Hints of Vanity

"I'll go check on them," said Bundle as he rubbed the scar on his cheek with his left hand. His goattee had become a shallow beard over the course of their travels, and he longed for a warm razor and a mirror. With his right hand, he undid the Belt of Belendar from around his waist and tucked it in on itself, ready to spring into action.

Waving a meaty hand dismissively, Axbrand rolled over and went back to sleep on the soft forest floor.

Tracking their footprints carefully, Bundle found where they had gone off the trail. And he looked ahead, with a worried look on his face. The familiarity of the place was forboding, as he remembered the golden strokes of a brush and the smile of the Oracle's apprentice. And as if that memory evoked some vanity in him, he tightened the dark blue kerchief around his shiny, wavy black hair.

The forest was quiet. Too quiet.

And then he heard it. Clang! Clang! Metal against metal. He ran toward it, no longer searching the ground for their footprints. Adrenaline pumped through him, and he bounded over a large rock in the middle of a clearing. Then Bundle stopped, as he thought he recognized the exact spot in the clearing where he stood.

But looking around, he saw none of the familiar glyphs he expected to see upon the trees, and thus reckoned it must be another rock.

"Who's there?" came a voice. It was Williard.

Then, Bundle heard the laughter of an adolescent girl.

"It is I, Bundle," he said, running toward Williard's voice.

The clanging of metal had ceased quite suddenly.

Peering around a tree, Bundle saw them. Immediately, he recoiled, for he thought he had invaded an intimate moment between lovers.

Williard was hunched lying on top of her, shirtless, his groaning face red with effort and she was beneath him with a determined look on her face. He seemed to be pushing something against her with the weight of his body. Then, with her feet, she pushed him off him and leaped up, scarf around the scars of her collar. Clang! Silver knife met silver knife with another resounding clang and a flash of blue sparks.

Confused, Bundle removed the hand he'd put in front of his eyes, and realized that the two had been practicing swordplay with the Knives of Belendar. They seemed evenly matched, each reaping the benefit of having one of Belendar's other objects in their possession.

They parried each other away and pulled away. Then Noira thrust her blade toward him, as if to throw it, and sent a bolt of blue flying across the distance between them.

Williard spun the other knife in a circular motion, sending it flying off into the treetops. Disturbed, a roosting bird flew off in distress and a small branch fell to the forest floor. Then, as the second bolt flew towards him, he diverted it toward the ground a dozen feet away.

Bundle jumped away as it landed at his feet with a smoking hiss. He stomped on it quickly, and they immediately lowered their knives.

As they walked towards Bundle, Noira caught Will's eyes in hers and whispered, "That was close." Then she extended a hand, waiting for him to return the knife to her. And he hesitated, for a brief second.

"They don't want to leave the hand, do they?" remarked Bundle. For a second, he thought there was something odd about Noira's hair. As if something had been resting there. "You should be more careful."

"You're looking rather red in the face," observed Noira.

"Ummm... I think I just got sunburned is all, nothing to worry about."

Will frowned, looking up at the panoply of orange, yellow and red leaves above them. There were so few places where they had fallen enough to let the sun pass unhindered. Then, he was suddenly aware of how naked he was. "Have either of you seen my shirt?"

"I've got it!" said Noira, smiling as she took in the scent of it, careful not to reveal to Bundle the golden crown she was hiding beneath it.

They kept walking, as Bundle led them back to the trail.

"May I have it back?" asked Williard.

"No," she said playfully, and winked at him before running her eyes up and down his side. Noira enjoyed the hairs that were beginning to surface there, so blond they were translucent, not nearly as dark as the rich brown on his head or the trail below his belly button.

"You need to tighten your game, Will," said Bundle. "Looks like somebody got scratched a bit, eh?

"Uhh... yeah... with the d-dagger," he fumbled.

Noira rolled her eyes in an amused fashion and adjusted the scarf that was covering the empty scars around her neck. She knew that in Stonegard she would likely be able to find a wizard skilled enough with the magic of light to delicately burn off the outer layer of skin with an intense light, so that the tissue could heal again without scarring.

Bundle just frowned, and then looked over at his shoulder at the trees where he was sure there should have been a series of golden glyphs. His frown became more intense, dark brow knitting together like the wings of a cold bird. "Have you two seen any gold paint on the trees?"

A wind passed through the forest once more.

Noira nodded, "They disappeared."

Bundle's eyes bulged outward, and he drew a hand to his mouth. A tear fell from one eye. And he muttered to himself, forlorn, "And I had thought she was wasting her time..."

"Who?" asked Williard, putting a hand on the other young man's shoulder.

Bundle remained silent, but he seemed very angry with himself.

The End

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