June 28, 2004
The dust cloud shimmered in the heat of the summer sun. Rupio watched it with interest, shading his eyes and staring into the distance. He shifted uneasily on the hot rock that he used as a lookout point, frowning. The cloud was headed his way.
Turning swiftly, Rupio dove into the undergrowth by the side of the trail and headed for the encampment.
"You're supposed to be on watch," Paulo growled.
Rupio glanced at his brother. Paulo had already turned his attention back to the cards in his hands. Rupio sighed. From a promising career as a merchant to a bandit playing cards for coppers in a hideout - all had changed in a shower of asteroids. Now they had to gather enough coins to afford a stake once more at one of the trading posts. They had let the traders take the risks, but now they were one of the risks.
"Caravan coming - I reckon three or four," Rupio said, spitting out the words.
"Leave the pot. We can come back to the game later," Amblin snapped.
"But I've got a good hand!" Paulo wailed.
Amblin rose and stared at him. Seven feet tall and as thick as an ancient tree, he rarely found many to oppose his orders. "Ready yourselves to work," he growled.
Paulo sighed and threw his cards into the pile with the others. Rupio tried to smile encouragingly at his brother, but Paulo scowled back. Huanito, their youngest sibling, had already begun to gather his weapons and armor, just like the rest of the gang.
"I hope they're carrying food," Rupio muttered, finding his sword. "We need a good feast."
"Anything will do," Amblin said in his rumbling voice. "We can sell anything for food."
He led the way through the undergrowth and onto the track, confident that everyone would follow him. Rupio glanced at the faces of the bandit gang, and he knew that they would. Amblin had lost his fair share of men over time, but he had successfully raided more caravans than anyone else in the area. If he had a fault, and Rupio wasn't sure that it was a good idea to mention it, Amblin was likely to fight for too long before ordering a retreat. His confidence came from his abilities, Rupio suspected, since no other bandit chief in Medievia had killed so many traders personally.
"Nearly two dozen of us," Rupio thought, looking around at the confident faces. It shouldn't take long before he could become a respectable merchant once more, maybe even setting up a trading post of him own with his brothers working for him. First, though, he had to work for it.
The dust cloud came closer and closer, and Amblin turned to the med behind him to nod at them. Rupio joined with the others in grinning back. He hefted his shield, ignoring the rust, and checked his blade once more.
Three figures on horseback rode down the track towards them, their wagons trailing behind them. "Easy meat," Amblin called over his shoulder, and the gang joined in. What could be better? A warm day, a small amount of work, and gold to last the rest of the year.
Amblin walked a few yards ahead of his gang. He always liked to give a little speech about how the traders would be helping the needy. Rupio smirked - he'd always found it funny, though Paulo had one said that it was only funny the first time.
Something about the three riders made Rupio pause. Their leader was easily as big as Amblin, but he was badly outnumbered. His weapons and armor suggested prowess. Behind him rode a beautiful mage, swathed in robes of purest white. Not even trail dust marred her prefect appearance. The other rider was young and male, but his youth belied the scars on his leather armor. That the traders were experienced was obvious, but they also showed no fear.
"We have this thing called 'charity'," Amblin began, smiling broadly at the traders.
His next words were drowned in the chants of spells, and all three riders were surrounded in glowing auras of pearly-white appearance. Their leader, a man Rupio now recognized as a Hero who had traded to his post before, drew a huge sword, and smiled.
Amblin didn't last for long. He flailed and screamed as he went beneath the lead horse's hooves. He hadn't managed to parry the first blow, and it had taken his right arm off.
Everything fell into confusion.
Rupio watched helplessly as a few gang members began to throw knives. Others swarmed forward, knowing that the one showing the greatest prowess would have the best chance of leading the gang once the fight was done. Paulo was among them, shouting his defiance.
Rupio saw the female raise a hand and chant a spell. He ran forward to defend his brother, but something shot from her hand. Rupio fell, stunned. Something red splashed over his face, and he tasted his brother's blood.
Unable to think, he knelt in the dry dust, his thoughts scattered. The three traders methodically worked their way through the gang, killing and maiming with every blow.
Paulo was gone. Huanito fell, the leather-clad trader's throwing knife in his neck. The woman's spells fell among them, burning and blasting in turn. As for the hero - his sword wreaked bloody vengeance on all who opposed him.
Rupio found himself running. He didn't know why, but his feet pounded the dry earth of the trail. He just had to run. He ran past the leather-clad trader, whose thrown knife narrowly missed him, and kept going. Rupio collided with the trading caravan, and he picked himself up to run on. Something wrapped around his hand, and he struggled to free it.
It moved, and Rupio screamed as he tried to run on. It moved as fast as he did, and a glance showed that his hand had entangled in the wagon's horse's bridle. It came along with him as it had done with its owner. Without time to untangle himself, Rupio ran on.
The sounds of the fight soon faded, drowned by the noise of the wagon's wheels. Rupio still ran, tears streaming down his face. His brothers were gone - all the family he had remaining were dead in the dirt. He ran, lurching down the trail with the damned caravan at his back.
The sound of hooves came to his ears. They were pursuing him! Rupio ran like a man possessed, but he knew he couldn't outrun a horse. He wrenched at the bridle, desperately trying to free his hand. He didn't want the wagon any more. He just wanted to get away.
His hand came free, the leather sliding over his sweat-slick skin. Released from any impetus, the horse slowed to a stop, and Rupio dove off the track to seek sanctuary in the undergrowth.
A hole in the ground opened before him, and he dove inside, panting furiously. He hunkered down, hoping that there would be no pursuit. They had their wagon back - he didn't want it any more. He just wanted to be alone and grieve. Paulo and Huanito were gone, their lives forfeit to spells and knives. He had played with them as a child, and they were gone. They had screamed their last in front of him.
Hooves sounded in the distance, their noise muffled by the grass. "This way," a voice called.
Rupio gasped and looked around. The hole ran down into a tunnel, and he ran into the welcoming darkness. He could hide in there, maybe losing them in the darkness. Several yards in, he slowed and began to feel his way along the dry sides of the tunnel walls. His nose detected something burning, but he didn't worry too much. When he could see fire, he would worry.
He looked back to the light. The white-robed mage had dropped into the tunnel and was staring directly at him. Rupio froze, watching her smile. She chanted some word, and he flinched.
Something changed in the air as a shimmering wall of force covered the entrance to the tunnel. The mage took hold of a rope and shimmied back up to the hole's entrance.
Cautiously, Rupio walked back to the entrance, staring at the strange wall. It glowed faintly in the darkness, and a hesitant touch allowed him to realise that it throbbed with power. Three blurred figures watched him from the top of the hole, and he stared back. What were they doing?
A noise in the darkness made him turn around.
"Beautiful," Rupio whispered, entranced.
The dragon's head came down, its jaws agape.
"I've never seen a bandit do that before," the hero said, scratching his cheek.
The mage shrugged, her eyes still on the shimmering room shield. The thrashing had died down, but the feasting had probably begun. "I doubt we'll ever see it again," she said.
"They always stay by the freight," the thief complained. "Do you know how hard it is to track through the wilderness?"
"Doesn't matter," the hero said. "We've got the wagon, so we
can get on our way to Karlisna." He turned, but paused. "Funny, though
- I could swear I'd seen him somewhere before."
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