Chapter Two:
Royal Rouges

   Her eyes widen as from one side a band of bandits ambushed them. They had on heavy fur, like mountain men; their skin had a pale, olive complexion and each of their eyes read terror to Yves. The archer dropped from the tree, with a sly grin on his face.
  Someone emerged from behind the large bandits, a lean man with a long goatee and menacing black eyes. Physically he wasn’t as impressive as his larger brethren, but his look was fierce and commanding. A faint scar was carved on his forehead, a single letter—‘M’.  It was the mark that the Order branded on mages.
  This rouge mage circled around the cowering trio, as the lanky archer held his arrow directly at Yves, the only one who was armed. The mage wasn’t in heavy furs like the others; he was in an elegant, purple robe. His long, slender fingers stroke his goatee as he watched them closely.
  He spoke in a strange dialect that Yves couldn’t figure out, “You know who we are?”
  Syam swallowed the lump in his throat, “B-Bandits.”
  The mere word made the group laugh. Their leader spoke with his sharp canines shown, “We are more than simple bandits, boy. We are raiders,” he reached for Yves’ short bow. She quickly retracted her hand. His menacing eyes narrowed, “That’s a nice bow, girl. What’s an innocent maiden doing with a weapon like that?”

  Yves looked him in the eyes; she tried to keep herself courageous. “It’s my bow. So, let us pass you thieving dogs.”
  The twins casted a questionable and uneasy look at Yves. The leader smacked Yves across her face, the sound echoing off in the air. Yves stumbled back into Trystan, who caught her. She looked up, an angry red imprint formed on her face. The sound of swords being pulled out of sheathes filled the air. The three huddled together, frightened. None of them could form a scream or a call for help, if there was any.
  The mage shook his head with a cocky grin, “To think I promised myself this morning I’d go the day without killing anyone.” He tilted his head and placed his hand on his chin, “Then again I could just have my band of brothers here do all the work and I wouldn’t break my promise. You boys don’t mind having all the fun, do you?”

  With their weapons raised, a cheer filled the air in unison. A call for cold blood. Fear gripped the young trio as they remained huddled. Yves kept her eyes on the mage, waiting for him to give the signal.
 However, his eyes betrayed him and he became focused on something behind the three. Yves was brave enough to look back and see the archer trying to gasp for air. An arrow was sticking out from his neck! After the blood spat out of his mouth, the lanky archer fell to his knees and then his body hit the ground.

  The mage’s jaw dropped open, “How in the—“

  He was cut off when Yves took the rope with the rocks that the twins made out of her robe and smashed one of the ends at his head, as hard as she could. Sadly that was only able to make the mage stumble back into the arms of one of his brethren. Before he could react, a new horde emerged from the dark forest.
 The twins and Yves were trapped; one on side is the runaway mage and his collection of bandits. On the other side is a small motley crew, led by two strange men. One was a bulky mountain of a man dressed in light armor, his chest plate shown a paw on the crest and held a long bow; the other was a lean, shorter handsome man. His short-medium length black hair was straight, and he wore no armor, except for two steel wrist bands that engulfed his forearms. Yves felt some sort of comfort as she gazed at his radiant gray eyes. The lean man stepped toward them and drew his sword.
  The entire sword gave a golden gleam, with a wolf’s head on either side of the blade handle. He took one last step as the bandits kept their eyes on them. Yves was the only one able to watch, as the twins cowered under her.
  The handsome stranger spoke with a commanding air in his voice, “Leave now, bandits. Or else.”

  The mage regained his stance and stepped closer to the stranger. Yves noticed that behind the stranger and the bulky knight the motley crew was not impressive in size or in weapons compared to the bandits. They had hoes and sickles; this group was nothing more than a bunch of villagers and farmers! 
  The mage replied, “Or else what? You lost the element of surprise. I can see you now.”
  A grin formed on the stranger’s face, “Did you just accept the ‘or else’ offer?”
  The mage pulled out a ritual dagger, jagged and stained with blood. The sharp canines of the mage gleamed as it was clear the bandits would fight.

  The bandits rushed in as the farmers and villagers rushed right back at them. The bandits were caught off guard, thinking the unimpressive motley crew would disperse with a simple roar. Using the element of surprise, those with sickles cut the heads off the bandits with one fluid motion. The other bandits swung their long swords blindly into the thick. Only a few villagers were struck by the swords, their chest turned crimson.
  The bulky knight placed his longbow down and removed a heavy, spiked mace from his side. He swung the mace, landing a hit in the face of a random bandit.

  The two leaders were circling each other. The mage feinted a stab and the stranger wasn’t being fooled. It was clear this young man was properly trained. Yves was curious as to how. Only the Order of the Knights of the Last Days were trained in this sort of combat. But it was clear he wasn’t a Knight, he was with the commoners.
 When the mage tried to send another fake attack, the stranger sliced through the mage’s abdomen and quickly jerked back. The mage gasped and fell to his knees, trying to hold his entrails from falling out.
  The stranger looked at his own brethren, who were making the large bandits commit a hasty retreat. The mage bellowed in anger and pain. He was being left for dead by his own horde! He doubled over on the ground, the blood slowly pouring out onto the soil.
   The twins slowly looked up and realized they missed the whole scene! Yves kept her eyes on the stranger as he spoke something in a strange language over the body of the mage. He looked back up and walked over to the trio, being closely followed by the large knight. The rest of their group scattered around, relaxing after the skirmish. The stranger stopped right in front of them and gave a small bow.

  “Are you three uninjured?”

  Yves coughed, “Yes, we’re fine. Thank you. If you wouldn’t have shown up those bandits would have had our heads.”

  Syam found his voice, “Who exactly are you?”

  “I am Prince Merrick; this is my trusted companion and loyal bodyguard Ethelwulf.” 
  Yves pieced it together. He was trained in combat because he was royalty, not because he was a Knight! She let out a sigh of a relief. “Where is your kingdom? Are those your royal subjects?” she asked hastily.

  Trystan covered her mouth, “Please excuse her, your highness. We don’t normally have royal visitors, or any visitors.”

  Prince Merrick gave a smile, “It is fine. My kingdom was Hazar-Shual, clear on the other side of the island. My grandfather refused to pay tribute to those rats the Order of the Knights of the Last Days. So they spread rumors and terrorized our main traders on the main lands until my kingdom slowly died off. I was next to become king when the mages tried to come back into power. My father was sacrificed and the castle I grew up in was demolished by some unseen creature. Ethelwulf and I are the last remnants of our kingdom.”
The trio remained silent. So the Prince continued.  “I have a vision. I believe that there can be a world where the people can live in peace amongst each other. No more monarchies, no more mages using dark magic to oppress the masses, no more twisted inventors using war machines to kill slews of defenseless citizens. Let every village live in peace and liberty with one another. That is my vision.”
  Yves was left jaw dropped. The twins looked at each other and blinked. The bodyguard, Ethelwulf, remained silent, his arms crossed. Syam spoke up, “You should come with us to our village and speak to our families. I’m sure a few able men would be more than happy to join your quest.”
  “Yeah, sounds fun,” Trystan said; Syam nodded.
  Prince Merrick casted a playful smile to the twins. “More fun than becoming sloth-like in a large castle, I can assure you. Please, lead the way to your village.”

 ———————————————————————————-

   The trio led the rest of the horde, headed by Prince Merrick and Ethelwulf, to the entrance of the village. The village wasn’t small, but it wasn’t big enough to be considered a town either. It ran and operated quite well for the limited resources they had.
 The border on the side the group came up to was walled with trees closely tied together. On the other side, Yves and the twins knew, was a platform in which the watchmen stood watch.

  The watchmen, equipped with metal-tipped arrows and long bows, closely watched the unknown group led by the familiar trio. The village of Huldefolk grew silent as the strangers walked to the center of their midst, led by daring maiden Yves.
  From the blacksmith forge the blacksmith emerged, followed by a bald, aged, darkly tanned man in a white robe. Chief Satu was a humble man; the position of leader of the village was bestowed to him when the previous chief died in his sleep. Since then Satu has guided the village of Huldefolk to a degree of prosperity. 
   Satu spoke with great care, “Young Yves, why did you bring outsiders into our village?”
  “Chief Satu,” replied Yves, after rising up. “If it wasn’t for these outsiders Trystan, Syam and I would have been killed by a murderous band of bandits. They saved our lives.”

  A whisper washed over the spectating crowd. Chief Satu looked up at Prince Merrick, their eyes locking. Yves turned to see her father fighting through the crowd to find her. She recognized him with his thick and burly beard. Other than his beard, he was a forgettable character in the throng of villagers, at least to Yves. He embraced her when he finally got through. The twins’ mother, a large woman, broke free and embraced the twins as well.
  Chief Satu broke the silence, “Thank you stranger. You are welcome to stay in our village.”
  Prince Merrick nodded, “Thank you for your hospitality. But I’m afraid my revolutionaries and I must continue our crusade.”
  The Chief’s thin eyebrows raised, “Crusade?”

  “I am Prince Merrick of the fallen kingdom Hazar-Shual. I am leading a crusade against the tyranny of the Order. These men behind me are mere villagers, farmers, fishermen; they are the commoners of the commoners. They believe, with me, that they could be more, that if they stand up to the imperial tyrants and even the dangerous mages and misguided inventors; that their children can live in a land of liberty.”

  Yves’ father motioned to the Prince’s bodyguard, “And what of him? Surely he’s more than just a fisherman.”

  Prince Merrick flashed a coy smile, while the large Ethelwulf remained silent, his arms folded. “A very good observation, sir. No, I’ll have to admit Ethelwulf is not a common man. He comes from a long line of knights in my kingdom, a specific bloodline that almost resembles my own,” Merrick looked up at the towering Ethelwulf, “So close that some might even venture to the conclusion that we are kin.”

  Ethelwulf gave a slight huff of amusement. Prince Merrick looked up at the sky; the sun had lowered greatly since he saved the three young friends. Merrick then looked back at the Chief, “On second thought, Chief Satu, I think my men and I would take you up on the hospitality.”

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