The forest was as tense as his shoulders, every stick and stone as taut as the string of his bow. It had been three months since he had left the last village, three weeks since he had last seen any sign of humanity, and three days since he had begun tracking this deer. He was surrounded by deep wilderness, his provisions had finally run out, and–not for the first time–the hunter cursed his skills.
“Your eyes are good enough,” his father said to him long ago. “But your feet will never let you catch anything with ears. Hunting is a silent game, my boy.”
This time, though, he didn’t need to use his feet. It took half the morning sitting in a giant, hoary oak, but the deer had finally wandered in range. It was a doe, not plump, but with enough meat at least to feed a hungry man. She was pausing for a nibble, and all he had to do was release.
The shaft entered just behind the doe’s foreleg, burying itself in her heart as she screamed and staggered off into the trees. Her death would come in minutes instead of hours, and that meant he could eat all the sooner.
He climbed down from his vantage amid the branches, clad all in greys and greens to blend into the forest. His surcoat hung to his knees, bound by a belt over a jacket of quilted leather. He wore supple boots, the better to move softly. A leather strap held his quiver, a small pack, and a pouch at his waist, and his eyes took in their surroundings from under a hood that covered his head and shoulders. The forest was thick with the scent of decay and rebirth, and here and there a bird could be heard, its song dying in the heavy woods around it.
He froze when he saw the sword. Its blade shone as though new-wrought in the shaded world around him, plunged into the earth on the other side of a small depression. It was a sizable span, but his hunter’s grace navigated it with ease, and he stood at arm’s length from the blade, deep in thought. It was a piece of superb craftsmanship, with no decoration but a small finger ring on the crossguard. He knew this sword, and knew better than to be far from it when it appeared. Someone had awarded it to him long ago, and it always seemed to appear when he had need of it, though he never relished its arrival.
“It’s you,” a voice called out, tearing the hunter away from his long reverie. A man stood across the bowl, wearing the clothes of a professional fighting man, and bearing twin blades. Another man dressed as a scholar climbed to the warrior’s side, a counting frame made of some dark material cradled in his arm. Their dress aside, the two could have been twins.
“You’re the one they call Woodland Sword.”
The name had been cheered in arenas all throughout the city of Span, and word of him had even reached the Elder Kingdom in the southern mountains. He heard it, and his shoulders slumped.
“I am Lennid,” he responded, still looking with a kind of fatigue at the blade before him. “A hunter of the Blackwood, and I am no foe of yours.” Swordplay rankled, and it was long work. The doe’s trail would keep, but his every hope had been for a meal, and now he was delayed. How these two could have approached with such silence was beyond Lennid, but somehow they found him, and his meal would have to wait.
“That’s what they say he says,” the latecomer reminded his partner. “This is him.”
“I am Golden Deimar,” said the first man, crossing his brazen arms. “I am welcomed at the Stag and Dragon, and I have sat at table with lords in Freeport. ”
Lennid knew the customs. According to the ways of chivalry that had ruled the Blackwood for a hundred years, the challenge could only be made after the challenger’s name and accomplishments were uttered. It was a world that bards sang of and children yearned for, but it was not for him.
“I am the sworn companion of Golden Deimar, and I wield the Iron Abacus,” the other said. “Sir Rolf of Ichstad, a hero of song and story, trained us side by side, and we remain together. Our accomplishments are the same.”
This world of lakes and rivers was full of souls contending with their own greatness; partnerships were not often longer than a moment’s need. Their tenure together hinted that these men could be of the highest honor, and Lennid shook his head thinking of the pride that must have driven them.
“There are none who can stand against us,” they said in unison, the swordsman rattling his falchions from their sheaths. The weapons had been tested, and often. “The Leaf Brotherhood with their flashing knives, the great clubs of the Low Order of Greenroof, and the infamous Anvil Thoman have all seen defeat at our hands, and you will join them, Woodland Sword!”
Lennid slowly wrapped a gloved hand around the grip of the blade before him. It was balanced for a single hand, but was wielded by two just as easily. Either way, it felt as natural to him as it did unwanted. He made no motion to pull it from the earth, but even touching it was sign enough that he had committed himself. These men had done much good in the Blackwood to hear them tell it, but it was not in him to go quietly into death.
“To blood?” he asked. These men probably thought of him as a danger merely because he did not cleave to a code so consumed by rite as their own. They may have only wanted to prove their superior skill.
“Murderer!” Golden Deimar spat, striking his sword on a nearby trunk in his rage. “We were friends of Eight, who was filled with virtue and was laid low by your blade. You must die for this.”
“Eight wanted nothing but glory,” Lennid replied calmly. “and collecting the fingers of hero and bandit alike is a strange kind of virtue.” It was not the most courteous thing he could have said, but their intentions had been made clear. He had been found nearly a year before by the swordsman they spoke of, and he could not talk him down, either.
The two men let out a unified battle cry and vaulted down into the depression. In tandem, they bounded across the low ground and raced up the other side, eyes alight with malice. Lennid stood with his back to them, but could hear that they knew how to read a forest floor; no leaf or hidden stone could hinder their speed. Golden Deimar leaped over the lip of the depression, and the matched fury of his blades would have cleaved Lennid to the breastbone had he not brought the Woodland Sword flashing up to block. The Iron Abacus came in low, and Lennid had only to pivot over a root to move from its path and place himself at odds with the two.
Lennid became a thing in constant motion, his hands ebbing to and from the grip of his sword as needed, his feet intimately aware of the terrain as he engaged one fighter and then the other. His brow was knit in focused stillness as he dealt and evaded blows. He didn’t fight according to any of the established orders, but the refinement of his skill hinted at extensive tutelage. It was quick, ferocious, and–above all–adaptive.
Golden Deimar attacked in tight circles and sweeping arcs, twisting and tumbling like a falling leaf. The Iron Abacus checked Lennid’s blows as often as it dealt its own, and the scholar’s footwork always looked after his partner. The three advanced and melted away. Narrow paths in the undergrowth were all they needed as they filled the hilly wood with the ring of steel.
Then Lennid’s moment came. Deimar had just vaulted over his head, and Iron Abacus had already positioned himself to flank. Lennid brought his sword across, deflecting the abacus with the same stroke he used to attack his airborne foe. The twin falchions blurred an interception, but Golden Deimar could not halt his momentum, and Lennid’s blade found a gap in his twirling defenses. There was a slash of red in the green world around them, and Deimar fell to the earth with a crunch. The scholar’s cry died in his throat as the Woodland Sword reaped a bounty across his neck and chest.
Only Lennid’s breath marred the silence that swarmed back into the trees around him. His eyes burned into the sword until he cast it from him with all his strength, and watched as it glittered through shafts of light to disappear down a steep hill. Leaning against a nearby tree, he wiped the sweat from his face.
“Coward,” Golden Deimar muttered behind him through gritted teeth. His broken body shook in its death throes. “You disgrace a warrior’s very life by casting yours aside!”
Lennid watched as the life faded from his opponent’s eyes. When the warrior had gone, he turned in the direction of the bow he had abandoned. “It’s not what I’m looking for.”