Her bony finger tapped Robert forcefully on the shoulder, snapping him out of his awe at the glorious vista before his eyes. He turned and looked at her, and threw a glance at the bulging bag of bread she held out to him.
“Thank you, this kindness won’t be forgotten. Perhaps if we have a good harvest, I’ll bring my son with me next time I travel to your lands.” Robert smiled genuinely at her. The bread was some of the best he had ever had.
“Yes, perhaps!” The old woman replied with a forced smile. Being so good at lying, it didn’t show. “Well, be careful on your travels. Better get a good start while the day is somewhat young.” Robert nodded, and turned away.
“Wait!” She burst out. Robert whirled back to her as a bird chirped. “Take this with you! Your legs are still weak. You have no horse.” She held out her gnarled wooden cane.
“I cannot take an old woman’s cane from her.” He said laughing and shaking his head.
“Please, I have plenty more. This one has no significance to me. Take it.” She held it out with both hands, and he saw that it was a very dark wood. With lines curving up the side in strange spiral stylings he had never seen. He hesitated, but took it from her. He might need a weapon in Elven lands, his throbbing head reminded him.
“Thank you. I will return this one day.” Robert lied quietly. His hands tightened around it, feeling the smoothness of the staff before holding it to his side to steady himself. His legs were beginning to find their true strength again. He walked, the staff longer than he remembered it in the shade of the hut. The woman stood in the doorway watching him as he walked away through town, toward the mountains that were close to the borders of the Imperium. Before those stony peaks lived the forest that Robert was found in, beaten and robbed. The old woman cackled and coughed as she went inside, closing the door behind her. The spell she cast left her tired, her bones ached more than usual. It was time for a nap.
Robert continued walking through the town, feeling the stares of all the Elves looking him up and down. A lone human in a land that despised him. Looking to one merchant’s wares, some beautiful red apples gleamed in the sun and Robert glanced up with a smile at the owner. The man stared back into Robert’s eyes with burning hate. Robert could see crow’s feet beginning to form around the Elf’s eyes.
Signs of aging.
Robert looked back down and continued to walk, the hateful glares urging him to increase his staggered pace. Children suddenly appeared out of thin air, singing some Elvish taunt as they threw small bits of rotten fruit at him. Robert understood. This was something to be expected. Children act on impulses that adults bury deep within their hearts. Well, most adults. The children disappeared as quickly as they appeared. Robert continued to walk along as quickly as his legs would take him, both hands on the staff that steadied his steps. A rock flew toward him from behind as an instinct from his younger days tilted his head to the left. His right hand reached up and without looking he caught a rock that was meant for his skull with a loud slap.
The crowd watching him was more silent than before. He was quick despite his age. A reaction that a farmer shouldn’t have. Avoiding confrontation, Robert simply dropped the stone and continued down the hill out of town. Heading into the forest valley below. The people watched in suspicious silence as his head disappeared behind the road.
“Jah’sahn, are you sure that we should go into the Imperium again? Maybe we should just go home.” The young elf was nervous, and hungry. His hands played with the string of his bow.
“We have to.” Jah’sahn replied as he carved up an apple to share with his friend. “This is our last apple, and I am not going back to farming. I told you that already.” He took a deep breath to quell the anger he had within. Looking up at the clouds through the trees, the light glittered between the leaves. His father used to have a word for it, before he died and left him an orphan. His mother had died when he was a baby, during the Reclamation. A stupid name for a stupid war. Jah’sahn’s hands fiddled nervously with his sword resting in its sheathe.
“Fine, fine” His friend replied. “I just don’t want to beat up any old men again. It’s… not right. Human or no.”
“I understand, Brielbeh. How could we have known? After we tripped the horse up we had to follow through…” He paused for a moment in carving the apple. “But… I felt strange after that last encounter too. Even if the money we got for selling the horse kept us fed for a while. Did your sister recover with that medicine we got for her?” Jah’sahn offered an apple slice to him.
“Mostly. The fever’s almost gone, and she is talking again.” Brielbeh sighed and took the slice from Jah’sahn’s outstretched hand. “Its probably the only good thing that’s come of all this.” He muttered as he munched.
“Hopefully we can score something big. Maybe some information to give to the Ravens for a price. Maybe they’ll even let us join up.” Jah’sahn mused, tasting the sweet fruit as a small bead of juice trickled into his stubble. “But probably not.”
“Yeah, probably not.” They both were sitting in a tree high over the road, looking at the dancing patterns that the sun created through the trees on the ground below.
“They say you have to be pretty skilled with magic” Brielbeh chuckled. “The only magic I’m skilled with is making food vanish!” They both laughed through their nose with a short exhale.
It wasn’t the first time they had this conversation, or laughed at this joke.
Robert was walking down the same road they were watching, his legs steadily gaining back their strength. That stew the old woman made revitalized him unlike any meal he had before. He didn’t have to rely on the cane so much now, and he carried it at his side. The birds were chirping all around him when he first came into the forest road, unfamiliar tones that made him yearn for home. Now, they were mostly silent. Robert’s hand tightened on the staff, as he felt a familiar fear creep into his body. The urge to stop and go relieve himself on a nearby tree was overwhelming. Ahead of him, hidden in the trees, the two young men noticed him walking.
“Jah’sahn! It’s that man from before.” Brielbeh whispered. “What should we do?” Jah’sahn stared at him coming down the road. Thinking.
“Let’s see if we can’t help him. To make up for what we did.” They both smiled at each other and began to make their way down the tree branches, swinging and leaping with the dexterity of youth. They landed at the same time on the road, several paces from where Robert stood brandishing the staff at them.
“You two!” Robert snarled. “I won’t be taken by surprise again.” Jah’sahn moved forward, palms out.
“No! We felt bad about what we did, we want to –” An arrow materialized in his face, pushing his right eye from the socket. It hung in a muddled mass at the tip, before falling into the dirt. “Wee.. wahnt…to..” Jah’sahn slumped over and died in the dirt. Brielbeh screamed and ran toward his dead friend, but three arrows thumped into his back, one cracking through his rib cage and poking from his chest. His eyes bulged and he coughed, spewing blood over his white tunic. He fell on top of his friend with outstretched arms. Robert was mortified, glancing around at the trees and the bushes. A voice came from somewhere in front of him.
“Aww, look at them. Two little lovers.” The words were laced with an audible sneer. Small laughs came from the foliage to Robert’s left and right. The voice was familiar enough to put him at ease.
“Omar! I knew you and your men would come sooner or later.” Robert called out, placing his staff at his side again. “Come forth, and have my thanks!”
Hooded figures came from the shadows, bows slung over their shoulders. The curved blade of the Halharken Order rested on their hips. The Imperium’s best trackers. “I do think that these young men were going to help me… But…” Robert spit on their corpses as blood pooled underneath them, turning the dirt to mud. “They also got me into this mess. Stole my horse and everything.”
“Lucky you didn’t have this” Omar appeared above him crouching on a tree branch. He tossed a sheathed sword to Robert. “Or they would have known who you were straight away!” It was Robert’s sword. Shorter than a longsword, greater than a knife. Forked at the tip like a trident. Carvings along the blade, runes that no longer worked. The pommel was resolved with the face of a bear. Emerald eyes.
“Yes, that would have been extremely unfortunate.” Robert whispered, strapping it to his waist. “Are you and your men hungry? I have some bread for us.”