Douglas Smith sat on a stump just outside Oleg’s Trading Post. It was good weather, sunny with a cool breeze from the north. He was studying the cold-forged iron longsword he’d acquired in the forest. He’d smithed his whole life, and while he’d smithed many small and crude items without the softening of heat, he’d never seen anything with such craftsmanship forged from such a process. He couldn’t even imagine the quality of tools that would be necessary.
He stood and swept the blade through the air a number of times, practicing the moves taught to him by visiting Swordlords in barter as he’d grown up. Though he’d swung a sword less often than a hammer, he’d incorporated many of their techniques into his fighting with his hammer; and so far, that training had served him well. He swung overhead once then a sharp forward thrust and a spin to his left.
“I think you got him!” He heard a voice yell from his side.
He turned to see Eric Bowman riding his horse slowly toward him. A rope was wrapped around the horn of his saddle, the other end tied to the bound hands of a man who walked behind him.
“I thought you were after pheasant!” Doug called back, sheathing his sword. “Who’s this?!”
Eric rode closer before answering. “You don’t recognize him?” He asked.
Doug looked at the man more closely, until realization flashed in his eyes. “Yes,” he answered finally. “He’s one of the bandits we let go.”
“We told you not to come back,” Doug said, swaggering closer to the man. “Weren’t we clear?”
The man didn’t answer.
“What should we do with him?” Eric asked.
“I’ll take him from you,” Doug said, and Eric handed him the end of the rope from his saddle horn. “Everyone else is out. Was he armed?”
“This.” Eric said, pulling a short sword from his saddle bag and handing it to Doug. “You want me to help you watch him or get him secured until the others get back?”
“You do what you need to,” Doug replied. “I have him.”
“I’ll be back soon,” Eric said. “We need to finish up that plan.”
“I know,” Doug agreed. “Happy hunting.”
Eric nodded then turned his horse and trotted away.
“Well, I guess you’re my company for awhile,” Doug said to the prisoner. “Come on inside.”
The man glared at him a moment, but Doug just walked forward with the rope, strong enough to tug the man along easily. He took him to a back corner of the stable, tied his rope to a beam and pushed him down to sit on a woodpile.
“Get comfortable. I suppose I can wait to deal with you until the others get back,” Doug said, looking around for something to sit on.
The man rolled his eyes and looked around.
“Sorry if I’m boring you,” Doug replied in mock apology. “Don’t blame me. You’re the one that decided to come back.”
The man almost spoke, but held his tongue.
“What? Almost an answer?” Doug added. “Now you’ve made me more curious than patient. Why did you come back? Going back to the Stag Lord? That’d be new. Seems like most of you have been itching to get away from him. You hoping for a promotion, get your old boss’s job?”
“You might want to consider loosening that tongue,” Doug told him. “I’m a patient man, but not all of my allies can say the same.”
“I’m going to save us both some time,” the man suddenly spat out. “I have nothing to say to any of you, and no threat you make will change that.”
Doug studied that man’s face and demeanor. It didn’t seem to be bluster. The man was truly not concerned for his situation. Doug scratched his beard and began pacing slowly around the prison. He took a deep breath before speaking again.
“You know what? I believe you,” Doug said, nodding. “I do. You don’t seem a bit concerned for your safety. So, I’ll forego any threats. The question is ‘why’? Why aren’t you scared? I don’t remember you being this brave the first time around. Is this a trap? Possible, but I don’t think so. So, what’s changed in you? What exactly have you been doing the last few months?”
The man cocked his head to glare again as Doug circled round his left side.
“Come on,” Doug encouraged. “Certainly no harm in answering that is there? Where did you go after we kicked you out of the area? East? West? North? To Restov?”
“Ingervale,” the man said mockingly.
Doug stopped a moment then continued pacing again. “Ingervale?” He asked rhetorically. “I don’t think so. Still, the fact you bring it up is telling. It’s Restov. That’s where you’ve been. You’ve been asking about us, haven’t you?”
The man gave a dirty smile, though more to himself.
“I think I see where this is going,” Doug said. “What did you learn? Did you learn that we’re not some mercenary or military expedition? That’s true. Did you learn that we’re just peasants, tradesmen; settlers looking for land? That’s true too.”
They made solid eye contact, which Doug took as an acknowledgment that they were in agreement.
“Yes, it’s all true,” Doug nodded, pacing a circle a little faster. “But perhaps you should have stayed a little longer, asked some more questions.”
This time, the man had a questioning look in his stare, a crack in his confidence.
“You see, there’s only one thing that matters to an Inger, getting a job done,” Doug said, slapping a post for emphasis. “That’s why we’re here, you know. We’re being kicked out of our home in the current Ingervale. The six of us have been given the job of carving out this section of the Greenbelt for Ingervale to settle again, and we intend to get that job done. Do you understand how this changes your situation?”
The man’s brow sloped, showing further concern, understanding only slowly creeping in.
“Let me spell it out for you,” Doug said, by now walking at a fair pace, circling the prisoner. “When we arrived, we needed a safe place to base our operation, a place for shelter and food. That was Oleg’s. You and your lot, however, were plaguing Oleg. So, we had to put a stop to that…which we did. We then let the survivors go. Did you not think we had a purpose for that as well, a means to our end? We wanted you to carry the word that this area was protected.”
Finally, his face showed some understanding…and fear. He whipped his head hard to the right to watch Doug’s movements.
“Now,” Doug continued, “it’s a different situation. You have an impression of us, that we’re soft…and that is an impression that we can’t have spread around the land.”
“I…I understand now,” the man said, calming himself. “I’ve made my mistake and I won’t make it again.”
“You certainly won’t,” Doug replied quickly.
The man twisted his body in a sudden contortion to free himself.
“You have one last chance,” Doug said loudly. “Tell me all you know about the Stag Lord. We know of the monthly gatherings and the code words and the amulets. Tell us something else.”
“I can’t,” the man replied, struggling with his own words. “I will carry your message, but I don’t know more about him than you already seem to know. You have to believe me!”
“I do,” Doug replied quietly.
The man’s own shortsword then entered his back and pierced his heart. Death was almost instantaneous. The scream was short. He slumped forward. Doug untied the rope from the post and dragged the body out of the stable. Kestin was just outside the doors.
“I heard a yell,” Kestin said.
“It was him, not me,” Doug replied. “I’m going to ride out and string him up alongside the South Rostland Road, right from that tree at the crossroads…a little warning.”
“So, he’ll still have a use, eh?” Kestin nodded.
“It was the only use he had left,” Doug said, and boosted body up onto a horse.