Hard Road

A warrior seeks bloody revenge against a cruel king.

The man advanced slowly, feeling the flattened earth beneath his feet with searching steps. The path he travelled continued in a straight line until the horizon swallowed it whole; thick, bushy trees not much taller than the man crowded both sides like eager spectators at a joust. The air was thick with the smell of the lush greenery that thrived on the heavy rains that fell once a week, like clockwork. The man had waited out the previous rainfall three days earlier under a makeshift shelter and was hoping to avoid another such experience, one way or another.

He held both of his swords at the ready, his eyes never resting in their quest to detect the slightest movement. A light brown tunic left his muscular arms exposed to the sun and revealed several faded scars. This was a warrior who had been bloodied but had improved to such deadly prowess that no recent injuries could be found on his olive skin. His black hair was gathered in a short ponytail and several days’ growth darkened his jaw and neck.

A pair of hunter green pants that had seen better days covered his legs while his feet were ensconced in black traveller’s boots, inexpensive but reliably made by a trusted childhood friend. That friend was but one of many reasons the man had set out on his journey two long months ago.

His movements were as silent as the shadow the midday sun cast before him. Nothing, be it man or a creature of the woods, would be able to approach him unheard. It was his only hope of survival from the deadly fauna that haunted this isolated stretch of the road. He was much less concerned by the possibility of an encounter with his fellow man.

Eventually he would have to take to the wilderness to forage for food but he was putting that off for as long as possible. He’d eaten his final piece of dried meat that morning, so hunger would force the matter eventually, but he hoped to make it until nightfall without leaving the road.

Then he would build a fire and his food would come to him. Or he would become sustenance for them, should they prove faster or stronger. He told himself he doubted the likelihood of this second possibility and continued on, a lone falcon circling overhead in search of easier takings than those he presented.

Another mile crept slowly by, the sun sliding inexorably towards the jagged horizon of the Carwinor Mountains, before he brought his body to stillness and his breath went silent. He dropped to his knees, crossing his swords in the dirt before him, and pressed an ear to the earth. The rhythmic rumble of several horses approaching at a gallop reverberated in his eardrum and a smile sprung to his lips.

They had come for him at last.

The man made no move to continue or take cover, instead taking up position in the middle of the road and sheathing his swords in the charcoal black scabbards hanging across his back, the blades forming the most dangerous X in the eastern provinces. He would wait for them to come to him and then let fate decide his hand. And theirs.

A cloud of dust on the horizon was the first visual indication of their approach and it wasn’t long before he could discern the dark silhouettes of five horses and their riders amidst the light brown cloud that nipped at their heels. The man crossed his arms across his chest and shifted his weight slightly to the right as the riders spotted him and slowed their mounts to a more cautious canter.

“Hail,” the lead rider called as they drew to a halt twenty paces away. He sat confidently upon his mount, a black beast thick with muscle and heavy with the scars of regular combat. The man’s thin black hair was slicked back against his head and his beard was closely trimmed. The markings on his chest plate indicated he was a captain of the royal guard.

“Hey,” the man replied with a casual nod, causing the captain’s eyes to narrow slightly. The man looked up to the clear sky overhead and added, “Lovely afternoon, isn’t it?”

“What business have you on the royal road?” the captain asked as his men formed a solid wall of steel and horseflesh from one side of the path to the other.

“I come with a message for the king,” came the reply in a bored tone. “Say, I don’t suppose I could catch a ride with you kind gentlemen? I hear it’s a long way to walk.”

“I do not think so,” the captain answered, allowing a sneer to corrupt his expression. His men laughed quietly, knowing enough not to anger their leader through overly obvious adulation. “Perhaps, if we deem the message worthy of his royal ears, we can deliver it to his highness for you and save you the trouble. What is your message and what name should be attributed to it?”

“Well that is mighty, mighty kind of you. Unfortunately these lips of mine are quite insistent on their need to speak directly to the king, so I’ll have to take a pass on your generous offer. But I would appreciate the use of that fine horse you’ve got between your legs there. This road of yours is making my feet awful sore.”

“Turn back,” the captain growled as he drew his sword, his men following suit without hesitation, “or be left to feed the grey panthers that prowl this land.”

“Going back is not an option, my friend. But perhaps my name will change your mind?” The man reached over his shoulders and pulled his swords free in unison, his body taking up a Tonzen warrior stance with practiced ease. “I am Rohman Greywood, lone survivor of the massacre at Desmond Manor perpetrated by your so-called king. I will have his head before I go to the Great Sky Dream and I will have yours as well if you dare stand in my way. The choice is yours.”

The End

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