A Knightly Mission
by Dylan Birtolo
Chapter One: The Man in the Woods
Marra crept forward, easing her weight from her heel onto the flat of her foot, making sure that no branches snapped underneath her weight and betrayed her presence. She held her bow at her side, an arrow nocked in place and locked under her forefinger. It was too early to bring the weapon to bear; the distance was too great. She needed to be closer to make an accurate shot. In front of her, an elk reached down to rip up some grass with his teeth, blissfully unaware of her presence. The animal snorted and jerked its head up.
Marra froze. If she stood still, he might not notice her. The elk looked around and sniffed at the air, its large nostrils flaring. Marra held her breath.
After a few seconds, the animal lowered its muzzle back to the ground and continued to graze. The tension in Marra's shoulders eased as she saw the elk go back to its routine. This was as close as she dared to get. Any closer and she would risk spooking the beast. It had been a long time since she had some fresh hide to tan and she couldn't afford to let this specimen get away. She was already deeper in the Fangwood than she had ever been, and these woods were far from safe, even before the bandits.
Marra pushed the thought from her mind. She didn't have time to worry about that now. She raised her bow and pointed the arrow at her target. In her mind's eye, she pictured the path the arrow would take and where it would sink deep into the elk's flesh. She breathed in deeply and eased the air out. Once she finished exhaling, she drew back to her cheek and loosed the arrow in one smooth motion.
The arrow whistled as it cut through the air and landed with a solid thunk deep in the elk's side just behind his left foreleg. The elk bolted, sprinting forward and crashing through the underbrush without even bothering to look for its attacker. Marra snatched another arrow from the quiver on her hip, but by the time the shaft was nocked, the elk was too deep in the brush for her to have a shot. She kept the arrow in place, but lowered the bow to her side as she walked forward.
Her steps were slow and measured as she followed the elk's obvious trail. There was no need to rush. The wound was deep and she was confident she had pierced the animal's lung. If so, the elk's run would be short and she'd soon be back on her way to her tannery. If not, there was no way she would catch a fleeing elk. Up ahead, the sounds of the animal's mad dash continued, spooking birds out of the trees with the sudden noise.
As she walked, Marra's thoughts fled back to the bandits. They'd been more active recently, even north of the Marideth River. She knew they were Molthuni. Everyone knew it was the Molthuni. But their strong and honorable allies to the north in Lastwall claimed that it was just a simple bandit problem internal to Nimrathas and did not require any intervention on their part. At least that was the story Marra heard the last time she had taken her leather to Tamran. The politics of the situation sickened her. She wished there was something that she could do to chase the Molthuni off, but she wasn't a politician or a noble, and there was little more a tanner could do than help to keep her own home and neighbors safe.
Marra grabbed a fallen piece of wood in her right hand and used it to hack at the branches around her as she walked. With each stroke she remembered the last time the bandits raided her village. She was working in the shop and heard the screams, rushing out still carrying her tongs and carving knife. Four men rode into the village with torches and swords, too well made to be the spoils of scavenging. They trampled anyone too slow to get out of their way. They didn't attempt to make demands; they attacked, threw their torches into whatever flammable roof or crop they could find, and fled. The villagers were lucky and managed to keep the fire from spreading and causing too much damage.
At heart, Marra Silvermoon is no simple tanner.
Up ahead, a loud crash followed by silence signaled the fall of the elk and jerked Marra back to the present. She dropped her stick and picked up her pace. It wasn't long before she came upon the animal collapsed in the dirt. The beast's chest rose and fell as it struggled to breathe, legs twitching across the ground. The arrow had broken off, but Marra could see the wound, the small hole still pouring out blood that bubbled as the elk exhaled. Marra took her knife from her belt and ended the elk's suffering.
She unslung her pack and took out the leather and cord inside. With practiced motions, she created a simple travois and laid it next to the elk corpse. Putting her bow aside, she knelt down next to the corpse and began cleaning it, cutting off large strips of skin to treat back at her workshop and large strips of meat for food. She wrapped the meat inside the skin to protect it before she laid it on the sled in pieces. There was no way she could drag the entire corpse. A lot of it would go to waste, but she would take back as much as she could drag.
Cleaning the animal was difficult work and it wasn't long before sweat beaded on her brow. She reached up and brushed the back of one arm across it, careful to make sure none of the blood dripped into her eyes. As she lowered her arm, she heard a low rumbling growl off to her left. Marra flicked her eyes in that direction, not wanting to make any sudden motions.
Between a few of the trunks she saw a group of three wolves stalking forward, the one in front growling as it peeled back its lips. Marra glanced back at her bow, useless on the ground a few feet away. Her fingers flexed on her carving knife. It wasn't much, but it was all she had. The wolves took a few more steps and then froze, the one in front looking bigger as its fur stood up. Yet it did not advance, and the others didn't circle around.
Wolves were something she knew, having watched them and dealt with them all her life. Marra's legs tensed in anticipation as she slowed her breathing, paying attention to the sounds around her while she unfocused her eyes from the wolves in front of her. They were not the real threat. They were the distraction, there to keep her from running away.
A snap from behind burst her into motion. She pivoted on her right foot, moving out of the way and leading with her knife in a vicious spin. The wolf that charged her from behind tried to spring back when she moved, but it wasn't fast enough. Her blade cut deep into the animal's shoulder, tearing through the flesh and making it yelp as it retreated from her attack.
Now that she was moving, Marra looked around and saw five wolves surrounding her, including the one she had just injured. It was the largest and she guessed it would be the leader. Despite its injury, it stalked back and forth in front of her, just out of her reach. Every few steps it would lunge forward and snap, but spring back before she had a chance to attack. The other wolves moved around to circle her and the fresh elk carcass.
Marra knew she needed to end this quickly. There was no way she'd stand for long against a pack of wolves. Her only hope was to deal with the alpha and hope the others fled. She took a step back, then another, turning to make sure she never left her back to one wolf for too long. Every time she turned away, one of them would snap forward, never close enough to connect but getting closer and bolder with each lunge. Out of the corner of her eye, Marra saw her bow resting on the ground next to her foot. She dug her boot into the soft ground, getting it underneath the bow.
Marra spun again, this time turning to face the alpha. She threw her knife at the beast, but it jumped to the side before the weapon came close. She hadn't expected to hit. Even before the wolf's feet touched the ground again, she kicked the bow up, catching it in her left hand. She whipped an arrow out of her quiver and nocked it, pulling back and letting fly in the space of a breath. The arrow slammed into the wolf's chest and the beast let out a sound that was both a howl of pain and yip of surprise. Marra spun, getting a second arrow ready and launching it at one of the wolves behind her. The missile streaked past the wolf, but was close enough to graze its skin as it passed. Marra didn't wait to see animal's reaction, spinning with a third arrow ready to face the next closest attacker.
The wolves turned and fled as Marra loosed her third arrow, striking a wolf in the backside. It ran faster, trying to catch up to its pack mates. Marra watched them run, ready to attack again if they turned, but having no interest in pursuing them. She already had her prize and it was more meat and pelt than she could carry back.
Once the wolves were gone, Marra reclaimed her dagger and rushed to finish the job of collecting as much as she could drag. She kept her bow close to her body and tried to stay alert to the forest around her. It wasn't long before she had the travois loaded as much as she dared. She cleaned off her blade before tucking it back into her belt and used the dirt and fallen leaves to clean her hands as best she could. Satisfied with her prize, Marra grunted as she picked up the front end of the travois and started the long trek back home.
It was slow going, bringing the meat and hide back through the woods. Marra took a different path, one that would bring her straight back rather than following the game trails like she did on her way in. Her path was not subtle or quiet, but she wasn't concerned about other predators. Most of them resided deeper in the woods and each step brought her close to safe territory.
So it shocked her into stillness when she heard a loud crash in front of her. Marra rushed to unhitch herself from the travois, trying to make sure she could fight or flee depending on the situation. She had just gotten out of the harness when a group of three elk cut across her path and then bounded away. That didn't make sense. They would have been able to smell the elk carcass and would never have run toward her, unless something scared them enough to override their innate precautions. Marra crept forward, curious to know what could have spooked them.
As she peered around a tree, she saw what had made the animals panic. A man in armor rested against the trunk of a tree, sprawled out as if he had fallen there. His chainmail shirt was torn in a few pieces, but the solid breastplate was still intact. He had engraved leather pauldrons and leather armor on his arms as well. A sword lay in the dirt near him, just a few inches from his hand. He did not appear to be breathing.
Marra walked up to him, looking around for any signs of what might have killed him, but the only thing she saw was the trail he carved getting to this place before collapsing. When she got next to his body, she reached down and held her hand in front of his face. He wasn't breathing.
When she rolled the man onto his back, she saw why—he had a large hole in his chainmail on his side just below his breastplate. The wound smelled of rotted flesh and Marra had to hold her breath to calm her churning stomach.
For several moments she knelt there, looking over the corpse. When her gaze fell upon his belt buckle, she gasped in surprise. It was engraved with the symbol of the knights of Lastwall.
Coming Soon: An unexpected knight in an all-new Pathfinder Tales serial by Dylan Birtolo.
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.