In which Liselle and Vevin meet Reben and Teluith.
They spent the nights at inns along the way, but made good time. Midday on the fifth day after leaving the campground, Vevin motioned for them to stop. “I smell people ahead. They need to take baths.”
Liselle looked at the trees bordering the highway. There was less activity among the wildlife than usual. Patchy clouds in the sky didn’t give any indication of releasing moisture. The heat of the day had made Liselle sleepy and she realized that the flowers were warning her of danger ahead. “It’s a trap. There are people waiting to ambush us.”
“Shall I go full dragon and take a stroll through their ambush?” Vevin grinned hopefully.
Liselle laughed. “No. I want to talk to them and find out why they’re ambushing us.”
Vevin threw his hands in the air. “What a ridiculous idea! What if they try to kill us?”
With a casual gesture, Liselle cast a spell of protection that strengthened her skin and made her mind immune to intrusion. It also created a barrier against magical attacks. “Then I’ll have to sit on them while asking the questions.”
Vevin didn’t need to do a protection spell as he had the same defenses naturally. “Fine. We’ll do it your way. I’m not hiding myself this time though.”
Liselle rode forward, ready for trouble. It didn’t take long for them to be stopped by trees across the highway. It looked as though they had been dragged there by horses, judging from the hoof prints in the dirt. “Oh no,” Liselle said in a loud, flat voice. “Trees have fallen across the road. Whatever shall we do?”
Vevin held his arms up and looked to the sky. “Where’s a beaver when you need one?”
A man wearing a mask and wide brimmed hat with a turkey feather in its band came out from the woods and jumped on one of the trees across the road. He tripped on a branch before gaining his balance. “Stay where you are, travelers!” he yelled in a tinny voice. With a clumsy move, he drew his sword and pointed it at Vevin and Liselle. “You must pay highway tax to pass.” There was nothing about him to inspire the belief he was dangerous.
“Very well, I shall pay you two sticks,” Liselle suggested. “A fair tax, methinks.”
“Oh yes, very fair,” Vevin agreed.
The man stared at her to discern if she was serious. “You will pay in gold, milady. We’ll start with your jewelry.” He indicated the necklace and earrings she wore.
“But sticks are so much more valuable,” Liselle insisted. “You can use them to make fire, you can use them to beat people with, you can rub them together and you can even use them to make music by banging on hollow logs. I’ll pay you three sticks for your tax. That’s my final offer.” Another trick she had learned from Tathan was that saying outrageous things could throw people off their guard. Vevin was trying to hide giggles behind a hand and was failing. She liked making the dragon giggle.
Confusion ruled the man’s expression. He looked at someone in the trees and shrugged helplessly.
Neither Liselle nor Vevin were surprised when eight poorly-clad bandits with simple weapons slipped quietly out of the woods to surround them. The flowers had informed Liselle that the bandits were waiting and Vevin had his own ways of knowing.
To Liselle’s surprise, a chocolate-skinned woman with sky-blue hair woman came forward. Unlike the other bandits, she was well equipped, wearing brown leather pants and jacket. She wore a white skullcap to protect her scalp from the damage of the sun. A quarterstaff twirled expertly in her gloved hands. She planted one end on the ground and leaned on it while smirking at her new victims.
The woman’s staccato accent was lively and a bit difficult to understand. “Your proposal of sticks, it is more generous than most offers, but it will not be sufficient. You wear such fine jewelry and clothes. Your horses and whatever you have in your packs, they will be of great use to us as well, no?”
The man who had first spoken gave way to her. He had been a decoy, often used by bandits in case their victims decided to kill the leader immediately. It was rarely a job anyone volunteered for.
Vevin turned to Liselle, speaking loudly enough for all to hear. “Remember that I’m allowed to eat thieves.” It was one of the exclusions to the provision in the human-dragon treaty, one Vevin liked to point out whenever anyone dangerous came near Liselle.
“You know I don’t like it when you eat people, darling. It’s messy and the sound of crunching bones gives me the shivers.” Liselle was very thankful that he had never actually eaten anyone.
A dark-skinned wizard slipped out from behind the tree the bandit leader had come from. He wore an earthen-green robe that matched his dark blonde hair and beard. In his hand was a smooth wizard’s staff topped by a circular device with a series of multicolored crystals wrapped in wire. A skullcap identical to the woman’s covered his head. It was an unusual accessory in Soaarth where women preferred bonnets and men enjoyed rounded hats with wide brims.
The wizard’s voice was softer and his accent wasn’t as heavy as the woman’s, though it was from the same place. “Teluith, I think the one might be serious about eating us. There is a spell altering his appearance. They both have magical protections, but I can’t tell you what they are.”
The bandit leader turned her head to speak to him over her shoulder. “Why can you not tell me what they are?”
“The protections are subtle, which indicates great skill.” The wizard’s words made the bandits nervous. Liselle held still so as not to startle someone into doing something stupid.
“Greater skill than your own, Reben?” Teluith’s smirk was gone as she studied Liselle and Vevin carefully. She moved the quarterstaff into a ready position.
Teluith and Reben didn’t look anything like bandits. Liselle had met a group of people in Scinta who had dark skin like the pair. They were originally from the continent of Pomelea over the western ocean. It was a long, difficult journey made by few.
Reben cocked his head in confusion. “You know that my skill is not very good, Teluith.”
Teluith put a hand on her hip. “You must not admit so in front of our guests.”
“We should leave them alone, Teluith. I feel it in my gut. Please trust me on this.” Reben chewed nervously on his lip.
“I trust your feelings, but . . . Very well.” Teluith snapped her fingers and made a gesture. The bandits reluctantly disappeared into the trees with the exception of Teluith and Reben. “Letting valuables go is not in my nature.” The smirk came back to her face. “You two may move the trees blocking this road on your own.”
Liselle concentrated on the trees lying in the road. With a gesture and a breath, they rose into the air and settled in the drainage ditch. The magic use generated mystical winds that affected Liselle, but no one else. Her hair rustled around her face from it. Moving objects took some effort, but she handled it quickly and efficiently.
Teluith darted to the opposite side of the road near were Reben stood. “It seems your gut feelings have saved us again, husband.”
“She didn’t use an incantation or proper gestures. She has power I don’t understand.” Reben fearfully grabbed Teluith’s hand to pull her toward the woods.
“Wait!” Liselle held out an arm. “Please don’t leave. I want to talk to you.” The dark-skinned couple stopped and turned, still holding hands.
Vevin leaned in. “Generally, escaping an ambush like we just did is a good thing. We don’t have to talk to everyone.”
“We don’t want trouble,” Reben said with a wave. “So sorry to disturb you.”
“I just want to talk to you.” Liselle jumped off her horse and gave the reins to Vevin. She walked toward where Reben was struggling to drag his wife away.
Teluith stood her ground. “Why do you want to talk to us? If you wish to stall us so that troops can come to arrest us, it is foolish. There are no soldiers for a day’s travel in either direction.”
Liselle shook her head as she walked to them. “No. I just want to understand why you would rob people. I’m trying to understand why people do bad things to other people.” She stopped when Teluith held up a warning hand.
“Come no closer. I don’t know who you are, but I will fight to the death to protect my people.” Teluith held the staff in a defensive position.
“As will I.” Reben moved his hands and began speaking an incantation. The mystical breeze created affected only him. It gusted his hair and robes.
Liselle waited patiently for the wizard to finish the spell of protection he cast over him and his wife. “I’m not going to fight you. Why are you bandits? Do you like hurting people?”
They looked at each other with frowns and then at her. “Are you serious?” Teluith asked in disbelief. “What sort of question is that?” A few of the other bandits were peering from the woods, worried for their leaders.
Vevin came up behind Liselle. He had dismounted and was leading both of their horses. “Hi there. I’m Vevin. This is Liselle, my mate. I’m very glad I didn’t have to chomp your bones.”
Liselle smacked her head. “How rude of me. I always forget to introduce myself.” She held out a hand in greeting. “It’s very nice to meet you, Teluith, and you, Reben.”
They looked at the hand as though it might be a snake about to bite them. Teluith took it and shook. “I suppose it is nice to meet you too. It will be even nicer if you will hand over that jewelry.”
Liselle laughed and took one of the small pouches she had hidden in her shirt. “I have twenty silver pieces in here. If you answer my questions, I’ll give it to you.”
Teluith licked her lips. “That is not enough to care for this group, but I will take it.” She snatched the purse faster than Liselle could blink. “So you want to know why we became bandits? Very well, I will tell you.”
“Oh good.” Liselle clapped her hands together and gave a little jump. “Do you have someplace where we can sit? Perhaps we can start a fire for some dinner later.”
Reben and Teluith exchanged glances. “I am not certain if the idea to bring you to camp is good.”
“You’re going to end up doing it sooner or later.” Vevin grinned. “Everyone does.”
Liselle thwapped him in the shoulder. “Don’t mind Vevin. If you don’t want to sit down and be comfortable, we can talk on the highway. The wagon train with lots of armed guards that we passed this morning should be here eventually and perhaps they’ll want to join the conversation.”
Reben nodded at Teluith’s quick glance. “They will be here within the hour and we will not have the ability to defeat them without loss of life.”
“We will have company for dinner then.” Teluith smiled mischievously. “You may hand over your horses to my people. They will keep them safe.”
“Anyone who tries to take our horses is going to lose a hand.” Vevin snapped his teeth.
Teluith stepped back in alarm, noticing the sharp teeth for the first time. “What in the world are you?”
“He’s a dragon,” Liselle mentioned casually. “I haven’t fed him yet, so he might find a hand tasty. Perhaps we should just let him handle the horses. You mentioned a camp?”
Teluith looked at the pouch of coins in her hand as though she regretted taking them. But she nodded and gestured for them to follow her.