Daringly Duelsome Debacle

            The old widow must die.

            The crowd blocked the road. A cluster of people were huddled together, watching the duel. Children were hoisted up upon parents' shoulders. One young man had climbed a tree to get a better view. And nobody knew what to make of it. It was, simply, entertaining.

            The indigo-caped fencer and the gray-haired banshee circled each other, like territorial animals in the woods. Water fell softly from the roof of the woods, and sweat dripped from their brows.

            She will meet her own Spider's Kiss.

            On the other side, two men on horseback had stopped to watch. One of them was grim-faced and hooded in a large, swaying gray robe. He stood, watching Naieyle and the Banshee Bard with interest. The victor shall be paid, as those bards of Haeville were paid. The Queen, Querystal bless her heirless womb, will trust my judgment once again.

            "You snake," the old woman seethed at the young lady, "You killed him! Forty years, gone in a slice of your sword. You self-righteous piece of dung. I'll gut you, I'll gut you yet!"

            "Mmmm, can't gut more than my torn cape," she jeered. "Come and get me."

            The old woman sneered, pulling her upper lip up to reveal an ugly set of teeth.

            An object in the fencer's hand, fell to the ground in a puff of smoke. And, with a hand, she guided the smoke. It rose up from the foul sack that had hit the ground, and clouded the air. She guided it, upward and outward, blotting out the scene.

            The crowd was cheering at the display, and then silenced as they stood before a cloud of purple haze, coughing and looking on with apprehension. However, they heard voices.

            "Smoke sacks of the Broche Bog." And Naieyle teased, "You're from Broche, are you not?"

            No answer came. There was no wind to blow away the haze.

            The old woman cackled, "And every time I screamed, these'd fall form the trees."

            "Only a bad thing on a windy day," Naieyle sniffed the air, "It's intoxicating."

            "You wield magics of venom and toxins, you poison the mind with crude judgment. You will fall, by my knives."

            Horses whinnied and coughed, and the travelers on the south side of the cloud backed down the road, and passed the caravan. However, the man from Crownlake kept watching the cloud. The Queen needs a vassal such as them.

            "Ahhhhhhhh--" The spectators clamped hands to their ears, and the horses ran off a short distance more. "--hhhhh!"

            I suspect that the swift old woman is too old to be of much use.

            In front of the Banshee, the cloud had thinned in the wake of her scream. The purple smoke rippled in soft rivulets into the trees. And wet leaves fell from above.

            The complaining crowd fell silent, eyes straining to make out the old woman in the haze.

            The old woman spun around, at the sound of nearby footsteps. Then, Naieyle's rapier swished in, through the smoke, severing the torn and matted gray hair as the old woman ducked and rolled off to the side.

            The gray hair fell to the ground.

            "You are as handicapped as I am," the old woman said.

            "Or perhaps I'm just playing with you?"

            "I know how your magic works," the Banshee shouted through the smoke. "You can only sense where I am if I stop moving for long periods of time, like I did after screaming."

            "That's one theory," Naieyle answered. "But you are no arcane dowager."

            Knives danced silently into the smoke, and hit nothing.

            The fencer gave another audible intake of the purple smoke, "This is much more relaxing than circling each other like rabid dogs."

            "Murderer."

            "I am licensed to kill, hag. He had it coming."

            A knife scrapped Naieyle's calf.

            "Ahhhrgh!" and she darted off, away from the old woman. "There are no poisons on your blade."

            "You'd be immune."

            "True enough."

            The smoke was beginning to clear. Vague forms could be made out, with focus and deliberation.

             "Uuugh," the tanned boy groaned, as Naieyle stepped on him by accident.

            And then, the old woman knew where she was. She threw a knife just beyond the shadow of the caravan. Everyone heard it quiver to a halt, lodged in the bark of a tree.

            A young girl, on her father's shoulders, pointed with glee to the tree at the edge of the cloud. The khayber knife shone, in the dim sunlight that pierced the trees above.

            "Smoke-sacking the road was not the best strategy on a rainy day," the man in the gray cloak offered commentary.

            "Perhaps not," Naieyle admitted. But I like to put on a show.

            The crowd watched, anticipating the next move.

            Steel clanged together, and the remaining knife struggled to parry the rapier.

            "What's going on?" one villager called.

            "I can't see!"

            "Stop it, Mom, you're hurting me!"

            A crowd of villagers, at the southern edge of town. Three horses, harnessed to a massive log. Three comatose, naked women. One lethargic adolescent. Two travelers on horseback. And the creaky old caravan, off to the side. All covered in a cloud of purple smoke.

            Again, metal hit metal. And then, the rapier darted down and scratched the old woman's wrist. And the fencer pulled back, grinning in the parting, wet smoke.

            "Hah-hah, hah-ha-ah," she laughed, then, full of youth and pride. She seethed, "The poison of the flesh you sought to monger now runs in your veins."

            "You're lying!"

            Again, the rapier curved into another strike, piercing the old woman across the shoulder.

            "You can feel it, can't you?" Naieyle teased. "Getting sleepier by the second, eh?"

            The old woman screamed, letting out another shrieking shockwave. It was weak, and Naieyle stood strong against it, supported by a stalwart stance.

            "Your cache of magical energy grows numb," she intoned. "Better run while you can still stand!" And then, she ran at the old woman, who fled in the fading shreds of purple smog.

            She was gone, into the forest's edge. Nobody followed her. The crowd cheered, and then parted. They ran off towards the village.

            "Give him a decent burial!" Naieyle yelled into the woods, as the rain picked up in intensity, and showered them all through the boughs above.

            The man in the gray cloak approached her. She recognized him, from Haeville. He had stayed with her uncle, the Baron.

            "If I paid you a bag of fifty golden crowns and told you it was your bimonthly pay as vassal to the queen, and obliged you to make your way to Crownlake, what would you do?"

            "Sir Brutan, I'd tell you I'm already on my way," Naieyle replied with a wry grin, and she snatched the bag of gold from him. Onward; to Johm, to answers, to love!

            He smiled, "Baron Armâtre's niece?"

            She nodded, and looked down into the bag.

            "I knew I recognized you. That was daring of you, young woman."

            "I try," and she clenched her teeth into a coin, leaving telltale marks. No, a servant of the Crown would not pay me in fool's crownlets.

            And then, Naieyle walked off with the bag of gold tied to her belt.

            He rode past her, on his horse. His companion followed. Sir Brutan looked down at her; as she tended to, and apologized to, the tanned young man. He smiled, "Run off to the south with that bag of gold, and I will hunt you down like a boar in the woods. The last thing you see will be my --"

            "Blade at your neck," she finished his sentence. "I know how the Castle works out here, I had my proper training, Sir."

            "Right," he said, and signaled his horse to catch up with his companion.

            Naieyle looked down at the young man in her arms, "Are you all right?"

            "I-I'm fine," he managed, then smiled, "The smoke helped."

            "I thought it would. Best thing that old woman could have done was to take a good whiff of it. Might have countered the poison."

            He laughed, and she was enchanted.

            No! she told herself. I must not forget why I am here. I must not forget the bracelet.

            "Those are not my parents," he said. "I do not know those women. They come from my country, though."

            "Oh," Naieyle said, as she moved over to closest girl and began to drain the poison from her neck. Fingers danced with magic, and rubbed outward, guiding the poison into a vial. "Where are you headed, boy?"

            "Crownlake," he answered with poignant simplicity.

            "Me too," the Forest Fencer told him.

            "Let them take the caravan south, then," he suggested, taking authority over the situation. "They may return the riches that were looted from their homestead. However, we shall take what is not theirs, and sell it for our journey."

            Naieyle gently tapped the pouch of coins that hung on her hip.

            "That is yours. I need clothes and gear. We need two kayaks, or a large canoe. They won't be cheap."

            "How does a tanskin like you know more than the time of day around here?"

            He didn't answer.

            "Have you got a name?"

            "Allerk," he told her. "Allerk ibn Gerauhd" If I told you my name, you'd kill me as surely you killed that slaver.

            She capped the vial of Spider's Kiss, and tucked it into her belt, withdrawing a second corked, glass vial. And with one free hand, she patted his chest, "Pleased to meet you, Allerk, son of Gerauhd."

 

The End

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