"Let me see if I understand you right."
Marra paused the work she was doing: attaching a new leather strap to the inside of the pauldron that wasn't frayed and was small enough to fit her arm. She looked at Eron through strands of dark hair that had managed to work free from the leather thong she used to tie it back. Sweat coated her face from the effort of working on the armor, but even though her muscles ached for relief, she couldn't keep the grin from her face.
"You find a dead body in the woods," Eron went on, "and discover that it's a knight of Lastwall, probably a few hours from the main road. So rather than do the sensible thing and bring the body back, or even ignore it completely, you decide to bring the armor back and steal it for yourself? Do you have any idea how disrespectful that is?"
"I buried the body." It was true. Marra felt like it was the least she could do considering the situation. It may not have been the best of graves, but at least the body wouldn't be picked at by scavengers. It seemed a waste to bury the man's equipment with him. Especially since it could be put to much better use.
"Oh, because that makes it all right? As long as you buried the body and said a simple blessing over the gravesite, you can steal his weapons and armor? If anyone finds out, there'll be hell to pay."
"Well then, I guess we'll have to make sure no one finds out."
Marra flashed him a smile and then bent back to the work of attaching the strap. She had never designed or used armor before, but the process was simple when she had a model to go on. And the armor did mostly fit her. She just needed to replace a few straps and a few pieces where the armor had been torn. After that, it would be a simple matter to change some etchings on the leather to alter the look.
Once she was satisfied that the rivet was sufficiently flattened, she lifted up the pauldron and put it on her shoulder. Eron came over with a sigh and checked the strap for her while she held it in place. He knew the drill by now. He took the strap and marked where it touched the buckle. After he finished that, Marra took the pauldron off and punched holes in the strap for the buckle, adding a few to each side of the marking just in case.
"What are you hoping to do with this, anyway?"
"I'm going to use it to deal with the Molthuni bandits."
Eron's mouth hung open as he stood in silence. It was entertaining to see the shock on his face. Even after all the years growing up together, Marra never got sick of causing that look. He shook his head from side to side before he managed to form words again.
"You can't be serious. You're going to ride out and try to track them down? Do you know how crazy you sound right now?"
"You're the crazy one. I'm not stupid and I'm not going to try and chase down an entire bandit camp. That's even if they're here to begin with. They might be crossing over from Molthune every day and then running back home when they've finished harassing us."
"Then how is this going to help? It isn't like you'll be able to wear a suit of armor around town in case of another attack. Even if you could, too many people will ask questions."
Marra hesitated, trying to look like she was too focused on her work to respond immediately, even if it was just measuring and cutting a second strap for the other pauldron. The truth was that she didn't know how Eron would react to the details of her plan. She knew he would call her crazy again, and with good reason. Her idea might be more insane than attempting to find the bandits on her own. But, it was also something she knew she needed to try. If she was successful, she might just be able to convince Lastwall how much her people needed its support and military aid. It was a chance she had to take.
"Remember how I told you that the trail was covered with signs of a large group passing through? It looked like at least twenty horses, and a couple of wagons, too. The trail wasn't that old, so the knight had to have come from that party. Probably got injured, ran into the woods, and got lost. People get lost in Fangwood all the time. So there's probably a whole group of knights heading south. If I can join up with them, I can convince them that the Molthuni are to blame and it isn't just random bandits. And then once they know that, they'll have to report it back home, and Lastwall will have to support us."
"How are you going to get them to listen to you? You're just a tanner."
"Not if I come to them dressed as a knight of Lastwall."
Eron's eyes widened and he whipped his head around as if to make sure no one else was in the room.
"You can't be serious. Please tell me you aren't serious. You know what they'd do to you?"
Marra drew her lips into a tight line. Of course she knew the risk she was taking. But the potential reward of help from Lastwall more than outweighed the dangers of her plan.
"You know damn well that we can't survive if we have to keep dealing with the Molthuni raiding our homes. And who's to say how long until they decide to launch an all-out invasion and take our lands? If Lastwall won't help us, we're dead anyway."
"You're crazy. I can't help you with this. You're going to get killed and I won't be part of it. I can't have you riding off to your own funeral."
Eron pushed away from the table he was leaning against and walked to the door, shaking his head. He reached out and put his hand on the doorknob, but didn't turn it. Marra just watched him, confident that she knew the arguments running through his head. He had to know how important this was and that it might be their best chance to get Lastwall to do something other than make an empty statement of support. Eron's arm tensed, but the door didn't move. With a slight turn to his head he spoke over his shoulder.
"You're really going to do this, aren't you?"
Marra put down her tools and let the pauldron rest on her work bench. She crossed her arms in front of her but kept her voice gentle.
"I need to do this. I need to do something. I can't just sit here and pretend like nothing is wrong and keep burying myself in my work. And like you said, I can't just ride off and go fight the bandits. I'm not stupid. This seems like the best thing I can do to help. And if it means risking my life, I'm not doing any more than anyone else."
"I still say it's stupid and it's going to get you killed. But, I also know how stubborn you can be once you get an idea in your head. You'd make rocks back down."
Eron let his hand slide off the doorknob and turned back to face her. One side of his mouth turned up in a semblance of a grin. It was another look that Marra knew well. He would help her, even if he didn't agree with what she was doing. And she knew she could count on him to keep their secret from the rest of the village. The fewer who knew about her charade, the better.
It took them a few more hours of work, but by the time they were finished, Marra had a suit of armor that would fit her. Her first impression after putting it on was how heavy it felt and how much it slowed her movements. She didn't know if she would be able to wear it for an extended period, but she was committed to her course now. There was no turning back.
After wearing the suit for several minutes and seeing how it affected her movement, Marra took it off and packed it up in her saddlebags. When she brought it out to her horse, she discovered the armor was even harder to carry than it was to wear. She was only able to sling the cumbersome bag up behind her saddle with Eron's help. The sword was too large to fit in the bag, so Marra wrapped it in a cloak and attached it to the side of the saddle. Satisfied that her gear was properly stowed, she filled a smaller bag with some basic trail supplies that should last her for a few days.
Marra and Eron rode out of the village, following the trail that led to the main path skirting the Fangwood's western edge. Once they were out of sight, they pulled to a stop and dismounted. Eron helped her into her armor, attaching the pieces she couldn't reach. Again, once she was fully suited up, she moved around a bit, amazed at how much the metal and leather restricted her. She had expected that, but experiencing it was another matter.
"You sure you want to do this?"
Marra nodded, gripping her saddle as she put her foot in the stirrup. With a grunt and a heave, she pulled herself into the seat. The horse puffed as Marra dropped her heavier weight against his back. She untied the sword, fumbling with the weapon as she tried to slide it into her belt. When it rested there, it pressed up against the horse's back leg and he danced around, trying to move away from the pressure until she removed it.
"Try hanging it on your saddle. That's how I've seen other knights do it."
Marra took his advice, hanging the weapon off the front of her saddle on the left side. It was still within easy reach there, but didn't press up against the horse.
"Told you I need you."
"And I told you that I still think you're crazy for trying this. But please, come back to us. If you change your mind, no one needs to know."
"I'll be fine. I'll show them what's going on."
"And I'll watch the tannery while you're gone and tell anyone who asks that you took a trip to Tamran to work out some deal."
Marra gave him one final smile before turning to the south. She knew she could count on him. In fact, she didn't know what she would have been able to do without him. Especially considering how impossible it was to put the armor on by herself.
She squeezed her horse's sides and he jumped to a light canter. The sudden motion made her lurch before she could compensate for the additional weight. Even riding in armor was different. It took her several strides before she was able to find the rhythm. She was just glad that she hadn't fallen off in front of Eron. Otherwise, he might have physically dragged her back to the village and locked her in her own tannery.
Once she felt like she was able to ride without thinking about it too much, Marra tried to bring her attention to her surroundings. It was difficult, more than she realized. She wasn't prepared for how much noise the armor made when she rode. As she tried to listen for animals or other riders, all she could hear was the jingle of her chainmail. Between that and the pounding of her horse's hooves on the packed dirt, it was impossible to hear anything else. So she focused on keeping to the center of the path.
She brought her horse to a gentle trot and was just beginning to feel a little more comfortable riding in her new gear when a voice rang out from the woods.
"Halt or die!"
Coming Next Week: Peril in the Fangwood in Chapter Three of Dylan Birtolo's "A Knightly Mission."
Dylan Birtolo is the author of the Sheynan fantasy trilogy, as well as numerous short stories in anthologies such as Time Traveled Tales and Human for a Day. Find him online at dylanbirtolo.com.
Illustration by Jacob Walker.