Leif's Journal8

Beware the Morning Knives

As the party of adventurers prepared to delve into another dungeon of peril Leif set out to warn his elf kin of a growing threat.

He stopped to retrieve the charred skull of a dead man, whose corpse was recently raised to walk the night by some unknown evil, now utterly destroyed in battle.

Leif disappeared into the woods hidden from the eyes of any observers and stored a message in the mouth of the skull. He placed it high in a tree with markings the Tawar’hanni scouts would recognize.

He worried for the safety of the wood elves and the common folk of the Marches.

Except for Gorack, son of dwarf nobility, Leif hardly recognized the rest of his company. Of course, how could he know the ultimate goals of ‘noble’ schemes? Are the Marches truly ruled by loyal men of great standing, or seemingly beneficent dwarves, like Gorack, from distant mountain castles?

Valor, criminal turned priest, who swore to keep the Tawar’hanni home concealed by his silence, has forsaken Myr – the deity to which his very life was previously devoted – and now serves another god called Ioun. How can he hold any oaths to be sacred?

Einar, the fearless barbarian man from Sky Pony Island is transformed. Once struck down by some terrible disease, presumed dead in a tomb of stone rubble, now he is a dragon which stands and speaks like a man. He seeks the Sacred Flame! How does he know of the Sacred Flame? Who (or what) does he truly fight for?

Aerion, the once captive sorcerer, now unleashed, is completely devoted to a demon-woman who may be the last living royal heir to the ancient Nova Dominion, and she cries out for ‘Omobos’. The common folk of the Marches are mere distractions to him. Would he sacrifice all of them, and his companions, in her service?

As ashes fell from the sky like black snow, reminding him of the ruin of Vestanfold, Leif dwelled on the past. He remembered one of his first experiences as a paid guide many years ago. It was nearly his last.

Leif found himself in the town of Wessex where a trio of fur traders sought a guide to travel the overland passes to Portsmith. He offered his services for a modest fee and was hired to lead the men along safe paths to their destination. They first had to collect some wares from a nearby cache located just to the east.

The first day of travel was uneventful. The men split the duty of watching their camp through the night hours amongst themselves.

In the early morning Leif was shaken awake. He opened his eyes in shock to find the largest of the men physically pinning him to the ground. A knee was pressed down against his left arm and chest. His right arm was restrained at the wrist by the brute leaning over him.

The man pulled back the hood of Leif’s cloak.

“Have a look at this, will ya mates? I told you this ain’t no common boy. And he ain’t no dwarf, neither. Blimey, look at them ears! Bet we could get a few gold pieces for them, eh? Where’d you come from boy?”

The man pointed his knife at Leif, waving it around as he debated aloud whether they should take off his ears or keep him whole and carry him south, for sale.

Leif struggled to break free but could not overpower the man.

The man laughed and said, “Just what do you think you’re doing there, eh boy?”

One of the other men dug his hands into Leif’s backpack.

The large man turned to the other two and asked, “What have you got, eh? Any gold in that bag?”

“Oy, I’ve never seen no bow like this before! Where did you get this, lad?” said another.

Leif yelled, “Put that down! That’s mine you bloody thief!”

As Leif struggled, the man holding him to the ground struck the young ranger hard in the face with the base of a large iron knife.

“How about you answer that man’s questions with some respect? Shall we teach this devil-boy a lesson, lads?”

“Aye! Give him another one Bruin!” they cheered with laughter.

He struck Leif again, squarely in the nose, with his knuckles down. Leif felt blood draining from his nostrils after the pain of the blow.

“Would you like another one boy?” the man asked menacingly.

Just as he leaned closer to make another threat, Leif spat into Bruin’s eye, cursing at him in the Elvish language.

“Bah,” Bruin shouted as he instinctively raised his hand to wipe the spittle away from his eye, releasing Leif’s wrist. “You’ll pay for that you little…”

Before he could raise his other hand to stab at Leif, the man’s breath was cut short. He groaned strangely and dropped his iron blade. He slumped over to one side and rolled onto his back revealing Leif’s knife lodged deep into his chest. The wound gurgled up blood as the thief’s hands and feet trembled.

“The little bastard killed Bruin!”

The other men dropped Leif’s belongings and drew their short swords. Leif darted off into the woods with the two thieves chasing after him.

“You little shite! I’m gonna skin you alive!” yelled one of the assailants.

Leif quickly outpaced them in the dense forest brush and seemed to disappear into the woods.

The two men soon found themselves far from their camp with no sign of the boy ranger.

“I can’t see him no more. No tracks or nothin’!”

“You’re dead boy! Do ya hear? Dead!”

“I say we head back to camp. We split what’s left. Ole Bruin ain’t gonna need his share now, eh?”

“Aye, let’s take our gold and be off.”

When they returned to the camp site they discovered Leif’s bow and pack were gone while their own packs were burning in the fire.

Bruin’s face looked pale, his eyes wide open, his chest no longer gurgling with the knife gone, and his limbs completely still.

The men kicked their packs away from the fire and attempted to stomp out the flames.

“When I find that fucking devil-boy I’m gonna slice him from end to end,” declared one of the men.

“Don’t make me laugh,” called a voice from somewhere out in the surrounding woods.

The thieves swung around wildly looking for Leif in the bushes and branches in sight of their camp.

“Two fools think they’re going to track a ranger, through the forest, to take revenge for their own failed robbery?”

“Come out and face me boy! I’ll gut you like a fish!” screamed one of the men.

A sound went barely noticed by the thieves, a wisp of air followed by a soft crunch, like a fork stabbed into the skin of a melon.

One of the thieves began coughing loudly and turned to face his partner. He looked down at an arrow pierced deep into the center of his chest with the fearful pallor of a man who was about to die.

A second arrow struck him in the back and he fell to the ground like a sack of dirt, gasping his last breath.

The remaining thief dashed into the woods away from direction of Leif’s arrows. He ran as fast as he could, looking back over his shoulder. His lack of surefootedness betrayed him and he tripped on a tree root only to fall head first into a thick pine trunk, knocking him unconscious.

The man later awoke to the warm heat of the afternoon sun on his face. He coughed as dust filled his nostrils. The ground was moving beneath his back and legs. He felt his hands and feet bound with rope. He heard the familiar sound of hooves on the road.

He then realized that he and his dead companions were being dragged behind a horse, bound together.

As he struggled to open his eyes in the bright light, he noticed the voices of people. His head throbbed with pain and blood ran down the right side of his face from a gash on his brow.

The horse stopped and its rider dismounted.

Another voice cried out, “What in the name of holy Myr is this?”

“Magistrate, I believe these are the highway robbers you’ve been seeking,” said the rider, “This ranger tells me they tried to rob and kill him.”

“That’s right. They hired me to guide them just two days ago. They tried to kill me at our camp, about a day’s travel east of here,” Leif added.

“Well, well,” said the Magistrate as he looked over the thieves’ faces, “I recognize this brute. He was indeed a man of ill repute in this town. Bruin, he’s called. You made this mess of him yourself I take it?”

“I did.”

“Well, you’ve done Wessex a great service, son.”

“Magistrate, there is something else. Not far from where they ambushed me, I discovered a cache of what appears to be stolen goods. It’s likely they’ve robbed travelers along the road to Wessex over many weeks,” said Leif.

“I see!” replied the Magistrate, “Well, if you would do me the favor of showing my guards the way there to retrieve this stolen property I will gladly pay your fee. Perhaps you would like a share of any treasure that goes unclaimed?”

“I will gladly accept the reward offered for the capture of these thieves. However, I must decline any share of the stolen property. If no rightful claim is made, perhaps it should be distributed to the town’s poor as charity,” Leif said.

“Ah, you are a man of conviction! Well, I admire your honorable suggestion. We will do everything within the bounds of the law to ensure the goods are returned to the rightful owners, of course.”

“You there!” the Magistrate called to several of his guards, “Follow this… what was your name again?”

“I am Leif Gunnarsson.”

Leif noticed a man in a dark cloak leaning against the wall of a nearby building. The man intensely observed the commotion in the street surrounding the thieves. His appearance reminded Leif of rangers from the Order of the Longbow.

“Right then, you men are to follow this Leif Gunnarsson fellow to retrieve some stolen property,” said the Magistrate, “Leftenant, come here will you?”

One of the guards stood to the side and quietly shared a few words with the Magistrate. Leif waited patiently until they were ready to go. He led them out of Wessex on horseback and rode on until nightfall at a brisk pace.

In the morning one guard stayed with the horses while the other three followed Leif to the thieves’ cache of ill-gotten gold. Beneath a stone overhang and concealed by brush he revealed two chests filled with stolen property.

“I have fulfilled my obligation here. I’ll take my leave now,” said Leif.

“Wait,” said the Leftenant, “We’re not finished with you, yet… Seize him!”

Leif reached for his knife but the guards quickly grabbed his arms and held them back. The Leftenant raised a long sword, placing the tip of the blade onto Leif’s sternum.

“On behalf of the people of Wessex, we thank you for your service to our little town,” said the man with a threatening grin. The other guards chuckled.

“I’ll make it quick… Quicker than those bloody thieves would have done it. Have you any last words?” asked the Leftenant.

Leif fearfully spoke in Elvish. He could not escape. He prayed for Gaan’s mercy.

Just then, a voice called out from the woods, “Unhand the boy.”

The man with the dark cloak who Leif had seen in Wessex walked over to the guards carrying two bloodied short swords. His face was obscured by the shadow cast down from the hood of his cloak.

“What are you doin’ here? You ain’t supposed to be here,” said one of the guards.

The Leftenant turned to face the man in the dark cloak, his sword raised and prepared to fight.

“I said, unhand the boy. If you value your lives, you’ll do just that,” threatened the cloaked man.

“We’ve got our orders, as do you.”

“I’ve come to claim that gold, and the boy.”

“Then you’ve come to die, ranger.”

The Leftenant swung his longsword high but missed the cloaked man who struck back with a fury.

With one short sword the man hammered at the Leftenant’s blade forcing him to swing too wide leaving his ribs exposed. The second short sword found its mark and sank deep into the Leftenant’s side between the bones. He dropped to his knees and buckled over, screaming out in pain.

The other two guards threw Leif to the ground and rushed at the cloaked man together. Their steel rang out through the forest with each blocked attack.

The cloaked man was clearly the superior fighter. He dodged and blocked each blow with ease. He made short work of the other two guards, catching one in the neck and the other in the leg just below his pelvis. Bright red blood spurted from their wounds as they fell in agony.

Victorious, he walked calmly over to the Leftenant and looked him in the eyes.

“I’ll make it quick… Quicker than those bloody thieves would have done it. Have you any last words?” he asked the wide eyed guard.

Before the guard could respond the cloaked man drove the sword into his throat, killing him with a sickening wet expulsion of air and blood from the neck. The cloaked man wiped the blood from his short swords and sheathed them both. He sat down on one of the chests and watched the other two guards bleed out on the ground.

“Rise young ranger. I mean you no harm,” he said.

Leif stood, brushed himself off and replied, “I owe you my life. Thank you.”

“You owe me nothing. I’ve wanted to slaughter those fools for some time now.”

“But why?” asked Leif, “This was not your fight. They are the Magistrate’s men. Won’t he come for you next? Why did they want to kill me?”

“I doubt they truly wanted to do anything other than line their pockets with some of that stolen gold. As the Leftenant over there stated, they were following orders,” said the cloaked man.

Leif sat quietly on the other chest with a confused look on his face.

“Those thieves you thwarted, and these bloody cowards in uniform, all work for the Magistrate. When he gets word of lucrative shipments he sends out the thieves to take them by force, on the road, where common travelers are often isolated and unprotected. If anything goes wrong, if the thieves fail or get caught in the act, then he has the guards to clean up the mess. That fat bastard has been running this scheme for a long time.”

“Sometimes the thieves get too greedy and make the mistake of challenging a real fighter, like you,” he continued, “Though your lack of judgement nearly got you killed, twice, in as many days.”

“Let this be a lesson to you,” said the cloaked man.

“Beware the knives of the morning light,
And the foes who are hiding within your sight,
For those you trust to share your camp,
Are more deadly than any who stalk the night.”

“But if you hated these men, and knew of their treacherous ways, and knew of the Magistrate’s corruption for so long, why not expose this evil enterprise to the lords of the land?” asked Leif.

The cloaked man replied assertively.

“A hunter sees a massive stag. He raises his bow and reaches for an arrow, but he is too focused on the hunt. He steps on a viper and is bitten. He cries out in pain and the stag escapes. Shortly after, this hunter dies from the snake’s venom. Now tell me, is it Gaan’s blessing which saves the stag or is it her curse which dooms the man?”

Leif attempted to solve the riddle, “Neither. For it is the hunter’s nature to stalk his prey, and the snake’s nature to strike, and the stag’s nature to flee.”

The cloaked man grinned and replied, “You’ve been spending too much time with those Vidar loving rangers from the Order.”

Leif’s eyes grew wide as he asked, “You know of the Order? Are you…? Did you…?”

“Yes. I once belonged to the Order of the Longbow. I have been to the mountain shrine and declared my oath to Gaan in the light of the crescent moon and the star sign of the hunter.”

The cloaked man continued, “You ask me why I never exposed the Magistrate for his crimes and I say to you I’m not a fool who carelessly steps on snakes while stalking my prey.”

Leif grinned.

“I am Leif, Son of Gunnar, of the western woodsmen,” he said holding out his hand.

The cloaked man responded as he grasped and shook Leif’s hand, “I am called Wulfgar, though I am known by many names.”

“Once again, thank you, Wulfgar, for sparing me from these thugs. What do we do now?”

“We could take the contents of these chests and help a great many people,” said Wulfgar. “We could give half of the gold to those who truly need it most, and divide the rest between us. Surely you could make use of a new cloak. Perhaps you might purchase the arms and armor you’ll need for defense of the common folk.”

Leif considered Wulfgar’s reasoning but seemed unsure.

“We could accomplish so much more, you and I,” suggested Wulfgar. “The lords of these lands grow fat on taxes and live on the backs of the hard working commoners, dwarves too, I suppose. We could right their wrongs, take from the corrupt rich and give to the poor.”

“But this is all stolen property,” Leif objected, “And it is said, during the Trial of the Spirit, when Vidar refused to take coin from the helpless man, it pleased Gaan and…”

“Speak no more of those old legends for I know them well,” interrupted Wulfgar. “You still have much to learn, young ranger. Alright, off with you now before more Wessex guards arrive. You should avoid that place until you’ve heard news of the Magistrate. I will deal with that viper myself.”

Leif and Wulfgar stood and shook hands once more.

“Be sure that you learn from this day, and heed my warning,” replied Wulfgar, “Beware the morning knives.”

“I will,” said Leif.

Leif traveled far from Wessex to the Citadel in the north. He was later surprised to hear the Magistrate of Wessex perished during a lavish dinner party. He and many members of his family had been poisoned. Nothing was mentioned about Wulfgar or the stolen goods.

As his thoughts returned to the present, Leif walked back toward the dungeon, and his companions, prepared for whatever might be waiting for him in the darkest cavern or the brightest dawn.

Leif's Journal8

Tales of Gandamyr AnimuX