Burning Sky Prelude – Chapter 8
The time has come for Baldrik to depart. But will quiet little Aimsbrusch be all right without him to protect it?
In his cottage at the far end of Aimsbrusch, Baldrik finishes tying off a rough sack that rests on his bed. At his feet is a crate, atop which is a large, round object, wrapped in cloth. Strapping his ax to his back and throwing his bag over his shoulder, he hoists the box up to the sound of clanging metal and the scent of iron. Then he’s off with everything in hand.
In town, just moments later, he stands at the lumber mill, observing as one of the workers looks over a woodsman’s ax that the retired knight had given him. “One newly forged ax, as promised,” Baldrik says, reading the man’s pleased expression. “How does it compare?”
“The craftsmanship is as top-notch as ever, that’s for sure.” The woodsman takes a few swings with the little thing. It doesn’t hold a candle to the enormous weapon on Baldrik’s back, but each slash through the clean, morning air is like a song. “So. You’re really leaving, then?”
Baldrik folds his arms. “As a matter of fact, I am. I decided I’d travel for a bit. See more of the world, then perhaps return when I’m satisfied.”
“That right? Part of your bucket list, or something?”
At that Baldrik gives a hearty laugh to the sky. “I’ve no intention of dying yet, my friend! There’s always more to the adventure! Besides. I’m not so old that I can’t take care of myself.”
The woodsman leans against the ax like a cane with a faint chuckle. “Y’oughtta tell that to Adeline. Sometimes it’s like the girl takes care of you more than the other way around.”
A slight gleam, a twinkle passes through Baldrik’s eye. Like the smallest flash of pride. Then he laughs, this time to himself, bowing his head. “It does seem that way sometimes, doesn’t it?” From there he bends down, picking up his crate. “In any case, you’ll have to excuse me. I have more deliveries to make before I get on my way. May that ax serve you well.” And so Baldrik departs, heading further into town for his next stop.
After a bit of running around, Baldrik lands at the front porch of the Aimsbrusch Trader – the local general store. There, sitting on the wooden bench by the front door, is Seamus, thumbing through an inventory catalog of some sort. He lifts his eyes from the flimsy book as the great shadow of the hulking old knight engulfs him, eventually setting down the catalog and extending a hand to shake. “Well, now. This here is quite the surprise. To what do we owe the pleasure of this visit from such a legend?”
“As a matter of fact, I was going to be leaving town soon on a trip. So I figured I’d take you up on that drinking contest. We can’t have me leaving with any regrets now, can we?” Baldrik says, squeezing the man’s hand tight. That he doesn’t crush it is already an act of mercy.
Seamus sneers. “Really, now? Okay, then, old man.”
But at that the sharp sound of a throat clearing itself, just behind him, strikes as if daring them to continue. Leaning through the window is Seamus’s wife, eyeing both of these large men with a dangerous and foreboding look. Enough to rattle Seamus and even the mighty Baldrik to their very souls. All the Akuma I’ve slain… and that woman’s gaze could frighten them all off, alone. Fine. Now’s the time to concede. Baldrik sighs a somewhat disappointed “Of course, I’m only joking.” He wasn’t only joking. “Actually, I’d wanted to talk with you about that. Also…” Then he sets the crate down on the porch. “I come bearing gifts!”
“What kinds of ‘gifts,’ Baldrik?”
Rummaging through the mess inside, Baldrik soon pulls out a small lockbox, presenting it to Seamus, who takes it with a look of faint surprise. “You’d been complaining that your old one was getting stuck. I figured I’d do you a favor.”
Seamus looks it over, its fine craftsmanship marked with a detailed pattern engraving. Eventually, he sits back down. “Well?” he says, nodding towards the far end of the bench. “Ya did want to talk, didn’t ya?”
“Aye,” Baldrik nods, taking a seat.
“So this is it, then. The big hero finally decided he was sick of this pit.” Seamus sets the lockbox down in his lap and bends over, reaching to a half-full bottle, tucked away beneath the bench. But before he can pick it up, an invisible force like a small burst of wind rolls it away from his hand, stopping at Baldrik’s foot.
“You know I’d never abandoned this place. I’ll be back. And while I’m gone, I intend to stop by the capital, tell them to send some Templars to help watch over the town.” Baldrik picks up the bottle and looks it over. “So you’ve resorted to hiding it now, eh?” Seamus sneers and turns away from Baldrik, hunching over. “You cannot go on like this, Seamus. The odd drink, the occasional drunken hoorah in good fun, all perfectly fine things. But this… You’re going to kill yourself, my friend.”
Seamus snatches the bottle away from Baldrik with a huff. Or, perhaps more accurately, Baldrik allows him to take it “Ah. You’re startin’ to sound like my wife.” He pops the cork and attempts to take a swig but, to his surprise, none of the bittersweet nectar graces his taste buds. In fact, the liquid hasn’t even shifted inside of the bottle. He turns it over, shakes it, but something… some invisible force holds every drop of ale inside. He cuts Baldrik a dull glare. “That’s not funny, mate.”
“Well, if the drink doesn’t kill you, your wife most likely will,” Baldrik says, observing the view of the street from Seamus’s porch as children play and people pass by to start their day. “It’s been over a decade, Seamus. Everyone else has moved on. How long do you intend to be the last one dwelling on it?”
Still hunched forward, Seamus tightly grips the bottle in front of him, holding it between his legs with a distant look across his face, like someone seeing a time far removed from the present. “Who says that’s what it is? The way I see it, I’m givin’ the lass some good business, is all. She earns it.”
“She doesn’t blame you for what happened, you know. She never has.”
“Well, maybe she should,” Seamus interjects. “A useless lout like me…”
“Oh? And what you’re feeling now. Do you intend to put her through the same thing?”
Baldrik leans back against Seamus’s house, crossing his arms but still looking straight ahead. “How do you think she’d feel if you finally died of alcohol poisoning?”
“Oh, don’t be daft. That’s different. If she wanted, she could stop me.”
“Did she give you that bottle, Seamus?” As expected, Seamus has no response to offer. “Even if she stopped serving you, you’re a stubborn old bastard. You’d find a way.” Having said his piece, Baldrik pats Seamus on the back, just about nudging the pitiful thing out of his seat. “With me gone, the town’s going to need its constable back in top condition. So you’d better sober up, eh? The town might believe you to be a joke, but I know better. And so does she.”
Seamus remains silent, staring into the demon in a bottle at his feet – a creature as dangerous as any Akuma. And after a prolonged silence, he huffs, grabs the bottle, and brings it to his lips for a swig. Just a swig. “Ah, why don’tcha go on and get out of here, ya old nag…” Leaning in the windowsill on the opposite side of the door, his wife blesses Baldrik with a grateful smile. Worried… but grateful.
“Just try for me, Seamus. That is all I ask.” The Old Knight grabs his crate of trinkets and stands tall, only to stop just shy of stepping down from the porch. “Ah! I’d almost forgotten!” He makes his way to the window where Seamus’s wife still leans, now looking up at the veteran knight with confused eyes. “Isobel. I’m not worried about Seamus, but do keep an eye on him for me, would you?”
“Oh, you can be sure o’ that,” Isobel laughs with a wave. “I’m not holdin’ my breath but, if I’m lucky, he’ll remember why I married him and straighten himself out. Thank ye for talking to him, though.”
“Of course!” Baldrik says, searching through his crate. “And before I forget again, I recalled you saying something about your skillet when last we spoke.” Just like that, Baldrik materializes a jet black skillet from all the trifles inside, much to Isobel’s surprise… and Seamus’s absolute horror. “I took it upon myself to try my hand at helping you out a bit. Made from the finest metals I had in stock. I’d like to see the kitchen utensils that could wear this beauty down! It also makes a rather satisfying sound when struck just right.”
Isobel takes the skillet, moving it around to test its weight and appearing all the more surprised at how light it is. “Very nice.
“May it weather even the most arduous kitchen jobs… and see you through many a marital squabble.”
Seamus springs up from his seat and turns Baldrik by his shoulder. “Oi, Baldrik. What’s the idea, givin’ her a thing like that? You know what she’s liable to do with it?”
“Cook?” Baldrik does his best to avoid eye-contact with a sly grin, but Seamus reads him, loud and clear.
The drunkard balls his fist at the knight that so dwarfs him, a raspy “You…” growling, up from the deepest reaches of his throat.
But Baldrik breaks away from Seamus’s grip and steps down from the man’s porch with his crate of trinkets. “If you’ll excuse me, I have more deliveries to make.”
“Oi,” Seamus speaks up, catching Baldrik before he gets far. “You’re sure about this, old man? She’s gonna miss ya, somethin’ fierce.”
“Aye, she will.” That thought. It’s fit to make the towering legend pause for a time. Thinking. Remembering. Ten years it’d been. And as he peers over the street right down from this very porch, those ten years cycle by. Perfect visions of all the times he’d walked through this town with that feisty little girl, up through her years of being a feisty young lady, and then a confident… and feisty young woman. “But… she isn’t going to need me, anymore. A Templar goes where he’s most needed.”
“Aren’t you supposed to be retired?”
Baldrik lowers his head and laughs to himself. “Old habits die hard.” He then looks over his shoulder at the pair as Isobel steps out to join her husband. “Take care of yourselves, my friends.” And then he strolls off into town.
The sun hangs at its highest point in the sky over the town, its rays joined by the warm light of the Sky Fire. The day half over, Baldrik stands on the porch of the tavern, staring at the door. The crate of baubles now empty, it finally sets in. This is it. Eventually, wills himself to reach for the knob, making his way inside. The main hall is completely empty, save for the lone young barkeep at the back, wiping down the already perfectly polished counter without looking up at the creak of the door or the chime of the bell. Like a child trying their hardest to ignore the parent who irritated them. Clearing his throat, Baldrik makes his way over to the bar. “I’m… surprised no one’s here. Even if the bar isn’t open yet, your cooking always draws quite the breakfast and lunch crowds.”
Adeline’s hand comes to a sharp halt, yet she otherwise doesn’t budge. “True. But people seem to be avoiding me today, for some reason.” Then, just as sharply, her eyes dart up and meet Baldrik’s, piercing through him like the spine of an Akuma’s tail. “Can you imagine why?” Isobel must have taught her that look. There’s no other explanation. Yet Baldrik has no answer for it. The answer to her question though… well, it’d be a lie to say he hadn’t felt this aura coming from her through the tavern door. Heck, he’d felt it all the way down the street.
With Baldrik not knowing what to say, the pair stand there, overtaken by an awkward silence as Adeline stares at her old mentor. Soon, though, she grows tired of it. She turns her back to him, transitioning from wiping down the perfectly polished countertop to the perfectly clean serveware in the tub behind the bar. “Done making your rounds, I take it? That means you’re about ready to be on your way then.”
“Aye…” Such a cold, uncomfortable thing, talking to the back of her head like this. It’s just wrong. “I wanted to stop by before heading out. Make sure you were the last person I spoke to before-”
The clatter of shifting dishes and mugs cuts Baldrik off as Adeline moves from wiping one tankard to scrubbing one already-gleaming plate. “I’m over it.”
Baldrik’s words die in his throat. “Come again?”
“I said I’m over it. You leaving. I’m over it. So ya don’t have to waste your time worryin’ over me. I was just bein’ a daft little girl.”
This… isn’t right. “Adeline-”
But before the Great Old Knight has a chance to continue, the dishes clatter again. Adeline’s head is bowed and she’s perfectly still. “Honestly. What was I all bothered about? After all… you’re not papa.” As invincible as Baldrik is touted to be, there’s no denying that something in that statement stung. Who knew mere words could do so much damage? And the words continue. “You’re a living legend. You’ll be back. Won’tcha?”
That question. As direct as everything leading up to it rings, that final assertion has a different tone. Something incredibly slight, but difficult to pin down. Still, Baldrik knows one thing from hearing it. He’d best answer her. “Aye,” he breathes.
There’s a pause. Then a faint “Right…” sneaks out under Adeline’s voice and she nods to herself, pivoting around and folding her arms. “In that case, there’s nothing to worry about. I’ll hold down the fort, here, until those Templars you send show up. So you head on out and do your hero thing until you’re ready to come back. Then I’ll have a pint ready for you.”
Baldrik cracks a smile. “Just a pint?”
Nothing. Her face as uncompromising as stone, Adeline sighs and extends a hand over the counter to shake. “Goodbye, Baldrik.”
The old veteran winces at that cold, blunt reception. With just a gesture, the girl exerts a pressure that feels greater than anything even he could produce with his powers. But not wanting to leave things on a sour note, he shakes her hand. “Goodbye. Adeline.”
And so, with their goodbyes said, Baldrik releases Adeline’s hand and she returns to the dishes behind the bar. There truly is nothing left to be said, it seems. Yet something anchors Baldrik to that spot, for a moment more. Perhaps something he’d still wanted to say but didn’t have the words for. It doesn’t matter. Best not to drag out these sorts of things. So… he leaves. It hadn’t gone as he’s expected, but he steps outside and that’s it. Now all that’s left is to be off.
On his way to the gate, he passes by a great many faces. Ones he’d gotten to know over the past ten years or so. People came and went. Elders died, children were born. The faces of the town had become totally familiar to him. And now he’s leaving for the first time since arriving, all those years ago and meeting a fiery little redheaded girl who showed him around.
Two days pass. In the tavern, Adeline keeps busy at work, wiping down the bar on that warm, spring morning. This early in the day, what few people sit around at the tables are there for food, rather than drink. The rougher men and women would come later in the day. They always showed up to have their fill of the tavern’s signature ale after a long day at the mill. All but one, that is. So when the doors slam open, Adeline doesn’t even look up from what she’s doing. “For the thousandth time, Seamus, it’s too early for… oh.”
A group of five men stroll in, all of them looking even rougher than the hardiest of the townspeople, sporting prominent scars and worn armors of hide and leather, with various weapons – iron short swords, axes, one even has a bow. Though they’d given her a moment’s pause, Adeline returns to cleaning the bar without so much as batting an eye. “Sorry about that. You boys feel free to take a seat. What’ll it be for ya?”
“As a matter of fact, barkeep…” The youngest among them approaches her at the bar with a swagger in his step that may as well broadcast that he owns the place. “We’ll be having everything. All your best ale, if ya would. And why stop there? You can also throw in all your coin, while you’re at it.”
Adeline leans against the counter, giving the thug a flat, totally unimpressed stare. “I’m afraid I’m a bit short on staff at the moment. I’ll need help carryin’ all that. What say you step around the bar and gi’me a hand?”
Puzzled by this calm response, the gang of crooks looks around. Not only is Adeline completely unbothered, her customers continue about their breakfast without so much as flinching. It’s then that the leader laughs. “What? It’s that easy? You lot really just givin’ up? Ye gods, place really is pitiful without that ol’ guard dog o’ yours, eh?”
The door swings open once more and everyone, including the crooks, turns to it. In stumbles none other than Seamus, bottle-in-hand and carrying, with him, the smell of hard liquor. The collective eye-rolls of Adeline and the customers are palpable. Many a face falls into its owner’s hand and in roll the groans. Oh gods, why now?
“Oi, Adeline! Them merchants don’t know ale from dog piss. How ‘bout a bottle of the good stuff, huh? For your most loyal customer.” The whole time, Seamus can barely hold himself up. He nearly falls over, catching himself against one of the crooks, who pushes him off. “Oh, thank you, friend. Thank you. Oi, lass, how’s about a round for my new friend, here?”
Adeline holds the bridge of her nose, an exasperated “Seamus…” rolling from her tongue. “Now’s not the time. Go home.”
Seamus raises his bottle. “Ah, come on, lass. You could stand bein’ a bit more charitable. Tell ya what. A round for him and his mates, here,” Seamus says. He brings the bottle toward his face to take another gulp. But before anyone can put together what’s happened, the bottle swings through the air, cracking across the back of the crook’s head and shattering, spilling its contents all over the floor and knocking the thug to the ground. “On me.”
Adeline and her customers all stare, mouths agape, as do the rest of the hooligans. However, taking advantage of the distraction, Adeline grabs the leader by the head and slams him, face-first, into the bar. “Seamus!” she shouts, tossing him her sword from behind the bar. Seamus catches it just in time to parry one of the other ones who’d snapped out of it in time to draw his axe. With a simple twist, he disarms the thug and shoves him into his buddies.
“Thank ye kindly.”
Hopping over the bar, Adeline bodychecks one of the ruffians into one of the wooden beams, supporting the building. And then there were two. Both Adeline and Seamus turn to the remaining adversaries, all of them slowly backing up, looks of dread across their ugly mugs.
Outside, moments later, the last two crooks from inside crash through the front windows, rolling to a stop in the street. Adeline and Seamus step out just behind them, Adeline wiping her hands of them. Such filthy creatures, these. “Surprised to see you sober, for a change, Seamus.”
“Aye? Thought I’d shake things up a bit. Looks like we’ve got a good old fashioned bandit raid on our hands. I took care of a few on the way here. And my wife was dealin’ with a handful of ‘em back at the store when I left her. Y’know, Baldrik wasn’t kiddin’. Skillets do make a very satisfying sound if they hit something just right.”
“Not even gonna ask. Pretty convenient time for a bandit raid, though…”
Seamus nods. “Tells me they’ve been casing the town. Must’ve heard Baldrik was leavin’. Clever bastards.”
“Opportunistic, but not too clever,” Adeline says, taking her sword back. “They probably also hit the bank. I say we go check there, next.”
“Lead the way, lass.” Then Adeline rushes off, Seamus following close behind.
At the bank, the bandits stand at the counter and around the floor, all beyond annoyed. The leader of this particular group looks especially exasperated as he hunches over the counter, holding the bridge of his nose. “All right, sir, and now we’re going to need three forms of identification,” the teller says, somehow managing to keep a straight face, despite the perilous nature of her current situation. A face that her aggressor has no patience for.
“I’m a bandit!”
“Yes, well, that’s no excuse for not going through the proper procedures, sir. As you can see, we take our withdrawals very seriously.”
“You know what?” The bandit pulls out a silver blade with a fine luster and holds it to the woman’s neck. “Here’s my identification. Open it.”
The teller freezes, staring down at the blade with fear in her eyes. The rest of the bandits carry on with harassing the other townspeople inside, all cackling like hyena. “It… would appear that your ID is valid. L-let me get right on that.”
Before the teller can make her way to the safe, the bank doors crash open. With the leader’s attention on the door, the teller ducks behind the counter and the people inside run for cover, diving behind the counter with her. Adeline stands in the doorway, her sword held over her shoulder and her free hand on her hip with Seamus just behind her, still wielding his broken bottle. A commanding “Gentlemen!” bellows from her powerful lungs. “On behalf of the fine people of Aimsbrusch, I’d like to welcome you to our town.” She then points the tip of her blade at them. “Now go home.”
“Did this wench just give us an order?” one of the crooks asks.
Adeline sighs. “Tell ya what. I’ll count down from ten. When I’m done, you should be gone. Ten…”
“Oi, is she serious, right now?”
Seamus steps back and holds the door open. “I’d do as she says, lads.”
One of the bandits backs up, brandishing a dagger as a bead of sweat drops down his brow and he turns to the one in charge without taking his eye off the woman. “What do we do?”
The group leader scoffs, stepping away from the counter and grabbing his underling by the collar. “What? You misplace your stones, mate?” He turns to Adeline and Seamus with a twisted grin and a carefree posture. “It’s two o’ them and six of us! Shame, though. Havin’ to teach an elder and a wench some manners.”
“Wait, what happened to-?”
Before there’s time for the cretin to finish the question, Adeline uses her foot to fling a chair up, catching it with her free hand and throwing it into the bandit group’s leader, who topples over, soon picking himself and rubbing his head with an agitated sneer. “Well? What’re you idjits waitin’ for, a ‘pretty please’? Get her!”
But Adeline gives them neither time nor quarter. She’s already well on top of them all. The one with the dagger from earlier takes a swing at her, but she swivels to one side. He then finds himself grabbed by the skull and shoved behind her, straight into a haymaker from Seamus, laying the poor sod out on the bank floor. Meanwhile, Adeline lurches forward, using her sword to cut another bandit’s bow in half before tackling him to the ground and rolling off, using her sword to just parry a blow from an axe-wielder.
Another of the bandits sidelines Adeline with a kick that knocks her into the counter. But she shakes it off in a heartbeat and uses it to pull herself up. “Cheeky blighters,” she grumbles. “Millie, you still there?”
The teller – Millie – peaks out from behind the counter, her eyes flooded with tears of sheer relief. “A-Adeline! Gods, thank you!”
“Good work, holding them up. We cleared the surrounding area before we came. If everyone’s all right, back there, get them out through the back. Take ‘em to Seamus’s place. Isobel’s there. It’s safe.” One of the bandits charges Adeline, but the instant he’s on top of her, she reaches back, grabbing hold of the register behind the counter with one hand and swinging it across the fool’s face before kicking him to the floor.
“O-okay,” Millie says, nodding to the others. “You all heard her. Everyone, please remain calm. Keep low and follow me.”
Adeline watches as the young lady guides the civilians to safety, then returns her attention to the fight in front of her, just in time to roll out of harm’s way from the group leader, taking a swing at her with his blade. She deflects the follow-up and springs to her feet. Her eye falls on the sword, in particular. “That’s a nice blade you’ve got.”
“What, this old thing? Just found it lyin’ around, to be honest.”
Adeline surges forward with her own and the two of them clash, sending sparks flying from both blades. Meanwhile, Seamus fights his own duel in the background, backing himself more and more into a corner against a bandit with a warhammer, swinging wild. “Lad, that there’s a weapon you’ve got to have some hair on your chest to use right.”
The poor thing can barely hold the hammer, let alone swing it without losing his grip entirely. But a fight is a fight. And the instant Seamus sniffs out an opening, he exploits it, getting inside of its effective range and slashing the pup’s hand with his bottle, forcing him to drop the heavy metal weapon on his own foot, leading to an uncomfortable crunching sound and a wail of agony before Seamus headbutts him and he collapses.
Adeline finds herself in a steady clash with her own opponent, neither of them really able to gain any ground. But then a short whistle catches her ear. Seamus holds out his hand in the background. She parries another blow of the bandit’s, this time bouncing him back before tossing her sword to Seamus, behind him. The bandit pivots just in time to block a swing from Seamus, who simply smirks and nods to what’s behind him. The bandit swivels again, only to be met with a punch straight to the jaw, courtesy of Adeline. A punch so hard it knocks him from his feet and causes him to spin in the air before finally hitting the floor with a loud thud.
Once that’s dealt with, Adeline kneels down beside the bandit, eyeing the sword in his hand more closely. “That’s what I thought,” she says, prying it away from him. “You don’t deserve this.” The she stands and turns to Seamus. “We need to get to Baldrik’s, now.”
“What on Gaea for?”
Adeline tosses him the sword as he tosses back her own, letting him look it over to observe the unique and familiar signature etched into the steel. “It’s one of his.”
Adeline and Seamus soon arrive at the far end of town, where Baldrik’s cottage stands, each taking cover behind a nearby tree. As expected, bandits – two of them – huddled around the forge. “I found more, over here, boss,” one says, kneeling by a wooden chest next to the grindstone and rummaging through it.
A smug grin stretches across the leader’s lips. “Good. We take these and we’ll be livin’ like kings in no time,” he snickers, leaning against one of the supports holding up the roof of the forge, his arms crossed.
The leader’s partner sits more upright and whistles. “I’ve gotta hand it to that old war dog. He sure knew how to make a good sword.” Out from the chest he pulls a finely made steel edge, turning it over every which way and admiring the thorough craftsmanship. He, himself, is outfitted in pieces of armor, much too good for any bandit. “We sell this stuff, and we make a fortune. Or we keep it and no one’ll be fool enough to take us on ever again.”
A commanding “Oi,” bellows out from the nearby trees, drawing their attention. Adeline steps out from her hiding place, sword over her shoulder. Her blood boils at the sight of these cretins in Baldrik’s armor and swinging his weapons around like children playing dress-up. “Those don’t belong to you.” Her sword arm extends out, pointing the tip of her blade at the bandits with a fiery passion in her eyes. “Put ‘em back.”
Seamus emerges next from the bushes, wielding the sword they’d taken back from the bandit at the bank. “Unless you’d rather not listen. Worked out pretty poorly for the lads in town, though, if I’m bein’ honest.”
The bandit leader pushes off of the support beam, hands on his hips. “Oi, oi! What’s this, then?” he laughs, sporting a wild grin. “Hey, have a look at what we’ve got here, mate.” On command, his partner rises from the chest. “Care to repeat that, miss?”
“All of it. Back where you found it. I don’t intend to ask nicely again.”
The bandit leader cackles aloud and steps down from the porch, grabbing hold of a steel great sword leaning against the forge railing. “You hear that, mate? We’re bein’ asked to leave by this feisty little thing, and… is that the town drunk?” He shrugs back to his partner. “I didn’t figure he could hit anything but a bottle.”
Adeline narrows her eyes. “Ten…”
“Eh? Ten? Ten what?”
The leader’s face twists back into his unnerving smirk. “Oho! D’you hear that, mate? She’s counting down! I think we made her angry,” he snickers, continuing to laugh along with his buddy.
Then, in the space between that and Adeline’s next number, the bandit turns and breathes a menacing “One,” swinging down the great sword on her, forcing her to block him. “Oh? You’re pretty quick, eh? Sorry. You didn’t think we’d fight fair, did you?” As Adeline struggles to stand her ground, the bandit bears down on her all the more. “Hmm? But what’s that look about? Wait, wait. You didn’t let that old war dog get you thinking you were all strong enough to fight back without him, did you? And now you’re starting to get the real picture?”
“Adeline!” Seamus calls out, rushing to her aid.
But before he can do anything, he’s cut off by a dagger slicing through the air just in front of his face and winding up in a tree to his side. “Ah. Just a bit off with that toss. I never could get the hang of knife throwing.” He turns in time to just barely duck a swing from the leader’s right-hand man, wielding the sword from the chest. “Graceful, aren’t they? How silently they glide through the air. Any poor sod gets cut by these, they wouldn’t know it ‘til they’d already bled out.” Seamus steadies himself just as the scoundrel lunges at him with the silver edge.
Adeline grits her teeth as the bandit leader keeps adding on the pressure, forcing her to bend more and more backward, threatening to nearly break her in half. Meanwhile, he proceeds to mockingly mouth snapping sounds in his own sick sense of humor. But the grimace Adeline wears then turns into a smirk, confusing the crook. With a simple shift of her blade’s angle and her own weight, she slides him off to one side, forcing him to stumble forward. “Ho?” the bandit grins. He pivots just as Adeline takes a swing at him but bounces it from his great sword with a cavalier swing of his own. “Hey, you’re not bad at all.” Adeline sneers and continues her offensive as he casually goes about deflecting her attacks.
Seamus, meanwhile, ducks and weaves through the assault of silent slashes being made against him, backing up with every one he’s able to avoid and wincing as he’s caught by the tip of a few, leaving skin cuts in places and holes in his clothing that’d need patching later. “Maybe you should’ve gone sober sooner, pops,” the bandit says. Eventually he goes for a thrust that forces Seamus to parry, lest his throat be opened. “All that liquor in your system has you bleeding like a pig from some paper cuts. Wonder what happens if I cut a little deeper.”
“I’m no doctor, lad,” Seamus says, backing up again. The bandit takes another swing at him but he parries it with a one-handed grip on his own sword, reaching down to his waist with his other hand. With his opponent’s blade out of the way, he swings his free hand high, bringing a look of absolute shock across the bandit’s face. At the end of his follow-through he stops. In that hand is the jagged, newly-bloodied remains of the bottled he’d smashed open earlier. “Why don’t you tell me?” The sword slips from the bandit’s hand as he reaches to his neck. When he pulls his hand away and sees it stained red, he looks back to Seamus before collapsing into a heap on the ground.
The thud of the bandit hitting the floor catches both Adeline and the bandit leader’s attention. “W-what?” the leader says. He turns back as Adeline whistles for his attention, cracking her blade across his face. Though he blocks it with his great sword before he can take any life-threatening damage. “You…”
Adeline draws her blade back. “Sorry. You didn’t think we’d fight fair, did you?”
The bandit leader growls and charges Adeline. Their blades meet, sending sparks soaring as Adeline rolls his blade down her own. As he raises his sword again to take a mammoth swing at her, she lurches up, head-butting him straight to the nose. He staggers back and turns to collect himself, only for Seamus to appear in front of him, lashing him across the face with his sword, leaving a large scar running diagonally down his face, between his eyes, and over the bridge of his nose, dripping blood.
“Why you… you annoying little… I’m gonna stomp you like mice!” the bandit roars, bringing up his great sword to attack Seamus. But as it reaches up over his head, Seamus whistles and tosses his sword past him. He looks over his shoulder just as Adeline catches it. “What?” He’s robbed of any hope of turning around as Adeline crosses both blades with slashes into his back. After a moment’s pause, the great sword falls to the ground with a clang, kicking up the dirt where it lands.
“It’s like I said. That doesn’t belong to you,” Adeline echoes as the bandit leader tips over, lowering her weapons. “Seamus, let’s head back and see that everyone in town’s all right. There might’ve been some stragglers.”
As Adeline takes a step away, though, an ominous sound like a faint cackle stops her in her tracks. She sighs. “Oi, if you’re still alive, stay there for a bit and we’ll be sure to find ya a nice, warm, jail cell.” But as she turns, her eyes grow wide.
The bandit picks himself up, almost like nothing happened. The tattered remains of his upper hide armor fall away as every muscle in his body turns solid as iron and steam pours from the gashes in his back and face as they take to healing themselves. “Ah, that’s the good stuff,” he snarls as he turns around and looks Adeline square in the face, his manic eyes glowing blue as the same color pulses in his veins. Held in the corner of his mouth is a small vial that he spits out. “You know the trouble with drinking too much of it, though? I get this terrible urge to kill something. Guess you’ll have to do.”
Taking his great sword up in one hand, he hunkers down before tearing forward like a cannonball, kicking up dirt and shattering the windows of Baldrik’s house behind him. But he stops himself dead in front of Adeline with his sword over his head. The sheer pressure of the sudden yield kicks up a backdraft that pulls Adeline further toward him as he swings down his sword on her. She raises both swords to block it but that yields no resistance at all and the next thing she knows, both blades are in pieces, shattered into metal shards all over the ground, leaving her with a look of absolute horror across her face. “T-that’s not…”
“Adeline, snap out of it, lass!” Seamus hollers.
“I’ll be with you in a minute, pop,” the bandit says, waving the sword at Seamus and kicking up enough wind to knock him into some bushes. Then his gaze fixes back on Adeline. “Oi, oi! What’s that look? Finally figuring out how small you are, little mouse?” The bandit says with a smug grin.
His jamming his blade into the ground brings Adeline back to her senses, just as he lunges at her. In a motion faster than she can even process, he brings his knee straight up into her gut, the blow itself rustling the leaves in the nearby trees and forcing her to cough up blood. When he lets her go, she staggers back, gagging and coughing for air and holding her stomach. “Still standing? You’re way too stubborn for your own good, you know that? Life would be so much easier on you people if you’d learn just get the picture.” Adeline cranes her neck up to look him in the eye. “This town belongs to me!” The bandit laughs and brings the back of his hand across her face to the sound of cracking bones, sending her flying face-first into a tree before falling to the ground.
The bandit strolls over to his little mess and kneels down to her. “Hm? Hey, now. Are you seriously still breathing?” He grabs her by her badly bruised and bloodied face and picks her up. “You must be sturdy.” But before he can continue, something strikes him in the back. Over his shoulder, he spots a throwing knife on the ground before his eye wanders over to the bushes where Seamus now stands, having gathered a few more on his hands and prepared to throw them.
“Let the lass go, ye blighter.” Seamus throws another knife that simply bounces from the bandit’s body like rubber. “If you’d be so kind.”
“Or what, pop? You’ll buy me a drink?”
Seamus grins. “Well… ye might be needin’ one in a second,” he says, throwing another knife. But as this one travels through the air, he whistles and the knife soars directly by the bandit’s face. But as the bandit follows it’s path, he’s stunned at where it ends up. Adeline now holds it up. Through the cracks in his grip, the bandit leader spies a glowing blue eye. And without giving him a chance to compose himself, Adeline drives the blade straight into his shoulder, making him let her go and cry out in pain.
“What?!” the bandit snarls, pulling the dagger out of his shoulder and snapping to Adeline with murder in his eyes. “How did you-?” The bandit finds himself taken aback when he sees it. The end of the chain around Adeline’s neck rests in her mouth. “That thing around your neck was a… tch. Damn you!” Enraged, the bandit grabs his great sword again. With one swing he kicks up a gale that blows Adeline back.
Adeline dives out of the path of another slash from her adversary, if only just. But she’s still swept up by the gust of it and the debris it kicks up in its wake. She doesn’t exactly stick the landing, but rolls into a kneeling position quickly enough that she can avoid another swing, though he does manage to slice her forearm on the follow-through. The bandit hisses out a sadistic snicker and hoists his blade over his head for a follow-up swing to put Adeline in the ground before she can recover. “You lose!” he cackles.
A thunderous clang travels throughout the woods, sending flocks of birds flying off. As the hum of the metal dies down, what comes next is silence, soon interrupted by the baffled stammering of the bandit leader. There, in front of him, Adeline kneels, her hands clapped around either side of his blade. The ground beneath her ripples and cracks under the pressure of her stopping that blow and the gash in her arm leaks blood. Then a clatter, joined with a strained roar from the young barkeep as the muscles in her arms tense and a crack travels up the length of the bandit’s sword before the metal shatters to pieces between her hands, leaving the bandit utterly stunned and staring at the now bladeless grip he holds in his hands. “W-what?”
“On the contrary,” Adeline says before drawing back her arm and nailing him directly in the gut, knocking the wind clean out of him. “I win.” Then, from her crouched position, she springs herself upward, bashing him straight across the face with clasped hands and knocking him several feet into the air. Finally, she balls one hand into a fist and draws back. The instant he drops back within reach, she throws a punch straight down over him, plowing him directly into the ground so hard that a pillar of dirt juts up from the blow and the earth, itself, is upheaved beneath him.
When the dust settles, the bandit’s eyes are glazed over. Adeline stands over him, finally able to catch her breath. She tips over, but she never hits the ground. She’s caught by someone. “Atta girl,” a voice says, distorted by her fading consciousness. But even so. She knows this embrace. She knows it all too well.
“Bal…drik?” Her hazed vision goes completely black and she passes out in his arms, rather than in the dirt.
Some days later, Adeline awakens in her bed in the tavern basement. She sits herself up, albeit not without having to say hello to the aftereffects of a Luminite Potion, splitting headache included. She groans, bringing her hand to her head before noting the bandages wrapped around it. Her arm and torso as well. At the side of her bed rests a crutch, which she promptly ignores as she gets up and limps up the stairs to main room.
There, sitting at the bar, are Baldrik and Seamus, both with full mugs in front of them. “Of course,” she says as she leans herself against the bar.
“Adeline!” Baldrik raises his tankard. “Finally awake, are you? Good! It’s been two days. Seamus and I were just discussing the possibility of his plan to train more of the townspeople to fight! A good idea, yes?”
“Did either o’ you pay for that ale, Baldrik?”
Both Baldrik and Seamus glance to one another, taking slow, casual sips from their respective drinks and setting them down on the counter. At this, Adeline sighs. It figures. “It’s good to have ye back, lass,” Seamus says.
Adeline smiles at the old drunk. “Thank you, Seamus. You too. I suppose a few mugs couldn’t hurt. In celebration of us dealing with our little bandit problem.” She goes on to pour a cup for herself, albeit smaller than both of theirs. “Still, I’d like to know what happened after I knocked out.”
Baldrik raises his mug. “The apprehended bandits were placed in the town jail, stripped of my weapons and armor. The dead ones were rounded up to be disposed of.”
Adeline sips her ale without a word, then sets the glass down. “I see. So. Baldrik. You’re back awfully quick.”
Baldrik chuckles. “Ah, you’re as sharp as ever, I see.”
Seamus glances between the two of them. “Ah, well I should be off for now. The wife’ll have my hide if I spend too much time here. Especially now. She’s been really enjoying cooking again, what with her new skillet and all.” He goes on to eye Baldrik, who avoids eye contact and continues drinking his ale. “I’ll be headin’ out, now. Take care, lass. Baldrik.” Before he steps out, though, he eyes the unfinished bottle on the counter.
Baldrik sets down his drink and gets up, throwing an arm over Seamus’s shoulder and walking with the man toward the door. “I understand this will be difficult for you, my friend. But there are those who would gladly help you.”
“And, failing that, I suppose I’ll be gettin’ real familiar with the sound of that skillet, ‘ey, Baldrik?” Seamus says, earning a hearty laugh from the old veteran. Eventually he steps out and Baldrik returns to the bar to find Adeline’s jaw agape as he continues drinking, himself.
“Did… did Seamus just leave without finishing his ale?”
“Times of crisis change a man, they say.” Baldrik sets down his own now-empty tankard. As the suds settle inside, Adeline steps around the counter. She takes up a seat beside him, staring into her own, barely touched glass. “It’s good that you’re all right. You did well.”
Adeline looks Baldrik up and down through the corner of her eye. He’s still dressed in his travel wear and has a roughsack resting on the floor behind him, as well as the round package on his back from earlier. “So,” she says, returning her gaze to the brine of her own drink. “You’re… still leaving?”
One awkward silence later, Adeline laughs to herself. “Seems ya got yourself a front row seat to me gettin’ knocked flat on my arse.”
Baldrik smiles with a shrug. “Eh. You had it.”
“So. You were watching everything, huh?”
“Not everything. But enough.”
“Enough? Enough for what?”
Baldrik stands from his seat, reaching to the package on his back. “Enough to confirm that you don’t need me, anymore.” He presents Adeline the package with a proud smile. “Especially not now.”
Though hesitant, Adeline takes the package, unwrapping the paper from around it. Underneath is a beautifully crafted, silver shield with a fine gleam that reflects in Adeline’s eyes. “Baldrik, is this-?”
“Aye,” Baldrik nods. “Adamantine. As sturdy as the woman it was crafted for. I didn’t have what I needed here to finish it, so I planned to bring it when I made my next visit. But I learned about the bandits while I was away. Turns out I arrived just in time for you to deal with it.” He reaches out to Adeline, placing a hand firmly on her shoulder as she marvels at the beautifully crafted weapon before her. “Remember what I said about why I trained you?”
“Because you thought I was strong.”
“Because you are strong, Adeline. You will be their shield.”
Adeline stares at the silver disc that rests in her hands for a moment, eventually setting it down and getting up to walk back around behind the bar. “Hey,” she says, sliding another tankard down the counter before grabbing hold of her own glass, again, and raising it. Baldrik grins and picks the tankard back up, touching it to Adeline’s glass. “To a stubborn old man who just can’t retire.”
Baldrik laughs. “To a hardheaded young woman with the best ale in town.”
“What? You don’t like that one? Then how about… to the woman with the adamantine will? May she always watch over this town.”
Adeline chuckles. “Now, that, I’ll drink to.” Then she downs her entire glass as Baldrik polishes off his tankard in one go. The two of them set down their drinks with satisfied sighs then, in that momentary lull, Adeline looks to Baldrik and touches her fist to his shoulder before he can get up. “Oi. You make sure you come back.”
“On my honor as a Templar,” Baldrik says with a smile.
Before Baldrik exits, Adeline makes her way to the door and snares him in a hug, not unlike a daughter bidding farewell to her father. Yes. This feels right. Far more so than when he’d first left. If only it could last forever.
Outside, some time later, Baldrik departs, once again stepping through the gates with his roughsack over his shoulder, and his axe strapped to his back, waving behind him as his young apprentice sees him off. His first destination? The capital city. Paragon.