This story is a special one to me. It's original concept came to me somewhere around 2008 and it had been stuck in my head for longer than I have been on ff.
It evolved, obviously. At first it was Crimson Sabatt, who had run away from her prison, that was supposed to be 'the bad guy' [sorry, Rocky]. Kestral and Hakim were supposed to hate each other at first, as my story was to be set not long after the last mission of the original game. Milo/Hawker was to be named Michel. Et caetera.
Still, the decorations have changed just a bit. Kestral has not changed at all. Doesn't matter if I was aware of what Rose and Rocky had written here. Kes was still the same former-bandit tomboy with her mission to do the right thing, only with her own, unique methods.
Hakim was only a bit less official in my head back then. But believe it or not, I also imagined him as the prince of Sahir [thanks Rose!]. That idea will come particulary useful later.
As for this chapter, there are - as always - Rocky and Rose to back me up. Rocky's win is that intel report, and Rose goes with the tavern fight... and the beta-reading, of course.
For now, you get the first chapter of the Kestral/Hakim rollercoaster ride. Enjoy.
Light September wind was passing through the forest, making the tree crowns whisper their eternal incantations. It was not cold, but Kestral could not feel any more chilly right now.
The female Knight looked up at the clear, dark blue sky. There was not a single could, only the full moon illuminating the forest clearing in front of her. Not a very convenient situation, as the light could easily give away her current position.
Right behind Kestral, Ammae stood by an old tree trunk. For any observer she just looked like one of the branches. Cautious as always, she was trying to spot any movement on the other side of the glade, but with no result. Had not the two women spotted the group of bandits follow them, they would not have even sensed the trap.
But even knowing that they were being followed, they walked right into a trap. They were now surrounded with the clearing in front of them and the forest – now surely full of bandits looking for them – behind.
Kestral quietly crouched and looked at her friend. She shook her head in resignation. Ammae's eyes widened. She could not believe the former Assassins leader. If even Kestral had lost faith in finding the way out of here, the all was probably lost. The Knight reached for her pocked and took a small item out. It was a golden ring with a stunning green emerald. She passed it to her friend, who quickly hid it. As Kestral was trying to get something off her neck, suddenly the silence was interrupted by a single hiss. Before the women could react, an arrow had staved in the terr right next to them. A quick look at each other was all they needed.
Ammae knew she could not argue with somebody who outranked her. But her heart was more than bleeding. Another arrow sliced through the night air, this time stabbing even closer to them.
Kestral just nodded to her and smiled warmly, like she was trying to convince the fellow bandit that everything was going to be all right. The she took out her own bow and started shooting.
Ammae ran for her life. As she was sprinting by the trees, she could hear the bandits shout at each other to go to the clearing. Tears appeared in her eyes, she lost her ability to see and tripped over a root. She fell on the ground, rolled by the next tree and cringed. A group of men passed by her hide. The bandit stood up short after and started running again.
Kestral shot down four men before they reached her. She was outnumbered. They tied her. Someone punched her in the stomach, another one in the face. She could feel the blood in her mouth.
One of the men took off his cape and looked at the Knight. He reached to her neck and ruptured a golden locket.
Alton's smile suddenly made Kestral horrified.
CHAPTER 1: TRUST
The Vestholm main marketplace was actually called The Dario Square, but nobody really used that name, except maybe for a couple of workaholic administrative officers, who tended to use it in their reports, confusing the other officers, the Knights and even the Queen herself.
The people living in Vestholm had their own names for places around the city. The urban legends grew through the years, and like the Dario Square's, the same fate met the streets, taverns and even the city wall towers. The Western Gate, that would once be called The Sunset Portal, now was – prosaically – The Fish Passage. It was the only gate to the Vestholm Harbor, so the change in the name was quite quick. The tavern southeast to the main Storehouse, standing proudly for twenty years now and still owned by the same Owden family was actually named The Swine's Head by Grandfather Owden, but the inhabitants preferred The Drunk Violin, as the string quartet usually playing in the inn were already intoxicated before they even started reaching for their instruments.
As for the Dario Square, it was just natural, that all the people – either the city citizens or the visitors – called it The Marketplace. The large, round clearing in the city forest, built with grey cobblestone, was always full of people, no matter what time of day it was. The warm summer nights even encouraged the inhabitants to leave their homes and celebrate under the glowing stars. The fountain in the centre with the statue of Dario on it was once the only source of water in the area, but now it mainly served adecorative purpose.
From his office's windows Elias could see the marketplace. There was a Harvest Festival going right now, so the place was even more crowded than usual, full of merchants, performers and commoners, even though it was sunset already. Before the merchant even realised, he had spotted three pickpockets trying to make their living in their own way. He scolded at himself in his thoughts. A deviation coming from his profession. He could see a thief through before he even made his first move, some said.
Elias heard a knock on the door. He looked at the clock hanging on the wall - it was exactly half past four.
"Come in," he said, already knowing who it was.
Hakim slipped quietly through the door, looking like he was trying to blend into the surroundings and become invisible.
"Good afternoon, Elias," he greeted his fellow Knight.
"Hello there, Hakim," the merchant replied.
"Is there any …"
"… news? No."
He could hear the Southerner sigh with disappointment. "But the intelligence reports have not come yet," he added quickly.
A spark of hope appeared in Hakim's eyes and then disappeared. "Isn't Lady Kestral responsible for receiving those intelligence letters in person?"
"Not if she is out for longer than two weeks," Elias answered. "The intelligence is too important to be hidden for longer than a fortnight; it doesn't matter who it is meant to be for."
Hakim's eyes narrowed.
"Don't look at me like that." The merchant shrugged. "I keep to those rules."
"No, I did not mean to question your obedience to the correspondence division guidelines," the Southerner replied, waving his hands. "I was just wondering ... How long has Kestral been gone?"
"Let me see." Elias sat at his desk and opened one of the drawers. He took out a couple of envelopes out, opening them one by one and reading the contents. "The last letter, addressed to me, surprisingly, came on August twenty-first. Nothing unusual, just the storehouse supplies note. She was, after all, sent there to prepare the city of Steinberg for the winter."
"Today is September seventh. Kestral has not given a sign of life for almost 20 days and nobody is concerned?"
"Well, that is an improvement," the merchant said without surprise. "At the beginning she wouldn't contact us for months."
Another knock on the door interrupted them as one of Elias' men came in, handling him two letters.
"Thank you, Leonardo," the Knight replied and looked at the envelopes. "That one is addressed for you in person." He gave the letter to Hakim.
It was light and thin, too thin to be something with connected to intel. Hakim opened it and took out a single note. The letter was short, but Hakim saw it as if it was burning through the piece of paper.
Don't make any sudden moves or shout. Kestral is in great danger.
A miracle stopped the Southerner from showing his emotions.
The Bloody Captain was a tavern near the Vestholm Port, a few miles past the city walls. A fifteen minute walk. Hakim was forced to leave his horse in the royal stables, as his mare was easily recognised.
The Knight looked different. His usual black and gold robes had disappeared, replaced by ones resembling the local manner of dressing. Hakim was feeling strange, wearing leather trousers, a shirt covered with a sleeveless jacket. Although he found a hood to hide his tattoos - they would give him away easily.
He stepped through the inn door and looked around at the guests. The man he was looking for was right where expected, sitting at the corner table. Although Hakim could not see his face – it was hidden under a hood - he knew this was the one.
The Knight sat down next to the man.
"Long time, no see, Wisey," Hawker said.
"The circumstances are, as always, charming," the Southerner replied with irony.
"Spare me the formal greeting pleasantries," the bandit murmured with a grimace. "We've got much bigger problems on our shoulders."
"It is not me you have to warn about that. But first things first. You intercepted the intelligence report and replaced the actual information with your own," Hakim reached towards Milo. "Now, I must ask you to return that report to me."
"Certainly." Hawker took the paper from one of his pockets. "It's the part of the problem."
The seal on the envelope was broken. Hakim raised his eyebrows, making Hawker shrug.
"I knew what was inside anyway," he said. Who?
The Knight took the letter and started reading.
From The Vixen to Lord Eagle
Location: Mah-ra Sal Desert, Al-Hadr Village
Date: August twenty-fifth
My Lord, I bear most disturbing news.
On August twenty-fourth, prisoners Kassandra and Iulius of Soloire were found dead in their prison. The guards on duty were also found dead. The bodies and evidence of the assassination were discovered on my daily check on August twenty-fifth. After my investigation, I presume the following:
I suspect the assassins came in the dark of the night. They must have been informed of our troops' positions and I it seems certain they had a detailed plan of the attack. Six of our men were killed by precise arrow shots. The three inside were found with slit throats, meaning they probably were taken by surprise. Kassandra and Iulius were not killed in their cells, but their bodies were found in the corridor. There are signs of a struggle, which leads me to assume the following scenario: both siblings expected the assassins to be their saviours, or were tricked into believing it. As the prisoners were freed from the cells, they might have realised something was wrong. Evidence suggests they were highly outnumbered and lacking weapons, nullifying their chance of escape. Kassandra and Iulius died from various knife stabs which suggest they may have attacked or tried to escape the assassins.
It seems likely that the intruders planned to drag the siblings out to the desert, then discard them and bury the bodies, so they would never be found. This would have lead us to believe the Eastern Raiders had escaped. But as the assassins were forced to kill both Iulius and Kassandra back in the prison, there was no way of covering the evidence of the assassination, and so - no use burying the bodies on the desert.
I will keep you informed of this matter, My Lord, as I search for more information.
Hakim raised his eyes from the letter and looked at the bandit.
"I imagine there is more to this matter than meets the eye. Correct?"
"Certainly," Milo replied, sarcastically mimicking the Knight. He leaned on the table, closing the gap between his face and Hakim's. "Doesn't it make you wonder where my sister is right now?"
"It makes me even more concerned," the Southerner answered quietly.
"Well, no wonder," Hawker murmured. "Do you trust me?"
"And right now?"
"I don't seem to have any other choice but to trust you," Hakim said.
"I'm running out of options," Hawker stated. "As much as I would love to keep you Knights out of this, I just can't cover this for much longer, and that's why I need your help."
"What happened exactly?" the Southerner asked.
"Not here. Not now." the Assassin replied. "If you want to help Kestral, you will have to keep the Knights calm until she comes back. Make up some cover story. Fake a letter from her. You know what I mean."
"You misunderstand." Hakim's voice became harsh. "If Kestral is in any kind of trouble, then it should be the Knights who help her."
"Look." Hawker was now more serious than ever. "There is nothing you Knights can do to help her. You can only make it worse!"
"Worse?" the Southerner replied calmly. "And who exactly is responsible for putting Kestral in danger in the first place?"
That was too much. Hawker flattered himself that he could take an insult, but implying that he'd put his sister in danger was going too far.
The younger man stood, diving for the Janubian's throat. Hakim reacted without thinking. He threw himself sideways, sending his chair flying, then rolled under the nearest table. Its occupants leaped up, yelling indignantly.
Hakim ignored their protests, crawling out the other side and scrambling up. Hawker streaked towards him. He sidestepped neatly and the boy slammed into the table behind him, shattering the entire piece of furniture. Hakim winced despite himself.
"Hawker, this is unnecessary –"
"Shut up," the boy grunted, throwing himself towards Hakim.
This time he wasn't fast enough. Both combatants hit the flagstone floor, struggling with more fury than dignity. Hakim was dimly aware of shouts around them, some encouraging, some angry.
He aimed a solid punch at Hawker's jaw. The boy pulled back and shuffled away a few steps, dodging a group of men who appeared to be placing bets. Hakim grimaced, automatically pulling his hood lower. It would not be good if he was recognised.
The younger man charged again. Hakim attempted to dodge, almost cannoned directly into a fleeing customer, then fell over the chair he'd upended earlier. He stepped to his feet again in one smooth motion, rubbing his shoulder gingerly – then dived for his opponent.
They crashed to the floor again, tumbling across the tavern, throwing wild blows in any way they could manage. Hakim managed to catch Hawker squarely in the jaw, and received a punch to the gut in return. They were surprisingly even, all things considered.
A sharp kick from Hawker sent Hakim rolling again. He knocked into a chair with a gasp, then hauled himself to his feet, breathing heavily. His hood had fallen back; he yanked it quickly over his head.
Hawker stumbled up, leaning on a table, watching him steadily. Some of the fury had died from his eyes. Neither of them said a word; even if they had, the roars of the inn's patrons would have drowned it out.
The assassin whirled and stalked from the Bloody Captain. Hakim followed, ignoring the disappointed murmur of the crowd.
"Can you, please, tell me what exactly happened to Kestral?" the Southerner asked, as they both got out on the road.
"No. But I can assure you, it is ... not a job for a Knight," the Assassin replied.
"I want in," Hakim said, after they walked some distance in total silence. "Just me. Not as a Knight."
Hawker spluttered. "You are a Knight. It's not something you can ... leave for a time."
"As far as I know, Kestral is also a Knight."
"Kestral is a bandit."
"Kestral was a bandit."
"Well, then her past has suddenly become her nightmare," Hawker murmured.
"It is Alton, isn't it?" Hakim asked. "He wants revenge. I want to help Kestral. Alton is the Knights' enemy. The Assassins' as well, I heard."
The bandit stopped.
"You are one determined guy" he frowned, looking at his companion. "You want in? All right, but remember - you play by my rules from now on. We do things my way. Meet me tomorrow at the Northern Gate. At dawn. And make sure to find some proper excuse for Kestral's disappearance."
"I am certain I will," Hakim replied and turned around to walk towards the city.
"Oh, and another thing," Hawker called, making the Southerner turn around. "Do you remember those lockets Kes took from Iulius and Kassandra back when we caught them?"
Hakim nodded in reply.
"Kestral had one of them with her," the Assassin continued. "But I need that other one. Do you know where to find it?"
Hakim stood silent for a moment, thinking of a golden medallion hidden under his clothes.
"No, I am sorry. It was ... a bandit matter."
Then he turned around and left.