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A Brief Encounter In the Night

By: Bret Zawilski

Talasen strutted down the dirt path, his feelings somewhere between elation and boredom. Sometimes he skipped ahead on his way, and at others he dragged his feet behind him. Once or twice he'd even begun to dance toward the distant village of Penril, but the immense heat forced him to stop moments later.

Every now and then Tal fingered the pouch hanging at his belt and gave it a good shake. Each time his ears heard the wonderful music of jingling coins. Second place in the Golden Saber contest was a good deal lower than he'd hoped for, but the prize was a nice consolation. On top of his winnings, he'd sold his sword for another few silvers.

For a time he'd considered donating some coin to Thommael, Penril's blacksmith, for the wonderful job the smith had done in forging his weapon. But, his senses soon returned and Tal decided to make better use of it in the taverns. He'd have all the ale his stomach could handle for a few months at least.

All the coin in the world did little to help his thirst at the moment. Travel, aside from being dull, worked up a great desire for a mug of cold ale. It was a shame that there were no good Inns on the road between Cercia and Penril. Maybe someday he'd build one to satisfy travelers everywhere. The way he thought, winnings from the grand tournaments to the south would leave him with plenty extra gold in his pockets.

Occasionally a wagon would pass him on the trail, but none ever stopped to offer a ride, or even check after his welfare. Tal had an awkward pride in the reputation he'd established. Merchants far and wide now knew better than to do him any favors unless they wished to lose any cargo of wine they carried.

In any case, dusk was starting to settle in and Tal began to look for temporary shelter. Sleeping on the ground didn't bother him too much. Most nights he would collapse in the dirt outside the tavern and find himself in the bushes when he woke up. At least the sky was clear and he would have a nice view of the stars.

When Tal's thirst became too great to bear, he ventured off the road in search of a mountain's Tear. The Tears were tiny streams of water that trickled down from the mountains across the forest's floor. They were fairly common and at least one normally ended up shadowing the road for a few miles.

Tal stepped in the Tear before he saw it and mumbled curses to the trees. He shook the water off his leg and knelt on the ground. Leaning over, he cupped his hands and lifted the cold water to his lips. It tasted pure and carried the faint scent of wildflowers. The sky was painted a deep red above the treetops and he felt like lying down to watch the colors slowly fade to starlight.

He stretched his arms over his head and froze instantly. Something a little too similar to the tip of a sword had been placed against his back.

"Spare some change, journeyman?" A female voice asked from behind him.

"What bad luck. I was hoping that you'd have some." Tal started to inch his head around to get a glance at his captor, but the sword pressed against him a little harder. He decided it would be best if he kept watching the sky.

"You wouldn't be the sort to lie, kind sir?"

"Of course not, honorable lady."

She chuckled and Tal could feel her body shake through the blade at his back. "Such a kind insult."

"Try to ignore me. I'm not very used to speaking with such unique rogues."

"Consider yourself lucky."

It may have been a bad time for such thoughts, but Tal couldn't deny the beauty of her voice. He was searching for a way to get a look at the rest of her. "Indeed, I must be privileged."

"Now, kind journeyman." Tal felt her press close against him. "What punishment could I expect for robbing you of that sweet tongue?"

Tal laughed. "A reward would be more likely."

"Not exactly a wise thing to tell me."

"Never claimed I was a scholar." Tal tried to turn again, but the blade bit harder and he thought he could feel it pierce his shirt.

"How apparent."

Tal slowly rose to his feet and didn't feel the blade object. "May I at least have the pleasure of seeing your face?"

Her laughter echoed quietly. "You are intent on losing your life?"

"Would a sight be worth dying for?"

"Certainly."

Swift reflexes took hold and Tal spun around in the time between heartbeats. The dagger concealed in his sleeve dropped to his palm and he leapt backward, out of striking distance.

"Bravo," she whispered.

Most of her face was hidden beneath the hood of her black cloak and the only outstanding features were her bright eyes, thin nose, and pale lips. She appeared to be weighing the odds of a sword versus a dagger.

Tal looked her up and down, appraising the shape of her frame. "I suppose it is worth dying for."

"Glad you feel that way."

She lunged at him and swung the sword in a quick, narrow arc. The blade met with the hilt of his dagger and sent it flying from his grasp. A thin line of blood began to flow from his palm, but Tal ignored it. He ran forward and plowed into her with all his strength. Due to the tangle of limbs, her grip on the sword faltered and it fell to the ground. Moments later they did the same and Tal fell on top of her, feeling the growing surge of triumph. That is, until he noticed the glint of steel hanging below his chin.

"How courageously stupid." Tal was amazed to hear amusement in her voice.

He smiled nervously and relaxed his grip on her. The knife at his throat held steady, but he had no illusions that she would go easy on him.

She snatched the pouch at his side and slipped it inside her cloak, looking very pleased with the weight of it. "Get up."

He obeyed and they both rose to their feet. She leaned close to him and their lips touched for a brief moment.

"A bit of a consolation for your losses," she said mockingly.

"Greatly appreciated. I hope we meet again," Tal replied with false joy.

"Be glad you survived this meeting."

"I fear you've addicted me, my lady."

"Do try to keep your wits." She grinned. "Those that remain to you."

"I can only promise to try." Tal sighed and tried to ignore the feeling of loss that came over him.

"I must be leaving, kind sir." She leaned close and they kissed again, her lips parting to allow him a brief taste of her. A moment later, Tal dimly felt the hard impact of the dagger's hilt on the back of his head. All the colors faded and for awhile he drifted in an uncomfortable sleep.

He awoke sometime later and at first only felt the ache in his head. The stars were out and there was no sign of a retreating sun. Tal struggled to his feet and found both his dagger and boots missing. The walk to Penril would be much longer now, and far less fulfilling. But in the end, Tal felt that he had come out ahead in some way. He chuckled quietly in the darkness.

"Truly a woman worth dying for," he whispered.

As he ambled down the dirt path in the night, Tal was so content that he hardly noticed the jagged stones biting into his bare feet.