The Fourth Realm

Albion Chapter 2

by Kris Kramer

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Aiden panted loudly as he crashed through the woods like a lumbering bear chasing after a meal. He hadn't run like this in over a year, and his body was doing its best to remind him of that fact. His legs were burning, his chest hurt, and his breathing was fast and shallow, but all things considered it wasn't as bad as he would have thought. He was somewhere around thirty years old, which wasn't young anymore, especially compared to all the fresh-faced teenage recruits that showed up every year during his time, but he wasn't an old man either. And his training and conditioning seemed to be coming back to him quickly, which was a good sign, because he'd need it shortly.

He was chasing down the Scout that had just stolen his pack, and he was making enough noise to wake the entire realm, but that was all part of the plan. Aiden was trained as an Armsman, not a Scout, which meant his skills were best utilized in an open, face-to-face fight, not at tracking someone who could disappear into thin air. He needed to see his opponent to combat him, so Aiden was gambling that by making as big a ruckus as he possibly could, the Scout would hear the commotion and come to him instead. He'd already shown that he was a bit cocky and overconfident while trailing Aiden earlier, and Aiden was hoping he could use that to his advantage now.

It was a calculated risk, though, because his current direction was taking him toward the river. Any minute now he would be within shouting distance of the goblin settlements nestled along the riverbank, and he didn't want to attract any curious goblin hunting parties if he could help it. And there were more than just goblins in these woods if you listened to the stories. With night approaching, the dangers became even worse, so he needed to finish this soon and get back to safety. He'd already had enough adventure tonight. The mysterious Thane that had just attacked him and the merchant families on the road from Humberton had made sure of that.

Of course, that Thane was the reason why he was out here. Fighting him had reawakened something inside Aiden that had been slumbering ever since he'd been forcibly branded on his cheek by his own realm mates. That brand marked him as a coward to everyone who saw him, and kept him from serving his realm as an honored Armsman should be able to do. But tonight, for the first time in two years, Aiden felt like a warrior again, and he wasn't going to waste that feeling by accepting his fate and trudging back home to his hut in the Black Mountains. No, tonight he would show his fellow citizens of Albion that he was no coward.

The sound of a cracking branch nearby made him stop, and he looked around carefully to see if his ruse had worked. It took him a moment to get his labored breathing under control so he could hear over his own gasps, but once he did he stood completely still and waited to see if the Scout had taken the bait. The sun was going down and the shadows in the forest were getting longer and darker, which would give a Scout plenty of room to hide in, and hopefully make him feel safe enough to stalk a clumsy, lumbering Armsman – former Armsman, he reminded himself – and maybe even show himself before launching a few arrows from the dark.

"You really should learn to be quieter, old man."

Aiden smiled. It had worked. The voice came from behind him, maybe a dozen yards back. Aiden debated turning to face him, but instead he decided to stay where he was and let the Scout feel in charge, like he'd scared him into not moving. So instead, he only turned his head enough to glance back. "And you, boy, shouldn't take what isn't yours."

"That's pretty big talk for a man with an arrow pointed at his head." The Scout replied. "Drop your sword."

Aiden wanted the Scout to feel safe enough physically that he wouldn't do anything rash – like shooting him in the back - and make him feel comfortable enough to get a little bit closer. At this distance, he was a sitting duck. A skilled Scout could get two or three shots off before he reached him, and that's only if the first shot didn't kill him. He needed close the gap to around three or four yards before he could make his move. But he could be nonthreatening and still have a little bit of fun with this thief.

"I don't think I want to do that."

Aiden heard the Scout chuckle under his breath. Then he heard a couple of soft, barely audible footsteps. The Scout was getting closer, trying to get a better shot.

"You do what I say and you don't have to die today."

"I will do nothing you tell me to do unless it includes returning my things to me."

This time the laugh was a bit longer, and louder. He was probably shaking his head, too. Whether it was in pity or disbelief, Aiden couldn't tell yet.

"Well, aren't you a brazen old man." The Scout said. "A little thick in the head, too, because I don't think you understand just how precarious your position is right now."

"Explain it to me, then. Use small words."

Aiden heard another footstep and he grinned. The Scout was somewhere around seven or eight yards away now.

"I have an arrow pointed at the back of your neck," he proclaimed, a little too grandly. Aiden was beginning to suspect that this Scout was more concerned about putting on a show than actually killing people. "All I have to do is let it fly and you'll probably die before you even have time to feel it pierce your skin. It won't be as painful a death as I normally like to hand out, but it will be fast, which will save me from having to hear you moan in agony. Now drop your sword."

Aiden heard another small footstep, and he decided this was his best shot. The sword he was carrying wasn't his sword. It had belonged to one of the merchants attacked by the Thane, and it was obviously only meant to scare trouble off, because it was useless in an actual fight. It was one of the most poorly forged swords he'd ever seen in his life, and it would probably snap in two if put under any duress. If his life ever depended on this particular sword... well, Aiden just hoped it never came to that. So he held it out to his right, holding the hilt between his finger and his thumb, letting the blade dangle over the ground next to him. He let it hang like that for a moment, purely for show since the Scout seemed to enjoy that, then dropped it. The blade hit the ground, digging into the dirt about an inch, before just tipping over and laying there.

"There's a good man." The Scout said.

Aiden heard a couple more footsteps and then he glanced back again. He could see the Scout at the edge of his vision, shrouded in shadow, standing about four yards behind him, and he'd lowered his bow a bit, thinking that his prey had been disarmed. In reality, Aiden was secretly slipping the palm-sized rock he'd been holding in his left hand this entire time into his right.

"Now, why don't you kick that sword away?" The Scout asked. "Just a bit."

Aiden moved his leg back, as if he was going to kick the sword off to the side. Instead of kicking, though, he planted the leg a half step behind him, then spun around to his left, launching the rock at the Scout. The Scout didn't realize what was happening until it was too late, and as he twisted his body to avoid the rock, he ended up moving his right arm into it's path, where it struck him just below the shoulder with a thud.

The Scout cried out in pain and pulled his arm in, letting go of his bowstring and dropping the arrow he had knocked. Aiden used the opportunity to charge at him, covering the four yards in three quick bounds, then leaping at the cowering Scout, who tried to use his longbow to defend himself. Aiden grabbed the bow and twisted his body between it and the Scout, prying it free from his hand. The Scout, however, must have been ready to surrender that weapon, because he immediately slipped away and pulled a long sword out with his left hand. Aiden, still clutching the bow, hurried back to pick up his own sword, and the two stood a few yards apart, their weapons ready, sizing each other up.

This was the first time Aiden had been able to get a good look at the Scout, and his early impressions about him seemed to be right. He looked young, maybe in his late teens, with a mop of wavy, tangled black hair on his head, the hint of a beard on his face, and deep set black eyes. His skin was naturally dark, not tanned like Aiden's, and he suspected that at least one of the boy's parents was a Saracen. He wasn't especially tall, and his build seemed slight, but he'd just shown himself to be quick and nimble on his feet. After sizing up this young man, Aiden got the impression that he'd been well-born, and had only recently taken to the life of a bandit.

"Well this is an interesting turn." The Scout said finally, breaking the silence.

"I don't want to hurt you." Aiden replied. "I just want my pack returned to me, along with everything that was inside it when you stole it."

"I saved your life. This is just payment." The Scout motioned to Aiden's pack, which was slung over his shoulder, under his black cloak.

"I don't much like those terms," Aiden moved a step closer, "and I don't recall agreeing to them."

"You could agree to them now."

"Or, I could drag you to Camelot and watch them hang you for banditry and theft."

"Really?" The Scout smiled at him, but it was the kind of smile someone gives you just before they knife you in the stomach. "So they take the word of a coward at face value these days? I'll have to remember that if I ever get such a lovely brand on my face."

"I am no coward." Aiden's tone was as serious as he could make it.

"Your face says otherwise."

"A brand doesn't make it true." Aiden suddenly wondered why he needed this thief, of all people, to believe him.

"Ahhhh. Is this a sore subject?" The Scout asked mockingly. "Or are you just afraid to talk about it?"

Aiden pointed the sword at the Scout. "You're playing with fire, boy."

"Oh, now I'm the one who's scared."

Aiden held the Scout's longbow out in front of him with both hands, ready to snap it in two.

"Just how attached are you to this thing?"

"Okay, now wait a minute." The Scout said, suddenly serious. "Let's not get hasty here. We can be civil about this."

"Can we?"

"How about a trade?" The Scout slipped Aiden's pack off his shoulder, and grabbed the strap with his right hand, although his arm was still sore because the effort made his face scrunch up. "My bow, for your pack?"

"So you can just point it at me again?"

The Scout shook his head in frustration. "Well, then we're at a bit of a standstill, aren't we?"

They both just stood there in silence, staring at each other, although their stances were less aggressive now, and neither really seemed poised to attack.

He's right, Aiden thought, but not about the impasse. He was remembering what he'd said about going back to Camelot. Even if Aiden felt like dragging this Scout all the way back to the city, there was no guarantee that anyone would believe what he had to say, or care about it even if they did. For every city guard he spoke to, he was just as likely to find someone willing to pay a bounty as he was to find a former soldier who'd knock him on his backside for betraying his people with cowardice. He'd even run into guards once who wouldn't let him into the city and he certainly couldn't bear dealing with that embarrassment again. No, the Scout was right. This brand would keep a lot of doors closed to him unless he had something better to offer them than an alleged thief.

Like perhaps a Thane.

That would surely open some of those doors. Bringing that Thane in, before any of the guards that would surely be dispatched soon to find him, would be a far better prize than some bandit Scout. It would be a boon. There would certainly be a bounty, and that would help him eat like he was used to, but more importantly, he'd be known for something else besides the brand. He may still be the Coward to some people, but he'd also be known as the Thane Killer. It was a small victory, but for Aiden, that was enough. But he would need help. He couldn't do it on his own, especially not without his regular weapons and armor. He'd need an ally who could help him track the Thane, someone who knew the area.

Someone who could find another stealther.

"What's your name?" Aiden asked. He wasn't sure yet if this was the best plan, but it was the only one he had at the moment.

"What's yours?" He replied, his voice even haughtier than normal. "Or should I just call you Coward?"

"My name is Aiden." He said, keeping his tone calm and cool. "Now tell me yours."

The Scout cocked his eyebrow. He was pressing his sword hand against his sore shoulder, rubbing it. Aiden quietly hoped he could still use that arm well enough to handle his bow.

"I am the Eagle of the Shadows, the - "

"Your real name," Aiden said, cutting him off. "Not some bandit title you made up to scare the poor folk."

The Scout smirked at him, then looked away in annoyance. He stared up at the trees nearby, obviously in thought, and Aiden figured he was probably just thinking up a lie to tell him. But he didn't care. He'd use any made up name he was given if it helped him achieve his goal.

"Finias." He said finally, and Aiden was surprised because he actually believed him.

"Well then, Finias. You did save my life, and I'm ready to agree to terms of repayment."

"You are? What terms?" He looked interested now.

"Your service. To me. And mine to you."

Finias huffed in disbelief. "Are you mad? What would possibly make you think I'd agree to that?"

"I want your help to kill that Thane."

Finias just stared at Aiden for a long moment before finally replying. "No."

"Did you see what he did when he ran away? He stealthed. Thanes don't stealth. You stealth. But not a Thane. Something isn't right about this."

"I think it's you." Finias said. "You said it yourself. Thanes don't stealth. So you must be mad."

"I am not mad. I saw it with my own eyes, and you would have too if you'd been paying attention to him instead of my belongings."

"Why should I believe a story like that?"

Aiden held his arms out in exasperation. "Why would I make up a story like that?"

"Because you're mad!"

"What will take for you to believe me?"

Finias shrugged. "How about if he proves it? That's it. I'll believe it when I see it happen right here. Wait, maybe I will see it happen, because he could be right here watching us, couldn't he?" Finias turned left and right, looking dramatically into the shadows nearby. "Here, little Shadowthane. Come out and play with us, because I know you're watching, aren't you?"

Aiden shook his head. "Fine. Whether you believe me now or not, it makes no difference. I just need your help to find him and kill him. That is the bargain."

"This is silly. You're mad. And I have no idea why you'd want to drag me down into your crazy little world."

"Because I can't find out what it is alone."

"So you come to me? Why not the guards?"

"The guards will know soon enough. But I need to find him first. We need to find him."

"Why do you need me?"

"How else do you track a stealther?"

Finias had no response to that, so Aiden stepped forward and continued his argument.

"Listen to me. You don't think that if we brought in a Thane who'd slipped past our frontier defenses, killed two Albion citizens, and was capable of stealth, we wouldn't get something in return? Whether you believe me or not, you should at least be smart enough to know that there will be a reward for him, a reward we don't get if the guards find him first."

Finias thought about that for a long moment. Finally, "I want my longbow back."

"I want my belongings back." Aiden countered.

"Well, Aiden, now you're finally making some sense. Fine. I agree with your poorly thought out little plan. I get my bow, you get your pack, and then we shall find ourselves a thane and make some gold in return."

Aiden stepped forward to stand in front of Finias.

"Don't agree just yet. Before you bind yourself to me, and I to you, you must understand that this is serious. If you break your oath to me, then I will have little choice but to find you and kill you. And because of this brand on my face I'm unable to serve in the army or get any decent work. So I have nothing but time to track down dishonest scouts to the ends of the earth." Aiden held out his hand. "So now... do you agree?"

Finias let out a short chuckle. "See, now I know you're mad. But gold can cure many ills, or so I've been told. I agree."

Finias reached out and shook Aiden's hand, and they both smiled, although Aiden knew in the back of his mind that they were smiling for very different reasons. He had no time to linger on that thought, though, as a cloud of crackling blue energy suddenly pounded the forest around them, shaking the trees violently and throwing them both roughly to the ground. Aiden lifted his head and looked all around, trying to find out what just happened, and it was then that he saw his best chance at salvation standing a mere twenty yards away, wearing worn chain armor and carrying a long-handled hammer.

The Thane had found them.