Only two peaceguards saw Oeric leave. They were preoccupied. Laughing amongst themselves. Oeric walked down his path alone. Blocking out everything except what was in front of him like a horse wearing a pair of blinders. He was like that when he fought in the ring. He blocked out everything. Even the jeers and cheers. They didn’t matter. What mattered was the crowd making noise. If there was noise, they were entertained. He gave it to them, some blood sprayed, sweat dripping, and his opponent beat until they couldn’t stand. Sometimes he was the one on the ground. Then it was rinse and repeat. Travel, fight, travel, fight, travel, and fight until the roads no longer welcomed them. Winter came in and he was stuck in a sunless world for months. Alone or training with other curs in isolation. Alone, keeping his distastes for what they did around him to himself. Kept his own hate of himself to inside of him. That was the life he chose. The only thing he deserved to be.
Once your face was marked, you could only be a cur. He believed that all the way to the day of his last fight. It was hours before it when a single person broke that thought. She called his name. A name he hadn’t head for years.
He stopped. He turned around watching the road and the spaces between trees. Cordea wasn’t there. The figment of his imagination brought him back to awareness. His legs feeling the burn from whatever fast pace he sat out of town. At some point he swung left down the eastern road and crossed the plank bridge over the river. His heart was in his throat, not only from the walk, but from the anticipation of what was going to happen.
Ahead of him, someone veered off the road and had crushed the grass down. The scent of burning wood from a campfire was strong in the air. It wasn’t unusual for a traveler to camp along the river, especially if they couldn’t afford to stay in town. Any nearby patrols or anyone looking out across the walls would ignore the tail of smoke unless it became thick, indicating a brush fire or if the area was unsafe from a drass beast spotting.
Oeric moved forward into the cover of a juniper and crouched down to decide his next course of action. He could scout around and find a place to ambush Clincher. Easy enough. He could handle any bodyguards that Clincher had. He always had at least four. Then he realized that was four more bodies he had to deal with. The river would help with that. However, if he were to do all of that, he needed to wait closer to dark. It would be easier.
Then again, did Clincher have bodyguards with him? Looking back over their meeting, the moment he attacked, one should’ve stopped him. Clincher always treated bodyguards as a requirement to living, like food. So, Clincher was alone? Was he just that broke? That made it easier. No one would care. It was simple, and yet he remained crouched. His muscles locked.
Oeric slid his dagger out and rubbed his thumb over the pommel. He committed himself to what needed to be done. Clincher deserved a knife in his ribs. He hated the man the moment they met and yet saw him as a savior. He was nothing and Clincher lifted them up and they became something. That’s what the man pushed into his head. He knew it was wrong then but didn’t have the courage to stop him. He was young and desperate. As an adult, he could redeem himself from a mistake he committed long ago.
He had a chance to stop Clincher years ago without getting his hands bloodied. He had been snatched from the streets and pushed in front of an arbiter after being brought in for being a cur in a nice town. The arbiter knew of Clincher. He was slippery; he had too much favor with powerful elves. The only way to get him was if one of his fighters to admit Clincher was their handler. Oeric was the easiest target. He was the youngest.
A court pardon, stamped, and sealed, stating that no charges would be brought on him, was placed in front of him. All he needed to do was say yes. He didn’t. There was a loyalty between a handler and fighter. A trust built on fear. He was the only one he could trust. If he didn’t, well, he would find himself headless, burned, and fed to dogs. He was helpless to do anything. Even then, he felt helpless to fear. Then something stirred in the back of his mind.
His consort stirred within him, wanting to come out. To fight, to lash out, and to give him strength to defeat Clincher the same way he defeated two maw spawn. He sent them back into the black pit they crawled from with teeth and claw.
The wolf protected him then. He could let the wolf protect him now.
That thought sobered Oeric.
He sank into a knell, his dagger trembling, and his mouth went dry.
This was too much to deal with.
It was one thing to come home and fix what he broke but another to face the monster who broke him. Oeric steadied himself. He couldn’t go in and face Clincher the way he was. He wanted to clear his mind, bury everything he felt and move on, but Dias made it very clear burying things the way he had was unacceptable. And there he was, repeating the same action. He slid the dagger back into its sheath. Fear got the better of him, again.
Oeric felt like a jackass. If anyone need a knife in them, he needed one to the brain for his stupidity.
“I know you're there,” Clincher shouted from the glade. “No need to hide.”
Oeric cursed himself. He lingered too long, breathing too hard. Running wasn’t an option, so he stood up and smoothed out his clothing, tucked in his shirt properly, and started setting his mind working on how to get out of this situation.
Clincher was sitting on the ground in front of a campfire, roasting what appeared to be a squirrel. Oeric stopped short of the fire and did a quick scan of the area without turning his head. There were no bodyguards, a coil of rope beside a tree, and there was a single horse tethered out of sight behind a thicket. To his left, he saw the shape of a man between trees.
His handler stared at his waist. “I’m surprised you come armed and with that dagger. I remember you telling me the Brotherhood weren’t allowed to carry steel.”
Oeric heard a click to his left and crossed his arms. “Of all the things I can do, this dagger worries. How about I make this easy for you,” he said and pulled out the dagger from its sheath and tossed it into the ground.
Clincher glanced at the brush to the left.
“You might as well tell him to come out,” said Oeric. “I know he has a crossbow and I know where he’s standing. I can dodge a bolt easily and they do take a long time to re-load,” he said, showing his teeth. “And I could do a lot of damage in that time. Of course, if I wanted to.”
Oeric knew he was playing a dangerous game. He had to appear he wasn’t afraid of the predator in front of him. Make it difficult for him to manipulate him.
Clincher motioned for whoever it was to come forwards. “I liked it better when you didn’t develop this silly notion that you’re above me, sit,” ordered Clincher.
Oeric remained standing. “I don’t follow commands,” he said meeting his gaze.
Clincher smiled. “And yet you come here like a dog when his old master calls.”
The person in the woods stepped out, still holding up his crossbow. He was a tall man and his ears were small with a just a hint of a point. His shoulders were wide and had a thick barrel of a body. The half-elf was nothing that Oeric couldn’t take. However, the bolt the crossbow held was filmed. It was poisoned. That complicated things. He could take a shot, but not a poison one.
Oeric lowered his arms and acted nonchalant. “Look, I come here to talk and he’s distracting me.”
“Call it a precaution. I made you who you are,” said Clincher, still eyeing him warily.
“If I worry you that much, use the rope tucked behind that tree. I can’t go for your throat tied.”
Clincher stood to his feet. “Fine, Ben, give me the crossbow.”
Oeric was pushed to a tree and then his arms were yanked behind him. He stared at the leaves above his head, waiting patient. At that time, he thanked Dias that so far, he didn’t end up being in a struggle to the death yet. He then saw the leaves of the tree they were tying him to.
“Oh, it’s a hickory. I’m a bit fond of hickories,” he said, talking to be talking. “Their wood makes the best smoked venison and is a good name for a priest.”
“You weren’t kidding when he said he was mouthy,” said the half-elf behind him, making the rope so tight around his wrists it dug into his skin. He then started securing his arm and his torso so Oeric couldn’t breathe comfortably. He did the same to his legs and ankles.
“You're right, I do feel safer,” said Clincher placing the crossbow down.
Oeric indicated to the large fellow with his chin. “Who’s this ugly hairy-faced muddy?”
Before they could answer, a screech owl settled on a tree branch. It winked at him. Oeric looked away from it. The creature looked remarkably like his nephew’s consort, Nox. If someone was looking for him, then he needed to take up more time.
Clincher snorted at him, offended. “Don’t you talk about my boy like that, Ben is sensitive.”
Ben looked nothing like Clincher. He had thin orange hair on his head and a mess of it on his face in a neat beard. However, Clincher had gold hair that was streaked with gray and had eyes the color of envy. Ben’s eyes were brown as most half-elves were.
Oeric then questioned Ben. “Adopted?”
“Yeah, you got something to say about it?”
“You’re an unlucky muddy bastard with an ass for a father,” he taunted.
“Teach him manners, son.”
The large man sent his fist into Oeric’s gut. He sputtered and could barely draw in a breath, but smarted out, “Oh come on Ben, you need to work on that swing.”
The next one went into his jaw.
Oeric spat on the ground and praised him. “Much better, but your elbow is too low. Maybe if you weren’t a muddy bastard, you’ll know how to hit.”
Ben raised his fist again.
“Don’t, I need him with the ability to speak,” said Clincher, plucking Oeric’s dagger from the ground and placed it on the hot coals of the fire.
Oeric smirked. “Here, I thought we were going to have a polite discourse. Torture isn’t seen as a courteous form of communication.”
Ben’s lips went up in a snarl. “He’s really getting on my nerves.”
“If you were family or friend, I would grace you with my silence. However, since your dear old Pa wants to shove daggers into a fire, well, you get to meet my mouth.”
Ben then appealed to Clincher.
Clincher sighed. “You’re right. Let’s continue where we left off. What if I find this daughter of yours?”
Oeric snorted. “You don’t know her name or what she looks like.”
“Grace’s Hope is one of the friendliest towns I’ve ever walked into. Everyone knows everyone. It didn’t take Ben long to find out that you were married with not one, but two older children, and a wee little one. You’ve been busy.”
Terror rose up into however, he clinched his jaw shut and watched Clincher pace in painful silence.
“Older girls are worth more for me to sell, but I want long term profit. I should go to the human country and start an exotic brothel with her and her brother being my first specimen. If they look like you when you were young, it would be very much worth switching focuses. Blood sports is getting harder to coin.”
Oeric’s teeth started to hurt.
Clincher smirked. “I take it you’re not happy with that deal. I suppose I can take you instead. But how long would it be before you stick a knife in my back? Those wolf eyes of yours aren’t so listless anymore.”
“If you don’t want a knife in your back, h-h-how about a third option,” Oeric suggested.
Clincher feigned thinking about it. “Well, you did always treat me well, even when you lost. Tell you what, I’m going to give you a once in a lifetime offer. You’ve three days to find me a fighter or your children might not be there to kiss your cheeks anymore.”
“I’ll take that offer. You need to be specific about what you want. We’ve a lot of lads.”
That would give Oeric the time he needed to figure out what to do.
Clincher became pleased. “You’ve been very accommodating. Everyone else I’ve dealt with in this manner always comes at me swinging, wanting to sacrifice themselves for their families. Given your reaction in town, I expected you to do the same.”
Oeric tried to shrug. “Y-y-you surprised me is all,” he said.
“There goes that stutter. You hid it well,” he said patting him on the check. “I’m proud of you. You don’t sound like an illiterate fool anymore.”
“What do you want,” said Oeric clearly.
“You must be upset. Well, you never liked surprises. Now, what do I want? I liked that Tyrus. He was strong looking, but a tense chap, and looked too bright. I need someone who isn’t sharp. Like you. Someone who can be manipulated–,”
Oeric swung his head to the entrance of the glade and saw the worse person in the known world standing there. Soletus was studying the sight in front of him with curiosity. Oeric let out an audible growl, fighting the urge to shout to his son for being so stupid. However, the tod didn’t even react when Ben unsheathed a dagger from his hip and pressed it to Oeric’s neck.
Excitement lit Clincher’s face. “Papa, did I hear that right?”
Soletus blinked. Clearly, the lad had some time to prepare before he stepped in there.
“If you don’t want anything to happen to dear old Papa, come closer,” Clincher invited.
The tod held his position.
“My, he’s obstinate. Better tell him to walk closer.”
Oeric felt the dagger slice across his skin. “Do as he says.”
Soletus took three small steps forward.
“Son, cater to these men a little more than that!”
Soletus moved forward, stopping a few feet short of the fire where Oeric originally stood. Clincher started examining Soletus with childish glee.
“This is your son? Oh my. How old is he? Twenty-eight?”
Oeric didn’t enjoy the man eying Soletus like he was a gift horse. Clincher walked round him, giving his arm a squeezed, examining his posture, and then slapped his rear. Soletus jumped from him, and a scowl appeared on his face.
“He’s doesn’t like being handled. He reminds me of you when we met but those dark irises and that face,” said Clincher, and then he suddenly grimaced. “You married that howling, angry woman that took you away. At least you two produced something magnificent.”
Soletus’s eyebrows pulled closer together.
“My, he’s certainly expressive. So, what’s his name? Does he talk?”
Soletus crossed his arms. “My name is Soletus.”
“Oh, nice deep voice for a lad, but given how tall he is what do you expect,” said Clincher and then to Soletus. “Now tell me, how much do you love your sisters?”
“I don’t see how that’s relevant.”
Clincher let out a snort. “Tits, he sounds all haughty, like you.”
“How charming do you expect me to be,” returned Soletus. “You have my father tied to a tree with some brute holding a dagger up to his throat.”
Oeric felt something mixed between pride and disapproval at that impertinent tone towards Clincher.
Clincher gestured to Ben, and he lowered his weapon. “Point taken. I see you’re an intelligent fellow, so you’ll understand when I tell you that your father is owned by me.”
Soletus gave his father a quick glance. “Owned?”
Clincher tsked at Oeric. “How sad. You didn’t tell him the dirty details about our time together.”
“Oh, is he’s someone from your fighting days, Papa,” said Soletus.
Oeric was motionless. A nightmare unfolding in front of him. He never wanted Soletus to know about Clincher, let alone meet him.
“I’m his handler, actually. He signed a contract with me that stated he was mine until he could pay his debt or until he couldn’t fight,” said the man.
“However, here he is alive. I left him for dead, being blind and all. Decades later, I lose nearly everything, and I travel north risking everything I’ve left to find that he’s still capable of fighting—”
Soletus cut off his dramatic tale. “Yeah, I get it, it’s a breach of contract. He owes you for all the time lost that you thought he was unable to fight.”
“Exactly! You’re a sharp lad. Perhaps a little too sharp,” said Clincher and backhanded him hard to the ground. Oeric found the action odd. Soletus should be still standing. He fell on purpose. Clincher planted a foot in the middle of Soletus’s back. He pointed to the dagger that was left heated in the coals. Ben picked it up.
“Leave him alone,” shouted Oeric, straining to get out of his bounds.
Rope cut and burned his skin around his wrist as he struggled.
“He’s collateral, insurance. Not to mention, I think you need to be shown how serious I am about those three days.”
Oeric felt a cool hand touch his. Then something rustled in the bush at the entrance of the glade, and it ran stumbling and rolling in. It was a mountain lion cub. When it finally found its legs again, it yowled viciously at them. Both Clincher and Ben regarded each other in confusion. It was enough distraction for Soletus to close his eyes and concentrated on summoning his consort.
Khodi manifested behind Ben. The man didn’t notice him until the bear stood upright and snorted. Ben spun around just in time to see Khodi open his jaws and roar in his face. The half-elf screamed, slashing out at the bear wildly shaving off some fur. Khodi was more successful at his strike and slashed at the half-elf’s arm, taking off his sleeve. The knife he held went spinning in the air to the ground some feet away.
Clincher jumped back, giving Soletus the ability to kick Clincher on the side of his knee, bringing the man down to the ground with him. Soletus grabbed his legs and Clincher kicked and squirmed, getting away. Oeric was forced to watch the struggle while the hand he felt worked to free him. Clincher managed twisted out of Soletus’s grasp and dived for the dagger that Ben had dropped.
The rope around Oeric’s wrists were cut, however, the rope around his body would take time. He had to watch Soletus and Clincher circling each other. Clincher shouted for Ben. However, the large man was scrambling up a tree with Khodi pacing around the bottom of it. Ben didn’t get far up the tree, though. An arrow sunk into the bark right above his head. The man nearly let go. He slid down enough for Khodi to rake his claws across his rear. The man let out a sobbing yelp as he held on for dear life.
Despite Soletus putting the fire between him and Clincher, the man jumped over it and tackled him into the ground. He straddled him and started striking him in the face. Oeric strained against his bonds.
“Can’t you go faster,” he snapped right about the time he heard the voice of his rescuer chanting. The sound of crackling and the smell of burning rope followed. The coil around his knees loosened, follow by his ankles. Soon everything fell from him.
He felt the wolf, howling to attack and he gave into it. Oeric used the ability his consort granted him. It only took an instant for wolf hearing, smell, and sight took control of Oeric’s mind. He could smell his son’s blood fill his nose and mouth. Wolf’s rage replaced all coherent thoughts, and he charged at Clincher in the body of a large sand colored wolf. He knocked the man off his son. The impact caused Oeric to roll over Clincher’s body. He twisted landing skid before he gained traction again and went straight for Clincher’s throat. He had enough time to see Clincher’s face blanch as well as saw the whites of his eyes before he sunk his teeth into flesh.