resources here,’ said the tall man calmly. ‘They would have to be close to this town to buy food and supplies.’
‘They wouldn’t stay right in the town, though, would they?’ said the short man incredulously. ‘What a waste of time, coming here. We guided the whole force over those stupid mountains just to turn up here and not find them. It was your idea to come here in the first place, Endelash.’
At that moment, Delwind saw across the street another hooded figure emerge. There was a large pack on her back, and she was armed with a slender longbow that was sticking out of the quiver on her pack. From the way she was moving, Delwind could tell that she had been travelling for a long time. She wasn’t even leading a horse.
She was looking around no doubt for an inn she could sleep in, or a place she could buy food. As yet, she had not noticed the two strangers muttering in the corner, or, for that matter, Delwind. If he had not been concerned that the strangers would discover him, he would have gone to help her. She had sat down on a stone bench outside the butchers to rest her legs.
‘Don’t blame this on me, Forze,’ said Endelash, angering at once at his friend’s accusation. ‘I said we might find something useful here, I wasn’t sure that –’
‘You might be good with a sword, but you’ve got dragon dung for brains,’ said Forze sardonically.
‘Aye, you’re right, I’m very good with a sword,’ said the man with gritted teeth. ‘And if you’re not more careful I’ll run you right through with it.’
‘I don’t think so,’ said Forze scathingly. ‘You’d never manage to get home. You’d get lost, like a dumb insect.’
Endelash pulled his sword a foot out of its scabbard, then considered a minute. It was true – he was a poor navigator, and he would be left out here without help if he killed Forze. Grumpily, he replaced it.
‘Well, what are we going to do now?’ said Forze resignedly. ‘You’ve led us on a wild goose chase around these accursed mountains and we still haven’t found the camp.’
‘We’d find the camp if only we followed the map,’ said Endelash reasonably. ‘The scouts can’t be that thick.’
‘I didn’t say it was the scouts who were thick,’ said Forze superciliously.
Endelash thought about this statement for a moment.
‘Hey!’ he burst out suddenly. He half pulled out his sword again.
Delwind thought that it was a retort to Forze’s comment. But below Delwind, Endelash shivered and looked around, as if he knew someone was watching him. He unsheathed his sword – a long, lethal scimitar – in its entirety. Delwind jerked his head hastily out of sight as he looked up. Delwind gripped the hilt of the trusty rusty sword in his belt, the sword that never left his waist unless it was to do battle.
But it was not him that the men had seen – it was the girl sitting on the bench.
At once, Forze rolled up the map and tucked it away. They started towards the girl.
Delwind hastily climbed onto the stone railings of the edge of the terrace. There was a sloping thatched roof about five feet away, roofing a house on the lower terrace. It was to this that Delwind jumped, stretching out in midair and seizing the decorated coping at the apex of the roof. This stunt had been totally silent, and he was now directly above the two men and the girl.
‘Well, well, well, what is this, what is this?’ said Forze silkily. ‘We have an eavesdropper.’
‘What?’ said the girl, struggling to her feet. ‘I wasn’t listening to your conversation; I was simply resting my feet after my long journey.’
‘Why was it that bench you chose to sit at, girl?’ said Forze sharply. ‘The bench that was closest to us? You must have heard everything!’
‘No, honestly, I didn’t hear a thing –’ stammered the girl, but Forze spoke over her.
‘Maybe we cut out your tongue to prevent you saying anything,’ he said, rubbing his chin in thought. ‘Unless you can write … maybe we just kill you to make our lives easier …’
Delwind was sliding along the roof to where the confrontation was taking place below. He could see the two men advancing, the girl retreating. Soon she had nowhere to back away, and Delwind heard the distinctive scrape of metal on metal as Forze unsheathed his sword.
In a flash, the girl’s boot came shooting up, and Delwind realised she had been feigning terror as she swung smoothly into battle. In one moment she kicked Forze away and drew her bow. As Endelash swiped she dived aside and rammed the end of the bow into his stomach. Collapsing in pain, Endelash fell onto the floor. But Forze was now approaching, and the girl could not nock an arrow in time. Suddenly he had her by the neck, pinned against the wall.
Delwind slid down the thatch and landed catlike on the cobbles of the street, sword in hand. Forze let go of the girl and whirled around as Endelash staggered back over, clutching his stomach.
The girl had collapsed to the floor, her bow still in her hand. The approaching Forze was holding his sword aloft, above his head, ready to strike. Delwind’s stomach lurched – he had never sparred for real, he had only practised with – and beaten – his brother, fighting with cypress sticks. But this was the real thing. Delwind’s hand was sweating, but he held his rusty sword firm against the shining, elegant blade of his opponent.
Forze swiped his sword across Delwind’s chest, aiming for his heart. Delwind flicked up his sword, sending the blow spinning away and toppling Forze off balance. He jabbed forward and Forze fell back to avoid, swinging his sword hand down to break his fall with his blade. Delwind stabbed at the man’s ankle, and blood sprayed across the cobbles. Forze gave a grunt of pain.
Now Endelash had joined the fray. Delwind turned to face him and his six foot scimitar, which swung down towards him. Delwind parried and retaliated, pushing him back to where the other man lay in the street, trying to trip him. But Endelash was stronger, and he wrenched his sword away and swung it round for a new attack.
There was no doubt about it – Endelash was good with a sword. In seconds he had Delwind floored, and so had an excellent height advantage. Delwind grasped his sword at both ends to block a devastating downwards strike from the scimitar, and felt the point spur into his hand. Endelash swung again, and again, Delwind blocked. He lashed out at the man’s feet, and he jumped back snarling.
Delwind rolled onto his feet as the scimitar came scything round again, and just managed to block its progress into his torso. Sparks erupted from the clash, and flew into Endelash’s eyes. He roared in pain and spiralled away, blocking Delwind’s attack with a bossed bronze shield he had pulled from inside his robes.
Parry. Block. Attack. Dodge. With each defence and each attempted attack, Delwind became more exhausted. The taller, stronger man was wearing him down, attacking with blade and boss alike. Another vicious slice sent him crashing down to the floor again. Delwind rolled away to avoid the scimitar and it smashed with a sharp ting onto the cobbles. But Endelash was now over him, and he had no way of escape. Endelash swiped at Delwind’s hand and he moved it away. The scimitar sent the sword spinning away across the cobbled street. Delwind was now defenceless.
Endelash raised his sword, ready to finish him off.
There was a thud as the arrow sliced into Endelash’s back. He fell backwards and there was a nasty squelching sound as the cobbles pushed the arrow through his stomach, and forced it through the front of his tunic.
Gurgling and groaning, Endelash fell silent.
Sickened, Delwind looked away, as blood started to pool on Endelash’s tunic. He looked up to see the girl holding up her bow. She struggled to her feet.
‘How did you –?’ stuttered Forze, clutching at his ankle, which was bleeding copiously. He was trying to move closer to the pair, but Delwind raised the point of his sword to Forze’s neck. As soon this happened, Forze’s dormant cowardice erupted in floods of imploring tears.
‘Please … don’t do anything – have mercy – ’
Still holding his sword to Forze’s neck, Delwind bent down and extracted the map from the folds of Forze’s cloak. The man shivered as the map was taken away, but he didn’t resist for fear of the cold blade resting on his neck.
Tucking it inside his own tunic, Delwind lifted the sword from Forze’s neck and went to pick up the men’s weapons, lying as though discarded on the floor.
Turning away from Forze, who had just fainted; and Endelash, clearly dead; Delwind turned to face the girl.
‘Er … hi,’ he said.
‘Hey,’ she said. ‘Thanks for that, I thought I was a goner.’
‘You finished him off,’ said Delwind modestly.
‘I couldn’t have done it without your help,’ she said. ‘You fight very well with a sword.’
She had removed her cloak, and Delwind could see that she was a slender girl about the same age as him, with shoulder-length, shiny black hair and intense brown eyes. She was wearing a peasant’s clothes – a tunic and breeches, with poorly made shoes. On her back was a long quiver, in which her bow was now nestled with its company of arrows fletched with swan feathers.
‘Well … I’m Delwind,’ he said, offering her Endelash’s sword. ‘What’s your name?’
The girl hesitated for a moment as she accepted the pommel from Delwind, then said:
Delwind was walking through Thorsbridge when he saw them.