Chance Encounter

by Mark Finn

Elderwood Forest sat nestled between a rise of small foothills and one of the tributaries of the Alcheme River. Fresh water from the tributary fed a dozen streams that wound through the thickets, feeding the vegetation and giving the foliage an almost preternatural vigor. The subsequent abundance of game, coupled with the legendary recuperative properties of the water from the Alcheme River, made the Elderwood Forest a popular place for rogues and brigands to hole up and lick their wounds... Dalclion the Elder.

One minute the glade was quiet and listless, and the next minute a man on horseback appeared as if summoned. Intense blue eyes darted this way and that from under his worn coif as he guided the charger through the knee-high grass. Only the creak of the saddle and the metallic clink of chainmail could be heard in the stillness. Still no sign of his quarry. No matter, he decided. This was a matter of honor. He would scour every inch of these woods until he found-

A slight tremor in the scrub directly ahead made him stop the horse short. He turned in the saddle, apparently unconcerned, and wiped his brow while looking around. As his gaze passed over the scrub, he glimpsed a hint of steel. The words of the soused friar came back to him. "Mind the woods here, my son, for they are rife with unwelcome surprises."

"What do you mean?" he had asked.

"The trees have been known to exchange silver for steel here," he laughed and took a pull at the full tankard he carried. "You'd best cut your losses and head back up the road."

"I cannot. Honor is at stake."

He laughed again, spilling ale on his brown robe. "Then go with my blessing, foolish knight!" He waved his hand haphazardly in the air and sloshed the tankard upwards, flinging ale at the horse.

Scowling in disgust, the knight spurred the horse onward. "Were I not in such a hurry, I would give you the flat of my blade!"

"I'll be here when you come out, penniless and weaponless!" the monk jeered back.

Now he understood everything: a gang of thieves lived in these woods and used the monk as their lookout to encourage victims and discourage anyone who could make a fair account of himself. He smiled thinly. This gang of robbing hoodlums would soon have an accounting of their own. In steel.

"You! In the glade! Friend or foe?" he shouted, his hand on his sword.

The limbs parted and out stepped a woman in a doublet and pants. In one hand was a thin sword and in the other a knife. She gestured grandly with both blades, bowing slightly.

"Why, good sir knight, whether I am friend or foe depends entirely on the contents of your purse. If it is filled with gold, then we shall get along just fine. If it holds bread scraps, then I will be very put out, and shall have to settle for your fine steed."

At this, the knight relaxed in the saddle and laughed mightily. "First a monk, now a slip of a girl! What a motley bunch of thieves! Oh, what a fine jest!"

She bristled at his laughter. "'Tis no joke. Stand and deliver. Or shall I make my intentions clear by poking your backside, Sir Blowhard?" She stepped forward, crouched in a fighting stance.

The knight stopped laughing and drew his sword. "My my. Now, stand aside, as I have business with your veiled companion and will not be detained any further."

The girl wrinkled her nose at him. "Veiled companion? Did you ride into an elderwood tree? I am alone. Now, get off your horse or I'll knock you off!"

Percival set his jaw. "Very well, waif, I will answer that challenge! Ho, Exodus!" He spurred the horse into a charge, sword pointed forward.

She smiled. How gullible, she thought. She ran forward lightly, on the balls of her feet, closing the distance between them. Sir Percival wore a mask of concentration as he drew his sword back to swing downward. With a fierce yell, she thrust her own blade upward, catching him in the solar plexus and lifting him bodily out of the saddle. He landed on the ground with a grunt.

Percival was stunned. This-this girl had unhorsed him! What a disgrace! He had no time to ponder this development, because she was running straight towards him, sword meant to take his head off. He dodged and rolled to his feet as her downswing cleaved the air he just vacated. She was off-balance now, and he countered with a vicious sideswing that she barely caught on her blade.

Cimeree was worried, but smiled anyway. This knight was strong, and faster than he looked. She parried another blow and then another. He was pressing his advantage. She needed room to move. He gathered himself for a downswing and she saw her chance. Before Percival could complete his swing, she kicked him squarely in the midsection and knocking him completely off balance. He scowled and leapt back from her in anticipation of the attack which he was sure would come. She threw up her hands and a peculiar yellow light flew from her fingertips in a vicious half-arc.

"Sorcery!" he whispered. And then his broadsword left his hand. It flew up overhead and bobbed lightly in mid-air like a duck on water. The girl laughed as he stared at his wayward weapon.

"You act as if you've never seen magic, Percy." she taunted.

He jumped up to pluck his sword from the air but it danced away, towards Exodus, who stood nervously at the edge of the clearing. Cimeree attacked without mercy now, thrusting with her sword and slashing with her dagger while Percival jumped around, trying to avoid her steel and recapture his own. This was infuriating! He was getting nicked in the process and this girl was laughing at him! This had gone on long enough.

With a mighty effort, he launched himself into the air as her blade sliced just below his legs and grabbed the hilt of his sword, bringing it down in front of him. He dealt her a savage thrust which she parried well enough, but the effort made her lose her footing. While she recovered, he made for Exodus and climbed into the saddle.

"Now, where were we?" he asked as he trotted in carefully, his guard up. She looked up at this mounted knight with a bit of concern. He was wise to her tricks now, and would be more careful. His blows now had considerable more impact from his vantage point. Perhaps another trick...

Percival was turning the horse to swing. She smiled. Time this right and she could duck his blade and send him off the horse again. Then with a well-placed dagger throw, his purse and his horse would be hers. He steadied, drew back, and she ducked.

That's when his blade turned and he swung down, connecting the flat of his sword with her head. She fell to the ground, dazed and he dismounted beside her. Percival stared with some admiration. He couldn't remember so fierce a fight between him and another, save maybe for Sir Lance-

Pointed ears. She had pointed ears! This woman wasn't even human! He sheathed his sword and bent down to look at her. Fair skin, slim of frame, pointed ears. Fey folk.

Percival stood up. No creature such as she existed in this world. He glanced around at the trees, which she had called elderwood. Where he was from, there was no forest called Elderwood. He was not in his beloved Angland any more. He was a lost warrior

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