by Chris Weston
Cover Design: Melchelle Designs
Visit Chris Weston at www.chrisweston.moe
Published by Dragonwealth
Copyright © 2016 Chris Weston
All rights reserved.
Table of Contents
About the Author
Alana spits blood on the dirt. She can’t believe she allowed herself to be punched like that. She picks up her sword and gives chase towards the target. She sees Karlyn keeping up with him. He uses the forest to his advantage, running between trees and using uneven terrain to slow her down. At this direction he’s not going to where they want.
She runs across a creek. The cold morning water seeps into her boots. Alana ignores it; plenty of time to get dry later. She cuts across the forest, following them with her peripheral vision. The morning light rises in their direction, forcing Alana to squint to locate them. They should have grabbed him in the night. Should have, could have. She can’t think of the past, there’s no time to give it.
A boulder slab is in front of her; one of the markers. She slips the sword in her hand, lowering as much resistance as she can. She still has time to correct this mistake. Alana runs up the boulder and leaps off, rolling as she lands. Disoriented, Alana flips the sword and positions herself into a fighting stance. Their target falters and runs to her right. She gives a faux swing to keep his adrenaline running.
A bolt shoots at their bounty, but he moves out of the way just before it reaches him. Alana turns to see Karlyn readying another shot.
“Hurry and catch him,” Karlyn yells out.
“He’s not going to get away.”
“I’ll believe that when I see it.”
A crack of wood echoes out behind her. The trap triggered. Alana breathes out a sigh, at least she can stop running now. She sits on the ground. The forest hasn’t stopped spinning yet. Karlyn extends a hand, helping Alana off the dirt. “How are you feeling?”
“A little light-headed,” Alana responds. “I can go for a good breakfast when we get back to town.”
Picking up her sword, she sheathes it and goes to check on their prey. The bounty is hanging upside down, a rope fastened around his leg. The trap worked, not that she doubted Karlyn’s craftsmanship. His untucked shirt is covering most of his face.
Karlyn walks up to him. “We can wait until the blood rushes to his head and he passes out. That’s an option.”
The bounty flails wildly hearing their voices. He pulls out a knife from his belt. Alana takes an extra step back for caution. “Oh look, he’s trying to cut himself free.”
The bounty attempts to pull himself towards his feet, but can’t quit manage it. Each time he curls, he falls right back down. No amount of stretching will cause him to reach the rope, let alone the time and effort it takes to cut through it.
“I had to do it once,” Alana says to him. “It’s more demanding than it appears. I don’t think you’re the type who has the shape for it.” She walks up and snatches the knife from his hand. “He’s a big one to drag back.”
“It’s a day’s ride. Less if we keep a good pace,” Karlyn says.
“He killed a guard. We’d have to keep an eye on him and make sure he’s not up to something. Is there a price difference in how he’s returned?”
“Not even by a copper piece.”
Alana shrugs. “No reason to not keep the load light.”
Pulling her hatchet out, Karlyn grabs their bounty by his hair and brings the hatchet to his neck.
Some of the coins have bloodstains smeared on them. Alana checks the side of her palm. Blood fell down her arm when handing the bounty over. She forgot to wash her hands since they returned. She gestures a nearby barmaid and asks her for a wet cloth.
Karlyn finishes the pork on her plate, and gulps it down with her cup of ale. “Lately, the alive or dead bounties have been coming back dead. I’m wondering if we’re being too aggressive in our dealings.”
“The last one shot at us with a bow and arrow, the one before that tried to trap us in a burning house, and the one before that actually wanted to eat us. So no, I don’t think we’re too aggressive. I think we’re doing just fine. Real angry people in these lands, wouldn’t you say?”
“Same as every other place,” Karlyn responds. “How’s the bag feeling?”
“With this reward, we should be fine for some time. Two weeks, if we’re careful with what we spend on.” Alana clicks her tongue. “We need to get more gold.”
“I’m not personally objecting to being paid in gold, but we deal with what we deal with. We went through our previous bounties quick. And you gambled most away of whatever we didn’t go through.”
Alana exhales and strums her fingers on the table. The barmaid returns with the wet cloth, and Alana cleans her hands. “I’m typically good at cards. All I was trying to do was get some usable currency. Better than running after some criminal to get a little money. And besides, you saw their faces when they won our pile, they were so happy. Doesn’t it just fill you with enjoyment we made someone’s day?”
“Copper, sure. Gold, no. That’s our problem. Every place we encounter is a little bit different. Silver, copper, their value changes constantly. Gold, that seems to hold its value wherever we go. It’s a universal language. If we were to have some gold on our hands, we wouldn’t have to accept every job that comes our way.”
Alana says, “How’s this, next job that offers gold pieces, I’ll accept without question. Would that make you happy?”
“Very. Get ourselves some decent lodging next time.” Karlyn looks around the inn. “What are you talking about? This is a fine establishment. Good food, cheap beer, and the beds are not made of dirt and rock.”
Alana sees Karlyn brush the compliments away, and they return to enjoying their evening. A bard plays a cheery melodic tune that slowly turns somber. A story like many others, of doomed royal lovers who enter life with passion and end in regretful suicide. It’s a sweet enough melody, but Alana can’t say she empathizes with their struggle. She’s never been one for romance.
Probably for the best. Given their predicament, it’s a blessing they have no familiar faces to return to. It keeps them clear of any bounties or related family members who hold a grudge. She takes another drink of ale; clean and crisp. Another benefit of constant traveling.
Alana folds her arms on the table and rests her head. She watches the crowd as the song comes to a close. The difference in those who love the song and clap, and others who clap out of habit. Her eyes feel heavy. The heat from the fireplace fills the room. As she drifts off, a man walks up to their table.
“Alana and Karlyn?”
Alana picks up her head and scans him quickly. Nice robes, finely made. Proper posture and his voice comes from his upper chest, causing her to move back from him slightly. He’s nobility, through and through. “That would be us. What do you want?”
“I require your services to retrieve my son, a squire. He’s entered a tournament and his life is in danger.”
Alana lazily looks to Karlyn, who wants no part of this conversation. Exhaling deeply, she moves her plate from her view and motions the man towards her. “Sit down.”
The man sits across from them. “Thank you for listening to me. I heard from the marshal that you two caught a fleeing criminal faster than he’s ever seen. Said he saw you leave after accepting the contract, and before he knew it you returned.”
“I can’t say that’s the fastest we ever apprehended a criminal, but I can see why he said that.” Alana grabs her mug and takes a sip. “Sir, I’m letting you know our services have been altered since our contract with the marshal of this town. To hire my sister and I, you’ll need gold.”
She blinks. “I’m sorry, what did you say?”
“I can pay in gold. How much will it take?”
Alana notices the conversation has grabbed Karlyn’s attention. She mentally takes account. They did recently arrive here, which means they have a week or more before having to leave from the transition. Their coin purse has enough for five days, but it’s copper, which leaves them to chance if the next place they visit considers copper valuable or not. Gold can take them a long way. Alana smiles to the man.
“Don’t worry about the number. Tell me about your son.”
They order more food. The bar maid brings pork and bread, but Rowley Callaham refuses to take a bite. He drinks the pale ale they order, although he doesn’t seem to take much satisfaction from it.
“It’s called the Tournament of the Black Ring. The Twilight Brotherhood runs the event. They are one of the kingdom’s most dominant military forces, and not just by reputation alone. Once a year the tournament is held, and whoever survives is granted knighthood into their ranks.”
Alana asks, “And your son is going to enter in hopes to become a knight?”
“Yes. Aaric left and there was nothing I could do to stop him.” He exhales.
Alana sees he his slouched over the table. She and her sister are probably not the first people he’s attempted to hire for the job. It seems like a case of a father not wanting to see his son drift away. She clears her throat. “If Aaric is a squire, what’s the reason he’s taking this challenge in the first place? Surely the knight he works under will commence a dubbing if he’s proved himself.”
Karlyn interjects, “Being a squire isn’t a half-bad role in and of itself.”
Callaham takes another drink. “It was that damn Sir Marsen and his drunken ramblings. He’s in no rush to knight my boy; and he’s young, he wants to prove himself. I was that age once, and that desire never truly leaves you. He thinks he knows everything about the world, but I don’t want anything to happen to him before he realizes how big the world really is.”
He cares for his son, that is certainly far more than she’s seen of some fathers. Must be an only son still alive for going so far as to pay in gold. Alana lets the thought go. The first rule to not getting in trouble is to not peer into a job. “I don’t want to disappoint you, Sir Callaham, but I don’t know if you necessarily need our services. The best bet would be to let him give this tournament a go, and come back a little worse for the wear. A few scars may do him some good. If what you say is true about the Twilight Brotherhood, the competition will be fierce. He won’t last. You and your wife should wait until he trudges back through your front doors.”
He shakes his head. “You don’t understand; each fight is a battle to the death. The Twilight Brotherhood only accept the best and most willing.”
“Well, damn,” Alana says. “Never mind. I can see why you sought us out.” This Twilight Brotherhood runs a bloody arena. Alana thinks she should have asked more about the tournament itself, but she can’t be expected to learn new customs for every damn land they stay in.
Callaham says, “The one round that isn’t fatal is the qualifying round. Once the contestant passes, they must continue through until the end.”
“Any chance he won’t make it past the first fight?”
“No. My son is strong and can act quickly on his feet, but he isn’t like those men. He can make it in, he just won’t come out alive unless he is stopped. That’s why I sought you and your sister out. Both of you are recent to the area, but you have a good reputation.”
Alana ponders on the situation. They need to reach him before he enters. Worst case scenario, they have exactly one round before he’s spilled on the ground. It’s not a bad offer, finding a squire before he does something stupid and life-ending. His father is paying in gold for all his pieces to stay intact. It’s just a matter of reaching him before they have to leave.
Alana clears her throat. “My sister and I are not sure how much time we have left here. We may need to leave from here quite rapidly, so if we’re going to bring your son back in one piece, we’re going to need those directions to the tournament right away.”
“It takes place in Bartzen in two days.”
“From here to Bartzen, how long will it take to travel by horse?”
Alana winces. “Then we don’t have time to spare.”
The city of Bartzen is loud. Alana and Karlyn ride in on their horses. Traffic fills the streets as merchants and caravans recklessly meander about. Alana moves her horse out of the way as a boy carrying a large crate over his head runs past without even attempting to move out of the way. A tournament is good for business, clearly.
They station their horses at a nearby stable. The stable master tells them they are the last two they can fit in, that he has no more room. This event is turning out to be a bit bigger than Alana originally thought. She pays the stable master for the day and they head outside.
Signs point them to the direction of the tournament. Traffic flows in that direction, making the walk easier. A cattle herder cuts through the traffic with his animals and stock. As Alana waits for his rude interruption to past, she can’t recall the last time they went into a city. Their transitions and travels tend to keep them in the country and wildernesses. She guesses they never had a need to be in a city. She resolves on their next rest to take Karlyn to a nice one.
Their father wouldn’t have approved of it. He talked about clean air and a small community kept people honest. The cattle herder passes and traffic continues; she wonders if he had some truth in his sayings.
Karlyn’s shoulder bashes into someone from the crowd as they search for the tournament. “I’m thinking we see if he’s signed his life away, and if he did, let’s get out of town.”
“Are you joking? The amount of gold is fair for what we’re tasked, considering we’re asking for gold in the first place. Let’s reach the tournament grounds and find the squire. We either talk some sense into him or we knock it in.”
The coliseum comes into view past the buildings. They break from the flow towards the coliseum. No more shirts and robes past this point. Leather armor, blades, and spears. Contestants hang around talking and joking with one another. They made it where they’re supposed to be.
“Aaric Callaham, this way.” She hears.
When she turns, a young man in armor is being led into the grounds. She tries to call out his name, but her shouts are drowned out from the bustle of the street. By the time she can move past the gawking and meddling crowds, their squire is out of sight. She curses that he was nearby and they didn’t notice it.
A voice says, “Sven, did you hear something? I could’ve sworn it was the sound of a blind fuck.”
“You’re not wrong, Goran. I heard it too.”
Turning around, it’s a small group she had pushed by when trying to get their squire. She can smell the alcohol emanating from them. Just my luck to be next to some ingrates. Alana clears her throat and turns to them. “I apologize, I must have walked into the kissing contest by mistake. I didn’t know that kind of thing was tolerated in these parts, but I sure am glad there is someone for everybody.”
The loud one stands up tall and raises his voice. “What did you say?”
Alana tell shim, “You would have heard me if you weren’t so busy being ear fucked by your friend there. It can be hard to hear when you’re swamped with cock.”
He furrows his brow and his face turns red. “You best piss off before I crack open that stupid skull of yours.”
The argument causes Karlyn to put her hand on the hilt of her hatchet. Alana’s hands move to the hilt of her sword and knife on her belt.
Four men in black and silver armor come to the scene. Their leader steps forward with his black armor with a green insignia of a dragon. The claws and wings stretch down his shoulders and over the front of his breastplate. He walks over to them, letting his height do all the communication.
“Keep it down,” he says. “Any fighting outside of the tournament limits and you will have me to contend with. We don’t put on free entertainment. Do you twits understand?” He looks to them and Alana, and then raises his voice. “Did I make myself clear or will I have to personally deal with this dispute?”
The drunks drop their gaze and nod their heads before shuffling off. What a shit show. No more distractions, but their squire has gone off and entered the tournament. Alana taps her foot on the ground. She reminds herself they have until the first match to get to him, before any real harm comes his way. They’ll need to enter.
Alana taps Karlyn’s arm and whispers, “What do you want to bet that he’s the one we want to talk with? High and mighty, nice armor.”
“I’ll leave it up to you to do with him,” Karlyn says.
Taking her cue, Alana walks to the man in charge. “We thank you for breaking that little disagreement up. It seems some of the other contestants can’t wait until they enter the arena. My name is Alana, this is my sister, Karlyn.”
He glances at her up and down, thinking about his response. “I am Zain, captain of the Twilight Brotherhood. And I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but you two are here for the tournament?”
“Of course, this is the Tournament of the Black Ring, where some of the most skilled and deadliest warriors meet together for a chance at joining your order. My sister and I have been waiting for this opportunity, sir. We’ve been wanting nothing else but to be able to join these here ranks as knights of the Twilight Brotherhood. We believe we have what it takes to join your prestigious numbers.”
Zain laughs. “You have a silver tongue there, but you’ll need more than the correct words if you want the title.”
“Believe me, I do.”
“Then speak with Duran over there.” He points to man directing arriving merchants and contestants. “He’ll see you’re properly taken care of. And Alana, some advice for you and your sister, don’t cause trouble on my grounds again.”
“Don’t worry, we’re good girls.”
“That’s a shame, because I’m looking for great,” he says and walks away.
As he leaves their earshot, Karlyn leans over to Alana and says, “That guy is a prick.”
“Military men usually are,” Alana responds.
“You know what I mean. Did you notice how self-important he felt when telling me his rank? I could have punched him in the gut for the pompousness alone.”
“I’m not going to argue with you, but let’s keep out focus. We enter the tournament, find the squire, and we’re out before our first match.”
Karlyn says, “It’s not going to be that easy.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Because it never is. You have no sense of time. Let’s enter this tournament so we can grab this squire and get out of here. The sight of some of these people is already making my blood boil.”
They walk over to Duran who is busying himself yelling at merchants to move to their designated spots on the grounds. After he finishes with a vendor when he turns to them. “Yes?”
“We want to enter,” Alana says.
He looks at the two of them. “The two of you will be entering under as a team?”
“Is there a difference?”
“Yes, there is a rank for single contestants, and a separate class for those who worked best banded together. We can’t have you killing each other indiscriminately, you have to compete in your respective categories. Remember, you enter at your own risk.”
“We know the risks.”
Duran nods along. “Good, good. Forty silver from both of you.”
They follow Duran’s instructions through the entrance of the coliseum. Alana keeps her hands on her weapon and belongings. People push against her on all sides. She turns around making sure Karlyn didn’t get lost in the shuffle. Her elbows and shoulders bash into the bystanders as they go inside.
The central hall is home to countless vendors, tents with food, drink, and goods to sell to the attendees. The back and forth rapport goes on around them; vendors trying to sell overpriced goods and customers haggling down to their original prices. Alana takes a moment to browse alongside the crowd. Nothing but junk.
Alana shakes her head and continues with her sister to the main arena. “We have a moment, let’s figure this place out and see what this tournament is all about.”
“And the squire?”
Alana waves her down. “We’ll find the boy when we know our way around here. He’s in here. He’s not going anywhere, yet.”
The walk up the stairs with the horde of people to the center of the coliseum. She shields her eyes as she comes from the dimness of the coliseum halls into the open stands. People continue to flood in through the hallways as they find the best available seats. Hundreds are already filling in on the first day, and the amount of room can contain thousands. The traffic when they entered the city feels deceptive to seeing the actual sum of people in here.
A bell rings and a silence falls on the people. They stare at the arena grounds and see the two contestants walk out of their respective rooms. An announcer walks on a wooden stand overlooking the grounds. The announcer says their names and the match begins. The two contestants brandish their weapons and walk to the center.
Alana leans against the stands. “Karlyn, who do you think will be victorious?”
“Can’t say, have to watch them fight first. No idea what some people are capable of.”
“I’m going with the big one. Look at him, it’s like two full-sized men strapped together.”
The large one swings his sword, but his opponent dodges out of the way. That doesn’t stop him from shoulder bashing into him. Alana leans forward on the railing to watch. The bigger contestant breaks his stance and grabs his opponent. In response, the opponent kicks him to the floor and knees him in the jaw. What a squirrelly maneuver; she’s going to remember that one for later. The big one shrugs it off and attempts to swing again.
Karlyn says, “When you’re right, you’re right. This guy has some skill. Hopefully our squire doesn’t face him next.”
The two of them circle each other, taking the occasional step to test their opponent’s resolve. The opponent brings his sword up to block, and it shatters in his hands. With nothing but a hilt, he attempts to flee, but the large one charges again, slamming his sword against his back. Alana leans forward. That shouldn’t have happened. She watches as the large knight slices his opponent’s neck. The crowd cheers for the apparent victory. They get up in their stands yelling and clapping. A loud hissing and explosion in the air. Fireworks explode as the announcer congratulates the victor.
She can’t believe what she saw. It was quick, but she knows what it was. “How did that just happen? I refuse to believe he can hit so strong as to actually break a sword into two.”
“He had the tournament’s weapons,” a man in the crowd says.
Alana turns to the stranger. “Come again?”
He gulps down his cup of ale, then wipes his mouth with his sleeve. “Contestants are not allowed to bring in their own weapons, depending on the match. They have to choose from a pile of mixed quality weapons or they are given their weapons. Some tempered well, some designed not so well.”
Alana looks pack into the fighting pit. “Then he didn’t stand a chance against that beast.”
“Most likely not, granted his opponent could have drawn poorly as well, but that’s the nature of fortune for ya.” He scratches the back of his head. “I lost good money on that one, but it’s like that every year. Opportunity always awaits.” He walks into the crowd and takes another drink.
Sabotaged weapons, not what she was expecting. Alana rests her shoulder against the stands and watches as the victor hacks away at the corpse. The crowd still goes wild.
They travel the coliseum grounds in search of Aaric. Alana can’t imagine this is a place for him, and she wonders why they put themselves in this situation. Too many people in an enclosed space with too much to prove. Tournament weapon, the drunk said.
Karlyn says, “I think the sooner we grab him, the better. If what happened to that contestant happens to him, we shouldn’t even go back to that town. Call it a loss and wait until we leave.”
“That’s the same impression I’m getting,” Alana responds. “Difficult to get a feel for this place. Not our concern, let these morons throw their lives away.”
In the main hall the other contestants bide their time. A group share stories among each other. Another set of them play a game of cards at their table. Alana hopes no preemptive bloodshed takes place from a winning card in a sleeve. With the amount of Twilight Brotherhood guards posted at most doorways, that clash will be short lived. Alana recognizes the group they ran into on Bartzen’s streets. They sit alone at their table, ordering food and drink, not bothering to strike up a conversation with themselves. Alana shares eye contact with the loud one, Sven, but he takes his gaze back to his company.
They enter the upper quarters of the coliseum. Waiting rooms line the walls. Guards are posted outside when the rooms are occupied, a bit of security for competitors who fear underhanded tactics. Alana overhears one of the contestants arguing with the Twilight Brotherhood guard. He complains his partner was made sick before the fight, and their loss shouldn’t have been counted. She watches as a worker in the coliseum slips by the two carrying the water buckets away, both slung over his shoulders. It doesn’t matter what kind of challenge it is; someone will inevitably complain about the rules when they’re on the losing end. And with what Alana’s seen from the Tournament of the Black Ring, she can’t hold it against him.
Their squire may have the luck to get a false sword in his hands, and given the look of some of these challengers, get quickly disemboweled. At the other end of the lobby Alana spots Aaric’s armor from behind.
She tugs Karlyn over to her. “That’s him.”
They run over to the hallway he entered. When they go through it branches into two different paths. Torches line the stone walls of the coliseum. As she turns her head she can make out his armor glinting in the distance to her left. Alana yells him name, but he doesn’t hear her. She cups her hands around her mouth and yells again. Nothing. He continues on into the waiting room with guards posted outside. There’s no way of reaching him now.
“He can’t be so single-minded to not even hear us calling after him?” Karlyn says.
A door next to them opens. Duran comes out with an empty bucket slung over his shoulder. He bumps into Karlyn as he closes the door behind him. “The Wildstar sisters.” He straightens up. “What are you two doing up here? Your match is next. You two should be getting ready. Get to the lower quarter chambers. The judges are already heading over for your fight.”
“We’re trying to talk to someone we know real quick.”
“No time.” He turns them around and starts pushing. “We run a tight schedule around here. I don’t know where you’re from, but there is no meandering from us.”
Alana pushes his hand away. “Fine, fine. When does the round start?”
“Soon, so hurry. If you don’t show up on time, you forfeit your position, and you don’t want to see Zain’s temper if that happens.”
Alana nods along. “I’m sure it’ll be lovely.”
Duran leads them downstairs and into the lower quarter chambers. Down here they have candles also lighting the path. They pass other contestants sitting in the halls. Some of them waiting for their matches, some of them beaten and bloodied from their own. She wonders which of these contestants they’ve passed by today will be their opponents. Duran leads them to a room with two assigned guards at the entrance.
Duran opens the door and says, “Here you go. This is where you’ll be until you hear the announcer call you out. If you need anything, one of the coliseum workers will come in shortly, so ask him.”
She thanks them and they enter the room. Karlyn inspects the surroundings. “What are we going to do about the squire?”
“Nothing we can do at the moment. We have to focus on our next match and make sure we don’t get cut. If he comes out of his fight alive, we can move on from there. If he dies.” Alana shrugs.
The pit; an apt name. Alana sits on the bench and rests her back against the wall. The worker brings in a full water bucket next to her and leaves, although she’s unclear if it’s for drinking or cleaning; probably both. A pole with rags hanging off it stands in the corner. They have a candles lit even though light from the arena is shining in. A nice touch, she wouldn’t want to wait in the darkness for their match.
Alana sits and meditates when Duran comes back in the room with two wooden sword tucked under his arm. He inspects the two of them and says, “You gals ready?”
“As ready as we can be,” Alana says.
“Good, now drop your swords.”
“You’ll be given special tools for this qualifying round. Handpicked by Zain himself. This should be to your liking,” he hands her the wooden sword.
Alana feels it in her hand and swings it in the air a few times. Flimsy and weak, barely adequate against a training dummy. This is a weapon a child would play with while imagining himself a knight. “I sure hope our opponents are given the same amount of care as we are.”
“It’s not up to you to know. The fight mimics reality. You never know what advantage or disadvantage your opponent may have.”
Karlyn slams her sword against the stone wall. The crack of the wood echoes in the room. “Fantastic.”
Duran claps. “It’ll all be fine. You two just go out there and kill them dead. Now hand over what you have on you. You’ll get them back at the end of the tournament.”
They hand him their weapons and he leaves them in the pit. Putting the wooden sword into the air, Alana twirls it in her hand. She’s understanding what that drunk gambler told them earlier about contestants not being able to use their own weapons. It’s much easier to decide the match when the judges are in charge of who can wield preferred weaponry.
Alana hears the announcer call for the contestants. Taking a glance at her sister, they gather themselves and head out into the arena. Alana shields her eyes against the day. The arena is bigger than she thought, but what gets to her is the people. Swarms of them fill the seats at all sides. From the first match she watched earlier, she thinks their number has doubled.
The announcer takes to his stand and yells, “Representing team Wildstar, Alana and Karlyn Wildstar.”
A chorus of heckles drowns out the smattering of cheer. Alana stretches her arms and back to prepare for the match.
“Representing team Southwell, Peer Barbas and Byron Handler.”
A chorus of cheers with few jeers. These must be favorites, maybe even from the city, Alana thinks. The two of them step closer to the center. Two blond haired men with long ragged beards. They must be real badasses from where they come. Alana checks their leather armor. They’ll be able to move fast, but at least she doesn’t have to deal with plate or metal.
Karlyn gets closer to her. “You get the feeling that Zain just fucked us.”
“We don’t have the luxury to focus on Zain.”
“How do you want to go about dealing with them?”
Alana mulls over the two of them. “Pick one of these two that you like and kill him, I’ll grab the other. Let’s separate them quickly, so they don’t try anything fancy, then take them down hard. Once we’re out, we find the squire and leave.”
The bell rings. Alana gestures to Karlyn. “After you.” Karlyn nods.
They spread out, with Peer taking to Alana while Byron follows Karlyn. As she gets closer she notices it, Peer has a metal axe. The rest of them have wooden weapons, but this bastard snuck in a real one.
He rushes towards her as Byron focuses on Karlyn. Raising his axe, Peer swipes at Alana. She sidesteps the haphazard attack. Alana pulls her wooden sword back and slams it against Peer’s face. The force of the impact sends him staggering back.
Byron hears his yell and quits his fight with Karlyn. He runs at Alana. She swipes at his head, but the hit does not deter him from tackling her with his entire body weight. They crash into the ground. She can hear the roar from the crowd drone on. Byron pushes himself on top. He drops his wooden weapon and wraps his hands around her neck.
Using her knee, Alana pushes against his chest, moving him away from her. His hands still grip her throat. Out of the side of her eye, she sees Karlyn running over. Acting quickly, Alana grabs Byron’s head and pushes it up. Karlyn breaks the wooden sword on the back of his head.
With his release, Alana coughs and sucks in some fresh air. As she picks herself up, Peer attempts to crawl to his axe. As he’s reaching for the handle, Alana kicks him in the face. He doesn’t let the pain get to him. Peer pulls out a knife from his belt and swings it at her. Alana falls backwards to avoid his attack. He crawls on the ground to reach her. When he gets close and raises the knife above her, Karlyn grabs his axe and strikes him in the head. The blade cracks into Peer’s skull, Karlyn lets go and the handle floats out of her hands and falls down with him.
Alana closes her eyes and drops her head on the ground. We just became disqualified. This is nothing more than the qualifying round. She hears it, clapping. The coliseum erupts with cheering. Alana opens her eyes to take it in, as the tournament officials won’t care how the crowd feels. Fireworks fill the air, signifying the end of the match.
“Congratulations to our winners on Team Wildstar for that lavish finish.” The crowd cheers louder. “Prepare yourselves for our next match.”
Karlyn walks up to Alana and stretches her hand out. “Let’s grab this kid before they cook up something that will actually get us killed.”
She is lifted up and they walk back to their pit. Inside Duran cheers them as they return. He slaps Alana’s shoulder and says, “Great fucking show!”
Alana and Karlyn sit down on the pit bench. The victory took the wind out of Alana. They are still part of the tournament for the time being. She wasn’t expecting them to put up as much of a fight as they did. At least she learned early, the rest of the competition won’t be underestimated. She rests her boots on the rim of the water bucket.
The smile hasn’t left Duran’s face. “Great job out there. I heard some of the attendees complaining because they lost money betting against you. What a show. Would you like a damp rag?”
“No thanks,” Alana says. “How about you tell me why one of those bastards had an actual weapon when we were given wooden swords?”
Duran tilts his head. “Did they? I didn’t notice.”
Karlyn steps forward to him. “Not only an axe, but a damn blade on his belt.”
“And it didn’t deter you one bit, now did it?” She doesn’t give him a response. “You two will be in for a treat, those were the two winners of the earliest rounds. The first of the bloodshed is about to come upon us. You should grab a few drinks and watch the show before your next match.”
Alana waits until Duran leaves the room before turning to Karlyn and saying, “The bloodshed is just about to start, huh? How much do you want to bet they knew they’d bring in real weapons to a qualifying match?”
“I think we talked enough about taking on lost causes. We entered a murder ring,” Karlyn says.
Alana paces around the room. “Now more than ever I can tell why Rowley didn’t want his son to be part of this tournament. It’s for animals.”
“It’s a good thing we won’t be in these lands for long. I don’t want to imagine what else they consider sport.”
“Ah, fuck ‘em.” Alana sits back against the wall and tightens her gloves. “I was thinking about Zain and the Twilight Brotherhood. There’s a lot of money thrown around here from the royalty. The tournament is well known, the crowds are large, and the coveted spot is something everyone wants. A lot of money is moving around. How much do you want to bet they captain Zain knowingly supplied that contestant who broke his sword?”
“I don’t make it a habit of throwing my money away.”
Her head feels hot just imagining it. That fight could have turned nasty if they weren’t careful, and no one would have noticed if it had. The crowd would have enjoyed their entertainment. “Callaham said this was a yearly tournament? I can believe it; given the traffic it brings in to the city. Everyone at the top of the food chain is being fed nicely from the commerce here.”
It’s a good thing no one knows them here, and better yet, think less of them. If they didn’t want a fair fight, they can easily break a few of their bones and throw them out to a combat. That would put on quite a show. Alana remembers her broken arm from three years ago. What a pain it was to track bounties with one good arm; not impossible, but not ideal.
Karlyn pushes the wooden pole over. “How long do you think this has been going on?”
Alana says, “As long as people have had trouble on their minds. What a scam, nothing but a glorified meat grinder.”
“We can handle it.”
“We can only deal with so much when every contestant is trying to cut our heads off for a chance at the good life. It’s as if we have a bounty put out on us.”
“This must be what it feels like when we’re chasing after a bounty.” Karlyn laughs. “Come on, the squire should be out, if he’s still alive.”
“I don’t care if we have to drag him out. We’re not going into another match while we’re here.”
“I’m fine with cheap food and uncomfortable beds if you are.”
They wander the halls looking for their squire, peeking into waiting rooms whenever the opportunity arises. Nothing in the rooms. Not in the main hall with the other contestants. It dawns on Alana they have no idea where to find the squire in this labyrinth. This coliseum is gigantic; they can be at this all day before they find him. She changes tactics and looks for the nearest bar.
Alcohol has a way of loosening lips, and if the squire has already had his fight, then they’ll have extra eyes working for them, as long as he’s not dead. It takes some searching, but eventually they come across a bar where all the attendees are drinking at. They wade in, overhearing all sorts of conversations and bets on how long until a given contestant will die.
The gambler from earlier orders at the bar. If anyone knows who anyone is, it’s him. Alana walks up and sits on the stool next to him. “How are those bets coming along?”
He turns to her and gives her a slight smile. The aroma of ale drifts off him. “Things are getting better. I think I understand this year’s competition. Fortune should be good from here on out.”
“Is that so?”
“I bet on you and received a lump sum; have to be thankful for taking a chance.”
“Always glad to make some other people money.” She extends her hand. “Alana.”
He shakes her hand. “Hew.”
Alana leans against the counter. “Listen, Hew, I’m looking for an Aaric Callaham, single division. Do you know where I can find him or even when he’s about to fight.”
“Aaric? Aaric. Callaham. Yes.” he raises his finger. “I know who you’re talking about. The boy looks good out there. I’m betting he brings me the same luck you did. Yes, I believe he’s walking to his first real trial right about now. It begins in thirty minutes.”
“Where is that fight taking place? Where would that room be?”
Hew taps the lip of his mug as he thinks. “To the east end. That’s where I believe all the single challenge fighters go. He’s wearing the gold trim armor; you can’t miss him.”
They head in his direction as quickly as possible. Down the hall the drunk contestants from earlier Alana had a pissing match with are loitering between their matches. This time their shithead of a leader, Sven, doesn’t avert his gaze as they walk past. Alana rolls her eyes; he probably worked up something to say. Sven stands in front of them, blocking their path.
Alana shrugs her shoulders. “Come on out and say it. What gem has been rattling in that empty skull of yours?”
Acting quickly, Sven blindsides her with a punch to the gut.
Her intuition tried to tell her this was coming, but she was too slow to do anything about it. The world turns into a flash of lights as Alana tumbles backwards. He catches her by her collar and head butts her.
The suddenness makes her feel in slow motion. Her mind knows what it wants to do, to grab Sven and bring him down to fair footing, but her body won’t react. She hits the floor, and she prepares to retaliate. Karlyn pulls Sven in by the top of his leather armor and punches him in the mouth. A mess of arms fall in on them. Alana can’t make out what’s happening, but she bashes every stupid bastard’s hand that comes at her.
In the clamor Alana hears Duran’s voice yell, “Stop it.”
The flurry dissipates above her. All the body parts retract to their respective owners. Alana turns her head to an upside down Duran backed up by two Twilight Brotherhood guards. She opens her hands up to him, a gesture of good faith. Duran walks up to them. “Settle it down. I don’t know who started this brawl, but you stop it right here and now. People paid good money to see you fight, and none of them are getting their money’s worth by you brawling in the hall.
No one speaks up.
“If you start another fight; we’ll end it. If you want to test the Brotherhood’s word, then lift one more finger at each other. Do it.”
The group holds still at the threat, then Sven slaps one of his men on the chest and they get walking. He very well deserves to be skewered from behind, but Alana doesn’t have the means or the opportunity to fulfill that fantasy.
Alana turns to Duran. “Just so you know, we didn’t start the fight.”
“And as I said, I don’t care how it started. Be smart and make sure it doesn’t happen again. You can’t control what twits will do, but you can manage if you put yourself in a situation for these fools to act. Understood?”
She quickly nods. “Yes, it won’t happen again.”
Duran and his guards walk away. She waits until Duran turns the hallway to say to Karlyn, “I want to break that Sven’s nose right now.” Alana opens her palm and slams her fist into it.
“If we’re talking about getting into a fight again, let’s just break his neck and be done with it.”
“Not a half bad idea.” Alana picks herself off the ground. Outside of the dull pain in her stomach, nothing on her feels hurt. The edges of her skin have a burning sensation where the fists connected. She figures it’ll only be a bruise on her stomach, while the rest of her skin will stay discolored for the next several minutes. Bastards.
They can’t let Sven and his cronies distract them from the plan. If what Hew said is correct, Aaric is down the hall, and the end of their job is near. Heading to their destination, several passages appear. Alana feels a tap on her shoulder as she’s deciding which direction to take, “There he is,” Karlyn points.
Alana sees the squire walking the hallway. She’s not letting this opportunity pass her by. Alana runs to him. This time he’s not going to get away. She grabs him by his shoulder and pulls him back.
Aaric staggers for his balance from being yanked. “What is your problem?”
“Hey, idiot,” she says. “We’ve been calling your name all day. Do you have a hearing problem or something?
He looks back and forth at the sisters, contemplating what he missed. “No, I don’t have time to chat.”
“You’re going to have a lot of time on your hands soon.”
His eyes light up and he claps his hands together. “You two are the duo everyone’s talking about. Great matches, it’s incredible some of the things you’ve done.”
Alana steps back, trying to come to terms that she has a new fan. Receiving unprompted compliments doesn’t feel very becoming of her. She clears her throat. “Can we talk with you for a moment?
He rubs his shoulder. “I don’t know. Your insistence is very worrying.”
Alana thinks that at least he can put two and two together. “It probably should. We’re not contestants, we have no need or want to join the Twilight Brotherhood or win this tournament.”
Aaric shifts uneasily. “Then why are you here?”
“Your father hired us to take you out of this nonsense and bring you home.”
“It figures,” he says. “Everyone is trying to stop me from having a chance. Sir Marsen, my father——”
“Good, then you’re aware what’s going to happen next. You’re going to come with us, drop this knighthood bullshit or whatever racket the Twilight Brotherhood is pulling here, and go home.”
Aaric huffs. “What are you saying? You’re talking nonsense. The Twilight Brotherhood are known throughout the lands. This is where knights are made. I need to be here.”
“You damn well don’t know what’s going on. This is not a meritocracy. It is not up to an individual’s skill that determines if they become part of the Brotherhood; it’s if you gain favor with them. If you don’t, then an unfortunate accident will befall you in a match. Trust me. Watch any of the contestants and tell me I’m lying.
“You’re lying,” he says.
She takes back her assumption about him; he’s oblivious. “You’ve felt it, the roar of the crowd. The energy they expel. The combat, the suspense, the gore, they love it and the Twilight Brotherhood loves to give it to them. Many a good fighter has been preordained with a mistake that ended their life. Inferior equipment, fraudulent matchings. You know what you’ve seen; it’s plain as day.”
Aaric jerks back. “What are you saying? This is where knights are made. I need to be here.”
“Listen, this place is not for the stupid and it’s not for the good. This tournament is reserved for the great. The type of men who excel at what they do and nothing less. Those are the kind of warriors the Twilight Brotherhood demands. And those warriors are not unbeknown to them. They know who has it and who doesn’t. The rest of the participants are the sacks of meat for the crowd.”
“And I’m looking to answer that call. I want to be here.”
“You don’t know where here is, or what a knight is for that matter.” Alana takes a step forward slaps him. Aaric holds the side of his face with both hands. It was a good slap, a nice and satisfying sound to it. The squire is too comfortable in his newfound skin. She says, “I sympathize, I really do. You have something to prove and the balls to do it. That’s respectable. What’s not respectable is throwing your life away at this tournament. This entire organization is dirty from top to bottom. Most of the men who entered have enough skill and guile to become knights, good knights. If they sold themselves as mercenaries, which the Twilight Brotherhood essentially are, they would be hired all over the world. Each match is a coin toss of whether you’re going to be on the receiving end or not. That’s not for the warriors, that’s for the crowds.”
“I think you’re the one talking nonsense. The Twilight Brotherhood are one of the most highly regarded orders in the kingdom.”
“Except when they’re trying to kill you.” She crosses her arms.
“What did you assume would happen if you signed up? They want the best, and only the best will be picked.”
Alana shakes her head. “I don’t think you fully understand that statement. They are the ones doing the picking before the fights even take place.”
“I realize where I’m at, and it is time you figure that out as well. You probably asked for half from my father before taking the job. Just take it and leave. Consider it easy pay,” he says and walks down the hall.
Alana stand there. ‘It was a good try,’ she thinks. The only way this squire is going to leave here is with both of them dragging him, and they’ve already been warned to keep their hands to themselves. The last thing they need is to be seen knocking some real sense into him.
Karlyn doesn’t seem let down with the outcome. “We should just tell his father we attempted to reach him, but ultimately we were too late. He isn’t going to survive this round, and if he does, he’s as good as dead by the next.”
“I’m going to have a sleepless night about missing out on the gold.” Alana sighs. “Not our family, not our problem.”
“He’s an idiot,” Karlyn says.
“Do you want to be the one to drag him out of here?”
“I wouldn’t mind giving it a try. Let me go and talk some sense into him. You’ve been ineffective at it so far.”
“If you think you can change his mind, go for it. He’s a moron, like his head is full of rocks.” Alana rests against the wall. “It’s not like we’ll ever meet him or his father again. I want to leave here and get some simple jobs. Hunting bandits or wild beasts is an easier way to make a living.”
Karlyn nods and follows Aaric. Alana sighs and walks over to the railing looking over the hall. Some of these jobs have a way of getting out of hand. She feels they treated this job like eating dinner with their eyes.
She can’t understand this squire’s or any young man’s fascination with knights. It’s a bunch of pompous nonsense and formalities. Why isn’t there as much interest in bounty hunting? There are not as many bounty hunters as she first imagined there would be, and the hunters they’ve come across have been nothing but scoundrels. Alana flicks a piece of dried wax off the railing. It comes with the territory, she supposes.
She spots Duran enter the lobby. He walks up the stairs with several Twilight Brotherhood guards following him. She watches them come up and surround her. Alana turns to Duran. “What is going on?”
“You’ve been chosen for a special match, a one against one.”
She waves them away. “Sorry, can’t do it. Wrong category.”
“Not according to captain Zain. You and your sister impressed him, and there isn’t an option to go anywhere else.”
Alana notices soldiers block the stairway and the other guards in the hallways are looking at her. This isn’t a suggestion; it’s an order from the very top. She refrains from glancing around too much. Karlyn isn’t here. No reason for both of them to be caught. She relents to Duran.
He smiles and says, “Come along, the crowd is expecting you.”
Karlyn stays at the far end of the hallway from them. Damn it, they grabbed Alana. She knew these Twilight Brotherhood goons were bad news. They should have taken half the father’s money and ran. No one would have chased after them, and if they did, it’s not like they would ever catch them. Karlyn shakes her head. Dwelling on the past is the first way to waste the future. Their father drilled that into them first.
She peeks around the corner again. Duran and some of the guards take her down the stairs to who knows where. Maybe if she can interfere with them as they’re transporting her, then they can get out of here.
Two of the guards still standing behind say, “Find the other one, and make it quick. We don’t need provoke captain Zain with a job unfinished. I’ll take to the nearby areas; you watch an exit. Let the rest of the men know who to look out for before she gets a chance to sneak her way out of here.”
Scratch that idea; she needs to worry about herself from here on out. There doesn’t appear a way to make it to Alana at all. That’s not a good sign. The plan of getting to her sister and breaking out of here has gone out to shit. Time to move on to the next plan, leave.
Karlyn heads down another passage. With no sky, it’s difficult to judge which direction she’s heading in. She’s in the upper level contestant’s wing, so as long as she doesn’t hear the crowd, she’ll make it to the outer perimeter. All they have to do is wait them out until the next transition. It doesn’t matter how far apart they are; they’ll end up in the same place; more or less.
This place looks familiar, the waiting rooms. At first it looked more intimidating than it actually is. There should be a straight shot through the front doors down the hall and stairs. As she nears the stairs, Karlyn hears Twilight Brotherhood guards coming. Another person comes up the stairs first, someone she didn’t hear, the drunk gambler with a mug in hand.
He looks at her and then looks behind him. Hew swigs his cup empty and says, “Go into this waiting room.” He points to a nearby door.
She looks at him, but he takes another step away from the stairway line of sight and says, “Don’t just stare at it, go.”
Karlyn heeds his advice, just wishing she still had her hatchet on her person. As she gets inside, Hew closes the door behind her. She grabs for the handle, but the door doesn’t budge. She hears Hew’s voice say, “Guards, come over here.” Her blood is boiling. She wants to break open this door and stab him to death with the splinters. “I heard you’re looking for one of the Wildstar contestants?”
“Yes, have you seen her?”
“I most certainly did just now.”
“Where did she go?”
“I caught a glance of her and she took off down the passageway down the hall. I think she got wise to the coliseum. That’s the way to the stables, isn’t it?”
“We appreciate the assistance.”
“No problem, good men. Keep on being good.” And the sounds of boots go down the halls.
Karlyn keeps listening, just to make sure they’re gone and it’s not some nasty trick. She doesn’t hear anything else. They left. The door opens and Hew sticks his head in. “That was something of a close one. I led them to the passageways. They’re probably thinking you’re escaping through the animal pens right about now. They’ll be stuck down there for a while, so you should have plenty of time to scram.”
“Thank you,” she says.
“Don’t thank me. I’m just a guy who likes to lose and spend money. I overheard them talking, and you and your sister have more to lose.”
Karlyn smiles and thanks him again anyway. It’s strange that this small act feels foreign to her, that it took her by surprise. She hasn’t known someone who’s want was just to help. In their line of work, that kind of sentiment comes in short supply.
The hall is clear for now. Taking a look both ways, Karlyn goes with her intuition about the best direction. She didn’t anticipate any fear from wandering the coliseum on her own, but walking through these torch and candle lit rooms gives her a cold tremor throughout her body. Karlyn fends off the urges with her breathing. She focuses on her walking, one foot in front of the other. The possibility of Alana being somewhere with these scumbags eats at her mind. They can be anywhere, and Karlyn has no idea where to find her.
She trusts in Alana to figure out how to get escape from here, so she needs to be as confident as well. Karlyn takes a right and walks down this hallway. She knows where she is, this is the main hall. Karlyn looks down the stairs and notices all the vendors selling to attendees. This means she was in the upper waiting rooms for the single divisions. It’s all falling into place.
The entrance is right ahead. Karlyn shuffles down the steps of the stone stairs, pushing past some of the customers gawking at whatever sell the vendor is prattling on about. She heads out the doors when a familiar voice calls out behind her, “That’s her.”
Karlyn turns to see it’s Sven and his company waiting near the doorways. The Twilight Brotherhood guards block her path, and a few more leave their stations to stop her from leaving. They have her boxed in. Sven throws away an apple core he was chewing on to the floor. “It looks like you’re not going anywhere after all.”
Alana sits in the pit for the next match. Zain is going to do everything in his power to make sure she doesn’t survive this round. She won’t be surprised if they send her in unarmed, but she figures if it’s a standard execution the crowd wouldn’t be as entertained. More training weapons? Possibly. She thinks about the first match she witnessed. They’ll give her a fragile sword that can’t withstand any sort of battle. That’ll give the crowd a good show.
Alana leans her elbows on her legs. She remembers the training from her father. Those days were tough, but he wanted to prepare her for times like this one. Reflecting for a moment, it surprises her how many of those lessons came to fruition, and it was all her fault.
The door opens and a servant carrying the contestant’s water buckets arrives. Remembering what she overheard from the disqualified contestant from earlier, Alana seizes at the opportunity. As he’s setting her water bucket down, Alana pins him to the wall by his throat. She takes the other bucket out of his hands. “I’ll take this one,” she says.
The servant freezes, his mouth open wanting to scream, but silent as he comes up to speed with that’s happened. He gives multiple small nods, and she lets him go. Grabbing the other water bucket close to his chest, he scurries out of the room. Alana pushes her bucket against the wall. It’s a hunch, but she’s trusting her life on it.
Duran and two Twilight Brotherhood guards arrives. He gestures to the door. “You scaring the help?”
“He looked at me funny,” she responds. “I have to teach people like that some respect.”
Duran laughs. “I bet you’ve done a lot of terrifying over the years.”
“Do you think so little of me that you figure I’m some kind of brute?”
“Absolutely.” He pulls out a knife and hands it to her. “Here’s your weapon for the next fight.
She slides her thumb over the blade. There is no sheen to the metal and parts of the handle are chipped from wear. “It’s dull. I couldn’t kill my dinner with this knife.”
“I’m sure you’ll manage somehow. Better get ready, the match is about to begin.”
Duran and the guards leave her in the pit. She stands up, stretching her arm to get an idea the knife’s reach. Not very far, she twirls it around her fingers. She thinks whoever is on the other side of the coliseum wasn’t also given a butter knife for the fight. The bell rings to bring the contestants out.
Alana walks out and shields her eyes from the damn sun. The announcer shouts, “Today’s match is special one on one duel to the death.” Applause fills the air. “Wildstar against Flainn.”
Her opponent stands ready at the other side. The bell rings again and they meet in the center of the grounds. Flainn wields a mace in his hands. It’s about what she expected when given this puny blade. Alana flips it in her hand, barring the knife’s edge away from him. Hopefully he doesn’t look closely at it.
She throws a swipe at Flainn to test him. He flinches backwards. He has good reflexes. It’s time to see if they hold up during the match. Flainn swings wildly at her. With a few steps she dodges his attacks. He attacks again, and she dodges just as easily. As she’s not focusing on any offense, it easy to avoid anything he sends her way.
Flainn scowls. “Fight me.”
“I’m waiting for you to start fighting me,” she says.
He rushes forward, and again she sidesteps away from him. The crowd begins to boo. They want to see action. They want to see blood. They just want to see one of them spill open. Alana concentrates on the fight, there is no time to worry about their entertainment.
She sees Flainn’s steps are more forceful. He’s consciously taking each step instead of letting instinct kick in. Damn, she hopes this plan of hers worked. She takes another swing at him, this time being more aggressive with her placement and getting in close. It passes by his face, and when she returns to her stance he flinches backward. Her heart leaps; it worked.
Alana charges at him, elbowing him in the chest and spinning around with a hit to the head. Flainn staggers around, his body reacting several seconds in the past. She hits him again. Same response. She drops her knife and runs up to him. With both hands on his mace’s handle, she kicks him to the floor.
“A little slow?” She taunts him on the ground. “How do you feel asshole? It can’t be too good.”
“What the fuck did you do to me?” He slurs.
“Only what you were going to do to me. Was that a little venom you tried slipping me before the match? No, it can’t be; it has to be a numbing agent of some kind, as you don’t appear in any pain.”
The crowd cheers at the turn of events. Alana takes a moment to let their sounds wash over her. She glances over to the announcer’s stand. It’s all coming together.
She says to Flainn, “You’re too dimwitted to come up with that plan. You strike me as the kind of person that doesn’t put much thought into anything you do. And I think I know who the real architect is.” Alana lifts the mace over her head. “Rules are rules.”
She slams the mace down, cracking the front of his face wide open. An explosion of fireworks in the air. This wasn’t the outcome the Twilight Brotherhood was expecting. Alana straightens herself upright and looks to the announcer’s stand. Zain sits in his chair glaring down at her.
Back in the pit she waits for the part of this charade to play out. Duran walks in to the pit alone. “You seem to always have a good showing.”
“It’s as if I know what I’m doing or something.”
He nods. “You and I both know you can’t keep having that luck turn up. We know you’re not here to join.”
“What makes you say that? I love the Brotherhood. Nicest group of enterprising scumbags I’ve ever come across.”
“Sure, sure. The good news is we don’t want you around either. Let’s just say you’re not made of the right stuff we want. We’ll wait it out, get a few extra matches out of you and your sister, although the two of you won’t be seeing each other again. Can’t have you two helping each other out. Your sister will be detained in the pits until the next match arrives.”
“What did you say?”
“I said we have your sister. She didn’t get very far until some honorable men helped apprehend her. We’re going to keep you separate, and then wear you out.”
Her body tenses up and she grinds her teeth. She glances around the room quickly to make sure they’re both alone. “You’re an idiot.”
She leaps forward and punches Duran right in the mouth. He falls back and hits his head on the wall. He’s out cold. That’s certainly not going to make their treatment any better. Alana waits a moment to see if anyone is going to rush into the room. Nothing happens.
She walks outside and two guards are absently-minded at attention. Alana turns to them, gestures with her thumb to the pit and says, “I got another fight in an hour. It’s like these guys are trying to kill me.”
They laugh and she walks right past them.
Not the most graceful method of escape she’s ever come up with. She wanders around the coliseum as she thinks of a way to get her sister out of here. Alana hears the sounds down the stairs. Hugging the wall, she peeks down to see four of the Twilight Brotherhood pin a vendor to the wall.
“Have you seen the Wildstar sisters? One with brown hair, another with dark hair, this tall.” he gestures in the air.
The vendor shakes his head. “I’ve seen a lot of people. I can’t go off that description.”
“They’re contestants, damn it.”
“I still wouldn’t know. We’ve all been inside today. No one can tell you who the contestants are.”
Alana sees they’re getting to work already. That was fast. They probably have most of their numbers spread out among guard duties for the coliseum and watching exits. Given the size of this place, it’ll take a long time to strip the coliseum room by room without doubling back anywhere they’ve already checked. Good for now, bad for tonight when they regroup.
She turns around to see Aaric walking her way. He waves slightly to her and says, “Hey, where’s your sister?”
Alana hears them coming. The Twilight Brotherhood clang of armor and stomps from their boots. “No time to explain. Be quiet and follow me if you don’t want the guards to throw you in a cell.” She grabs Aaric and pulls him back to the hallways. Down one end two guards come up from the stairs. Alana takes a right, hurrying past the waiting rooms.
It’s a bad idea, but good ones seem in short supply today. She pushes Aaric into a nearby waiting room and closes the door behind her. The sound of the boots beat against the floor as they pass by them. Her heart races until she can’t hear them any longer. This job is getting to her.
She turns to Aaric. “Damn it. You are not worth the trouble my sister and I are in.”
“What are you doing running and hiding all over the place? I was just called in to captain Zain—”
“Fuck, Zain,” Alana grabs Aaric by his breastplate, arches her back as far as she can, and headbutts him. Aaric falls back into the closet door. Alana falters. She sticks her hand out and holds herself against the wall. Holding one hand on her forehead, she says, “Do you know what the difference between me and him? I’m paid to keep you safe.”
Aaric holds his head and props himself up with his elbow. “And that’s what you consider safe? You can’t go around sucker punching people.”
Alana pulls out her flask and pours the water over her head. “If you can’t stomach to use the same actions against your enemy, believe me, this life isn’t for you, or your misplaced morals. The second you let your conscience get in the way, these animals will cut you down and you’ll be breathing in blood during your last moments on this world. You’re good, but you can’t compete. You have too much to lose, and they don’t.”
Aaric stands up with his hand on his forehead. “I didn’t ask you to come out here. I’m not in any danger that I’m not fully aware of. I’m here to become a knight. My father would have me be anything else if he had his way.”
“I couldn’t care less what you choose to do with your life. Become a priest, take on scholarly pursuits, build something with your hands; anything else but this life will do. Your father wants you home. That’s a good enough reason to drop everything here and now.”
“Well, then just fuck right off then.”
She pushes off the wall and lands a kick into his armor, putting Aaric back to the floor. “My sister deserves that sort of opportunity more than I do, and more than you. She’s stuck here with me, because I made the wrong decisions. And she’s out there, with a cheering crowd hoping to see her disemboweled for some entertainment. Because you were too fucking stupid for your own good. If something is to happen to her I have no problem leaving you here to go back home in parcels.”
Alana lies down and lets the last water droplets in her flask fall into her mouth. “I need to get my sister out of that ring before the next fight. At this point the contract between me and your father is void. I don’t want anything to do with him, and certainly not you.”
Aaric doesn’t move. He drops his head back and stays lying on the ground. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I didn’t know your sister was in trouble.”
“She is, but at least you came to your senses.” The two of them stay on the floor staring at the ceiling.
“I didn’t mean to sound—”
“I know. Believe me, it’s not the first time.”
A loud wave of applause dully roars into the room. The people sound stronger than she expected. She notices in the waiting rooms there is a window to the arena. Aaric turns to her. “Is that a match?”
Alana rests her head back down. “Probably going on right now. What’s got you bothered?”
“There’s not supposed to be any more matches today. Fights are to resume tomorrow.”
The two of them scramble to their feet. The window is small and raised high on the wall. Alana grabs a nearby chair and stands on it to see out. Both of her hands nearly cover the opening. She peeks down to the fighting grounds. Four shapes stand ready, three to her right, and one on her left. She can’t make out what is going on until the announcer says, “Welcome to our latest team battle, team Torell against team Wildstar.”
It’s getting hot outside in the arena. It’s either that or nerves are getting to her. The wooden sword in her hand doesn’t give her much confidence. Karlyn looks straight ahead to her opponents. She recognizes the leader, Sven. It seems Zain wants to start a revenge narrative for this fight; and he couldn’t pick the worst bunch of cronies. No bother. Actually, a slight bother. She’s forced to take on three men by herself. Not the best odds.
She stretches her arms and balances the wooden sword in her hand. There doesn’t exist a lot of opportunity for her to make mistakes. It’s do or die at this point. The horn blows and the crowd cheers. She walks alongside the wall. The three of them start at a run, but stop once they see she doesn’t reciprocate. Karlyn keeps her back against the wall, it’s the only advantage she has left.
She notices their weapons are made of steel. The judges must not have thought the odds were good enough for them. This detail isn’t going to change her plan. It’s not about the materials in their hands, it’s all about positioning.
“Come on over.” One of them yells.
She ignores them. Three men. Not wise to take charge when they can easily surround her. It’s a bad idea to wait and be surrounded, so she’ll have to goad them into charging one by one. That shouldn’t be too strenuous, which one looks the stupidest.
Sven. Sven seems like the kind of guy who doesn’t think things through. Sven wields a morning star. She’ll have to keep her distance with this one. Even if a hit barely connects, Karlyn can’t allow them any chance to outmaneuver her. Sven’s partners are the ones she can’t be sure about. They both have steel swords in their hands. None of them have acted as thick as thieves, so she can’t assume they share a close bond. Probably cowardly, most likely will stay back and let Sven start the assault.
And he does. Sven’s impatience kicks in and he charges at her. Karlyn whips her wooden sword at his side, staggering him, and then she knees him in the stomach. The other two rush at her. Sven already pulls his morning star back for a hit. Grabbing one of his goons around his sides, she throws him into Sven’s path. His morning star connects onto the back of his head. A thick wet thud and blood spurts out on the sides, and he falls to the floor, dead instantly.
The scene doesn’t stop the other from his lunge. Karlyn kicks him in the chest, deflecting some of his mass. The sheer force of his weight puts her off balance and she falls to the floor. Looking across from her, she realizes the dead one’s sword is on the ground. Karlyn rolls over and crawls towards it. Sven swings for another attack. Her hands dart for the sword, grabbing it by the hilt, and she throws herself backwards to the ground. The head of the morning star barely passing by her face.
More applause and clapping from the audience. Karlyn gets up before his partner does, and she rams the sword into his side. The blade of the sword is lodged inside of him. He falls down dead. Karlyn jumps back as she dodges another swing from Sven. Using her momentum, she digs her heels into the dirt and tackles Sven. She manages to disarm him, but he reacts quickly and throws her to the ground.
Sven knees her in the stomach. His hands grab carelessly at her, trying to pick her up and drag her to his morning star. He puts his fingers in Karlyn’s mouth in an attempt to move her. No gloves on, Karlyn recognizes the rookie mistake and bites down. Sven screams out and his fingers squirm and scratch at the roof of her mouth.
She grabs his arm and twists him down with her. Karlyn releases her bite, and as his hands retract. She elbows him in the throat. He wheezes and coughs, his entire face turns red. He’s immobilized. Karlyn picks herself up and grabs one of their fallen swords.
“Sven.” She plants her leg on his back. “I’m afraid you’re not going anywhere. She drives the sword into him, not stopping until it can’t go any farther into the dirt.
“Mercy,” he screams out.
She spits on the ground. Picking up his morning star, she says, “Mercy? I don’t think you’ll find any on these grounds. Mercy is for the weak, isn’t that right? This arena is for the strong, and for the strong, we don’t know the meaning of the word mercy.”
Karlyn raises the morning star above her and smashes Sven’s head in with the spiked ball. The back of his skull gives in, causing the handle to slip out of her hands.
Fireworks explode above the coliseum. Karlyn puts her hands on her knees and exhales. This is the scariest fight she’s had in months. When she stands up, she looks to the announcer’s stage. Behind the announcer is Zain, glaring down at her from his chair.
Alana lets go of the opening and sinks down into her chair. She covers her face with her hands. That bastard Zain is going to pay for his bullshit. When she regains her composure she sees Aaric looking at her wide-eyed from listening to the match.
She says, “I need to get my sister back before she’s sent into another fight. You may not know what that means. I have no idea if you have brothers and sisters, or if you care about them. I didn’t bother to ask your father. It was all about the job and getting you back home for some money. Being Zain’s personal plaything was never a thought. So if you want to do the right thing, if you want an inkling of a thing called honor, then I’m going to need your help.”
He clears his throat. “Anything. What can I do?”
Alana holds her eye contact with him. He has that look of determination, something hidden in the eyes and face not many have. Maybe he is the kind of man that can become a knight; maybe he’s been right all along. She thinks on her next move and closes her eyes. When good ideas fall short, just make the best bad decision.
“There are tents in the upper levels of the coliseum. You’ve seen them, it’s where they store and shoot out their fireworks after a match. Light it up, light the whole damn thing up. I don’t care how you do it, just create chaos.”
“It’s not too hard to follow.”
“Fantastic.” Alana slaps Aaric’s shoulder. “If it all goes well, none of us will be dead by the end of the day.”
She heads for the door. It’s time to implement her ideas.
“Where are you going?” he asks.
Alana turns around and says, “I’m going to get my sister out of here. You should focus on the fireworks. That’s going to be the difference between life and death for us.”
She leaves the room and closes her eyes. What a risky plan. The dividing line to escape and butchery is a hundred Twilight Brotherhood soldiers. If Aaric’s father would have mentioned it, maybe they could have approached this job differently. Alana sighs. In a way she guesses he did tell them what to be aware of. They can’t be expected to know every time a shit storm comes barreling down their path.
No more dawdling. Alana walks down the stairs where the two guards have their backs to her. As they murmur among themselves, she stands right next to them, taps them, and raises her hands.
“You caught me.”
Alana looks at the bucket of water next to the bench. Her mouth is dry and she can go for a quick sip, not much, enough to stop her tongue from sticking to the roof of her mouth. It’s probably poisoned again. She doesn’t put it past the Twilight Brotherhood to want to kill her one way or the other.
She figures she’ll just stay uncomfortable until they can escape from this place. It takes a special kind of scumbag to make a tournament even more dangerous. Plenty of limbs and gore falls in these places. Alana shakes her head. This isn’t her responsibility to make sense of it. She needs to focus on getting her sister out of here.
Duran walks in with four guards following him. Five people is a crowd in the pit; makes her feel claustrophobic. “You and your sister have been the renegades around here. The two of you coming out of nowhere, beating distinguished warriors. We knew both of you fought well together, but shit, you’re just as deadly separated. It’s damn near respectable. Still, you can’t upend the narrative whether you feel like it.”
He hands her a sword. She pulls the sword slightly out of the sheath. Two of the guards twitch in response.
“What’s wrong with it?” She asks.
“Nothing,” Duran responds.
Alana throws her hands in the air. “Come on, we’re past this point in this relationship, aren’t we? You can tell me what you did to it. Is it the blade? Will it shatter on impact? Maybe it’s the craftsmanship. I can see it coming apart after a few good swings.”
“As I said, nothing. It’s a perfectly fine sword, crafted as well as any other. You’re not going to have any defects to worry about in this next fight. Zain wants your weapons to work as intended.”
She continues to look over the sword. Nothing seems wrong at first glance, but she can’t shake the feeling there is more beneath the surface. “Do I need to guess what the point is or are you going to leave me in the dark?”
Duran takes a small bounce in his step. “When the bell rings and you go out there, you will be fighting against your sister. It’s a battle to the death. And if for some reason neither of you two wish to participate, there will be archers ready to finish both of you off. We can’t just leave the crowd wanting for some entertainment, now can we?”
Alana stares at him. She can tell from the excitement in his voice that he’s not lying.
Alana doesn’t have to shield her eyes from the sun. It has finally dipped below the coliseum walls and evening approaches. The crowd cheers as the contestants step out of their pits. Hanging off the announcer’s stand is Hew. A rope wrapped around his limp neck. Karlyn walks out the opposite end with a sword in her hand as well.
What a twisted sense of humor Zain has. Karlyn was right in calling him a prick. He sits behind the announcer’s stand. Alana imagines he’s smiling. She’s not giving him the satisfaction of eye contact. Her hand squeezes on the handle of her sword. One good opportunity is all it would take.
The announcer walks forward. “We have a phenomenal event for you tonight. The last fight of the day, and you will soon agree, it certainly will be the best. Wildstar against Wildstar. Only one will be allowed to proceed in the tournament.”
The drone of clapping and voices fills the air. Alana shakes her head at these people. She spots where the archers are. They stand to Zain’s side in a half moon formation around the arena. Most of them look fatigued from the day. A good sign they’re not ordered to fire right away. It gives Aaric some time to spring into action.
The bell rings to start the match and Karlyn runs over and swipes down with her sword, but it’s slow, giving Alana time to move away. Another slash, and she dodges again. Alana smirks; it’s a good plan. Alana responds with a few strikes of her own, which Karlyn deflects. It reminds her of those early days of training.
The crowd heckles at their performance; always entitled to a butchery. They two of them are on borrowed time. She notices some of the archers are getting into position to fire down at them. The more the people are dissatisfied, the more likely they are to become pincushions. That boy better hurry up and—
The first explosion. A tent on the upper levels of the coliseum bursts into flames. The fireworks shoot off in all directions. Streams of lights fly into the crowd. Alana seizes the moment as everyone is staring and screaming. They take off running to the pit. Karlyn following right behind her. Their feet beat against the gravel.
A blur passes in front of her. The archers have come to their senses and fire to their positions. Alana clenches to her sword tighter and beats her feet harder. As she’s closing in on the pit entrance an arrow nicks her ear. Alana throws herself in and Karlyn follows likewise.
They made it inside, but the sound of metal enters the room.
Inside the pit the two Twilight Brotherhood guards head in the sisters’ direction, checking to see what is the commotion taking place outside. Alana tackles the first one with all her weight.
They land against the bend. The guard, disoriented and confused from the rush of the attack, is unable to comprehend fast enough what’s going on. Alana takes her sword and runs it through his side. She rolls to see the other raising his halberd. Karlyn slams her sword over his arms, causing the halberd to clatter against the floor.
Even bewildered, he haphazardly lurches at Karlyn, letting his metal armor do the damage for him. Alana crawls to her feet throws herself at him. She pins him against the wall. His gauntlets latch on to her face, his fingers trying to find her eye sockets. Karlyn readies herself again and swings, cutting his neck open. The guard stumbles around the room, knocking over the bucket of water. His boot slips, sending him onto the floor, holding the wound on his neck before passing on.
Duran stands against the wall. Quickly he reaches for the wooden pole to use as a weapon. Karlyn swings, breaking the pole into two broken pieces in his hands. He attempts to swing both wooden pieces as makeshift clubs. Karlyn swipes at his neck, tearing his throat in half and dropping him to the floor. He causes a mess knocking into the place.
Karlyn extends her hand and helps pick Alana off the floor. “What’s happening out there?”
Alana retrieves her weapon from the guard’s abdomen, and steps over the still corpse of Duran. “Aaric, he’s setting off the fireworks so they blow up in the coliseum.”
“So he came to his senses?”
“It seems like it.” She kicks Duran over to the wall. “He’s not that bad of a kid once he becomes agreeable. Come on, let’s get out of this place before more guards show up.”
They head into the hallways. Alana mentally watches her stride. She puts her weapon away and walks as calmly as possible, back straight and head held high, like they’re meant to be walking in here right now. Some fleeing attendees go right past them, and they follow. More and more people appear, all wanting to leave, and none of them looking twice at the sisters.
Down the hall a group of Twilight Brotherhood guards are directing the people out of the coliseum. The mass swarms past them. Alana stops walking. They might make it through the crowd, but those guards have been on the lookout for them for the past few hours. She doesn’t like the odds of going through them unnoticed. Karlyn tugs at her arm. “Let’s take the stairs up and get around them.”
Alana nods. It’s a better idea to go past less guards and keep their chances of being spotted lower. They cut from the crowd and take a nearby set of stairs up the waiting rooms. Looking both ways, Alana doesn’t see anyone around. As they go, the sound of running footsteps approaches them. Alana’s hand grabs for the hilt of her sword. Aaric comes towards them. He slows down, putting a hand against the wall as he catches his breath. Her hand loosens its grip. “Good job back there.”
“Thanks,” he wheezes. “Almost got caught when I was running around, but all the explosions pretty much made everyone stupid. Still, I wouldn’t want to try that again.”
“It was appreciated. Now pull yourself together, don’t make eye contact, and we’re going to walk right out of here.”
She stops as they leave the waiting rooms hallway. Down in the central lobby, they Twilight Brotherhood have made the crowd turn into single file lines. Guards in each line look through them before letting them pass through the doors. She sees they’re letting the men pass quickly, but each woman gets scrutinized before going.
“That’s unfortunate,” Alana says. “We’re certainly not leaving the same way we came in. I highly doubt they’re looking for women for no reason.”
Karlyn rubs her hand through her hair. “There is a passageway to the animal pens. I don’t think we’ll find any opposition through there if we can reach it fast enough.”
“You know where that’s at?”
“Roughly,” she says.
This idea sounds better than tempting fate and a bunch of armed pissed off guards. “You lead. I’ll follow wherever you think is best.”
Karlyn leads them door a steep flight of stairs. These hallways are dark, very few candles and torches set out. It makes sense there wouldn’t be, this is for the workers and slaves in the city. They don’t need the light to figure out where they have to go. The light is for paying citizens.
The smell of manure wafts through the passage. They are getting closer. Alana puts her fist in front of her nose, trying to block out as much of the stench until she gets used to it. They come into the stables. Horses, pigs, and chickens are all in here. The horses are a good sign, it means they are at street level, and they are a few paved roads out of this mess.
“Like rats scurrying to escape a burning ship,” Zain’s voice calls out. He stands by the stable doors in full armor attire and a spear in hand. “You’re not jumping to open waters so easily.”
Zain points his spear at the group. “Don’t think of yourself as clever,” he says. “You think you can come in here and make a mockery of my tournament? Not only that, you have the audacity to think you can get away with it. I don’t know where you two are from, but that behavior is not tolerated in these parts.”
The group draws their swords at Zain. Alana positions herself away from Karlyn and Aaric, allowing for some maneuverability among the stalls.
“Three against one?” Zain says. “It doesn’t appear very honorable of you. Not that I would expect anything less.”
“You’re one to talk,” Alana says.
“It’s a selection process. There is no way to know what kind of trash will wander on in. Can you imagine how it will affect the Twilight Brotherhood if we let in someone who can tarnish the prestige of our name?”
“You did that all by yourself, Zain.”
He points his spear at the squire. “Aaric Callaham, yes, I know your name. You were always going to make it through, boy. You embody everything my men should hold themselves to. I saw that when you entered and when you first fought. People like you deserve the chance to serve your country, deserve the privilege to hold your head high.”
“Not like this,” Aaric responds.
“I’ll say I’m disappointed, boy. You’d rather assist two troublemakers than the very people who make this country safe. I expected better from you.”
Zain charges forward with his spear raised to Alana. He thrusts his spear towards her, but Alana dodges the attack and swipes the spear away. The impact causes her blade to break apart in half. Of course it did, she thinks. Alana slams the hilt of her sword in his face. Zain takes the full blow and elbows her in the mouth.
Hitting the floor, Zain jabs at her with his spear. Alana squirms out of the way and slices back with her broken blade. Nothing but superficial damage, Zain grabs hold of her. Remembering from the early fight, Alana kicks at Zain’s leg, causing him to stagger and fall to one knee. Grabbing hold of him, Alana pushes off Zain and knees him in the jaw.
They both fall to the ground. Zain comes to first, stumbling onto his feet and picking his spear up, allowing Aaric to charge in. Zain pulls Aaric in by the collar of his breastplate and headbutts him. Aaric falls back from the hit.
Pointing his spear at Alana, Zain thrusts down at her. Aaric kicks the head in midair, making it plant into the floor next to her. Karlyn strikes at this opportunity, swiping downward at him. Zain attempts to block the blow with his hand, but Karlyn’s blade hits at his wrist, dismembering him. Blood spurts out and Zain screams. Karlyn swipes at his face, leaving a gushing wound from his ear to his mouth.
Zain falls, placing his knee and body weight on his arm.
Alana drops her weapon and pulls back her sister before she can deliver the final blow. “Hold back, you—”
Karlyn struggles in her arms. “Hold back?”
“This one isn’t for you.” Alana holds tight to her sister. Karlyn relents, sheathing her sword. Alana lets go of her. “He’s down and he’s not going anywhere. Let the squire handle this himself.”
Aaric stands there with his mouth slacked and posture slumped. “Me?” He says.
“Yes, you. All that talk about becoming a knight to do the right thing; here it is.”
He looks at Zain who is doing everything in his power not to pass out from the blood loss. “It’s not right,” he says.
This idiot. “Why?” Alana says. “Did being in the arena make it right, even if you had no idea if your opponents were slated to lose against you? Did not knowing if they slipped them poison before the fight really help your conscience? How about this, if you don’t kill him, we’re all killed for treason. Maybe that’ll kick you into action.”
“I came here to be a knight.”
“Well, there’s a knight right in front of you. A great one, whose name is known throughout these land; known enough for you to make your way out here for his tournament. Look at all those virtues he embodies. How many good and capable men do you think he’s let be slaughtered over the years? Is that what you praise, the abilities of a butcher?”
“I didn’t set out to be a butcher!”
“But he is,” Alana says. “If you want to keep your conscience intact, stand back. I’m not a knight, I don’t care about your morals. A butcher dies the same as his herd. Karlyn.” She gestures. “Hand me his spear. I don’t even want to get near him. We’re not leaving him here to get his hand bandaged up.”
“I’ll do it,” Aaric steps forward. The sword in his hands shake. Zain doesn’t say anything. He grimaces and holds his arm under his body in some attempt to stop the bleeding. He holds eye contact with Aaric, not even breaking a blink. He watches as the sword raises above him and as it is brought down.
Alana circles around Zain’s corpse. Doing without a head does a lot for his stature. Aaric holds himself against a wall. He did better than she gave him credit for, he didn’t puke after beheading Zain. She remembers her first gruesome killing. Her legs immediately went shaky and her stomach released itself.
It’s not an easy part of life, but it’s a fact that he was going to have to find out about sooner or later. It doesn’t suddenly become easier on the morals when declared honorable. She looks at him. He leans forward on his sword, his eyes staring at the floor. Disenchantment can be a tough experience. She walks up to him. “So what are you going to do now?”
“I’m not sure,” he says. “Can’t say I’ve known anything else in life but to fight, to become a knight, to be someone.” He lets go of the sword, letting it drop to the floor. “I don’t know what I want now. Is saying I want to do the right thing good enough? Everything I know about that is shattered.”
Her heart goes out to him. “Leaving that life behind is not a waste. Let me tell you something about knights, something I have firsthand account of. You won’t hear this in any songs or written in a tome. One of the first tactics when knights are sent out is a simple one, it doesn’t change much between countries and kingdoms. They establish a presence. The term doesn’t mean much to you, but it’s a change to those caught under that fist. It means killing anyone of any strength, be it physical or societal. You respect them, they fear them, and that sense of honor is one and the same.”
She puts her hand on his shoulder. “It’s fine not to want that kind of power, because nowhere is it said that that’s the right thing in the end.”
“Is that what happened to you? You saw what knights can be like, so you know what goes on the other side of the curtain.”
“I’m not saying every knight is this way. My sister and I have worked alongside knights who hold the same ideals you do, and we’ve helped a lot of good people when they needed it the most. If you want to do the right thing by other people, keep today’s lesson in mind going forward.”
Karlyn stretches her fingers up in the air, “You feel it?”
The cold shiver goes down her spine. “I do,” Alana responds. “Doubt we have time to get the reward. We’ll just have to pick up work at the next town. Aaric, we’re about to get going. Your father was going to pay us generously for bringing you back. Take that money and do some good with it. I don’t care what it is. And don’t look so somber. You still have a good head on your shoulders, you’ll be fine. Eventually it will all be figured out.”
Karlyn throws her broken weapon away and they start towards the exit. The outside is clear of anymore Twilight Brotherhood. People are moving rush up and down the streets, gossiping about what took place in the coliseum. Vendors have their goods thrown over their shoulders to take them to the local inns for safe keeping. This is their perfect opportunity to escape.
“Wait,” Aaric calls out. He pulls a stone from his pocket. “It’s not much, but take this.”
Alana takes the stone and recognizes it, “A roval stone.”
“They have some value. It should pay for a night at an inn or some good food.”
Alana glances at her sister. “We appreciate the favor. Now we have to get going. Take care, Aaric. You’ll find a way to do the right thing sooner or later.”
Alana pats her horse on the head. She twists around and pulls at the pouch hanging off the saddle. Holding the roval stone in one hand, she drops it into the linen sack with the other one. They’re starting to have a collection of these things. She doesn’t believe they’ve ever run into the same two mementos in their travels. Closing the bag, she places it back on the horse.
The city hasn’t left their view, and the transition is coming. Good for Aaric that they escaped when they did, or he would have been left to those barbarians. Alana moves her horse closer to Karlyn’s. She notices some scratches and bruises on her. Could have been worse. This job went upside down in a hurry.
Karlyn sees Alana coming closer and says, “Did you expect us to be leaving this soon?”
“Not at all. I figured we had a few days left.” Alana sighs, “I’d like some gold in our bags. We did pull the squire out of there, and I don’t think the Tournament of the Black Ring will be hosting again. We probably cleaned up that city for the better.”
“You set him on the right path. That should count for something.”
“I guess so. I would have liked money more than all that.”
She looks at Karlyn and thinks back on Aaric. He had to learn eventually about reality. There’s always someone out for their own, and when it comes time to answer their call, it pays to hit fast. That shaking in his stance, that look on his face, Alana remembers those days far too well. Somewhere down the road they just became numb to it all.
The transition starts to take over. New world, new problems. At least the Twilight Brotherhood won’t be around in the next one. It always makes her feel her vision is going out of focus. “A good deed is worth its own reward, I guess,” she tells her sister, “I guess I have to think of it like this, we’re one step closer to home.”
[“Alana and Karlyn Wildstar are two bounty hunters always ready to take a job. Young women are disappearing from their homes when a mysterious bard arrives at the village. A grief-stricken father hires the sisters to track the missing girls and rescue his daughter.
The sisters take the assignment, but are not prepared for what they find. Trickery, lies, and illusions surround the case, hiding the true threat. There is a hunger waiting beneath the ground for the Wildstar sisters, and they must discover it before they are swallowed whole.”]
[_“After cashing in their latest bounty, Alana and Karlyn Wildstar head to the next town looking for more work. They cut through a forest engulfed in a heavy fog. No animals, no bugs, just a solitary owl who tracks their progress. _
_The sisters find an abandoned castle lost to the woods. Three meals stand in the mess hall, one too hot, one too cold, and something not right as three undead bears attack. _
Alana and Karlyn narrowly escape with the help of the legendary huntress, Goldie de Locke. The three band together, engaging in a hunt of life or death, and using every trick in their arsenal to survive the night.”]
[“Alana and Karlyn Wildstar are sisters who make a good living as bounty hunters. When a contract needs to be executed quickly, they are the fastest and more efficient hires for the coin.
_When an escaped criminal runs to hide in the mountains, competition arises from competing hunters looking for the bounty. Dirck and Ember Blade are a husband and wife team who are just as deadly as the Wildstars. _
A race begins across the mountain as bounty hunter versus bounty hunter fight each other for the prize. The Wildstar sisters will face tension inside and out as they survive the next twenty-four hours.”]
The Dragon’s Tear
[_“Tyyr is a member of Valsair’s secret police. As part of the House of Ravens, she is the first to gather information for her king. She’s a killer, a spy, efficient and self-reliant. _
Rumors of a dissenting lord passes through the Houses, and they send Tyyr to investigate. The heart of the matter is a mysterious jewel known as the Dragon’s Tear. The gem attracts dangerous foreigners into the country, causing chaos and mayhem to claim their prize. Tyyr must use every talent and skill she has to return to the capitol, as her morality and mortality are pushed to their limits.”]
Thank you for taking the time to read Knighthood. Honest reader feedback will help influence future stories in the Wildstar series. If you enjoyed this story and want updates when a new installment is released each month, sign up to Chris Weston’s newsletter.
Chris Weston is a freelance writer and fantasy author. Is a big fan of naps. He lives in South Florida with his three dogs. Sometimes they take naps together. He can be found on: Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.
The Wildstar sisters do whatever it takes to get the job done. A squireâ€™s father hires them to retrieve his son from a deadly contest. The Tournament of the Black Ring is a trial of the strongest warriors of the land, with the reward a guaranteed spot in the Twilight Brotherhood as a knight; all it requires are fights to the death, winner take all. The crowds cheer as the matches rage on; coin flowing as freely as blood. Now Alana, Karlyn and the squire find themselves locked in gladiatorial combat. The only chance at escape is to fight their way out. This is survival of the strongest.