By David Pontier
The Art of Being Entreri is the property of the author, David Pontier and is used with permission by Candlekeep. Email David with any comments and feedback on The Art of Being Entreri and visit his website at: http://www.geocities.com/piqsid/stories.html.
Chapter 3: The Ranger
The fire burned low for Entreri did not want to draw attention to himself. The sun was just creeping over the rolling plains to the east and was too slow - in Entreri's estimation - in removing the night's chill. He had stolen a horse from the poor section of Karenstoch and had ridden through the night. He had not noticed the cool temperature, but now that he had stopped to give his horse a rest, he noticed the stiff breeze and thus had built a fire.
The sun cleared the hills suddenly and hit him full in the face. He squinted, turning away from the glare. Entreri moved his position in front of the fire so his back was now to the rising sun, letting the powerful rays heat his black cloak. Within moments he was sufficiently warm and was able to relax. The memory from the sunrise was still vivid in his mind and the blotches had not fully left his vision.
Entreri's thoughts went suddenly to his long time nemesis, Drizzt. He knew the stories about Drizzt's journey to the surface and his struggle for acceptance. He had made several enemies and friends immediately upon his emergence from the underdark. In the years after Entreri's own escape from the Underdark and before his return to Calimport, the assassin had spent a lot of time researching the dark elf's history, wanting to know more about the only fighter he considered his equal.
While Entreri had not found out everything about Drizzt, he had found enough, and knowing what he did about the drow, he could fill in the rest. Drizzt must have gone through hundreds of painful sunrises, ten times more painful than what Entreri had experienced. His rejections from each town and city he visited were also far more trying than what Entreri had just gone through.
While Entreri had not appreciated his rejection from Karenstoch, he also knew it was his own fault. Drizzt's rejections had all been unjust. Still the dark elf had searched and searched until he had finally become accepted, not as an evil drow, but as a ranger and a protector. He won the praise and acceptance of the most powerful and respected people in the north, and through their acceptance, the entire Sword Coast welcomed him with open arms.
Entreri smirked at the idea of any city welcoming him into their gates. Likely, if Karenstoch had known the true depth of the man they had rejected, they would hire an army to fetch him and rid the evil presence from their land. At this thought, Entreri looked up, back west, wondering if anyone would give chase. Entreri remembered hearing about the ranger - Elliorn, Riechen had called her - that lived in the north woods and began to worry.
Entreri tried to think of a good reason why the people of the city would go to the trouble. Entreri counted to twelve - the number of bodies he had left behind. They were not all good reasons for chasing him down, but three of them had been city guards, and the last four had been sent by the guards to collect him.
Nothing was visible to the west, but Entreri knew that he would be hard pressed to out-run a ranger no matter how far behind she might be. If Entreri's long-lasting struggle with Drizzt had done anything, it had given him a well-founded respect for those of the elf's profession.
Entreri kicked dirt over his fire and saddled up his horse. He had stopped on the edge of a copse of trees several hundred feet south of the river and the road that ran along side it. Entreri had looked at the maps he had taken from Riechen's room and knew there was another small town about four hours further to the east.
Entreri rode swiftly, suddenly having a bad feeling he might have left too many witnesses back in Karenstoch. For the rest of the trip, he constantly looked over his shoulder. Several times he swore he saw someone, and a few times he almost convinced himself that he should wait for whoever it was. He did not, and he reached the town an hour sooner than he had expected.
The small town, for it could not really be called a city, was a miniature version of Karenstoch. The roads were not dusty, but paved with hard clay. The buildings were all less than four stories and positioned in a structured layout, divided into rectangular blocks. This town was little more than a rest stop for travelers moving between larger cities.
There were two taverns, and Entreri picked one at random. He knew that if anyone was following - a possibility he had finally managed to convince himself was remote at best - they were at least twelve hours behind him. The assassin had not eaten since the tavern the night before when he had run into Borrel Kierston, and then he had not been able to finish his meal. He ordered a drink and some stew and took a seat in the corner.
Entreri was so lost in thought he did not notice the woman's approach until she was only ten feet from his table. Though he was taken completely by surprise at his lack of awareness, he had such complete body control, that if anyone was watching him - there were several around the room - they would have only thought he had found a tough piece of meat in his stew.
At first Entreri worried that the ranger had been much quicker in her pursuit than he had thought possible. One look at the woman as she walked to the other side of his table and sat down assured Entreri that his worries were completely unfounded. Unless being a ranger in this strange land meant something far different than it did back home, this woman was not one.
She looked far more interested in peddling her wares, wares of which she had an ample supply. Wares that she flaunted boldly with a tight, low cut top and barely more than a hand towel of a skirt. She was undeniably beautiful, which was Entreri's first clue that something was wrong.
Beautiful women did not become whores. They did not need to. Prostitution was a last resort. Back home, a dangerous land were only the strong could survive and prosper, women had a hard life. But even then, if you were attractive and young, you could always find a dozen potential husbands in every city block. Besides that, several women took it upon themselves to start their own businesses or proved they were just as strong or resourceful as most men and had no problem surviving. Sharlotta Vespers and Catti-brie came to mind most readily to Entreri.
It was only the fat, ugly, old, or dim women that needed to resort to the profession of which Entreri's new companion pretended to belong. Back home, the men who did not make it became beggars and the women became prostitutes. But here, in a land that was not as harsh by far, women no doubt had a much easier time of it. Entreri knew that to think for a moment that the woman across from him had to resort to prostitution to survive would be one of the gravest mistakes he could ever make.
The woman moved with supreme grace, and though she had few places on her body where a weapon could be concealed, he doubted she was without protection. Then he saw it. It was a move that most men would never catch. While most men would have their eyes focusing much lower on her body, Entreri was looking at this woman's eyes. They made a brief motion to the side and then returned to her prey.
To the trained assassin, the quick glance was as obvious a sign as if she had stood and pointed to the two men in the center of the room and said, "These men are with me, and if you try anything funny, you will get hurt." The woman did not notice Entreri's perceptiveness, but instead smiled and glanced at his mug, the amber liquid inside barely covering the bottom.
Entreri fought against every hormone in his being as he pulled his eyes away from her face and worked on cleaning off his plate. She was insanely beautiful. "It looks like you need a refill," she said coyly.
Entreri sighed. Why was it that trouble always gravitated toward him? Of course, looking at this situation from a logical point of view told him it had nothing to do with his dark profession and everything to do with the fact that he looked like a rich traveler. If the woman only knew how rich . . .
Entreri wiped his mouth and looked casually at the bartender, though his eyes were searching out the two men the woman had earlier pointed out to him. The troupe probably worked half a dozen travelers a week. This town was called Halfway, for it was halfway to at least five different cities. Each was a little less than a day's travel away, and this town made a nice stop over for anyone traveling between them.
Entreri looked back at the woman and smiled. "But alas, I have spent my last coin on what you see before me, and I do not have the means to refill my glass."
The assassin said the words with more than a little theatrics, and the woman laughed. "Indeed you look like a beggar from the streets, one who can only scrape together enough money for one meal a week if you're lucky. Well then, beggar, consider yourself lucky." The woman motioned to the bartender. "Please, good sir, could you refill my friend's glass."
The bartender looked quickly at Entreri, for while the woman had made the order, the bartender was not so foolish as to think she would pay for it. "You may refill my glass with what I had originally ordered," Entreri said. The bartender nodded and came over with a full glass.
Entreri lifted the large mug and drained half of it in one swig. The woman's eyes went wide at this display; Entreri would be drunk in no time. "Thank-you good woman, for surely the road was dry this morning."
"The road?" the woman asked, feigning confusion. "I thought you were a beggar from the street?"
Entreri tried to show shock, but acting had never been his strong suite. Instead he moved to more pressing matters. "And to whom do I thank for this generosity?"
"My name? My name is Alice, but that is not important. What is important is that you have a pleasant stay here. That is my job."
"Your job is to buy drinks for weary travelers. Is that the only service you provide?"
"It is one of many," she said, leaning forward toward Entreri so he could see clearly down her top.
Entreri indulged himself for a brief while, for it was an incredible view, and then drained the rest of his drink. The empty glass was no sooner back on the table, and Alice was beckoning for another. "And how much do these services cost?" Entreri asked as another full glass was placed on his table.
The woman sat up straight, becoming suddenly modest. "They are not too expensive, but, alas, you are but a beggar and could not afford them." Entreri thought this looked like an easy way to get out of this fix and went to work on his third glass. The woman saw this reluctance and quickly went on, leaning forward again to make sure Entreri knew what he was passing up. "Though for a beggar as handsome as you, I might be able to offer a discount."
"Flattery?" Entreri asked, amazingly draining the last of his glass again, a consumption rate that should have knocked out most men.
"Honesty," the woman said, though she was no longer looking at him, but instead had her eyes searching out her friends again. "Perhaps we could go discuss our terms in a more private setting."
"I like it right here," Entreri said, his speech starting to slur. He was staring intently at the woman now, and she was giving him plenty to look at.
The woman watched as her two big friends got up and began walking toward their table. "But it is so crowded. I don't think you want a bunch of people watching us, do you?"
The two men behind Entreri were sitting down at a nearby table, and the woman leaned back in her chair, pulling her top even tighter against her full chest. She slid one of her thumbs under a shoulder strap and playfully pulled it down her smooth arm. "Come on, let's go upstairs."
Entreri's eyes were now glazed over and he slumped in his chair, his mouth so wide open that his female companion wondered if her two friends were not going to have to carry his drunk body upstairs before they robbed him. As Entreri slumped in his chair, he stretched his leg out under the table. With the seductress still leaning back in her chair, Entreri exploded into motion.
His outstretched foot kicked up hard against the bottom rung of the woman's chair, toppling her backwards to the floor. Entreri, too, rolled to the floor, and both men who had been waiting behind the couple stood suddenly, worried something was up. Entreri stood suddenly on the other side of the table with Alice's head secured tightly in an arm lock.
"Let me go you drunk bastard!" she pounded on his arm with both fists. "Get your mitts off me!"
Suddenly she felt a small prick in her side and all fight went out of her. "That's better," Entreri said quietly in her ear, his dagger twisting slightly in her side. She gasped sharply at the twist and inhaled the aroma of his breath. Apples? She looked back to his empty glass on the table. "I like cider," Entreri laughed into her ear. "Now tell your goons to back off."
The woman was so terrified by the trick that had been played on her and by the dagger that was stealing her soul, she had not even noticed that the rest of the tavern had gone completely quiet and her two friends were standing with swords ready. She was unable to speak, but the look on her face told the men plenty.
"Let go of her," one man said. Neither of them realized that Entreri knew what their game was. They thought he was a drunk that had lost control and just wanted Alice's company without paying. "We have rules here stranger and women are not to be treated so."
"But men, especially strange, rich men, are to be treated like free gold. Is that it? Was I just supposed to blindly follow your fair maiden upstairs where you could jump me?"
The two men panicked briefly and then regained their composure. "I don't know what you're talking about. Are you accusing us of trying to rob you? That's preposterous. You are assaulting a lady, and when we jump to her protection, you accuse us of a crime."
Entreri jabbed his dagger a little deeper into the woman's side, drawing a nice trickle of blood down her bare midriff and reducing her to little more than a quivering, limp body. "Please, your friend here deserves better than the punishment you force me to place upon her. I wish nothing but to pass through this town without incident."
"I don't see how that will be possible now," one of the men said, the tone of his voice letting Entreri know the men were no longer pretending innocence. "Why don't you let her go before we are forced to kill you."
Out of the corner of his eye, Entreri saw motion and dropped. He tossed the woman to the side and rolled to the ground as a crossbow bolt came at him from the side and thudded into the wall above him. Entreri had his sword out to accompany his dagger and met the charge of both men as soon as he rose from the floor.
They attacked in unison well, one creating a hole and the other attacking through it. They blocked each other and took turns on offense so as not to get in each other's way. They did very well, meaning they lasted four entire seconds.
Entreri swept both initial attacks aside with his dirk. He then continued to turn around, letting his cape flair out as if he was turning to run. Instead, he came completely around, jabbing forward with both weapons. The men had gone for the fake and had shifted their weight forward in pursuit when Entreri thrust forward. Their weapons were raised and were not in a position to block the attack.
Both men fell to the side, and Entreri chased them by throwing his weapons out wide. The dagger sliced cleanly under one man's upraised arm and the other caught Entreri's sword hilt in the back of the head. Entreri stepped through the hole the men had made for him and went straight for the door to the tavern.
The man who had taken the cut across the ribs dropped his weapon and grabbed his bleeding side. The other man stumbled under the head blow and tripped over Alice where Entreri had dropped her. Neither was quick to give chase.
Entreri burst through the batwing doors, cut through the rope that tied his horse to the hitching rail, and leaped onto the animal. He raced down the street for a block and then turned the horse down an alley. He rolled off his mount and took a position at the corner of the alley, peering back at the tavern. He waited for over a minute but no one came out of the tavern, and no one appeared to be giving chase.
Entreri relaxed, sheathing both his weapons and turning to calm his spooked horse. He could have killed the men back in the tavern. It was a thought that hung with him as he slowly climbed back into the saddle. He could have very easily jabbed his dagger a little deeper or reversed his dirk so that his blade and not the hilt had connected with the other man's head. Not only had he not made any killing blows, but he had consciously withheld them.
In Calimport, if you did not kill your enemies when you had the chance, you gave them the opportunity to ambush you latter. It was not a boxing match. There were no second or third rounds. Once both sides were called out, it was finished then and there.
While he had no intention of staying in this small town more than a day, Entreri did not want to leave the same bloody trail he had left in Karenstoch. It just was not smart. Besides, there was no reason to kill those men back there. They were not real fighters and worked mostly on rolling drunks. They would realize that today they let one get away and would leave it at that, learning from their mistakes and moving on. At least that was what Entreri hoped.
The general store was a half mile down the main street and then left on a much smaller side street. While Entreri had access to an incredible amount of weapons and tools in the dragon cave, most of them were coated in gold or decorated with gems and diamonds. He needed things that would not call that much attention to himself.
Entreri tied his horse with the shortened rope and entered the store. Few people needed traveling supplies, for the towns were spaced so it never took more than a day to get anywhere, but Entreri thought it best if he stayed out of cities for a while until he could come to terms with what he was going to do with the rest of his life.
The selection was not great and without the help of the clerk behind the front counter, it took Entreri half an hour to find everything he wanted. In the chaotic mess of the store he located a collapsible shovel, a hatchet, a few rudimentary cooking supplies, a saw, and an old tarp that was not torn too badly. Entreri could have just as easily walked out of the store with the items, but he paid for them and then made his way to the door.
His horse was gone. Entreri just about lost it right there. Would they ever just leave him alone? It did not matter how many times he showed them he was not to be messed with. The more lessons he gave, the more people came after him. It had taken years for the city of Calimport to realize that you did not stand in the way of Artemis Entreri. If he was just passing through, you would do nothing to hinder him and everything to aid him, thankful that he had no business in your neighborhood.
Entreri slung the pack of his new belongings over his shoulder and walked a short ways from the front of the store. His horse had not been led far, and his sharp eyes picked it out at the end of a dark alley. The trap was clear, and Entreri hoped the people he was dealing with knew that. If they expected him to believe his horse had just wandered into the darkest dead-end alley on the block all by himself, then Entreri would not bother with them and would walk out of town.
The horse was eating from a cart of hay that just happened to be at the end of the alley, and Entreri walked up to it. He threw his pack onto the back of his horse and turned around. There were five men with weapons bared blocking the alley entrance. Two of them held short bows and the other three held swords. In front of them stood Alice. She wore a cloak now, covering up her occupational attire.
Entreri was at his wit's end. He never got into this many fights in a month back in Calimport. "I offer a lot of services," Alice said, her voice very different from before. "Perhaps you'll like this one better."
Looking back, maybe he should have followed her upstairs. The men probably would not have injured him, plus there would have been the chance to see more of Alice. Entreri discarded these thoughts as soon as they entered his mind. That had been the one difference between him and everyone else in Calimport. He had a dragon's treasure at his disposal, and the few dozen gold coins he had on him now were hardly worth counting. Still, he had fought for them like they were the last riches he would ever see.
Most other killers he had known would have willingly given up twice that amount for a chance alone with Alice, even knowing that it was a set up. The difference was pride. Entreri just could not give in when he knew he was the stronger. That pride had lifted him to the top for he would always repay any infraction, no matter how slight, with the severest of penalties. After a while, no one ever crossed him.
If he just rolled over any time someone slighted him, even though the infraction had no repercussions at all, it would have opened him as a target for all others. Now Entreri looked at the five thugs in front of him and their female leader. Could he take them out? Probably. Would it gain him any respect? In Calimport, definitely. Here, probably not. Here fear did not spawn respect like it did back home.
What if he succumbed to these people? Entreri honestly did not know what they would do. He would find out. "How much do you want?" he asked.
Alice looked surprised. "How much do you have?"
Entreri reached behind him and detached the two coin bags that hung from his belt. One contained silver coins, the other gold. He tossed them both to the feet of Alice who stood a little over twenty feet away.
"Is that all?" Alice asked, though Entreri could tell she was impressed by the weight of the bags. Entreri nodded. "And if we search you and find more?"
Entreri stiffened. They would never search him. No one had ever searched him. It was his pride, he knew, but he would not relinquish everything in this encounter. Baby steps. Still, he flipped up his cape and turned around showing them there was nothing else hanging from his belt but his sword and nothing inside his vest other than his jeweled dagger. He had another dagger strapped to his left calf and a set of lock picks on a chain around his neck, but they did not need to see everything.
"What about the dagger?" Alice asked. She had felt the blade against her side, and even if she did not suspect it to be magical, she knew it was part of this stranger's repertoire. She had been humbled, and now she wished to return the favor.
"What about it?" Entreri asked. He felt he had been very reasonable so far.
"Give us the dagger and the two bags and you can go. Just remember that if we ever catch you in our town again you will not get off so easy." The men behind her relaxed, not once guessing that this man would turn down such an offer when he was so outnumbered. Everyone watched as Entreri's left hand went slowly for his dagger and failed to see his right creep back for his pack.
He pulled the dagger out slowly. "You want this? You can have it . . . after you take it from my corpse!" His right hand yanked the tarp out of his pack and flung it directly in front of him. The sheet opened up to its full ten by six-foot size, hiding the assassin from view momentarily.
Both bowmen shot into the tarp instinctively, but Entreri was already running around the side of it. He had both blades drawn and ran directly at Alice. She had pulled out a throwing dagger, but froze in fright at the sight of death running straight for her. He bowled her into the man behind and then spun to meet the two men that had stood to her left.
One of the two men had a bow and the other a sword. Entreri locked swords with the one man and sent a leg out to disrupt the bowman. The swordsman took a step backward, disengaging their weapons realizing the further he could spread the fight, the harder it would be for Entreri to take them both on.
Entreri turned his back on the swordsman to focus on the bowman. Despite his realization that he needed to spread the fight, the stupid fighter could not pass up the chance to hit Entreri in the back. He charged in quickly and swung high to cut off the assassin's head.
Entreri dropped to a crouch and spun about with both arms out wide. His sword knocked the short bow out of the hands of one opponent, while the dagger impaled the charging man from the other side. The man had swung high, his blade passing just over Entreri's crouched head, and now he fell forward. Entreri withdrew his dagger and stepped back, rising again.
He looked forward and saw only the tip of an arrow aimed right at his chest. He fell as quickly as he had risen, rolling forward over his first victim. The archer across the alley had been so startled to get a clear shot that he had not thought it through and fired. The arrow zipped over Entreri's rolling form and nailed the other bowman to the wooden wall behind him.
Entreri came out of his role and kicked the man Alice had originally knocked over. He stepped over him and approached the last two men. One of them came at Entreri with his sword while the other hastily knocked another arrow.
Entreri unleashed on this swordsman, dealing more blows to him in the first two seconds of the battle than the man had taken over his entire life. He had not even managed one offensive attack before Entreri had placed at least five fatal wounds on him.
The bowman behind thought he would have at least two seconds to load an arrow, but when looked up after that time, his dead companion was falling back into him. The dead man's back struck the tip of the knocked arrow and the startled archer released the other end of the shaft. The bowstring snapped taunt, driving the arrow even further into the man's back.
Entreri did not slow at the sight in front of him, but spun around with his sword warding off the expected attack from behind. The kicked man had risen, and Entreri's sweeping blade disarmed him - literally. The arm was severed just below the elbow and the man howled in pain as his sword fell naturally to the ground.
The killer did not pause in the slightest, continuing to spin around and launching his dagger at the stunned archer. The man futilely tried to dodge the strike by pressing his body tight against the alley wall, but realized too late that the dagger was not swinging at him but thrown. The twelve-inch blade sunk deep into his neck securing itself into the wall behind him.
Entreri spun about once more, completing the two revolutions, and sending his sword on a mission to find the remaining thug's neck. The injured man had barely recognized his massive wound and had only started to grab his bloody stump of an arm when Entreri's dirk cut above his shoulders, placing his head and, soon after, the rest of his body on the ground next to the severed arm.
Alice had witnessed this entire display from the ground, wisely not rising to meet Entreri's blades. She watched now as he walked slowly over to pull his dagger from the neck of the second archer. The man's body slumped to the alley floor, his hands still clawing at his gurgling neck as if he might be able to stop the awful flow of blood.
Entreri turned his back on the man, bending only briefly to wipe his blades on the shirt of one of the other less fortunate ones. Then he spotted Alice. She pushed herself up to a sitting position and tried to scoot away. Entreri stepped on her leg, and her hand slipped in the gravel, slamming her back to the ground.
Entreri jumped on her quickly, straddling her waist. His dagger quickly clipped the two ties that closed the front of her cloak and revealed her risqué outfit underneath. Her face was terror stricken, and Entreri placed the tip of his dagger into the soft skin under her chin.
"Know that I could take you right now," he said coldly, looking briefly down at her shapely body, "but I won't. Know that I could kill you right now, but I won't. Know that I offered you a very fair deal a few moments ago, but you refused. Know that you brought this upon yourself. Know that you are responsible for this massacre not me. I was just a traveler that deserved none of the attention you paid me. Know this and tell this to anyone who comes after me asking question. Know this and live. Forget this, and I will come for you."
Entreri stood quickly, looking briefly at the two bags of gold. He shrugged his shoulders, walked back to his horse, and rode out of the alleyway. Ten short minutes later he was headed southeast out of town, one of the few directions where one would not find a town within a day's ride.
He had now left three very clear signs in his wake. Cailring, Cairon, and now Alice. All three would show any potential tracker clearly what kind of man they chased. All three were told to tell a story that left Entreri guiltless. All three also clearly showed what would happen to anyone who might catch the assassin. Entreri hoped that if he was being followed, the tracker would see these signs for what they were. He hoped they would leave him alone.
* * *
The fire was long dead. There was no heat left in the sticks and only by sifting through the dirt that covered the pile could you tell that it had ever even been a fire. There was a fine ash mixed into the dirt. It was not blatant evidence but to the eyes of a trained ranger, it was clear enough.
Elliorn stood up from the old fire pit, brushing the dirt from her knees. She looked about the area wondering if she could find any other clues to explain her prey's intentions. So far she had gathered very conflicting stories about the man she followed.
It had been over a day ago when Lionel Cairon had come to her cottage in the woods. She had dealt with him several times before, mostly when she had complaints about some of his men hunting in her woods for sport. But he had also come to her on occasion for advice or help in dealing with the northern tribes of wilderness men. This was the first real time he had come to her for help involving substantial action on her part.
There had been a rash of random killings in the city; at least that is what he had said. After even a cursory investigation, Elliorn could see that there had been nothing random about the killings at all. Chief Cairon was a proud man and for him to come and ask for help in this matter was a substantial gesture. The fact he had come to a woman, and a ranger at that, said even more.
Elliorn could see more than Cairon could ever know. She heard his tale of the murders this man had committed, but when she had asked the chief if he had ever seen him, he denied any encounter. She kept her thoughts private, though she knew without a doubt that this killer had privately threatened the chief of the city guards in some way. Maybe they had not met, but the assassin had definitely injured his pride.
Normally, injuring such a man as Chief Cairon would inspire an all out manhunt resulting in a very public execution. That Cairon wanted keep this manhunt private meant there was something else the chief was not eager to disclose. Elliorn had not been able to put her finger on it right away, but after half a day in the city, it became pretty clear. It was fear.
In everyone she had talked to there was one over-riding factor that never changed: fear. This man, Artemis by name, had the ability to instill fear in everyone he encountered. In addition to Cairon, she had talked at length with Garin Cailring and Wallace Kierston. Both men said the same thing Cairon had been too proud to admit. The man was the devil. He had probably left an outstanding threat to at least Cairon, but probably Cailring also, that any pursuit or continual persecution would result in a painful death. Both men had families and the threat had probably been extended to them as well. While Elliorn did not have extensive experience with men like this Artemis, she was familiar with the procedure.
Cairon had come to her only after he had assured the safety of his family and made sure that Artemis was out of the city. The stranger had most likely told Cairon that he would be safe as long as he did not peruse, but that kind of assurance coming from a cold-blooded killer was rarely enough to let the threatened sleep at night. The common phrase was, "Show me his head, and then I will consider the threat ended."
Elliorn did not like the title of "Head-Hunter," but neither did she like ruthless killers. She had spent a short while searching the town and came to believe the same as the chief: Artemis had left. She spent a short while searching his room in the thieves guild and, with the help of a few of Cailring's men, identified the books this killer had taken with him. They were mostly maps and geographical history books, adding credence to what the ranger had suspected already: Artemis was a stranger to this area.
She had played with the idea briefly that he was a demon that had been cast out of the nine hells, cursed to take human form. Every eye-witness to his killings - there were few, and each knew they had only survived because Artemis had willed it - said that he was the devil, and none of them had ever seen him take so much as a scratch in battle.
Elliorn doubted it. The elves that remained in the forest were rarely seen, and while they had trained her, she had not seen one in over a year now and only three times since her training had ended. But if there was a demon walking the streets of Karenstoch, she was sure they would know about it and would have either told her, or engaged the demon directly.
Elliorn stood from the old campsite and knew no demon had built this fire. The fire had been built a safe distance from the trees, and had then been put out with enough care to make sure it was definitely out. By Elliorn's estimation, Artemis had left Karenstoch two nights ago and would have gotten to this spot around dawn, hardly the time to set up camp. The only plausible reason for stopping would be to rest the horse. Either the man cared nothing about potential pursuit, or, more likely, he wanted to make sure his horse stayed in good shape. He was not a demon.
Then what was he? He traveled several hundred feet from the road. This made it easy for him to avoid contact on the busy road, but traveling through the tall grass also made him easy to track. Everything about this man said, "Leave me alone!" He had killed those who stood in his way, but after the threats had been over, he had stopped killing, telling whoever might remain that they should leave him alone.
Elliorn was torn between her duties as a ranger and her common sense. Common sense said that he was far away by now and no longer posed a threat to her city or her forest. Of course, as a ranger, she had a duty to track down the killer and bring him to justice. There was a third motivation that broke the tie: curiosity. Who was this man? Where was he from? How had he attained this incredible fighting skill that made people compare him to the devil? She had heard tales about legendary fighters from across the great seas. Was this such a man? If so, what was he doing here? Most importantly: Would he kill again?
As Elliorn saddled her horse and moved it toward the town of Halfway, she knew the answer to the last question. He would kill again and probably soon. This man had likely never known a week in his life without killing. It was a way of life for him, and while he might not look for trouble, it found him.
It was late dusk before Elliorn made it to the streets of Halfway. She had left Karenstoch early in the morning, and true to what all the city councils claimed, Halfway was only a day's journey away. The ranger did not find what she was looking for until she entered the second tavern. After spending half a day in Karenstoch investigating this man, she knew what to look for.
The woman was sitting by herself at a table, trying to drown herself in ale. Elliorn had been to Halfway many times and knew what this woman did for a living. While the ranger did not approve of her occupation, it was not her job to stop it or to pass judgment on the woman. She would leave that to someone else.
Elliorn moved her tall frame through the seated crowd, sat at the small table across from the woman, and ordered a glass of water from the barmaid. This woman worked as a thief, playing the role of a seductress and luring unwary travelers up to her room where they were robbed. Not only did Elliorn not see any of her male companions in the bar, but there were at least half a dozen travelers in the tavern who looked plenty rich.
To someone as trained as Elliorn, the mark of Artemis was very clear. "Excuse me ma'am," the ranger said quietly, alerting the woman to her presence for the first time, "I'm looking for someone, and I think you can help me."
The woman looked up, very intoxicated. "Not likely."
"Can you tell me your name?"
"Alice," the woman responded.
"My name is Elliorn. I'm looking for someone you might have met." The barmaid came with Elliorn's water. "Could you bring my friend a strong cup of coffee please?"
"No!" Alice said suddenly, stirring from her alcoholic trance. "More ale."
"Coffee," Elliorn said earnestly to the barmaid, "and please hurry," she added, placing two gold coins in the maid's hand. The barmaid rushed off to perform her task.
Alice looked back down at her mug, swirling the remaining drink in lopsided circles. She raised the glass to her mouth, but a strong hand grasped onto her wrist. Alice strained against the iron grip for a brief while, and then gave up, yielding the glass to her new companion.
"I don't want to talk to anyone. Please leave."
Elliorn reached back across the table and lifted Alice's chin so she looked the ranger in the face. "I am looking for a man. He is a few inches below six feet, has a goatee, long hair, and carries a short sword and a dagger."
Alice said nothing, but Elliorn could read recognition in the woman's eyes rather easily. She had seen it in her eyes before she had asked the question, before she had even sat down. "What happened?"
The barmaid set down a cup of coffee in front of Alice. The woman inhaled the aroma and took a tentative sip. The caffeine seemed to take immediate effect. "We made a mistake and we paid for it."
"What do you mean?"
Alice looked up from her cup. "He knows you're coming."
"Alice you need to tell me what happened. I'm not here to pass judgement on you; I am here to find this man. You need to tell me everything that happened."
Alice took another sip from the steaming beverage, put the mug down, and told Elliorn the entire story. She told her how they had identified him, how he had tricked them, and then how he had killed them.
"You said he told you he knew I was coming. What did he say to you?"
"He said that the killings were my fault. He had offered a fair arrangement and then we had asked for more. That's the way business is done. You never take the first offer. It's a sign of weakness."
"Do you think that is why this man killed all your companions? Do you think he wanted to show you he wasn't weak?"
Alice shook her head, taking another sip of coffee. She did not look up as she spoke. "Do I think he was showing off? He doesn't need to flaunt his skill. He killed my five best men as casually as you might stroll through a park. We just pushed him too far. We made the first strike, but he made the last one."
"Is that what you've learned from all this?" Elliorn asked, waiting for Alice to look up before she continued. "Is that what you think the stranger wanted to show you? The most important strike is not the first one; it is the one that is never made. The best use for your weapons would have been to sheathe them, take the money, and walk away. He offered you a peaceable solution and you insisted on fighting."
"Don't preach to me!" Alice said, her voice growing louder. "My men are all dead! What am I supposed to do now!? You trying to tell me my lifestyle is what brought this upon me? Is that it? If I were a submissive wife or a humble barmaid instead of a thief this wouldn't have happened. That's easy for you to say. You're not me!"
Elliorn had thought to herself earlier that she was not here to judge this woman, but that was what she had inadvertently done. Actually, she thought, Artemis had shown Alice the error of her ways. He had shown her that you never enter battle unless you are willing to take a loss. This woman obviously could not take loss and had no business in the thieving business.
Elliorn tried to think of something else she could say to the woman, but she was not in a position to listen right now, and Elliorn had nothing to say. The ranger rose gracefully from the table, dropped five more gold coins onto it, and left.
Artemis had been there about 36 hours ago. He was definitely no longer in town. Elliorn tried to think of everything she knew about the man. He had entered Karenstoch, tried to fit in, and was forced to flee. He came to Halfway minding his own business and ended up killing five men. He was probably not too eager to find another town.
She knew he had maps of the area. If he did not want to find another town, she knew what direction he had probably chosen. Elliorn rode southeast out of town for an hour and then set up camp. She hated sleeping indoors.
* * *
Entreri heard the sound long before he came upon the source. The river was large. It was over fifty feet across, and Entreri could tell that it was very deep. It was not fast moving and barely looked like it was moving at all, but Entreri did not want to risk a crossing. He was not sure how good a swimmer his horse was, and if he lost his horse, he would be lost.
The assassin had not yet decided whether he had a tail chasing him, but if he lost his horse, he would find out soon enough. Dismounting, Entreri pulled out one of Riechen's maps and began searching out this mysterious river. Now that he knew it was here, it showed up easily on the map, though before it had looked like a road or even a crease in the thick paper.
Before Entreri put the map away, he looked at the entire countryside. Directly south of Halfway, along a road, was another city, Farrion. A road left Farrion going south-southeast and intersected this river at another town, Mastin. The river flowed east-northeast. Entreri was a good day downstream from where the road crossed at Mastin, where there was no doubt a bridge.
What Entreri took particular interest in was that directly north of Farrion half a day from Halfway, a large wooded area showed up on the map. The woods were not wide, maybe two dozen miles, but shrouded the rest of the road to Farrion.
If someone was chasing Entreri and knew the land well, they would have taken a more south-southeast path out of Halfway, skirting the woods to the east and then heading straight south. That path would be a much more direct route to Mastin, where Entreri now needed to go.
The assassin thought about this. He figured he was at least a day ahead of any pursuit, probably more. He now had to back track west along the river and that would give any tracker a twelve or eighteen hour advantage. Entreri did not think it would be enough to catch him, but if he stopped in Mastin for any length of time or ran into any kind of trouble, he would be playing things too close.
Entreri looked again at the map, wondering if he could follow the river east-northeast. It was another two days until the river intersected the river that left east out of Karenstoch. There was a good sized city at the intersection, but Entreri knew they would be trading partners with Karenstoch, and it would be too big a risk.
Instead he looked at the river back to the west toward Mastin. The landscape changed along the river, and about thirty miles upriver, the ground became much rockier. Entreri thought he read that a substantial ridge bordered the river. Another ten miles later, there appeared to be a waterfall. Looking closely, Entreri saw a faded dotted line crossing the river at the falls.
There might be a crossing before the town, and though Entreri's food supplies were low, he really did not want to enter another town just yet. Entreri went to the river, filled a pot of water for his horse, and then got a drink for himself. After a fifteen-minute break, he saddled up and set a brisk pace.
* * *
Elliorn watched the glinting metal disappear behind the ridge when she was still two miles from the river. It was second nature for her not to have any metal showing to the sunlight when traveling on the open plain. This Artemis had not been so trained and had either a metal clasp on his boot, a dagger strapped to his calf, or some metal in his stirrup.
The ranger was sure she had not been seen. Her auburn cloak and brown horse blended nicely into the tall grass. Besides, she should have been two days behind this man, and she doubted he really knew he was being followed. She had traded horses at the southern corner of the Halfway Woods with a farmer she knew and had ridden through the night, sleeping in the saddle. Besides that, she had taken a much more direct path to reach the river.
Elliorn now had two choices. She could change her course slightly and head for the beginning of the ridge. This would place her at least three miles behind Entreri. On the plains she would be able to make up this distance very easily, but across the river (she knew about the waterfall crossing) was a very hilly and rocky terrain, and it would not be so easy to make up the distance.
Besides that, once they were in the hills, it would be much easier for Artemis to see her as she would be unable to avoid skylining herself on the top of each hill they crossed. She would also not be able to light a fire without detection, and her cold rations would run out quickly.
The other option would be to maintain her course and skirt the top of the ridge hoping to catch her prey before he reached the waterfall. While she would be very visible to Artemis, he too would be an easy target for her longbow. The trip down the ridge face was not an easy one, and if he made it to the falls before she could catch him, it would take her a long time to resume the chase.
If that happened, not only would Artemis probably be alerted to her presence, but he would have also gained a much larger lead than three miles. Then Elliorn would be in the same position before, tracking him through the hills, only at an even bigger disadvantage.
The only favorable outcome would be to cut him off before he reached the falls. With that in mind, Elliorn kicked her heels into her horse's flank and sped toward the ridge in front of her.
* * *
There were two different riverbeds: one that ran full during the spring and one that ran full the rest of the year. It was early summer now, and Entreri rode on the fifteen foot flat the spring rush had created. Long ago this river had cut a path through these hills, and while it had sheared one side into a very steep ridge, the other side was more gradual and had grass growing up the side of it.
The ridge to Entreri's right did not go straight up, but it would be neither an easy climb nor descent. There were a few ledges that ran diagonally across the ridge face that made the assassin think it might be possible to get a horse down the side, but the rider would have to be far more skilled than Entreri was at controlling the beasts.
The sun was going down in the west, and the ridge cast a long shadow across the river and up the other side. Entreri still kept up his habit of looking behind him as he traveled, though he did it less often now. It was not until he was less than two miles from the falls when he saw the moving shadow projected on the hills across the river.
Elliorn knew she was outlining herself against the setting sun and had tried to keep her distance from the edge of the ridge to keep her shadow on the ground next to her. But as the sun continued to drop in the west, her shadow became longer, and in order to keep it from appearing in the river canyon below she needed to travel at least twenty feet from the ridge, cutting off any angle for her bow.
The risk was determined acceptable, and she had watched Artemis look back twice already without seeing her shadow. The third time he looked, Elliorn noticed a visible change in the way he rode his horse. The ranger was over two hundred feet behind him and fifty feet above him, but she could see his posture clearly.
Every minute that Elliorn waited, the canyon grew darker, and Artemis hunkered lower under his dark cloak. The waterfall became visible to Elliorn long before Artemis saw it, though he had heard it miles ago. Sound traveled well in canyon, so when Artemis broke into a gallop, it sounded like thunder to the ranger.
Elliorn responded immediately, kicking her horse into a run also. She took up her longbow and stood in the stirrups. Her prey would be to the falls in a matter of minutes now, and she would not get another chance. She pulled an arrow from her quiver and flexed her knees, keeping her upper body relatively motionless as her horse ran over the uneven terrain.
Entreri did not look back anymore, but kept his eyes trained on his goal. He was only half a mile from the falls when an arrow struck him in the thigh. It passed painfully through his tensed muscles, just missing the bone and piercing the flank of his horse.
Elliorn grimaced as she watched the horse below rear up in pain and fall to the side, pinning its rider to the ground. She had hoped to hit Artemis in the bone, protecting the horse from injury, but considering the conditions, she was thankful to have hit him at all. She slowed her mount and dismounted.
The sun was just about down now, and Elliorn did not look forward to walking down the ridge in darkness. She finally found a ledge that ran down most of the ridge face, intersecting another a ways down that would get her safely to the river below. Checking the ledge one last time, she decided to take her horse with her. It was not her normal horse, but she trusted in the farmer she had traded with and felt confident they would be able to make it down together. Besides, in order to take her prisoner into Mastin, she would need to put him on a horse, and with an arrow through his thigh, he would never be able to make the climb if she left the horse on top of the ridge.
It took her half an hour to climb down the ridge leading her horse by the reigns, and when she had, the stars were out with the moon shinning brightly. The river glowed with the night-lights, and Elliorn's elf-trained eyes could see clearly. She approached her prey slowly. A frown crossed her face when she saw that the horse had still not moved from where it had fallen and did not appear to be breathing.
Elliorn had a strong bow, but she knew she would not have been able to kill such an animal with one shot even if the Artemis's leg had not slowed the arrow. The next thing she noticed was that while it had looked like the horse had pinned Artemis's leg to the ground when she had been up on the ridge, she now saw that he merely lay beside the dead animal.
Elliorn became extremely cautious as she dew within twenty feet of the motionless pair. The ranger had a six-foot quarterstaff across her back and her bow slung over her shoulder. She made no motion to ready either and crept closer. When she was still ten feet from Artemis, she carefully rolled a stone toward the man.
Entreri had his back turned to the approaching ranger, but his ears were sharp, and he exploded into motion at the sound of the rock decoy. Both his weapons slashed hard through the empty air before Entreri saw his opponent backpedaling quickly, already twenty-five feet away. She had her bow ready and an arrow knocked.
Elliorn was confused. The man had moved like a cat, showing no ill effects for his wound and not favoring the leg in the slightest. She saw the hole and blood stain on his pant leg clear enough, but he appeared to have fully recovered. Both his weapons were held comfortably in front of him, and Elliorn noticed that the dagger did not glint as it should in the bright moonlight. Her eyes sought out the dead horse, and she saw a vicious wound in the horse's chest right above its heart. Had he killed his horse on purpose, or had it been an accident? Either way, it did not explain how he had emerged uninjured.
Entreri took a few slow steps forward, and Elliorn maintained her distance, pulling her bowstring tight. "Stand down, killer. I would not miss from this distance even if I was blindfolded. So unless you have some spell about you that makes you impervious to arrows, I suggest you drop your weapons."
Entreri smiled at his little mystery, glad once again for his dagger's abilities. He did not drop his weapons, but took a few more steps toward his enemy, pretending to limp on his bloody leg. Elliorn did not buy it, and lifted her bow higher, pulling the string tighter still. "I am warning you, Artemis. I will shoot you down."
Entreri sheathed both weapons and held his arms out wide. "Please, ranger friend, my heart awaits your arrow with eager anticipation - if you think it will do any good." Entreri took a few more steps forward.
Elliorn wondered about this strange man as she countered his approach with steps of her own. She could not sense any protection spell on him, but her magic detection ability was not nearly as acute as had been her tutor's, and she could not be sure. "I will not have to kill you, stranger. You and I both know that another arrow to your leg will slow you down."
Despite his healthy condition, Entreri had to concede that the blood on his leg showed he had been hurt by her first shot. Still, he continued to walk forward slowly. Elliorn took yet another step backwards, her foot landing on a loose rock only Entreri had seen. Her posture faltered momentarily, and Entreri sprang forward. He took five quick steps to the right and then five quick steps back left, ending his charge in a diving roll that would bring him right in front of the ranger.
To Entreri's credit, Elliorn did not hit him in the leg like she had hoped, but to the ranger's credit, her arrow did cut deeply across the assassin's side. The wound would have normally slowed Entreri considerably, but having so recently stolen his horse's powerful life energy to heal his other arrow wound, this second one only brought him off of that energy high and back to reality.
Elliorn did not even play with the idea of pulling another arrow from her quiver and simply held her bow in front of her as she retrieved the staff from her back. Entreri had his weapons out as he came up from his roll and swiped at the offered bow, cutting the string and knocking the shaft from the ranger's hand. Before he cold press his attack, he had to duck a wide sweep from the quarterstaff and then leaped back as the long weapon swung low. Elliorn too leaped backwards, and the two fighters took stock of each other.
Elliorn noticed that Entreri's right side where the arrow had sliced him was bleeding slowly. It was a wound that should have doubled over most men. In some cases, if not treated properly, it would bleed to death. In this man's case, he barely noticed it. He held a short sword and a beautifully crafted dagger. His stance alone told Elliorn more about his fighting ability than any story she might have gotten off someone else.
Entreri did not rush in, but instead tried to discern the ranger's fighting style. Her quarterstaff was six feet long, nearly as tall as she was. Though tall, the woman was not slight, and Entreri would not under-estimate her strength. The staff appeared wooden, but Entreri could tell it was only painted to look that way and had streaks of adamantium laced through it. The composite staff was probably enchanted, and Entreri held no illusions about being able to break it. Also, instead of having blunt ends, each tip was worked to a fine point and coated with metal.
"Again I ask you to stand down," Elliorn said, spinning her staff in front of her. "I know you are a fighter of some reputation, but I warn you, I have been trained by the elves of the Northwood and have never been bested in battle. I have fought against trolls, goblins, and giant-kind. I do not want to kill you."
Entreri just smirked.
Elliorn took a step toward Entreri holding her staff horizontally in front of her. "Put your weapons down and I promise to treat you fairly."
"The only reason I would have for putting down my weapons is to make this fight fair," Entreri replied gruffly and charged. With the staff held as it was, there was no opening for an attack, and the assassin merely went through an offensive flurry to see if the ranger was as skilled as she claimed. She was.
Elliorn rotated her wrists as her staff swung about in front of her, creating an impenetrable disk. Entreri's blades were batted harmlessly aside, feeling like they were being blocked by enchanted blades, not a wooden staff.
Entreri sprang back from his flurry, having gained plenty of information. He had battled few people who used such a weapon and almost all had been wizards or mages. The spellcasters had either run out of spells or had not been able to prepare one before Entreri attacked. In each case, the fight ended quickly and poorly for the magic user. They often only used staffs because they were much lighter than metal weapons and were often involved in their magic.
Elliorn did not use her staff because of any weakness. If she decided never to go on the offensive, the fight would last a very long time. Besides the defensive bonuses, there were clear offensive bonuses. By releasing her grip on the staff during a swing and grabbing onto the end of it, the weapon could double in length in a split second. Also, each attack could always be followed by a second right behind it as the staff rotated completely around, forcing Entreri to hold each block longer than he would like and throwing him off rhythm.
There were also negatives. All the attacks had to be made in a circular fashion. She could not swing straight across without stabbing herself in the stomach with the other end of the weapon. Since the weapon was much longer than her arms, and she held it in the middle, she could only attack by rotating it about herself.
This limited her attack maneuvers. She could not thrust straight ahead. Nor could she swing straight down, unless she did so off to the side of her body, leaving the other side wide open. Entreri took a brief moment preparing himself, realizing he would have to alter his fighting style slightly. If he attacked high and low, a move that would defeat almost anyone holding only one weapon, all Elliorn would have to do is rotate her weapon vertically to block both. Also each block could turn into an attack with a flick of her wrist.
Entreri walked in slowly, hoping Elliorn would attack first. "I warned you," she said, suddenly spinning her staff insanely fast in front of her. It lashed out of the spin with a chop right for Entreri's collarbone.
Entreri nearly fainted at the speed and suddenness of the attack, but recovered in time to get his dirk up to block the blow. Then, moving as quickly as he could, he kept the two weapons engaged and sidestepped his opponent. His dagger flashed toward Elliorn's unprotected side, a move that should have ended the fight right there.
The ranger used the leverage of her long weapon to shove Entreri's blocking blade down, crossing his arms and forcing him to turn away from the dagger attack so the magical weapon could no longer reach the woman's side.
Entreri released the block to free his weapons and rolled to the side as the opposite end of the staff swept by unblocked. Staying low, Entreri swiped his dirk at Elliorn's legs. The ranger easily swept her weapon down to bat the attack aside and then rotated her grip to bring the weapon down on Entreri's prone head.
The assassin's sword came up to meet the staff, barely an inch above his head, the force of the blow almost pushing his own weapon into his scalp. Like Entreri had predicted, though, attacking from above had forced Elliorn to move her staff to the side, opening the other side of her body. With his dirk holding off the staff, his dagger searched out her knee.
Elliorn would never be able to get her weapon in line for a block, but she had known this before she had attacked and had already scripted the end of this fight. Using Entreri's blocking sword as a fulcrum, she leaped high in the air, flipping over the crouched assassin just ahead of his deadly dagger. Her staff stayed parallel with her body as she flipped over, and as she landed behind her opponent with her weapon vertically in front of her, she thrust it through her legs.
Entreri had predicted that she would not be able to thrust the weapon at him because her body was in the way, but as her feet landed behind him, slightly spread, he realized his mistake. He stood quickly, but the ranger was a few inches taller and her legs even more so. If she took full advantage of her height, Entreri would still catch the pointed end of the staff in the small of his back. Working his legs for everything they were worth, Entreri leaped into the air, feeling the tip of the staff rip out the crotch of his pants.
While she had not thought the assassin capable of such a quick adjustment, she was also not unprepared for it. Elliorn rotated her body onto one foot, sweeping her staff out from under her other rising leg. The weapon collided with the inside of Entreri's knee and spun him as well. While both fighters turned in the air, Elliorn did so in a coordinated cartwheel while Entreri landed rudely on his side.
The air was briefly knocked out of the assassin as he hit the ground, but he was not so disoriented to know he was vulnerable. He rolled quickly away from the ranger just as the staff stabbed into the ground where he had been. He tried to rise, but a low sweep from the long weapon kept him low and rolling. He knew he was too far away from the ranger for a traditional attack and anticipated Elliorn well.
The woman let her weapon slip through her hands as she swung down on the rolling assassin, grabbing onto the end of the weapon before fell completely out of her grasp. The point of the six-foot weapon was aimed right at Entreri's chest, but the trained fighter knew it was coming before even Elliorn did. He rolled to his left, letting the side of the staff hit his upraised right arm. The staff slid off his arm and fell parallel to Entreri's back, the tip hitting the ground.
Before Elliorn could retract the weapon, Entreri rolled back on top of it and sat up, his weight snapping the other end of the weapon from Elliorn's grasp. Entreri sprang from his sitting position in a rush, both blades swinging.
Elliorn's mistake was obvious - Entreri's not as much so. The assassin thought the ranger to be unarmed. Elliorn had little time to pull the throwing dagger from her vest, but the rushing fighter did not prove a difficult target. Entreri barely saw the glint of steel in the moonlight and nearly tripped over himself as he sidestepped his charge. The dagger flew harmlessly through the air, but Elliorn's other hand, fitted with a studded leather glove, delivered a hard punch to Entreri's face. The assassin was not caught completely off guard and managed to sweep his dirk across the ranger's side as he stumbled past her.
The cut was not too deep and neither fighter was hurt badly, but Elliorn now truly was unarmed. Her staff lay on the ground in front of her, but she dare not take the time to pick it up with the assassin at her back. Instead, she dove to the ground as if to pick it up and then rolled quickly to the side.
Entreri was there in a second, and his dirk sunk deep into the soft, springtime riverbed where Elliorn had just been. Before he could pull the blade back out of the ground, Elliorn spun on her back and kicked out her foot at Entreri's head. Entreri rolled with the blow, leaving his sword in the ground but managing to scrape his dagger across Elliorn's calf.
The ranger's steel tipped leather boots were not as soft as they had appeared, and Entreri had to shake the cobwebs from his head as he rose from the ground. As he did, he watched Elliorn pull his sword from the soft ground. Entreri rose slowly, as Elliorn made no immediate move to charge the dangerous man.
Both were panting hard, but Entreri saw that his last attack to Elliorn's leg had done more lasting damage than her kick had done to him. Entreri pressed the attack before Elliorn could adequately realize this. He swung his dagger in his left hand high, from right to left, pivoting to come back down diagonally across his body, then right to left low, and finally completing the hourglass cut by coming diagonally back up.
Elliorn hit the dagger twice during the routine, not realizing the flurry was not meant to hit her, but to get her blade up high so Entreri could punch out with his right hand beneath it. The fist took the ranger hard in the stomach, stealing her already sporadic breath. As she stumbled backward, she swung her stolen weapon hard down across her body, fending off a charge. Entreri was caught off guard by the strength of the woman, despite his initial pledge not to be, and since the dirk was locked into batwing hilt of the assassin's dagger, the smaller weapon was ripped from Entreri's grasp.
Even though Entreri no longer held a weapon, Elliorn was off balance, her sword low at her side. The assassin pressed his attack, launching two more punches, one at the woman's head, the other at her side. She managed to duck the one aimed at her head, but took the other in her shoulder. Elliorn rolled with the blow, careful not impale herself on her sword.
Entreri leaped to straddle her, intending to pummel her prone form with a flurry of punches, but noticed at the last second that she had rolled exactly to where his jeweled dagger had fallen. He landed over her, but had to leap away just as quickly as the enchanted weapon sailed through the vacated space. He did not have time to scout his landing sight, and his right foot landed on the forgotten quarterstaff. The weapon rolled under him, and he went down.
Elliorn felt her strength fading, and she knew she had to press the attack before Entreri could gather himself. She sat up quickly and did not duck in time to avoid the quarterstaff that came swinging at her head. The sound of the weapon against her forehead was like the crack of a falling tree. Elliorn fell back and watched the stars above her disappear into blackness.
* * *
Elliorn awoke to the sound and smell of burning wood. Her eyes came open slowly, her head pounding like she had been run over by a stampeding herd of horses. She remembered suddenly what had happened, and she came to her senses.
She was sitting upright, her legs extended in front of her with her back leaning against a pole. A brief examination of the pole confirmed her suspicion that it was her staff thrust into the soft ground. Her hands were tied behind the pole, but beside that, she was not restrained in anyway.
Elliorn spent a short while examining her bonds. She could untie them in less than two minutes, she thought, but as she watched Entreri walk about on the other side of the fire, she knew that he would see her. To untie herself without detection would take considerably longer. Artemis knew how to tie a knot.
She spent a while watching the man, not alerting him to the fact she was up. He was stripped to the waist, and she took great interest in his muscular form. He was not a big man, a few inches shorter than she was and weighing no more, but his muscles were honed to such perfection, she doubted there was an inch of fat anywhere on his body.
As he went through the supplies that were in her saddlebags, she also saw that he had bandaged up the wound on his side from her arrow. Apparently he was not impregnable after all. He also had a rising welt on his cheek were she had punched and kicked him. Everyone she had talked to said this man had never taken a scratch in battle. Even though she had been defeated and was now tied to her own weapon, she took a little pride in the fact she had marked him.
Entreri glanced briefly back at her as he was cinching her pack closed. Elliorn tried to remain still, but he noticed her improved posture and walked over to the fire. He sat across from the light source, and the ranger noticed for the first time there was a small rabbit carcass roasting over it. She looked back to her horse and saw the man had restrung her bow.
Entreri did not speak. He just stared at Elliorn from across the fire. "Why am I not dead?" she asked. Entreri shrugged. "Can not kill a woman?"
"I've killed more women than you have killed goblins," he bit back.
"Are you bragging?"
"Bah," Entreri said angrily, getting up from the fire and retrieving a small bowl of water. He returned and began to sprinkle the water on the rabbit.
"You do not seem like a proud man," the ranger pressed. "Bragging does not become you."
"Aren't you the one who said you had never been bested?" he countered. "Oh, and I'm sorry for having broken that streak, by the way."
"Has anyone ever beaten you?"
Entreri looked up from his work. "Yes, as a matter of fact, someone has."
"Only one?" Elliorn mocked his supposed confession. "And where is he?"
"He is dead."
Elliorn could not tell if Entreri was joking. If he was, he did not do it often and was not any good at it. "And why am I not dead?"
"Do you want me to kill you?" Elliorn did not respond. "I didn't think so, so stop asking. I need some information from you."
Elliorn's ears pricked up at this.
"Why were you following me?"
Elliorn saw no reason to lie to this man. "Chief Cairon came to me shortly after you had left Karenstoch and told me what you had done. I investigated your handi-work briefly and then came after you."
"You still haven't answered my question, and you must think me a fool if you thought I hadn't guessed that much already."
Despite herself, Elliorn was beginning to like this man. It would not last. "I wanted to find out what kind of man could inspire so much fear into people that I had thought strong. I needed to find out what kind of man could engage so many good fighters in mortal combat yet emerge without a scratch."
"Please," Entreri said, interrupting, "you insult us both by calling anyone in that city a good fighter."
Elliorn smiled at this. "I needed to find out if you are indeed the devil, as so many people claimed."
"And what did you find?"
"I'm not sure," she replied.
"I am not the devil," Entreri replied quietly. "I was brought up in a harsh land and respond to threats and danger accordingly. I have asked people to leave me alone. They don't listen, and they die."
"There are many people in this land who wish to be left alone," Elliorn said. "Very few of them am I asked to track down. There is more to you than that."
"I did not keep you alive so you could question me," Entreri said gruffly. "If I let you live, will you continue to follow me?"
"Will you continue to kill people?" she asked back.
Entreri exploded over the fire, clearing the flames and the roasting meat easily. His dagger was at Elliorn's throat before she could even gasp. "The next time you answer a question with a question I will cut off an ear."
Elliorn tried not to show fear, but it was very difficult. She was beginning to understand why the people of Karenstoch said what they had. She nodded.
"Will you continue to follow me?" he asked again, his dagger still pressed against her throat.
"Probably," she said.
Entreri stood slowly. "Your honesty is admirable, though it won't add a second to your life." He started to walk back around the fire.
"Are you threaten-"
Entreri spun about, and the question stuck in Elliorn's throat. She believed in every fiber of her being, as she looked into his black eyes, that she had just died. The assassin's glare did not leave her as he spoke. "I'm sorry, were you going to ask me something?"
Elliorn hated this feeling of helplessness, but she could not find the strength to fight against it. She weakly shook her head. "That's what I thought."
Entreri took his time walking back to his spot across the fire, letting the elf trained ranger wallow in her fear. He sat back down and continued to sprinkle water on the roasting rabbit. "You spoke of fighting goblins, trolls, and giants. In all the books I've read and from all the people I talked to, they are said to be mythical."
It was not really a question, but Elliorn had learned her place and responded as she should. "It is my job as a ranger to make sure they stay that way. There are very few tribes of the evil beasts in the northland. I know where these tribes are, and I make sure they leave the people of Karenstoch and the other northern cities alone. If they don't, I fight them until they do. I do not hunt them without cause though."
Entreri wondered if this last statement was meant specifically for him, but he did not press the point. "And the elves?"
"They stay in the woods, and although they battle the goblins occasionally, they never travel near the human cities. Since my training ended ten years ago, I have seen them but three times."
Entreri could tell that she was burning with curiosity but wisely kept her mouth shut. "Where in this land might someone who wishes to be left alone go?"
"That depends," Elliorn dared to respond.
Entreri did not like this answer, but looking at her from across the fire, he realized the ranger needed more information to answer the question adequately. He nodded. "What do you want to do?" she asked after receiving permission.
"Suppose I want to take up farming. It seems like a good honest profession."
Elliorn rolled her eyes. "The direction you are heading now is good," she responded. "The south eastern portion of this continent is full of farmland. The network of rivers makes trade very easy and the ground very fertile. However, if you went south to Mastin and further, you will run into land more like what you saw in Karenstoch. There are a few goblins and the like hiding in mountain caves, and the people are still trying to establish a functioning and profitable society. An extra sword is always welcome."
She could not help throwing in an editorial at the end of each of her answers. "I'm sure those struggling communities are also protected by those like yourself who would love to take up the chase for you." Entreri paused dramatically before he asked the next question. "Is there any town that would accept me for who I am?"
Who are you? Elliorn wisely did not ask the question out loud, but her eyes asked loudly and clearly enough. She paused to let the unspoken question sink into the assassin before responding. "No. Not unless you want join up with the goblins. I don't know what you did before, but no one finds the need to kill each other around here. We settle our disagreements peaceably when we can. If it comes to fighting, it is done so honorably. Attacks are not made from the shadows, but out in the open. We rangers and paladins do the killing that is needed. So unless you want to become-"
"Very funny," Entreri cut her off. "Drizzt would've gotten a kick out of that."
"Who?" she asked before she could retract it.
Entreri did not notice the infraction. "If you live long enough and travel far enough you will hear about him. He credits your kind."
"Can't wait to meet him."
"You can't," Entreri said, getting up from the fire and moving to her horse. Elliorn made the connection immediately. Only one person had ever beat him, and now he was dead. She watched him return with a knife and plate. He carved up half of the rabbit and sat down to eat.
Elliorn watched him silently. She was very hungry but she was not about to ask him for any. Instead, she started to slowly go to work on her bonds, careful not to wiggle too much. "Stop that," Entreri said, only moments after she had started. She looked up at him and saw that he was still eating, not giving the slightest indication that he had even looked up. "I will be gone soon enough and then you can wriggle free all you want. If I tied it too tight just tell me." He looked up after this, daring for her to complain. She kept her mouth shut.
Entreri finished his meal in silence. He got up and put away the few eating utensils he had procured and resecured the pack on the back of the horse. He checked the bandage on his side and put his shirt back on. After his jacket and cape were also put on, he donned a black hat and looked ready to leave.
Instead, he walked back to Elliorn. He dropped her bow next to her, but neglected to give her back the arrows. They were in the fire. The ranger sat with her legs crossed, trying to look as composed as possible. She had no idea what this man planed to do to her. If he walked away now, she could be to Mastin by morning, obtain another horse, and likely catch up to him within two days.
"Spread your legs," Entreri commanded.
"You heard what I said." Entreri slowly crouched down in front of her. "Uncross your legs."
Elliorn slowly complied, very confused. Entreri manually pulled her knees apart and squatted between them. He pulled out his dagger and began to cut off her pants up by her waist. "You sick dog! I can't believe you would-" Elliorn stared to stand up, pulling away from the assassin.
"Sit down and shut up!" Entreri commanded, reaching up and pulling down on her shoulder. "Do you think I'm going to rape you? Is that it? After all this you think I am just a sexual delinquent? Is that what the woman from Halfway told you?"
Elliorn retreated visibly at Entreri's tone. She could see that he was a hair's breadth away from killing her right there. Suddenly she wished that he would only rape her, for she feared much, much worse. She had not thought there could be worse, but looking into Entreri's eyes, she saw horrors she had never even imagined.
Entreri let his wave of anger pass and went back to work. Soon he had exposed her left thigh, allowing her to keep her modesty in the process. Without warning he shoved his dagger into the exposed flesh.
Elliorn sat up straight at the searing pain, but was too shocked and afraid to cry out. That changed as Entreri twisted the blade. Her cry was high and loud, but soon faded as the dagger did its dark work. She could feel her life force draining out of her through her leg. She could also feel Entreri getting stronger.
In that instant she felt she understood this man. She knew what he was and was terrified all the more. This had been a kid who had kicked over ant piles for fun. He flipped turtles onto their backs just to watch them struggle and laugh at them. Elliorn was not an anthill or a turtle; she was much more. She was a living, breathing human being, and this man was immersing himself in her pain. He was feasting on her very essence, raping her on a level he could never even approach physically.
In that instant, she knew that, if she lived, she would hunt down this man to the ends of the earth. She would hunt him, and she would kill him. His skill no longer frightened her. He was an incredible fighter, but so was she. If she had aimed to kill when she had first shot him, his body would be fully cooled by now. Elliorn smiled at that thought and ignored the pain coming from her leg.
Entreri removed the dagger after no more than a second, though in Elliorn's memory, it had lasted several minutes. He had not intended to steal her energy and had only done so on a small level. He removed the dagger and blood poured from the wound. "I will bleed to death," she said, her voice cold, not showing any pain or concern.
"No you won't," Entreri said, not taking notice of her change in demeanor. He turned around and retrieved a stick that had been lying partway into the fire. Elliorn knew what was coming, but instead of flinching as Entreri applied the burning end to her wound, she embraced the pain and used it to fuel her hatred.
The wound seared shut only after several seconds of intense heat. Entreri was a bit worried that the ranger was not crying out in pain, but he shrugged his shoulders. That was her problem. "It will get infected," she said.
"Probably," Entreri agreed. The wound was still bleeding a little, and he was in the process of turning the rest of her pantleg into a bandage. He wrapped her wound with little resistance from his patient, tying the pant leg as tight as he could manage.
"I won't be able to ride for weeks."
"I'm counting on that too," he said. "But you won't die, will you?"
Elliorn stared at the assassin, hating him all the more. Some how he figured that as long as he did not kill her, everything was okay. As if murder was the only sin worth punishing.
"Will you?" Entreri repeated, his dagger poised above her.
"No," Elliorn said with plenty of conviction, "I will not die." She said it more in defiance to Entreri than in agreement with him.
Entreri stood up and looked down at her. He really should kill her. He was beginning to notice the change that was coming over her, and he did not like it. Unless he was badly mistaken, they would meet again. Yet, if he killed her, he would never be free from pursuit. Every ranger in the area would track him down. He decided one enemy he knew about was better than a dozen unknowns. Besides, he needed someone to replace Drizzt. Entreri laughed at this and turned to leave.
The laugh hung in the air like a putrid odor, and Elliorn inhaled every last bit of it. She watched him climb onto her horse and ride off into the night. She watched for a long time straining for the sound of hoof beats in water. There was a narrow shelf at the base of the waterfall, and Elliorn strained to hear him cross it. Her head was ringing with so much hate and pain that she would not have heard a cannon if it had fired right behind her.
She stood carefully, bending at the waist and raising her hands high above her back and over the top of her staff. Two minutes later she was untied and eating the rabbit meat Entreri had left for her. The assassin had won this contest, but she vowed to herself it would not be the last one.
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