“Why did you steal from us?” Nara asked.
The little girl tightly held something under her ragged clothing, with her delicate fingers dirtied by forest earth. She looked at the woman crouching in front of her, and started to sob.
“You… you wouldn’t let me in,” the girl said. “I wanted to pray for my mama.” She wiped her tears and runny nose on her sleeve, but didn’t let go of what she was holding.
“What’s your name?”
After a moment, she answered quietly, “Ilsa.”
“You stole something very valuable to the temple, Ilsa. I’ll be needing it back now.”
“I can’t. My mama,” said the girl, but couldn’t catch her breathe to say another word.
Nara inched closer towards her, and gently rubbed the girl’s shoulder. She didn’t react.
“There there, everything will be alright. Is your mother sick? We have healers at the temple. I’m studying to be one myself, so maybe I can help. You’ll still need to give me back what you’ve taken, Ilsa.”
The girl’s face was wet with tears, but she calmed down to a series of sniffles. Slowly, she removed the object from under her rags and held it in the light. It was bread, with a small bite in the corner.
“My mama’s not sick. She hasn’t eaten anything since dada died. I’m scared,” she wiped her face again, but tears kept streaming down her face.
Nara took the bread and delicately put it in a small satchel. The Bread of Tranquility, baked specially for the King’s brother, was worth more than its weight in silver.
“The temples are always ready to help those in need. Come back with me, and we’ll get your mother proper food and water. Will you promise to help me find the path to your home?”
Ilsa almost leapt to give a hug to the woman, and they both smiled. But Nara switched her gaze to the scene down the hill, obscured by trees. A terrible sense of unease took hold of her, and she assumed the worst had happened down below.
They were too late.
One of the bandits picked himself up from the ground and collected his axe and round shield lying beside him. His sole remaining friend was on the floor, still too dazed to move. He looked ahead of him, and saw a man in a light robe with only a short spear in his hands. The bandit gripped his axe tightly, and charged at the monk, his battle cry contained by the vast forest that flanked him.
Tarnan pulled the surrounding air into a tight, spinning ball in the palm of his hands. The bandit swung his axe at him near the end of his charge, but the blow didn’t land. Instead, a massive explosion of air shook the surrounding trees, and launched him backwards until he hit a trunk, and the sound of a painful crack travelled down the forest road. The great trees flexed and resumed their embrace of the road as the winds returned to how they were before.
Behind Tarnan, a horse without a rider sped back along the road to the capital city, leaving a confused and distressed man on the ground as he struggled to stand up.
Tarnan knelt down, closed his eyes and took several deep breaths. Beads of sweats coalesced and dropped down to the dry earth. No more of that, he thought. He let out a long breath and picked up his short spear as he heard pine needles crunch behind him.
“I pose no harm,” came a voice from behind Tarnan. “I am Gélin. I am the Protector…”
The monk turned around and saw the man wince and look down before he corrected himself.
“…Was the Royal Protector of Zulfus, brother to the King of Jin-Shaw. You must be from the temple?”
The monk nodded as he regained his composure. “My name is Tarnan, and the temple is indeed awaiting the arrival of Prince Zulfus. What happened?”
The last remaining bandit tried to stand up, but collapsed back and rubbed his head. A moan of agony disturbed the silence of the forest.
“The Prince is dead,” said Gélin. He looked at the body of the only man he was charged to protect with his life, hewn by an ambushers axe, and fell down on his knees beside him. “The Royal Protector,” he muttered, “Protector of no one. I should have stayed by his side…”
The monk went up to where the bandit lay and poked him with the butt of his short spear.
The bandit didn’t even open his eyes. “Pif, at your service.”
Tarnan raised his brow. “What kind of name is that?” then as he came closer, the stench of alcohol and the sharp but sweet odor of bramblethorn smoke assaulted his senses. “An acquired name, I see. Or rather, smell.”
The bandit gave a half-grin, but kept lying down and made no effort to rise.
The monk gave a deep sigh, “Why did you kill the King’s brother?”
Pif wiped his face with his hand, as if trying to rub something that wasn’t going to come off. He opened his eyes and gave a long look at Tarnan, then turned his head to the side, seemingly uninterested. “Just wanted to capture him. Maybe get the reward we were promised,” he shrugged, “or maybe issue a ransom ourselves.”
Tarnan frowned. “Who promised you a reward?”
“Could have gone smoothly. He could have lived, we get some gold, no one dies. Back to as it were the day after.”
“Who promised you the reward?” Tarnan pressed.
Pif looked back and gave him a look of a man that had some kind of epiphany interrupted. “What?” he said.
Tarnan repeated his question, adding a small but noticeable hit with the butt of his spear.
“Ay, we didn’t know the name. Just someone back in Mon-Shaw. She took messages from someone. Never said who. We never asked. Didn’t care. Money promised was good,” Pif said.
“Mon-Shaw?” Tarnan thought out loud. “This is an act of war. I need to tell the King of Jin-Shaw,” he couldn’t finish, as a loud rustle on the hill left of him interrupted his musings.
There came a sound of a small avalanche of leaves, but the thick foliage obscured any sight of who it might be. And then, a small girl with puffy eyes and Nara beside her appeared.
“So, uhm, I found the–” Nara said, but then saw Gélin hunched over the dead body.
Tarnan picked the bandit up, although once on his two feet he seemed to have trouble staying on them. He stumbled a bit before trying to stand still, wobbling like a spinning top that lost its momentum. He reached under his quilted gambeson and almost took a swig from the flask he produced. Before he realized that his mouth wasn’t getting a single drop, it was in Tarnan’s hands, who smelled the thing. His face twisted like a strained knot, and threw the flask into the woods.
“This man’s in no condition to wander the forest by himself. He and his gang killed the Prince of Jin-Shaw, and if what he says is true, the whole plot is connected with Mon-Shaw. Gélin and I need to report this to the King. Can you get the girl and the bandit here, Pif, to the temple, and let them know what happened, Nara?” said Tarnan.
Nara crossed her arms.
“What?” Tarnan asked.
“Fine, you go on an adventure outside the temple, and leave me here. Fine,” Nara said.
“You’re not trained in fighting.”
“And you’re not trained in healing. Plus, you have no supplies. Let’s take these two back to the temple, and then leave together.”
“Time is of the essence, Nara.”
“You’ll lose more time trying to forage in the forests and begging villagers for food and shelter.”
Tarnan sighed. “Fine. You can come with us, but you’ll carry just as much on your back as we will.”
Ilsa bright eyes sparkled, catching a ray of light. She smiled. “Can I come too? I can be really fast.”
The two monks smiled in return, and a small chuckle could be heard from Gélin. The group trekked back to the temple. They prepared for their journey to the King, who had no reason to suspect his brother–beloved by the people–was dead.