CHAPTER 4

Amelia led the party.

"We're going on a trip! We're going on a trip!" she sang, with Preston barking along. "On a trip to Oaksblade, where there’s strangely no Oaksblade!"

There really weren’t any oaksblade trees in Oaksblade Town.

Fayte was amused by her singing with Preston. Amelia was only seven and to think she had already passed the entrance examinations to join the Order of the White Rose. Most initiates only begin when they were between ten and twelve. Exceptions were made in cases such as Amelia's, whose brother was Hylan's youngest priest, parents were war heroes in the Order, and her current guardian a renowned priestess.

Jayden needed to stock up on supplies so he had his daughter and Lord Jacob's son, Jenson, travel to the town of Oaksblade with them. Jenson drove the wagon pulled by one of Melanie's horses, while the vagrant with the Templar sword rode on the back. Renee rode with Fayte.

"Are you all right?" Fayte asked. "You seem rather quiet."

Renee sat behind him and held his waist. They had known each other for years now though they spoke little to one another. Fayte spent most of his time in Rondiar City with the Order, and his visits to Ironsville were usually short. Renee was a fair girl to look at, the tone of her skin light for she spent most of her days in the tavern. Her hair lay past her shoulder in a braid, brown like the chestnut horse Wilson rode with Amelia.

"Oh, I erm, I was just thinking," she said, her voice soft and shy.

Fayte glanced back. "Thinking about?"

"Erm, Melanie," she said, and the mere mention of the name made Whitesong lift her head higher. "I was just wondering how she was doing."

Melanie was the daughter of Ironsville's stable master. The girl was quite the opposite of Renee who was soft-spoken and demure like a proper lady. Whitesong was trained by her and Fayte had expected to see her at Ironsville.

"I'm sure she is fine," he said. "Melanie can take care of herself."

"Melanie is too rash and loud," Renee said, clearly worried. "She's prone to getting into trouble like that outside of Ironsville. And what if the gryphons hurt her?"

Listening to the girl talk about the world outside of Ironsville made him smile. Renee was a peasant, simply put, and she was one who preferred the safety of Ironsville than the unknown outside her home. The furthest the girl dared travel to was Oaksblade. Not that the girl was to be blamed though. She was raised in her father's tavern and Jayden was a simple man himself who had little desires for adventures.

"Gryphons are much gentler than you imagine," Fayte told her from experience.

"But they are so big and they look so… so clever," Renee said. "Father always says not to go near them when we visit Oaksblade for stocks."

That would have to change soon once Melanie returns to Ironsville. "Trust me, gryphons are noble beasts. I’ve seen one protecting the Princess before. Once Melanie has learned how to care for gryphons, the Administrator of Castle Rondiar will assign a few to Ironsville and you can get to know them yourself."

Ironsville was too secluded for her own good, the King had said and his father agreed. The horde of earth animations that attacked Ironsville could have wiped out the town, and no one would know until the horde moved on to the next settlement. It was why the King had asked that arrangements be made for Ironsville to have its own gryphon hold. Of course, this would mean that someone had to be trained to care for the gryphons and Melanie was the obvious choice.

"I don't know…"

Fayte looked back at her. "Tell you what, after my pilgrimage is over I'll introduce you to a friend of mine. His name is Rakhor."

"A gryphon?" Renee was beginning to dislike the idea already. "I don’t…"

"Don't worry," he said, assuring her with a smile. "Just bring some treats with you and you'll become Rakhor's best friend right away. In fact, he might just forget me once he sees the treats you brought for him."

"You really think so?" she asked.

"I really do," Fayte said, glad that he managed to convince her.

Renee really was a fair girl to look at, especially when she smiled. She looked away as if shy when Fayte gazed at her longer than he should.

"Fayte," Wilson called, his tone cautious.

Their party came to a halt with two men standing in their way.

"Good sirs," Wilson said, smiling all so charmingly. "If you would be so kind as step aside and allow us to pass. The noon sun is warm and my sister is fast getting a headache. We wish to reach Oaksblade as soon as-"

Both men drew a short sword from their back.

"Alright then," Wilson said, dismounting before he sent Amelia with Preston and his horse to Jenson. He smiled at the two men. "Tell me then, is this daylight robbery? Because that wagon back there is empty save for a vagrant who had too much to drink too early in the-"

"Quiet, priest," one of the man said, a black head sash tied around his head.

They wore thick leather jerkins and had various trinkets hanging from their necks and clothes. Both men were battle hardened, likely fast as well judging from their lithe builds. The men were searching for someone, eyeing each one of them, but it was a short search.

Both men stared at Fayte.

"Take the reins, Renee," he said, dismounting. "We do not wish for any trouble, sirs. Put away your swords before someone gets hurt. If it is coin you seek then take this and leave."

Fayte pulled out a pouch of coins from Whitesong's saddle back and tossed it to the two men. A common practice that most travellers shared. Better to lose a pouch of coins than your life. One of the men caught it and tied it around his belt. But still they approached him.

Short swords were as named, short, which meant their reach weren't as far as a typical long sword that Fayte used. This however gave them more speed and manoeuvrability like a dagger. If the wielder was quick enough, short swords can be an advantage against long swords, especially knights who tend to move slower with their armour. But these were just two bandits and Fayte was not encumbered by any armour save for his chainmail.

"I am Fayte of the noble Kaywin family," he said as the two men continued their approach. "Son of Frendon Kaywin, Lord-Knight of the Order of the White Shield."

Both men were still approaching.

"Fayte," Wilson said, shaking his head as he summoned his mace with a flash of light.

If these men didn't want coins and they weren't intimidated by who he was, it means this isn't a random attack. Someone was after him.

Fayte drew his sword and-

"Fayte!" Renee called and Preston let out a low growl.

More bandits stepped out from the trees around them. Now there were eight of them in total, surrounding their entire party. This part of the road was supposed to be safe with Hylan soldiers making regular patrols.

They were definitely waiting for me.

Fayte set his sword back into his sheath and held up his hand. "Leave my friends alone. You can have me."

One of the two men turned to look at Wilson. "Priest, take your sister and leave."

Wilson paused for a moment to consider his options. Assure the safety of his sister and leave Fayte and the rest of them to fend for themselves, or risk having Amelia get hurt. The choice was obvious for him.

"Come," Wilson called and his horse trotted over before he mounted it. "May I take the other girl as well?"

"Take them all," the bandit said. "Leave the squire."

"Thank you." Wilson gestured for Renee and Jenson to join him.

They were both hesitant but Fayte would never expect Wilson to even risk putting his sister at harm's way. He smiled at them and assured them that he would be fine. Besides, now that they had left, Fayte could fight without having to worry about them.

He swung out his sword and parried an attack from behind him. With his shield, Fayte jabbed the bandit in the throat, killing him instantly. He spun around and exchanged strikes with another, landing nicks and cuts with his long sword on the bandit before he eventually drove his sword through the man. They were quick but not quick enough to have the upper hand.

The six remaining bandits surrounded him.

"No squire fights like that, this one’s a knight," the one Fayte assumed to be the leader said before he spat on the ground. "We should be paid twice the amount!"

So someone has placed a bounty on my head.

"I am a squire," Fayte said. "You are paid correctly. But I fear for you should you manage to claim this bounty, for I owe the Underlord a debt once I am knighted."

His father had explained that owing the Underlord a debt had its perks. One of which being an unspoken assurance that none of his assassins would come after him. Even if these bandits didn't work for the Underlord, they would surely be wise enough than to kill Fayte now.

"This is bigger than the Underlord," the bandit leader said. "Lay down your weapon, boy, or he gets it."

He? Fayte spun around and was relieved when he saw who it was. "I have no ties with that man."

"What?" The vagrant was stunned. "But I’m your prisoner! You have to save me! Please!"

The vagrant was forced onto his knee with two swords placed beside his neck in a cross. Before they left Ironsville, they had thrown him on the back of the wagon with his sword to make him quiet about it. The bandits must had pulled him out when Jenson drove off.

Still, the man was right. I can't let him die. "I'm just a squire. At least kill me honourably."

"Honour?" The bandit leader spat. "I know a better swordsman when I see one. I'll take dishonour than death. Now drop your sword!"

"Ouch, ouch, hey watch it!" the vagrant complained. "Ye boss din say kill me yet did he?"

Wilson was counting on him to make it out of this alive on his own. He would have to escort the others to Oaksblade first before turning back to aid him. Of course by then it would surely be too late. Fayte was going to have to fight unarmed at this rate.

He dropped his sword.

"Alright," the leader said. "Kill them both."