Fan fiction:A Stone of Contention/Part 4
Notes: swag: plunder; booty; valuable goods, especially those obtained by means of questionable legality – “The Eres Common Tongue Dictionary”
Part 4: Taking the High Road[edit source]
Afternoon changed to evening, evening to a velvety night of phosphorescent stars, and then, after what seemed little more than a twinkle of one of those swollen celestial beacons, it was afternoon again. Incredible anywhere but that magical land, perhaps it was the whim of whatever was behind those lofty eyes peering through the midnight shroud: curious, blinking and wishing for a clearer look into the world of men.
Time passed unevenly under such an enigmatic sky. As Swaglord crested yet another rise in the rolling road he had little sense of how long he had been running. Feeling winded, he stopped and bent hands on knees, breathing deeply. His pony stopped next to him, flaring his nostrils and putting his nose to the mild breeze.
“This high air tastes good, doesn’t it boy? The pine trees...” he panted.
The rogue galloped just past them, then turned her mount and halted.
“Stopping again?” she said, looking about her. There was a good view of the surrounding area: sharp hills and tall trees in all directions as far as she could see, a canvas broken only by the road which wound out of sight in both directions. “Tell me, knight; are we any closer to that stash of yours?”
None that you’ll ever see, he thought.
“It’s not far now.” He said, breaking for another breath. “Just over the next hill.”
The rogue trotted her horse up close to him. “That’s what you said the last time.”
And I’ll say it every time…
He straightened up, still panting. “Well, you know,” he said, “these hills—they all look so similar…“ He noticed his sword, tied by several turns of a leather cord to a cleat in the horse’s saddle, almost within his reach.
“Don’t even think about it,” the rogue snarled, noticing the direction of his gaze. She quickly backed the horse away and raised her voice. “Do you know where you are going or not?”
Swaglord put down his shield and stretched his arms wide and then across his chest, finally settling his hands on his hips. He looked away from the rogue and surveyed the landscape.
“The hilltops cut the sky like wolf’s teeth, the road an endless tongue,” he intoned, as if reciting from memory.
“Spare me the poetry,” the rogue said. “I’m getting tired of this, hombre. How much farther?”
“Do you know it?”
“The Barmidion Sagas, who doesn’t?” she replied.
An ignorant thief, I would have thought. Swaglord turned his back to her and held his hand over his eyes against the glare of the lowering sun
“Look—“ the rogue started and then stopped, her eyes narrowing. “I’m going to give you one more chance, knight—your last one. Stop again before we get to this stash of yours and you’ll find yourself under one of my nets. Comprende?”
Then the next stop will be the last. All I need is one chance.
“Get moving!” she barked, rousing her horse to circle around him.
He picked up his shield and slid his arm through the straps. “Come on, boy,” he said to his silent pet. He gave the rogue a final look—just one chance— and then resumed his measured pace down the hard-packed road as it declined slightly toward a small valley.
Once again, time drew an uncertain path and doubt seemed to linger upon it. The determined knight knew it would not be easy to dismount the rogue and subdue her afterwards, and her patience was running short. One thought echoed through his mind.
Soon. Whatever I’m going to do, it’ll have to be soon.
The slope of the road was constantly changing: down into a hollow between hilltops, then up again on the shoulder of a hill on one side or the other. After a while they came to a valley that dipped deeper than most and seemed to cut the hill on the right at a sharp angle. For a long stretch through its lowest point, the road ran along side a steep hillside.
While still at some distance, Swaglord saw the opportunity. In places it seemed that an earthen wall lined the road, and in others not quite as steep, pines of various sizes grew from the base up to a flat hilltop, perhaps no more than two or three times the height of a man.
This is it…
Slowly and, he hoped, in a way natural enough to avoid alerting the rogue to his intentions, Swaglord edged toward his pony, whispering, “Get ready,” and scanning the hillside for the best spot to make their escape. Entering into that stretch of the road, he took a deep breath and chose.
“Come on, boy!”
Swaglord launched into a sprint, angling toward the side of the road near a stout pine with a dense ladder of branches overhanging the hillside. His pony dug its hooves into the earth and was instantly at his side, matching him stride for stride.
“Hey!” The rogue shouted, spurring her horse, and raising the rope in her hand.
Swaglord bent and put his weapon arm over the pony’s shoulders, grabbing a strap of the leather harness it wore for hauling and the occasional pack.
“Jump!” he yelled and the trusting animal did. Swaglord timed his own leap so they would ascend the hillside together, both managing to land almost head-high on their first step.
Now was the knight’s chance. Reaching to a branch above him with his shield arm he braced himself against the tree and the ground and heaved his animal forward as far as he could. The frantic pony fell against the hillside and immediately began sliding backwards, its hooves finding no grip on the steep incline. Swaglord changed holds on the branch and pressed his shield against the animal’s rump.
“Climb, boy, climb!”
The pony tore at the hillside while its master put his shoulder into supporting it from behind. In this way the animal was able to move up the hill, with Swaglord keeping his shoulder under it and clambering to a higher hand hold with each advance. In just seconds, the pony was within a step of the flat hilltop.
Swaglord heaved and the pony reached its front legs up over the crest, finally pulling itself up. Swaglord climbed another two branches and then leapt to the hilltop along side the pony, slapping it on the back and leading it toward a thicket of bushes several yards from the edge, where he gave his pet’s mane a good rub.
“Good boy,” he whispered, surveying the new landscape. This hill was lower than most in this area, sloping gently away from the sharp drop at the road to what appeared to be another path curving through adjacent hills back toward the main road.
“We won’t have much time,” he whispered. It won’t take her more than a few minutes to ride around to the other side. We’ll have to get ready—
His thoughts were cut short by the sound of pine needles scraping against leather. Looking back toward the road, he saw the rogue leaping from the same pine tree he had used, landing lightly on the hilltop.
Swaglord, crouched down immediately, again putting his arm over his pony’s shoulders, whispering “shh…” into its ear.
Left her mount behind? Well, step one…
Swaglord’s pony nudged him, nodded toward a wide spruce a few yards away and then trotted softly toward it. Swaglord smiled and waved him on, stifling another “Good boy!” and then moving very quietly in the opposite direction using the brush as cover. Where he stopped, he and his pony formed a wide triangle with the spot where the rogue then stood scanning the hillside, a crossbow drawn and cocked.
“I can hear you.” she called.
“Well,” the knight replied, being careful to keep his shield between himself and the rogue’s bow, “nice of you to join me, thief!” Hearing the sound of a crossbow bolt whiz close by, he continued, “Aren’t you glad to see me?”
The rogue took a few cautious steps in his direction, reloading as she went. Swaglord stepped out from behind the bush, peering at her over his long shield, which covered his body from neck to knee. Seeing him, she stopped and raised her bow.
“Aren’t you full of surprises? Still got your shield, I see,” she said, “I don’t suppose you found a sword?”
Swaglord smiled and waved his sword hand at her, quite free of any measure of steel.
“Really, knight, you are making this much too easy.” She smiled, locking her crossbow and then slipping it into a holster strapped to her back. She took the coil of rope from her shoulder, already tied to a folded net hanging from her belt “Well, I’ve still got this,” she said, waving the net slowly in front of her, as if preparing for a toss.
Swaglord called to her, letting his shield slide to his side. “Come, thief, we can work this out, can’t we?”
“I’m sure we can,” she said. “In a few seconds, everything will be worked out just fine.”
Swaglord watched his pony work its way behind the rogue, who now seemed to be intent on getting him in her net, and then started forward slowly, edging to his left, taking her gaze even further from where the pony quietly approached.
“Alright,” he said loudly, waving his free hand. “You got me.” He continued towards her, hoping to get within a few yards of her before springing his trap.
The rogue stopped. “What are you up to, knight? I wonder…” she said searching the hill with her eyes, “Where is that little friend of—”
At that moment the pony charged her, head lowered like a bull, a pint sized battering ram with a ten gallon attitude. The rogue whirled around to face the commotion and, seeing the speeding pony, made a sudden, acrobatic jump backwards and to the side, easily avoiding the animal’s charge.
“Hai,” she yelled, landing slightly off balance on one foot, a few steps closer to and her back turned towards Swaglord, who had also charged her the moment her head was turned toward the pony. As she turned to face him, he was already upon her, spinning on one foot with his shield arm extending towards her…
When facing a knight in battle, there is no more important fact to grasp than that of the devastating effect with which a skilled practitioner can wield his shield. A Lord’s Kite, as it was called in the oldest cities of Iris, could be a formidable weapon, though often used to stun rather than injure an opponent. While this tactic rarely caused much harm in itself, woe be to any duelist who received such a blow, as it rendered them nearly helpless for far longer than anyone who valued their life should allow.
In the case of this clash of the nimble but slight rogue and Swaglord’s massive Domillian, it was hardly a contest at all. The impact lifted her completely off the ground and threw her a full body length away, where she landed not just stunned, but completely out-cold.
“Step two,” said Swaglord smiling, strolling over to his pony to give it’s mane a well-deserved scratching. “Well played, my friend.” But the pony pulled away, shaking its head and whinnying its annoyance.
“All business, as usual—can’t we enjoy the moment for once?” He said, to which the pony only snorted. “Well, rightly so. Let’s get our heaven stone back.”
They walked over and looked down at the motionless rogue; flat on her back, her arms splayed out on the ground, she looked almost more dead than alive. Her dark leather garments seemed a sea of pockets, pouches, folds and laces. The knight frowned, wondering where she might have hidden the small stone, stroking his chin with one hand.
”So…” he said to his humorless companion, “if you were a heaven stone, where would you be?”
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