'And this was so close to being an uneventful trip, too.' Coen frowned to himself as he trudged through the forest. Six months of nothing, or almost nothing. A nice enough calm, broken only by a few Sandoran rogues coming down from the mountains and wandering too close to the city, not realizing they would have to contend with an entire company of knights. Easy enough trouble to deal with. But now, the day before they were to return to Bale, real, dangerous trouble.
Thieves caused headaches from time to time in the western forests of Serdio, though they were usually kept at bay by the presence of the town guards. Usually. Until the past few days, which had seen the knights' own supplies raided. Entire day packs had disappeared at first, then the more precious supplies, such as medicines and equipment needed to repair minor damage to clothing and armor.
Bad enough there was a thief who was not fazed by even the king's knights. Worse was that last night, the thief had found their cache of magic vials, those combustible mixes of magic and chemistry used in battle. They were dangerous and unpredictable enough in the hands of someone trained to use them, but to a person desperate-or greedy-for money, the pretty sum such items could fetch may just outweigh the danger of transporting them. A decision that had, on more than one occasion, proven disastrous to the thief involved...and everyone in his vicinity.
Coen felt a muscle in his face twitch. He did not want to have to explain a city damaged by a burnout or black rain to the king. Or worse, to the First Knight.
He suddenly froze. Just ahead, he could hear something moving about, lightly crunching dead leaves underfoot. The soft clink of vials rolling into each other echoed through the trees. Coen winced, expecting his life to end right then in a burst of white-hot flames or soul-sucking darkness...
But the glasses did not break. No flames or darkness jumped up to claim his life. Once he had his racing heart under control, he cautiously crouched and shifted forward for a better look.
'So this is the thief, huh?'
A small, slender-bodied girl was pushing around the day packs, her wild rust-red hair falling into her face as she intently focused on the pack's contents. It was difficult for Coen to tell exactly how old the girl was, blocked as his view was by the trees and forest undergrowth, but she was certainly younger than himself. Young enough to lack the understanding that stealing magic from the king's knights was about to land her in deep trouble indeed.
Coen narrowed his eyes, his right hand gripping his sword's hilt tightly. The girl did not seem to notice him as she pulled items from the pack, setting them to one side or the other, or completely discarding them in some odd pattern the knight couldn't discern. Judging by the piles of things strewn about her, she had done this to every pack she had pilfered.
The girl's head suddenly shot up, and her movements ceased. Coen likewise paused, hand still on his sword. He hoped he would not have to fight this girl; she lacked weapons, from what he could see, but he knew better than to underestimate anyone who could steal from the knighthood without leaving a single trace of herself behind, not even a glimpse of herself to a witness.
She turned her head ever-so-slightly, listening to the forest.
The knight shifted his weight slowly, trying to ease muscles that burned as he held his position.
Something beneath his boot cracked.
Immediately the girl turned her attention to him, ghostly gray eyes piercing through the dim light of the forest, staring at him in shock.
The girl was off like an arrow, her stolen prizes forgotten. Her small size allowed her to dodge trees and leap over underbrush as easily as if she was taking a leisurely stroll down garden path.
"Stop!" Coen shouted after her, knowing full well she would do anything but. He pushed himself up and into a run. He was not as agile as the girl, but his longer stride made up for the distance she had gained.
She raced down a small hill, then the sound of her footsteps stopped. Coen caught up with her in time to see her in mid-leap over a deeply-carved stream bed. He jumped after her.
Her smaller size proved to be her downfall as she fell short of the opposite bank, her legs not long enough to reach across the gap. She instead hit the muddy embankment halfway down, then slid the rest of the way to the stream bed, which was reduced to a mere muddy flat by the lack of recent rains.
Coen, on the other hand, did reach the other bank, and quickly dropped down to the stream bed in a more dignified manner, landing next to the girl. With a smooth motion, he drew his sword and drove its point into the ground, mere hair-breadths away from her head. She gasped and gave him a frightened look, gray eyes wide. He merely glared down at her. "Should have thought about this before you stole from the king's knights," he said in a low voice.
The next thing he knew was a sharp pain in the back of his head, and the sensation of flipping over a few times. Then he realized he was on his back in the mud, something was pressing down on his chest, and his sword was definitely not in his hands. He forced himself to open his eyes and found himself staring into the face of an enraged woman, whose clenched fist was about to make contact with his head.
He jerked his leg up, his knee connecting with the woman's side. She gave a grunt of pain, flinching, the small movement just enough to save Coen the pain of being punched in the face as the woman's fist went too high. It was also enough to shift the woman's weight off him, allowing him to roll aside and jump up to defend himself. He instantly regretted the suddenly movement as his head spun, but as his attacker was still recovering herself, he had a spare momement in which to regain his bearings.
The woman was not very tall, he realized, but strong-looking, and her clothes were nondescript but functional. A wilderness traveler, perhaps. Or a thief who was on the run. After another moment, the woman stood, arms held in a protective stance; the two of them tensed as they sized one another up.
'Her eyes look familiar...' That was all Coen had time to think before she came at him again, moving swiftly and very much with the intention of hurting him. He side-stepped; she was prepared for this and twisted to meet him. She ducked just in time to avoid connecting with one of his own well-aimed punches. Again, the woman stepped back to assess the situation.
Something glinted in the corner of Coen's vision, and he glanced at it. His sword lay not too far off in the stream bed. He glanced back at the woman, who was still raring to fight.
She lunged for him.
He dropped down, diving for his sword. He managed to get his hand around the grip and twisted himself back around to face his attacker. He raised his sword arm to defend himself, only to have the flat of the weapon pressed against his chest as he was once again pinned on his back. The woman leaned her full weight against him as she wrapped both her hands around his wrist, forcing the blade up, dangerously close to Coen's throat.
'I'm going to die...I'm going to die...' He tried to push back, but the woman was surprisingly strong.
The woman seemed to be waiting. Waiting for Coen to realize exactly how angry she was before she delivered a final blow. Her green eyes seemed to bore into him, a cold rage unlike anything else...unlike anything...except...
He had seen that exact expression before, that cold rage that made a certain knight of Basil more frightening to him than a thousand Sandoran troops. But this woman was not that knight.
Glimpses of memories suddenly flashed through Coen's mind. No, she was not the First Knight. But perhaps...just maybe...
A little girl sitting on the edge of the Slambert fountain.
"...Niira." He could barely manage a whisper.
Silence. Even the forest seemed to hold its breath.
Coen felt despair rise in him. 'It's not her...I'm going to die now...'
Slowly, she released her grip on his arm and backed away. Coen coughed and shuddered, not realizing he had been holding his breath for so long. He rolled onto his side and wheezed a few times, more from the shock of still being alive than anything else.
Then the woman spoke. "Who are you?" The voice was low, almost snarling, with a heavy accent he couldn't identify.
The knight was finally able to get himself into a kneeling position, hand braced against one knee. 'Is it really her? But she's...no.' He set down his sword and gingerly felt his throat. 'No blood. Thank the gods, that was too close.'
"Who are you?" the woman demanded again. "How do you know me?"
'It is her. But that's impossible...it's impossible!' "You're..." He couldn't find a way to form something understandable out of his tangled thoughts.
She was unimpressed, glaring down at him with those cold green eyes, fists still clenched.
'But she's right here in front of me. Her father would...what would he do?' "Your father...he..."
She snarled suddenly, a sound that was more animal than human. "What do you know of my father?"
"Sir Lavitz...First Knight of Serdio," he ventured cautiously, still not wanting to believe she was really here.
It took a moment for Coen to figure out the tone in her voice. She was correcting him. "Serdio," he insisted.
She clearly didn't believe him.
"You've been gone a long time." 'So long that I had...almost forgotten, almost hidden those memories away for good.' Something was tugging painfully at his heart. He looked down at the ground, hoping to hide any sign of his thoughts that might be showing on his now-muddied face.
Niira was silent for a very long time. Somewhere nearby, the small pale-eyed girl could be heard making her way back up the steep bank; her escape was ignored by the other two. Finally, Niira spoke again. "Who are you?" Her voice was no longer threatening, though it was still heavy with suspicion.
'Would she remember me?' "I'm...Sir Coen Verachmenn, of the Third Knighthood."
Her green eyes never strayed from him. Then suddenly, she sprang forward. Coen braced himself.
He was bowled over again, though this time it was not done by fists clenched in anger, but the arms of the woman that suddenly wrapped around his shoulders. "Coen!" The exclamation was muffled, as she spoke it into the ground. "I can't believe...you, of all people!"
'You can't believe it?' "Niira...where have...this whole time!" He could barely get a word out with how tightly she embraced him.
"You got bigger," she said as she released him, sounding almost disappointed. She tucked herself into a crouch, settling back on her heels. "Older?" She was having to hunt for the correct word; it struck the knight as odd to hear that from her. She had a slight scowl on her face, though whether it was due to her inability to speak the language fluently or at Coen's apparently surprising age, he couldn't tell.
Coen made no move to rise; surely he'd just end up back on the ground again. "Fifteen years," he said. He had kept track of the time, every year promising himself he wouldn't continue counting.
Niira looked a bit distressed, as if she hadn't realized exactly how much time had passed. "What are you doing here?" she asked instead of whatever else was on her mind.
"I should ask you that." 'More like, why are you sitting here, alive? You died.'
"I asked first."
He watched her for a moment; she waited patiently, the coldness gone from her eyes, replaced by a distant curiosity. "Someone," he said finally, glancing in the direction of the smaller girl, "was stealing items from the knighthood. I came out to find who and arrest them."
Niira glared in the same direction. "Magic attracts her. I told her to leave alone, but she doesn't listen to me."
"Maybe she'll listen now, eh?" Coen stood, retrieving his sword, wiping it on his pants leg to remove the mud. He was only partially successful at this, given how muddy he himself was now.
"You are still going to arrest her?"
"It's my duty," he answered simply. "Though if you help me return the vials, I may reconsider." 'There's more important things to worry about now.'
Niira called into the forest, speaking a language Coen couldn't name.
A few moments later, several magic vials were flung over the edge of the bank, landing with soft 'plops' in the mud at their feet. Coen hissed and jumped back. "Holy gods!"
"She is mad at you," Niira said, as if he should have expected this. She again called up to the girl. No more vials were tossed at them.
Coen was gingerly picking the glasses out of the mud. "Idiot! She could have killed us!" He carefully, oh so carefully, tucked them into the crook of one arm as he started up the bank. "How many more does she have?"
"I don't know. She won't tell me."
'Great. Unaccounted-for magic vials just sitting around the forest.' He pulled himself over the edge, and turned to offer his hand to Niira, only to find her standing next to him. He stared at her in surprise for a brief moment, then gave a small shrug, lowering his hand as they headed up the hill. "She'd better find them. Or I will arrest her."
The girl was only a short distance in front of them. When she heard Coen's voice, she turned her gray gaze from him to Niira, waiting for an explanation. Niira provided it in that foreign language, which made the girl scowl fiercely before running off once more. "She'll find them," Niira tried to assure Coen. When he didn't answer, she continued speaking. "Where are we going?"
"You still haven't told me what you're doing here." 'And by the gods, why are you alive?' Coen looked at Niira; she had turned her gaze down.
"I don't know," she said softly. "I...wanted to go to Bale. But I couldn't."
"The knighthood's leaving for Bale tomorrow. You can come with us." It was not so much a suggestion as a subtle command. He wasn't about to let her disappear again.
Whatever answers he may have wanted to get from her, she wasn't ready to give them. Instead, she deflected the topic slightly with, "So...you are a knight."
Niira smiled lightly, though other things were obviously clouding her mind. "You always said you would."
He didn't respond. He wasn't sure what he could have responded with. He wasn't sure he could even think of a response; his mind was simultaneously crowded with thoughts and as blank and empty as a snowfield at night. 'I am walking with Niira in the forest. I am talking to her. This isn't possible. This isn't real.'
"Blue is Third Knighthood, yes?"
'She has a good memory,' he thought, surprised. He glanced down at the light leather armor he wore, which would have shown painted blue designs had it not been covered with mud. "Yes."
"You serve under your father?"
'She has too good of a memory.' Coen's jaw tensed, suppressing a sudden wave of anger and guilt. "Once. Not any more."
"Oh. Who leads the knighthood now?"