Two men walked up the dark cobblestone street of Aquintali, a small town of less than five thousand souls on the southwestern shore of Clovia. The town smelled of fish and human waste, the gutters ran full of the remains of both. With the exception of the Mayor's house and a few other government buildings, the town was built with wood. Every 10 or so years, a fire or a storm would sweep the town away and a new town would rise out of the wreckage.
One of the travelers was tall with narrow waist and broad shoulders. He moved with the confident gait of a warrior. His hair was tied in a warrior knot, as black as charcoal. His eyes were a deep, untroubled blue, no worry lines on his forehead. He was dressed in a hip-length leather jacket with no device upon it and carried two swords in sheathes on his hip, which was a common practice in this part of the world. The blade of the sword worn on his right hip, a dinja, was as long as the length of his finger tips to his shoulder, while the blade on his left hip was only about half that size. Both swords were slightly curved. Only the outside curves of the swords and their tips were sharpened, these swords were mainly meant to slice. The warrior moved confidently as his eyes scanned the side streets. He was called Darsonus. Although young, he had the rough hewn dangerous look that fascinated so many women.
His companion was also fit and young, but shorter, and lighter, handsome but not in the same class as the handsome Darsonus. His name was Ree'al. He had a small sarcastic grin on his face, as if amused by a joke only he knew. His movements were deft and sure footed. His warrior knot was red and his eyes a amber when seen in light. He followed Darsonus by half a step and to his left. He carried both the dinja and the smaller, the tanja. He was in tan clothes and sheathes. Like Darsonus, Ree'al's tan clothes were unmarked by a device.
"Where are you taking me tonight?" Darsonus asked.
"No one is forcing you to go anywhere."
"Ree'al, you always have a plan. So far they have worked out well. You know that Captain Alonus would have let us stay on the boat another night, but here we are. So what is the plan?"
"The plan is to make you rich and famous and me rich," Ree'al answered. "No one knows us in this part of the world and it is time to start making a name for you."
"Agreed. How?" Darsonus asked.
"I'm not completely sure of the details but it'll probably involve you killing hundreds of people," Ree'al answered expansively.
"Why will I kill them?"
"Why, for money, of course, Dar. In this case the merchant Varnus will pay us to protect his daughter who will be traveling to Dunmar. Her betrothed, Agravus, another merchant, awaits her there. Most likely her Agravus is too fat, lazy, and busy to make the trip himself, so we'll escort her. You'll kill those who seek to harm her. By the way, she's a virgin and must remain that way."
"She won't be raped while I'm guarding her," Darsonus attested.
"It's not rape I'm concerned about, Dar."
"Oh," Dar said after a pause. "I'll keep my pants buttoned when I'm around her."
"Thank you, Dar. What more can I ask?" Ree'al continued. "We'll meet Varnus at his compound in the morning. He wants to hire the two of us."
"Oh, really? Does he know he wants to hire both of us or does he just want to hire me?" Darsonus smiled.
"It doesn't matter. To hire you he has to hire me," Ree'al flashed a huge grin in reply.
Ree'al then spun around, facing away from his friend and towards the two men who had appeared out of the shadows behind them. "Two behind," he said cheerfully as he dropped his bundle and drew both his swords.
Darsonus already had his swords drawn as he watched two more men step out of the shadows. "Two in front," he said softly.
Ree'al glanced behind at Darsonus and stepped forward, away from him, making more room for both of them. He put on a cheerful smile and spoke to the cutthroats advancing on him. "I keep my money right here in my left pocket," he said as he touched his jacket with the pommel of his tanja. "Where do you keep yours?"
"What?" questioned one of the thieves, a man with few teeth, probably more tattoos than teeth. He was built like a fighter, not a warrior, he was short and wide. A veteran of countless inn and alley fights, Ree'al's words confused him. His companion was taller and thinner, but not brighter.
"Where do you keep your money?" Ree'al spoke slowly. "I told you where I keep my gold, it's common courtesy for you to tell me where you keep yours. That way I can find your coin bag without having to spend much time searching within your stinking, lice-ridden garments. Wait, here's a better idea, let's all take the time to put all our money on the street. That way there'll be no nasty searching involved after my friend kills you."
"Fuck you!" the man said, more to give himself courage than to threaten Ree'al. Ree'al's lack of concern unnerved him but maybe Darsonus' size unnerved him more. When he moved forward it was with caution.
There wasn't a clash of swords when the men reached Ree'al. Ree'al's first blow was not with his sword. He dodged a slashing sword and step in close. Ree'al kneed the short thief on the outside of his thigh, reducing the thief's movements, knocking him down with a pommel to the head. Ree'al dodged a thrust from the second thief. Except for some grunting and cursing, the fight was surprisingly quiet. Ree'al had been taught that when sword strikes sword, eventually one of the weapons break. He didn't want to take the chance that it would be his. When he did block with a sword, it was down near the guard where the steel was thick and the blade not sharpened, most of the time he simply moved his sword or his body out of the way. He did redirect his opponents' strikes and stabs with his swords, but used the back unsharpened side and made sure that his sword was never stressed. Blocking with the sharpened side was reserved for use only in extreme emergencies, and certainly not required for opponents like these.
Ree'al continued to engage the thief in front of him but made no effort to finish him. When Ree'al heard Darsonus finish the second of other two, Ree'al quickly pushed past the two thieves facing him, one just getting on his feet. The thieves were now caught between the two warriors. The short thief's head disappeared and his body collapsed.
"You have to finish the other yourself," said Darsonus a bit putout.
Ree'al's smile faded for the first time that night, then his dinja, the long sword, flicked out almost too fast to see. Ree'al quickly retreated and dropped his guard. The would-be cutthroat gave him a questioning look. Ree'al pointed his dinja towards the man's groin, his smile still missing. The man looked down and saw blood pumping down his leg from the severed femoral artery He collapsed trying hopelessly to staunch the flood of blood. In a short time, he bled out, dead in the alley. Ree'al sheathed his tanja, bending over to wipe his dinja on the man's shirt. He pulled a rag from his pack and finished cleaning the blade.
"Why do you do that?" Darsonus asked after he too had cleaned his blades.
"Do what?" Ree'al answered sadly.
"Why do you make me kill more men than you kill?"
Ree'al's grin began to return to his face. "It wouldn't be right for me to kill more than the best swordsman west of the Mountains. I want you to be well known, then we can make more money. Two for you and two for me is not nearly as good a tale as three for you and one for me. In fact I may lie and say you killed all of them. And, besides, which one of us is covered in blood and which one of us is clean? Do you want to search them?"
"No," Darsonus replied, dabbing at his jacket. "Their weapons look worthless and they can't have more than a few coppers. Let's get cleaned up and go to the Fat Calf Inn."
Ree'al awoke with a warm body next to him, soft brown hair tickling his nose. Rose. That was her name. A surprisingly sweet soul for a barmaid. With a plain body and a plain face, she had been happy to share his bed and her knowledge of the city. Tonight or tomorrow he would need a higher class bedmate, one who understood the politics of the upper and ruling classes. Perhaps he'd be here long enough to share a bed with Rose again. He'd had worse bedmates.
A glance behind the dividing curtain showed Dar's bed held two sleeping women who had stayed with him all night. His stamina with women is amazing. There are swordsmen and swordsmen and Darsonus is both. Ree'al and Rose had laughed about it as they talked during the night. Both of Darsonus' women were gorgeous. In the morning light, the faded bed covers were pulled down enough to show one perfect heavy breast. Darsonus did most of the work and he did receive some extra rewards. Ree'al's grin began to come back to his face. He picked up his clothes and weapons and dressed in the hall, letting the others sleep.
A guard was sleeping beside the gate of compound of the merchant Varnus. He didn't awaken until Ree'al's ginja gently tapped his throat. The guard opened his eyes and half rose out of the chair but sat down again when he saw the sword. "I need to see your master," Ree'al said. "What do you propose to do about it?"
"My client needs his sleep," the guard said nervously.
"Your client needs to talk to me," Ree'al smiled. "But he doesn't need to know that you were asleep." Ree'al gave him an exaggerated conspiratorial wink. "I get sleepy in the morning sometimes myself. It's no great crime unless it's reported and why would I do that? Please find a way to tell your master that Darsonus' companion Ree'al must speak with him privately. I'm willing to give you a quarter of an hour."
"You want what?" A thin well-dressed merchant was seated across the table from Ree'al. His voice showed his anger; veins were beginning to appear on his forehead. The room was opulent, filled with vases and pictures. The merchant's desk was piled high with paper, seemingly thrown down at random. Varnus was bald as a vulture and eating a mango. Skinny with thin paper like skin, he was not a pretty picture in the morning light.
"Varnus," Ree'al quietly replied. "I've told you that we must not demonstrate our emotions. I am aware that bargaining usually requires, oh what is the word I'm looking for? Histrionics, that's the word. However, this is not a time for that. This is a unique situation."
Varnus' face began returning to its normal pale bluish color. "I don't know anything at all about you, except that you killed four pieces of gutter trash last night," he said in a calmer voice.
"Let's take care of that now," replied Ree'al, rising to his feet. "Find us some training swords and I will fight your two best guards, at the same time. Then you will see that Darsonus is as good as I say he is. In all the times I have practiced with him, I have never beaten him, not even once."
Varnus looked at the guard who had been sleeping at the gate. The guard smiled and nodded his head, he was eager to for a chance to punish the small obnoxious man. "Very well," Varnus replied. "You can fight at the swordsmith's. He has an empty yard behind his house for training and sparring..."
"Splendid, I'll go there immediately," Ree'al said to Varnus. Then looking at the guard he said in a false whisper, "You better put on some padding, other than your fat. I might slip and hurt you."
"Fuck you little man."
"There now you see," Ree'al said with his grin still in place. "I give your guards back to you, bruised, sore, but nothing broken, nothing that will prevent them from working. Nothing truly injured but their pride."
Varnus looked at his guards with disgust. They had lasted less time than it had taken Ree'al to describe what he was going to do to them.
"Varnus, don't be mad at them," Ree'al said, coming to their defense. "They never stood a chance. I've had the best training in the world. I'm nearly as good as Darsonus. It's just that he's bigger and has better reach than I do. You simply cannot hire other guards who are as good as we are. It can't be done. It's hopeless. Impossible. There is more chance of finding a forty year old virgin whore. These men gave a fair account of themselves but a rabbit can't be expected to kill a wildcat. Now can we move on and finish our bargaining?"
"Yes," Varnus answered, "but you know your price is out of the question."
"Let's step away from the others," Ree'al suggested. After the warrior and the merchant were out of hearing of the guards and sword smith, Ree'al continued quietly, "I will pay you 100 gold if you pay us 150 gold to escort your daughter. And you must promise to keep our deal a secret just between the two of us, even from Darsonus."
"I want to set a high price for our services," Ree'al said. "You are known for hanging on to your last copper as if your life depended on it. What's in it for you? Tonight in public you will dazzle me with your bargaining skills. I won't know what happened. I will start at 300 gold and end up doing the work for 150 gold. Oh, and there are other considerations. Think of the love of your wife and daughter will feel for you, when they find that you, the cheapest man on earth, no insult intended, spent 50 gold to protect your only daughter. Later this afternoon, Darsonus and I will put on a fighting display that'll have this town talking about for years to come. If enough people see it, even 300 gold will not seem like too much money."
"Pay me 125 and we have a deal," Varnus said.
"No. Come watch us. You're really getting the bargain of a lifetime. Just keep our deal a secret - especially from Darsonus. I don't want to be on Darsonus' bad side and neither do you," Ree'al smiled to keep some of the sting out of his words.
As Ree'al turned to leave there was the unmistakable sound of a money pouch falling to the ground. He turned back and grabbed the pouch where it lay. "How much is in here, merchant?" He said with a voice loud enough for the recovering guards and swordsmith to hear him.
Ree'al opened the pouch and poured the coins into his hand. "One hundred gold," he said as he poured the coins back into the pouch. "Not nearly enough. You have no idea how good he is. Perhaps this demonstration was not sufficient. An hour after noon Darsonus will put on a demonstration. Then we can talk again." He held the pouch out to the Varnus.
Varnus stared at the pouch that had been dropped by Ree'al. Money in the hand was too much for a merchant to refuse, after barely a moment, he took the coins. With that the deal was accepted.
Ree'al returned the practice swords to the amused swordsmith's racks and re-armed himself with his own swords. "Swordsmith," he said with the first true smile of the day on his face, "My friend and I need a place to fight this afternoon, is this space available?" Ree'al looked over the smith as he waited for his answer. The smith was old; his hair white and in a pony tail. He was tall and thin but his forearms were corded like a ship's cable and scarred by many cuts. They were the arms of a warrior, not that of a smith.
"If you wish," the smith said as he continued to work.
"Thank you," Ree'al said. "I'll see you an hour after noon." Ree'al walked away, towards the Fat Calf and breakfast. The smith shook his head sadly, watching Ree'al until he was out of sight.