"Will he be all right?"
"Yes, I believe so. It looks like he's coming around."
Many questions ran through Rhue's mind as his eyes started to refocus on the world around him. A man wearing a red bandana stood looking at him. The bandana covered his unkempt blond hair. His chestnut skin accented a scar on the bottom of his right cheek. He also noticed a girl standing behind him. Her bright yellow eyes matched the color of her hair and she had an odd purity to her complexion that puzzled him.
The man was the first to speak. "How are you feeling?"
Rhue was still trying to figure out what happened to him so he wasn't sure how to respond. He rubbed his eyes. "Very tired." He didn't say it, but he also felt confused. He didn't know whether he was with friends or foes, or why they were even there. But one thing Rhue did notice when he glanced around was that he was sitting in the same clearing he had been attacked in. He knew he had been wounded, but he couldn't feel any pain. Rhue was just about to check himself out when the girl spoke.
"I patched you up as best as I could."
Rhue pushed his eyebrows together. "What?"
"Dana is a Mender."
"I draw power from bloodlife and refocus it in order to mend wounds."
The man nodded. "There was a lot of blood on the ground when we got here, so that made things easier."
Rhue scrunched his nose up. "You draw power from people's blood?" What was that meant to mean? It sounded sickening using blood as a life source.
"I draw power from an element in the blood called bloodlife."
"I've never heard of such a thing," Rhue said.
"Wes hadn't heard of it either when we met."
"Well, I'm not bleeding, so there must be some truth in what you say." Rhue felt better now he knew what was going on, and that these two strangers had helped him.
Wes lowered his head. "So I guess you got jumped by bandits, huh?"
Rhue opened his mouth and then closed it again to think of what he should say. He decided no explanation was needed. "Yes."
"Looks like it's going to rain, we better get a move on."
"We should be nearing a settlement," Dana said.
"Good, but we'd better hurry." Wes turned to face Rhue. "Do you want to come with us?"
"Yeah, I think I will." He knew it wouldn't hurt to have company for a little while.
They continued on, hardly stopping to rest or admire their surroundings. Rhue had his mind firmly set on two things. Firstly finding the rogue wanderer who had almost killed him, and secondly taking back his Red Swiftfoot. He was angry he had let such a thing happen to him when he had other concerns.
His new companions, who were quite relaxed around him already, told him stories of their travels, although he had little to say in return. Dana and Wes seemed nothing more than common wanderers. Rhue supposed they had feelings for each other. They spent so much time together, instead of being alone or part of a fist, which is what other wanderers who traveled along The Way seemed to do. Of course, not everyone travels along The Way; many wanderers prefer to settle in villages and towns.
The rain hammered down and lightning frequently struck the trees above. They trekked along a winding dirt path, carefully watching their feet. There could have been anything waiting for them in the tall grasses, and wanderers didn't take chances.
Eventually, the trio reached a large wooden bridge. On the edge stood a man dressed in the tight, black garb of a headhunter - a sword for hire. Such men were known to be fierce fighters who always worked alone.
"Hail wanderers," he said without turning to look at them. "I'm looking for a person named Jeruh. Have any of you seen him?"
Wes and Dana both responded without hesitation as to the fact that they had never heard that name before in their lives, but Rhue stood silent.
Rhue fidgeted when his ankle twitched. "No."
"Thank you for your cooperation, but all the same." He pulled out his sword and the three of them were ready for what was about to happen.
"You want a fight?" Wes asked. "You got one!"
Dana's eyes widened. "I like our odds, but that's about all I like."
Rhue made the first strike, cutting through the headhunter's clothing and skin. Blood splattered everywhere, but he gave no cry of pain. Expecting a counter attack, Rhue was unprepared when the headhunter jumped over him and attacked the exposed Wes instead. He was helpless to the blow that stuck him in the chest, and fell.
Dana cried out and ran to his side. She drew power from his blood to mend the wound. Rhue, in the meantime, clashed swords with the headhunter, neither of them managing to land many hits.
As Wes and Dana prepared to join in and outnumber their enemy, the headhunter spoke once more. "Not bad, but it's time to finish this little game." He jumped into the air and came down, spinning his sword through Wes and Dana. They fell to the ground, badly wounded and unconscious.
Rhue flared his nostrils and took a deep breath.
The headhunter laughed. "Now that it's down to one-on-one, it would only be right to finish this with a Plunge."
Rhue closed his eyes. "All right." He had only ever plunged once and this guy looked experienced. As the headhunter walked into position Rhue considered attacking him from behind. He quickly shrugged off the idea in case he was prepared for it. Rhue waited for him to reach the other end of the bridge.
He turned around to face Rhue, holding his sword at his side. "All right little one, it's time to die."
Rhue charged, parallel to his opponent on the other side, and leapt at him with the toughest blow he could manage. But he was overpowered. Nothing could save him now.
"So the name Jeruh doesn't ring a bell?"
He clenched his sword until his knuckles turned white. "I have no idea who Jeruh is."
Rhue knew he wouldn't last much longer. He was exhausted and hurt, and nobody was coming to save him. But he had to try, so he charged again. Rhue gathered all his strength together, jumped up with his sword, and struck back with a sharp uppercut. If it had hurt, the headhunter wouldn't show it. It would take a few more attempts to bring him down, and Rhue had just used everything he had.
The headhunter smirked. "I think it's about time to finish you off."
Beads of sweat ran down Rhue's face, but he refused to give in.
The two men charged and reached each other in the middle of the bridge. The black-clad warrior struck Rhue with such a fierce blow that it brought him to his knees.
The headhunter walked towards Rhue, ready to deal a deathblow. "You should have run when I turned my back, fool. See where bravery gets you?"
The settlement was only a short distance away from the bridge, just behind him. He just needed a bit of strength to get up and run, but he couldn't. Every ounce of energy in his body had been drained. And approaching in the other direction, directly in front of him, was his death.
"Who?" A sword from nowhere made a shimmering silver arc, and the headhunter fell into the river below. The wielder of the blade was a tall, green haired man. He wore a long black coat and had several scars spread unevenly over his face. Nothing about this man was certain, but he was calm and sensible, and wanted to help.
The stranger's eyes narrowed as he glared towards the river. "Scum...."
The green haired man strode out of the tent without a word. He wasn't much of a talker, but he seemed like a good man. Whoever he was, he had saved Rhue and carried the badly injured Dana and Wes to the settlement.
The tent was large enough to serve as a home for two or three people. Dana and Wes were resting in a bed, and the woman who lived in the tent stood by them. The settlement was full of homes like this, so it was clearly a newly formed settlement. Within a year or two, buildings would probably replace them.
Rhue was going to have to move on without Dana and Wes, it was going to take days or even weeks for them to fully recover. "I'd better go."
"Did you know that you're not the only new wanderers in town?" the woman said.
"Who else is passing through?"
"I think he's in our makeshift drinking house right now. He will be the judge of tomorrow's rabbit race."
Rhue smirked. "Rabbit race? I think I'll go meet him."
He stepped out of the tent and watched ghostly shadows zigzag along the ground as people moved around in the light of a full moon. Two men stood under a circle of trees and spoke in hushed tones. Rhue walked past and pretended not to hear the whispers.
They were concerned that the judge may not be able to fulfill his duties if he got drunk tonight, in which case a replacement would have to be found. He also picked up that the favorite to win the race was a Red Swiftfoot belonging to a spiky black haired man. That had to be the man who robbed him and left him for dead. If I could somehow set myself up as the judge, I could get my Red Swiftfoot back.
Coarse grass rustled around Rhue's legs as he made his way down the slope to the drinking house. He approached the man he gathered to be the judge.
"Greetings wanderer. My name is Belson. I'll be judging the rabbit race tomorrow."
Rhue had found his chance. He had to take control somehow. "Nice to meet you. I am Rhue of the...."
Belson laughed. "No need to be so formal! It's good to meet you, Rhue!"
He had to get the judge very drunk so he would forget his commitment to the race. Rhue bought Belson a drink and proposed a toast. He then realized he didn't know what to toast to, and glanced around for ideas.
"How about a toast to people with brown hair?"
"Yes, you and I both have brown hair, don't we? And just one drink couldn't hurt. I'll toast to that!"
Rhue barely sipped at his glass, but he smirked as he watched Belson gulp it down. He knew it wouldn't be enough though.
"Ey Rhue, did ya know dey haven't named dis settlement yet? What do ya dink a good name would be?"
At least it was working, but Rhue needed a name. He tried to remember how the settlement had looked and the three large trees bunched together in the middle of the settlement were brought back to his mind.
"I guess they could name it something like Three Trees."
"I'll drink to dat. A descriptive name wit a ring to it." He was gulping it down. Just a little more....
"Yav beerly touched ya glaz Rhue. Let's hav anuder toast."
Now Belson was doing all the work for him. Rhue just needed to toast to something one more time. Another glass would intoxicate him and he wouldn't be able to judge at all.
"Okay, let's toast to lots of great wine," Rhue said. What else would a drunken person care about?
"Wut ah gret toast! Ere, ere!"
Rhue smiled, and after he said goodbye, he left the drunken man and returned to the tent Dana and Wes were sleeping. He had a feeling tomorrow was going to be a good day. Rhue, exhausted, was glad to take his leave of the waking world.
A boy and girl ran along an endless path, scrambling over fallen logs and pushing twisted branches out of their way. Various rocks and dirt patches were scattered around the ground in what almost felt like a nauseating pattern.
The girl choked out her words between sobs, tugging on the boy's hand. "It's right behind us!"
"It sounds like more than one."
"Do you think ... that we're going to die?"
The boy didn't know the answer. His head said one thing and his heart said another. His face was a mask of fear and anguish, but he tried to keep his voice as controlled as possible as he spoke. "No, I'll protect you."
"Aren't you scared? I'm scared."
"I ... I won't let you die."
The forest canopy held little shelter as cold drops of rain splattered onto their heads. The lightning and thunder was constant, and it was near. The sound that accompanied it became more and more deafening.
"I can't run much longer," the girl said.
"I know. We just need to reach the river, it isn't much further...."
The continuous path reached a sudden halt as the river bounded into view. The storm had turned the current of the river into a rapid torrent of water, which shattered any hope of using it to escape. The boy looked at the girl, unsure if the water streaming down her face was rain or tears.
His head shot upwards as he heard rustling in the trees. Two four-legged creatures approached them from behind, sharp teeth baring and ready to strike. The boy waved his arms, motioning the girl to move back towards the ledge.
He drew out a weapon and stared into the fierce eyes of the beasts. "Let me handle this, Serena."
"They already killed the others! What are you doing?"
"Just stay where you are...." The beasts padded towards the boy. "Stay back!"
Another beast dropped down from above and rammed into the girl, sending her flying into the watery abyss.
Large white claws slashed through the air as the beasts barreled toward the boy. He closed his eyes and breathed in deeply as they covered him with death.