Castle Roland

The Kandric

by Kyle Aarons

In Progress

Chapter 2

Posted: N/A


Kyle Aarons

An Elvin blacksmith apprentice at the Bronze Axe Metal Smithy noticed a pair of wagons come through the east gate of Junsac. The trailing wagon had some obvious damage to its front and right side. The animals pulling it seemed to be straining just to keep its wheels turning. Four warriors all in blood tarnished chain armor kept both wagons surrounded. This told everyone on the street not to get in the way. All four warriors rode Warsteeds of a very high caliber. The horns sticking out of the horse-like animals' heads all had been bronzed and bladed. At least one of the rear-guard Warsteeds had been injured. Its limping trot challenged the rider just to stay on.

The lead wagon driver noticed the metal smith sign and immediately turned his team of draft horses toward the back stable area. As the second wagon tried to follow, its front axial suddenly snapped sending its driver plummeting forward. Crates of goods toppled down onto of the hapless dwarf crushing him. With no instructions from their master, the horse team continued to pull. Their impressive builds allowed them to drag the wagon for quite a few meters splintering boards and breaking open several crates. Suddenly, the hitch gave way. Both animals leapt forward then bolted straight for the shop.

The apprentice's eyes grew wide with fear, "Shade, stop them!"

At the mention of its name, a dark gray, almost black, canine's head jerked up. It took only a split second for it to identify the problem before bolting out through the door. The draft animals didn't seem to notice this newcomer at first, but a hard nip on the left flank of the left side horse changed that. It veered to the right forcing its hitch mate to go with it. This forced both animals into the smithy's corral.

Shade growled and barked menacingly, as the pair tried to turn and bolt back out. This time they did pay attention and turned away from the promise of a painful bite.

The Elvin boy wasted no time yelling out orders to two younger apprentices. Everyone watching had to give all the kids some credit. Within just a few minutes the youngsters had the situation under control. The gate to the corral had been shut and latched, while a large amount of grain was thrown in the food trough.

Shade kept a wary eye on the horses and barked loudly whenever they tried to push on an area of the fence. On the few occasions when one of the apprentices was put in any danger, Shade would leap forward and snap its jaws loud enough to be heard in the forge. It became apparent neither animal wanted anything to do with the ferocious wolf-like canine or its razor sharp ebony colored teeth.

With nowhere safe to run, both animals quickly calmed down and went over to the troughs for much-needed food and water. Still hitched together, the animals disputed between them, which was more important, food or water. Once they decided on water and completely calmed, everyone let out a sigh of relief.

The lead wagon driver looked around, "Quick thinking boy. Where is the blacksmith?"

"He went to get ore in Silverton." The Elvin boy stated with a bit of a bow to show respect to the merchant.

"Then why is this shop open boy?"

"My name is Aster, and I am in charge till he returns." The boy answered.

"With no teacher? What type of shop is this?" the merchant's voice told of his indignation.

"We do not have a teacher here at the moment, but I am guild certified. That allows me to run his shop for short durations." Aster kept his voice much more neutral than he felt. For over three years since he had been the youngest in the barony to pass the guild tests for metalworkers, he had been treated with a measure of verbal abuse. Usually, like now, it was not the words but the tone behind them that betrayed their real meaning.

The merchant rolled his eyes, "Yea, sure."

Aster's eyes narrowed, "I am. The Animal Adept Guild and the Healthman Guild also certify me. Had it not been my," he held up two fingers on each hand moving them up and down as he said, "quick thinking," then dropped his hands. "Your animals would have run into this shop and you would be paying several hundred silver in damages, if not more. As it is, you only owe us for the food for your horses, four copper." He held out his hand to emphasize the price of feeding the horses. A price that was easily twice as much as the food provided was worth.

The merchant took a step back, not at all expecting the lad in front of him to challenge him. "Very well, who am I to argue. How much to house all my animals?"

Aster was not about to be pulled into doing anything extra for this man, "This is not a stable. If you have business for us we can work out something, otherwise there are stables at the Green Vine Inn and Bloodhaven's Tavern. You can go further into the city, but the prices will go up."

The biggest guard came over, interrupting the merchant, "Kald is dead, Handri."

The merchant cringed, "His death is a major blow. Go into town and see if you can find us another driver and a few more swords. I'd like another Dwarf to replace Kald if possible. I want to give this one more shot before we give up. Before you do so though, let's get what we have left sorted out."

The man bowed and left, shouting orders to the other guards.

Aster thrust his hand out, "You still owe us four copper."

Handri smiled, beginning to like what he saw in this boy, "What if I do have business for the forge?"

"Then we can work on some arrangements." Aster answered while lowering his hand, "What is it you need?"

"Can you fix the wagon?"

Aster looked back at the mess on the street, "I doubt it. You could probably sell what is left for salvage. There are three wagon makers in Junsac."

Handri nodded as if expecting the news, "Very well. My guards need repair to their armor and replacements for lost daggers, damaged weapons and the like. I will also need weapons to outfit any grunt swords I can find."

Aster grinned, "You know that will not be cheap."

"Yes. I have money, but I expect a fair price."

"And you will get one. Have your men put all the animals in the corral. I will have the most experienced apprentice help your men in getting out of their armor and show them our weapon selections. Would you like one of the others to show you to one of the wagon makers?"

Handri again nodded, "Yes, that would be most kind. Do you mind if I ask you something?"

"You can ask, but I will not guarantee an answer."

Handri laughed, "Fair enough! Ok, you say you are guild certified. I can accept such a thing, because I know if you claimed to be and were not the guilds would kill you and shut this business down. So why do you not wear your guild pins?"

Aster flipped over his collar, "I do, just do not show them. Most adults are not comfortable around me when they are displayed."

Handri nearly choked upon seeing the silver guild pins. "You are a Secondary Echelon Animal Adept at your age?"

Aster gave a quick uncomfortable nod, "Yes, as well as Metal Worker and Healthman. Just completed my Secondary Echelon testing a couple months ago. And if you would, please keep your voice down."

Handri swallowed hard, "Sorry," his voice lowered to less than normal talking voice, his surprise he could not hide, however. "But you cannot be more than human equivalent of thirteen!"

"Twelve actually. I was certified first echelon just over Three years ago, I am now 45 years old."

Handri's voice became more impressed than astonished. His scowl slowly changed into a smile as he spoke. "A very young twelve! How is this possible?"

"I get quite a bit of practice." Aster answered matter-of-factly

"Oh, and how does a boy your age get such practice?"

Something about the merchant told Aster he could be trusted. He didn't act like most adults and seemed genuinely interested. After a moment of thought he decided to test the waters. "If I tell you that, you must keep it a secret. Not even the guild knows where I get all my experience."

Handri raised an eyebrow. His interest was definitely peaked, "Very well young one. I will not say a single word to anyone."

"Be aware I will tell others of your promise."

Clearly this slender silver haired, green-eyed elf had a major secret. Part of Handri debated just dropping the whole thing, but he was a merchant. A merchant had to be nosy and find out whatever might help in making a sale or bargaining for the best price for needed goods or services. In short order the merchant side won out. "I understand."

Aster gave a charming smile showing beautiful white teeth. His looks and demeanor could not have been in bigger contrast to the words he spoke. "I am volunteer member of the Barony Watch." Quickly he flipped over the opposite side of his collar showing a jade dagger pin.

Handri took another step back. The Junsac Barony sat on the fringe of the kingdom and had, out of desperation, developed a method for dealing with the wilds beyond the settled lands. Their answer had become know as the Barony Watch. Everyone in the kingdom instantly thought of Junsac when those words were spoken. Some just called it The Watch.

The Watch kept an eye on the wild borders. When a problem came up, it was dealt with. In the last twenty years, the Kingdom of Kronar had not once had to send troops to deal with anything up in the Barony of Junsac. No monster was considered too tough, nor any enemy too sly to stand up against the Barony Watch.

It wasn't that The Watch was a group of do-gooders either. Over the years they had stolen, framed people, murdered, and at least once made an entire Marquis' family to just disappear. Every man, woman, and child including three steps removed into the extended family simply vanished. All the belongings were left alone. One home had a half-eaten dinner on the dining room table. No bodies, no blood, no clues other than a purposely left behind jade dagger pins at each site.

The jade dagger pin of The Watch was only given to members who had fought in three or more campaigns in the wildlands beyond the borders of the kingdom. It was rumored to be magical in nature, but only those who owned one actually knew for sure what powers it had. Others knew it glowed a blue green and anyone attempting to steal one would die from a very hideous disease. There was no doubt this boy spoke the truth. The jade dagger had definitely been shimmering blue-green on its own accord.

Of course not even The Watch could have done everything attributed to them. However, if even a tenth of what was said had been The Watch, they were a group to be feared. The extra rumors only helped maintain the group's mystique and kept any enemies guessing.

Handri was not used to being speechless, but right at the moment he couldn't even squeak. Matter of fact, he was having difficulty breathing. He had met members of The Watch before, but never before had it occurred to him that there were some who remained hidden. He also wondered how many people he had been rude to, much like this boy, who could have called on friends to do very vile things for revenge. It had been known, or at least rumored, to happen.

Aster saw color drain from Handri's face. Part of him felt satisfaction, but another side felt sorry for the man. He had lost a wagon, a driver, and had clearly had a rough last few days judging by how tired the guards seemed. A question needed to be asked, "What happened out there?"

Handri forced his throat open by taking a few deep breaths. "We were taking supplies up the Dark Ridge Pass. We were jumped by Gnolls again."

Aster's eyes narrowed. This sounded like the very thing he was told to keep an eye out for. "Again? You mean this has happened before to you?"

"Oh yea. Nothing has been able to get through this last winter. They have got to be running out of food by now if their winter was even half as bad as ours."

Aster thumbed the Barony Watch pin for a second thinking about what he had just heard. Seconds later he got his answer, "Get all the information you can my young friend." He heard in the middle of his mind. "I will try getting a team ready, but you know we are stretched pretty thin."

"I know Master Lannet. The black dragon has the Everone Barony in shambles and we are still trying to find out where the lizard man army has disappeared to. I would like to check it out first hand, but I cannot leave the forge."

"If you are willing, and I sense you are, I will get a blacksmith to cover for you while you are gone. You know the guild will cover for you."

"Yes, do so please."

"Aster, you will be out there with no backup until I can form a team. You must make this decision on your own. Do you really want to be out there without any net?"

"Master what about your semi-retired friend? He is above the pass."

"Unfortunately he is not Aster. He is down in the capital checking on an assassination rumor that seems to hold some truths. The Crown Prince's life may well be in his hands. I hope he will have that wrapped up soon, in which case I will send him; however, you know he will want favors."

"As usual. His price can be fun to pay. Let him know I am willing. I will do what I can on my own until then Master."

"I will pass on your message, but you are only a volunteer Aster. I cannot order you to do this, nor would I. The Watch does not send out lone agents unless we have no choice. The kingdom is not yet in jeopardy from this new potential threat."

"Master I have a very bad feeling about this. We need to check on this."

"Very well Aster. Rest assured, I will find help from somewhere no matter what the cost."

"Do not waste resources yet Master. Let's see what I find first."

"Aster, please be careful. I would never forgive myself if you got hurt or worse."

"I will Master."

Aster shook his head to clear it before turning his attention back to Handri, "May I join you on your next attempt?"

Handri's eyes went wide, "You cannot be serious!"

Aster's gaze hardened, "Deadly serious. And you must keep your word not to tell anyone of my status."

Handri's mind raced. He couldn't take a boy into such danger. If he got hurt, The Watch could blame him. Yet this was not just a boy. Another thought clenched his decision. "I do not want The Watch to be unhappy with me for not agreeing. If I do this, they may feel they owe me at least a little favor too." As normal, the thought of a favor being owed to him was just too much to pass up on. Besides, being an ally of The Watch could never hurt. Could it?

Finally he answered, "Very well young one. Keeping what and who you are a secret though, may be very difficult."

"Tell them you hired me as Metal Worker. Obviously you need one judging by the damage to their armor I saw them wearing."

"This is true. Do you have a traveling armor repair kit?"

"No, but I can borrow one."

"Let's make this official. I will buy you one and pay you a three copper a day wage to be our Metal Worker plus an extra two to be our Healthman. The armor repair kit and full Healthman's pouch will make up for the lack of hard money you will get."

"That is only about a fourth of what my qualifications should get. As long as you also provide good food and travel gear I can keep as my own, I agree."

"Good. When will you be ready to depart?"

"As soon as I get the guild to send me a replacement. Should be later today."

Handri shook his head, "Too soon. It will take me some time to get things ready. I still have to hire some new swords and equip a new wagon. Say three days hence?"

"I will be ready. Do not forget food for Shade and Dart as well."

"Shade and Dart? One is your wolf, what is the other?"

"Wolf? Not quite." Aster chuckled, "But he does eat the same things as a wolf. My other pet is…Well let me just say it is a very large bird of prey."

Handri glanced down at the huge canine sitting next to the boy. It sure looked like a wolf. Clearly the lad would not give out any more information. So be it. "Very well. One wolf beastie and one giant eagle or something to feed. I can do that. Now find me someone to show me to a wagon maker if you would. I will also need to visit the general store and Healthman shop to set up a tab for you. I want you to have the best, so get Elvin Steel traveling Metalworker's kit and Healthman tools. Also get armor and weapons as needed. If this works out, I may wish to discuss hiring you for a longer term."


"Yes, your skills could be exactly what my caravan needs. We will just have to see how you blend in as a team member before I say more."

Aster nodded, "Oh, I understand. I will get one of the boys to guide you into town."

Quickly Aster instructed the youngest apprentice to take Handri around to whatever shops he needed while he attended to the needs of the warriors in the shop. He took over most of the duties, sending one of the last two apprentices to the Guild to get a temporary fill-in while the last boy tended to the forge, keeping the fire hot and cleaning up.

The lead Swordsman noticed this with an approving eye. For a young lad, Aster controlled the shop with practiced ease. It made no difference how busy things got. Five times others came in requiring services. Somehow, both his men and the other customer were taken care of without making anyone feel delayed. At the same time, the single instance one of his Swordsmen became a little overbearing, he was stared down and told to 'grow up and wait his turn'. After that nobody questioned who was in charge of the shop.

Aster had never been worked so hard. He gained a whole new respect for his masters. At least the owner would be thrilled with the sales. The problem would be restocking all the bought goods. It looked like about a third of the weapons would be bought, including next to all the bronze weapons. In addition the other business cut into horseshoe supplies, nails, and other common forge equipment. Twice, he had to stop work to repair lightly damaged items brought in by other customers, plus spend time over the forge to repair links in all the Swordsmen's armor.

As he did so, Aster listened to the four men as they discussed what weapons they should get. It became clear in short order that all four were experienced and guild certified Swordsmen. None of them looked forward to braving the pass again. Judging from what was being said he guessed several hired non-Swordsman guards, also known as "swords" had lost their lives. Only the true Guilded Swordsmen, Handri, and the wagons had made it all the way. The loss of the Dwarvin driver, after all they had been through seemed to really weigh on all their minds. The three junior Swordsmen all talked about throwing in the towel, but their leader denounced such an act with a withering glare. He clearly had a great deal of sway over the others. One by one they fell silent and started preparations for their next journey.

Over the course of the day Aster got to know a little about each man, but he spent the most time with their leader, Pocet. Pocet didn't allow anything to be selected without first checking it out. Nor did he accept anyone's word as far as the armor being repaired. He inspected every fixed link before approving the work. This required him to spend a great deal of time around Aster, something he seemed pleased to do.

Aster took time showing the man every weapon. All the types of metal, whether Bronze, Steel (which Aster could only show with gloves on), Elvin Steel, Elvin Silver Steel, and even Dwarvin Steel and Dwarvin Blue Steel.

Elvin and Dwarvin steels were not really steel, just compounds developed by the respective races that mimicked steel, long before steel had been invented. Elvin Silver and Dwarvin Blue were the best of the best, specially fired and hardened to a point no regular blacksmith could hope to achieve. The prices were well above what Pocet had been given clearance to spend, but he looked them over anyway. After careful examination he selected an Elvin Silver Steel long sword for himself. He paid for it out of his own money.

Pocet, like Aster, was Secondary Echelon. This separated him from the others in not only ability but also status. Yet it was clear to Aster, the man had natural leadership ability as well. The men listened to him not out of just fear or respect, but because they trusted his judgment. His Secondary Echelon rating just added to his authority. He wore his guild pins proudly, yet not predominately displayed. One had to be looking in order to see them pinned to upper edge of his silver belt buckle.

Over the hundreds of years guilds had developed in several fields and sub-fields. Each guild rated the experience of members through a complicated system of tests. Fully trained beginners started at Primary Echelon, then Secondary, Teaching, Expert, Master, and finally Legendary. Each Echelon had five steps to further give possible employers an idea of a guild member's skills. A Secondary Echelon step 3 Swordsman would be very close in abilities to any other Secondary Echelon step 3 Swordsman. Guilds had also worked together to make sure all fields were very close to equal at similar rankings. Thus a Primary step 2 Mage was pretty close to a Primary step 2 Animal Adept. All told there were guilds for eight fields and at least eleven sub-fields, although some of the sub-fields were further divided by specialties.

Very few made it to Teaching Echelon; fewer still progressed to Expert and beyond. In most kingdoms only Teaching Echelon and above were allowed by the guilds to have apprentices, but in the wildlands many Secondary Echelon rated beings took on apprentices because there were just too few teachers. The same held true for weaker kingdoms and war-torn areas. The guilds understood the need, but didn't openly condone the practice.

Pocet, like many wildernesses Swordsmen, was an Outdoorsman. It was a common and very handy sub-field focusing on hunting, tracking and survival. No wilderness group could survive without one. The problem with his group was simple; all of them were outdoorsmen not a single one of them even had a second sub-field. This meant they had no Healthmen, priests known as Channelers, Metal Workers, or other sub-field skills to help round out the group or help keep them alive. They also didn't have a spell caster.

Never once had Aster traveled into the wilderness beyond the barony's borders without a spell caster, let alone try the pass into the upper reaches. He doubted any members of The Watch would sanction even thinking about it. Clearly his skill would benefit the party greatly on their expedition. The lack of a spell caster truly troubled the boy though.

Much to his credit Pocet noticed the boy's ill ease; "You have become kind of withdrawn. Is there a problem?"

Aster chewed on his lip before speaking, "I was just thinking about our trip through the pass."

"Our trip?" Pocet eyes hardened, "Since when were you coming?"

"Handri hired me to be your Metal Worker and Healthman. I am guild certified as both."

Pocet looked over Aster carefully, "Really? Where are your pins?"

"I do not like to show them."

"Look son, if Handri hired you fine. But I am in command of the journey. I need to know who or what we have as far as resources."

Aster took a breath. Seeing the other men now looking at him he cringed. He really didn't want anyone else to know how experienced he actually was. Being Secondary Echelon told others more than he wanted them to know. If he was underestimated from the start, he held a great advantage. However, if people knew then he had lost a very valuable ally, surprise.

Pocet put his arm around Aster and led him to the corral, "Let's talk alone. But I want you to know, I trust those men with my back in combat. That is more than I say for most."

"I understand. It's just that I get the feeling they would be very nervous around me if they found out." Aster replied keeping his words guarded.

"Found out what? It is clear you are a trained Metal Worker and Animal Adept. You have shown me both of these abilities today. Actually, your metal skills are superb. As far as being a Healthman, I have no doubt. Handri would not idly hire someone without seeing proof." Pocet stopped before adding, "You must have started your training when you were quite young."

"Fifteen years ago I first started at the forge pumping billows in the mornings then grinding herbs for the Golden Peak Healthman Shop just down the street in the afternoons. Did it for a year with no pay or anything until the smith here decided I really wanted to learn. He took a day off, had me tested, found me an Animal Adept teacher, and talked one of the Healthmen into training me as well."

"So young? What of your parents?"

"I do not know. I was found wandering the streets bleeding from a gash on my head." He pulled up on his silver hair revealing a scar peeking out just below the hairline and extending well up toward the top of his head.

"I am amazed you survived such a wicked gash!" Pocet exclaimed, clearly appalled.

"The Healthman who fixed me said the same thing." Aster shrugged, "I could only remember that I was 28 years old, my name was Aster, and a few other things. The rest I do not know. No one here recognized my name or me, so after I healed I lived in the orphanage. I took it on myself to do the rest."

"No one came looking for you?"

"No. The orphanage sent out word. I guess I was not wanted or something."

Pocet gave Aster a quick hug, much to the Elf's surprise.

"What was that for?"

"Because you are too good a kid not to be wanted." Pocet spoke seriously.

Aster had to fight back a tear, "Thank you. You are most kind."

"No need to thank me. I was just saying what I believe." Pocet gave Aster another quick squeeze, "Is that why you are afraid to let others know you are guilded?"

"No… well one of the reasons maybe." Aster stumbled over his words. Other than his friends in The Watch, the certification masters in the guilds, and his teachers, very few had been as kind as this man. For some reason, the kind words made him uncomfortable. It was much easier for him to take criticism than a complement. Something few understood.

Pocet kept his hand on the boy's shoulder as he spoke, "Look my friend, I will keep whatever you say between us. I can understand your reluctance at having your skills known and your nervousness around my men. I can guarantee they will protect you the best they can. Maybe one day you will trust them enough to share your secrets, but I must know what you can and cannot do. Otherwise I may make a mistake that would kill me, them or even you."

Aster cracked a small grin; "The problem is kind of reversed."

"Huh?" Confusion showed on Pocet's face.

"I do not need their protection, but they may need mine." With a light gulp Aster flipped up his collar revealing his guild pins. "How would they feel about me if they knew this?"

Pocet couldn't believe his eyes. Carefully he reached out and touched the pins. The light shock he got told him they were the real things, attuned to the boy. With a Secondary Step 2 rating in his field and sub-fields he could probably take on all three of his men and have an even up chance of winning, add in whatever animals the boy had, well this kid was beyond simply dangerous!

He looked over the boy again taking more care to examine beyond the shoulder length silverish hair, bright inquisitive green eyes and typical Elvin slender build. The boy's clothing was typical of forge workers, fairly skimpy. A leather tank top like vest with a deep V cut out of the front coupled with a leather loincloth made up most of what he wore. Leather forearm guards and leather chaps finished off the outfit and guarded against burns in the forge. Hardened leather boots protected his feet against sparks, hot coals, and molten metal. Even in the chill of the very early spring, those working around a forge had to be careful of overheating. Aster's clothing, or lack there of, allowed Pocet to take a look at more than the facial features.

First he noted the arms were very firm for a boy his age. No doubt this child pulled his weight in the forge. He had seen Aster work with his own eyes. Yet his arms were also graceful, still boyish. The arms led to developing shoulders that also held hints of the amount of work the boy did. His legs were really where the strength showed. They looked firm even when the youngster relaxed. When he walked, Pocet noted he could actually make out the muscles. It wasn't a build of a barbarian, not by a long shot. Instead this lad had the sleek strength of a mountain lion. One had to really look for it to find it. If anything this only made Aster more deadly. Only the very coordinated had such features.

Even when he gave Aster a pat on the shoulder or the two quick hugs, he had not wavered. He tested this again by giving the boy a fairly hard pat on the shoulder as if to say 'do not worry.' Again Pocet felt his hand hit solidness. And again the boy didn't budge or flinch. Oh my, what an impressive kid! Was all he could think.

Pocet had to look away and find something else to think about. He felt his loin cloth starting to rise and couldn't allow this to be seen by Aster or his men. Only Handri and a few of his closest friends knew his interest in boys. Well, them and the boys he had spent nights with that is.

It just wouldn't do for men under his command to find out. It wasn't so much a matter of embarrassment. Many men had a taste for boys, including at least one of his guards. The real problem, as Pocet saw it, was of weakness. He had no desire to get drunk, gamble, or find prostitutes. He believed this made him look rock solid and unshakable. If any of his men found out it would tarnish his reputation. Furthermore, such knowledge in the wrong hands could be used against him by the few enemies he had accidentally left alive.

The only times Pocet really had to hide his feelings were when Handri dabbled in the slave trade, until now that is. Having a boy with the beauty of Aster constantly around would push his ability to hide to a whole new limit. He could always look down on a dirty slave boy, but Aster was neither dirty nor a slave. In fact, he would be the only other Secondary guild certified party member. Silently he cursed Handri for hiring this child, while another part couldn't be happier.

Clearly Aster enjoyed being touched in a caring way. Pocet realized it was probably seldom done. With no parents and being second in charge of a forge left him caught in between two worlds. The first being a cared about child, the second a highly skilled adult. Aster belonged in both, but qualified for neither. The very fact he hid his guild ratings, proved adults were uncomfortable around him.

Also apparent was the fact the other boys in the forge obeyed him with a sense of awe. Clearly he didn't belong to the world of boyhood either. How could he? Other boys would never just be friends. Far from it, Pocet bet. Kids his own age surely were terrified of his skills. What boy would ever say something that might offend a kid who had abilities far surpassing ninety percent of the adults they could ever hope to meet? The answer, very few, if any. No true friendship could exist under such a one-sided relationship. Instead, the best Aster could hope for would be more like a father to a son. How hard must it be for a boy to be treated like a man by kids and a kid or, worse yet, a threat by adults?

Pocet saw this in Aster's eyes. The deeper he looked the more his own heart ached. Carefully, he put his arm back around the beautiful elf. "I look forward to having to having you along."

Aster felt as if his jaw had hit the floor. "Really?"

"Yes." Pocet stated while turning Aster to face him. "You're a great kid and your skills will help us make it through the pass. Why would I not want you to come?"

"Because you're an adult…"

"Yea, I sure am. I am also adult enough speak up when I need help. I don't care if you are 10, 35, or 105 in human equivalent years. A real adult will not only ask for help, but when it is offered take it. Anyone who wouldn't," Pocet paused and rolled his eyes. "Well let me put it this way. Anyone stupid enough to pass up on offered help just because it came in a form he didn't like, is acting far more childish than the young man standing before me."

Pocet put his arm back around Aster and led him toward the forge, "Let's find out how much we spent already and discover what we have left to buy equipment for a few new swords, shall we?"

"Yea, sure. Mind if I ask you a question though?"

"I never mind being asked questions unless we are in combat. At that point I expect orders to be followed. If you have a question as to why my orders were what they were, I'll be happy to discuss them after the battle. Understood?"

Aster vigorously nodded, "That makes sense!"

"Glad you agree. So what is on your mind?"

"Well, I was just wondering," Aster stopped and shrugged, "Never mind. Not that important."

"Hey, whatever you are wondering about must be important enough to at least ask."

After a moment, Aster again nodded, "OK you're right. I just want to know why you want to hire mere swords when Junsac has all sorts of real guild Swordsmen."

"Plain and simple," Pocet stated, "money."

Aster frowned, "I know you can hire four regular men for less than a single trained sword, but why? That makes more mouths to feed out on the road and ordinary people will never be able to stand up to a Gnoll, Goblin, Orc, or even a Kobald. Why bother?"

Pocet raised an eyebrow; "You really know your stuff. I have been telling Handri those same things for years. He does what he thinks best. It is his money after all."

"He seems smarter than that." Aster remarked with some disappointment.

"Oh, don't get me wrong my young Animal Adept friend, Handri is extremely intelligent. He just sees things differently. He would prefer more, over better. He also thinks differently than we do. Understand he has no training, nor the ability to be trained. Only about a third of us can be guilded remember. And then only about half that number shows enough promise to get training. Then you must figure that many of those who do have the innate talent to become a Swordsman, Mage, Animal Adept, Shaman, Warrior Adept, Druid, Sorcerer, or Mystic will never be discovered. Probably less than five percent of the world is actually trained. This means we are elite just by being guilded. Then you must take into account less than half of all guilded beings reach beyond Primary Echelon. We are truly the best of the best.

"Handri sees the world kind of like a pecking order. You have us at the top, the men with brains and money next. This is where Handri sees himself. Then comes those with just brains. Below that there are the stupid rich, skilled labor and average peasant. Everyone else falls even further down the ladder.

"Handri would prefer to keep a very few of the top notch around because he feels inferior to us. We are needed, and in my case I believe even liked. But we have something that he wants; something that money cannot buy. That makes him nervous and envious. The less of us around, the easier it is for him to feel good about whom he is. You will soon see some of this, but do not be concerned. He hired you. That is something he rarely does without talking to me first. You have gained his trust. I just hope he is paying you enough."

Aster absorbed the words but couldn't help but to giggle, "No where near enough, but he agreed to equip me, feed me and my animals and pay for a traveling metalworker's kit and Healthman's pouch. All in all I think I came out well."



"I see only one."

"I have a large bird as well. It is off hunting for me and the other kids at the forge. It will be back by nightfall."

Pocet eyed the boy suspiciously, "Surely you can command more than a wolf and a large bird."

"Shade is no wolf and Dart is no ordinary large bird." Aster beamed a huge smile.

Pocet looked down at the canine again, "Not a wolf?"

This time the canine shook its head slowly and rubbed up against Aster.

Pocet felt his eyes narrow, "It understands what I just said doesn't it?"

Again the canine moved its head, this time up and down before it came over to Pocet. Gently the animal licked the swordsman's hand and offered a paw.

Pocet knelt and shook the canine's limb. As he did so he noticed a few things about it. First, its paw had retractable catlike claws only much larger and sharper. Second, it looked on with an intelligence that sent a small shiver down his spine. Finally, he noticed this Wolf-like beast had shiny black teeth. Each one looked like a razor sharp shard of obsidian. A wolf this creature clearly wasn't. Never in his travels had he run into such a magnificent animal.

"So do you mind telling me what exactly this pet of yours is?" Pocet asked as he ran his hand down Shade's heavy soft coat of fur. Muscle after muscle rippled under his firm strokes.

"I would prefer to wait, if you don't mind." Aster smiled, "I would ask that you refer to Shade as a wolf when anyone asks about him. If you knew, you might accidentally say and I do want his secret kept for as long as I can."

"Keeping an ace up your sleeve?"

"Yea, kinda."

"I can accept that. Now I would like to ask you a question."


"How is it you have so much experience and no gear?"

Aster took a breath, "When I go out, I go with a few adults that have accepted me. They have always loaned me equipment saying I was too young to waste money buying my own, that I would grow out of it. The last few times, however, I realized I could take adult sized stuff like bedroll, water skins, and the like. So I would either have to spend my own money to equip myself or allow Handri to do it. In the long run I think I'll make out. Five copper a day for a 45 year old elf is pretty darned good!"

Pocet laughed, "I can see your point! How much will your Healthman and metalworking stuff cost?"

Aster cracked a wicked grin, "Remember he will have to buy Elvin Steel tools for me…"

Pocet grimaced, "Ouch!"

"Yes sir! Total cost will be about 175 sliver not including food."

"Seems you made a very good deal!"

"I try."

"What about weapons?"

"Oh, don't worry about that. I have a bow, throwing daggers, fighting dagger and an axe. Everything but the bow I captured from fallen enemies."

"So you have seen real action?"

"Like I told you; don't worry about your men protecting me. I may end up having to protect them. I have done it before." Aster looked up to see how this news affected his newfound friend. What he saw pleased him greatly

Pocet nodded, "Even more reason for me to be happy you are joining us. When we finish in the forge let's go shopping for your equipment, OK?"

Aster breathed a sigh of relief; "I would really like that!" He then looked down at Shade; "I'll be OK boy. Go help Dart find us a good dinner."

Shade nuzzled Aster and licked him twice before bolting down the road at an astounding speed.

"Can I at least ask you if Shade really understands us?"

"Yea. He is at the upper edges of semi-intelligent. He can follow complicated instructions as long as I do not use really big words. He probably followed almost everything we said."

"Amazing!" Pocet looked off in the direction the animal had gone. It was nowhere to be seen.

"I'm sure you'll really be impressed when you see what else he can do."

"I'm looking forward to it." Pocet smiled in earnest, "Let's finish up here so we can head into town!

Kandric wandered back into the swamp still trying to figure out what to do. Night was just settling over the icy swamp. A velvet backdrop heralded the end of a fruitless day, but with it came the moon's first light and the replacement of his spent magical abilities.

Early in his training Glaster had taught him to attune to either the dawn's first golden rays of sun or the twilight's beckoning moon. The choice had been Kandric's alone to select the moon as his magical replenisher. It had been his thought, and still was, that a spell caster would most likely use magic over the course of a day, not night. It also occurred to the still tender youth that night was scarier than day. Monsters, like Goblins, came at night. Therefore, it would be better to have all of one's magical abilities to start each night than each morning.

Glaster pointed out the other side of the coin, that fighting monster at night meant he could use up all his magic and have none for the next day, but Kandric remained firm. Looking back on it now he couldn't have been happier with his choice. The spells both before and after the boys attacked him had all but drained him. The thought of being out in the swamps at night without magical force to cast spells put a very vile taste in his mouth, or was that still the so called stew?

He shrugged. In the long run it really didn't matter. All that was important at the moment was finding food for his siblings. How though? He ran down a mental inventory, the only problem with that was it kept coming up as lack of inventory, No money, no traps, not even twine to make a trap out of. It was beginning to look hopeless again. Glaster would be so disappointed. And truth be told, that thought, hurt every bit as much as his family going hungry.

A sound, still very far and faint caught his attention. He knew every sound the swamp made by heart; this had not been one of them. Fear momentarily gripped him. Alone in the swamp still quite a ways from the swamp slums was no place to be, especially at night. Silently he scolded himself recalling Glaster's favorite phrase 'fear is the greatest adversary'.

Kandric took a deep breath to calm his nerves then took stock of what he had. This brought out one of the first grins he had in many days. Think resources! Glaster had taught him many valuable lessons over the years. One was how to make something out of nothing. Getting his mind focused like he was being tested by Glaster seemed to take away all the strain of the current situation. OK, first I need to see what I have: spells, warm shirt, worn, but decent britches, an empty pouch, a sling with a few stones, and a dagger boar horn knife. Umm not much. He thought to himself.

Quickly he looked around scolding himself. No. I will not let fear beat me. I can't panic when I do not even know what made the sounds. So I don't have much, big deal. I have been through tests like this with Glaster. Suddenly another thought struck him; I have the swamp itself. Let's see that gives me ice, water, wood, rocks, and lots of places to hide. I am good at moving quietly outside so I have yet another advantage. A plan started to form.

Carefully he moved in the direction of the sound. Each step he slid in with his foot so he would not accidentally snap any twigs or crunch any exposed dry brush or leaves. After only ten minutes he heard more noise. A small campfire told him exactly where everything was happening. Seconds later the first sounds of angry voices pierced the deepening night. Easily, he identified the language as Orcish. Again he took stock of his surroundings and angled around so he would be down wind. Orcs had a great sense of smell. The last thing he wanted was to be found, plus the breeze would push the sounds and smells to him.

It took a full half an hour to sneak up far enough to see, hear, and smell the makeshift camp. It didn't take all that long before he realized he could have done without the smell. Whatever the lumps were on the wooden spits over the fire, they smelled horrible. Hungry or not, Kandric would never eat something smelling so awful.

The Orcs continued to argue, totally unaware of the uninvited visitor just meters outside their camp. Kandric listened for a time, but most of what they spoke of was gambling and each thought the others were cheating. A few times one would snort about some boss who was always late, but nothing more. In all, he counted six Orcs, but two were young. It seemed their only reason for existing at all was to play fetch when one of the adults wanted something.

It was somewhat disconcerting that the four tents seemed quite large and nice for Orcs. Each one had a fringe on it, which seemed to be of a different color. Unfortunately it was just too dark to make out anything definite. It also seemed strange that each tent had a mule drawn cart sitting next to it. This was very strange, but Kandric's need for money and food for his family overrode the danger he put himself in by continuing to watch. Most towns paid a bounty on Orcs, Goblins, Kobalds, Hobgoblins, and other intelligent monsters.

Kandric also noticed each of the adults had a pouch, and that none were empty. This could be a way to feed his family. An Orc head was worth two silver and the money they carried would be more than enough to get through till Glaster came back. The only problem would be, having to hike all the way to Greenhorn to sell the heads.

The inn keep just outside the town would pay him silver and a half per head taking his cut for acting like the real bounty collector. It had been an agreement worked out between Glaster, Kandric, and the inn keep a few months before when Kandric had asked about hunting down Orcs and Goblins.

Glaster foresaw the day Kandric would go out and take a few down on his own, so he set up a way for Kandric to collect yet be far enough away to where the Slome locals wouldn't take undo notice. Now was a good chance, except six to one odds were not good at all. He had spells, but still six to one was pushing it. He waited to see if a better chance came up, watching every move and getting a good idea on who was the toughest, smartest, and so on.

It was actually with some degree of pleasure for Kandric to see them at last eat. Just getting the blackened lumps away from the fire allowed the air a reprieve from the stench, then every bite they took amounted to less vileness to be smelled at all. Obviously they enjoyed whatever it was, because they downed every last bite and one let out a satisfied belch.

Another sound approached from the south, this time it was of a mounted armor wearing something. It took far longer for the Orcs to notice than it did Kandric even though he was to the north of the camp. The figure was already into view before the first Orc drew a fairly well constructed steel hammer. The quality of the weapon surprised Kandric. Orcs rarely carried well-made weapons.

A human figure stopped the horse and spoke out in broken Orcish, "Don't even think about it!"

The Orc took a step back and lowered the hammer, "I didn't knows it was youse. Sorry." It stammered out in thick Northman.

The figure in chain armor and helm slid off the mount and secured it to a branch, "Let me guess, he isn't here yet." This time his language slipped into Northman, clearly being the easier for him to speak.

"He no show up yet." The hammer toting Orc verified.

Kandric chewed on his lip nervously, this was very strange. A man talking to Orcs? Why? Worse than that, the voice sounded somewhat familiar. He quickly figured it was not a voice from Slome, no he would be able to identify any of them he knew. So must be someone from one of the trips with Glaster, and not just anyone either. It had to be someone they had done business with, or talked to more than once. Try as he might though, he could not put a face with it.

The armored man warmed his hands over the fire, "I do not like being so close to a town. What does he want?"

"We nots knows." The hammer Orc replied, "Boss want me here. I come here. No argue."

"Yea, well I can't just wander off. People might start to wonder about me."

The biggest of the Orcs came up speaking in Orcish, "That's what them for!" He pointed toward the two Orc children. "You take."

Both younger Orcs shook with fear and lowered their heads when the man glanced their direction.

"Good!" the man in chain nodded, "That'll keep people back home happy."

Out of seemingly nowhere two others appeared. The smaller of the two spoke. "I'm glad you're pleased. The Orcs don't like giving up sacrifices."

Instantly all the Orc adults and the man in chain bowed. None of them spoke or even moved till the smaller of the newcomers motioned for them to rise.

Kandric nearly gave away his hiding place as the latest arrivals made their way to the fire. They were Illorcs, the meanest, biggest, smartest of the two legged walking, talking monsters. They were as smart as humans, magically inclined as elves, and had the stamina of a dwarf. Their race had about the same percentage of field trainable beings as the other high intelligent races and a few even lived in towns and cities. Most considered them monsters even when they did live among the other races because they tended to have a very nasty demeanor. Nothing good could come of this.

Carefully, Kandric forced himself to slide a little deeper into the brush. His good position suddenly felt a little too exposed. Yet he couldn't leave. Something was going on and he had to find out what. Glaster always sought out information and wanted to know about strange happenings. Kandric had waited for years for an opportunity to make Glaster happy and proud of him. Maybe this was it.

All the beings, excluding the Orc kids, sat around the fire. They were clearly here to get instructions from the smaller of the two Illorcs. There was absolutely no question who was in charge.

The Illorc spoke after looking around for a few minutes; "You all have done well this winter. Food supplies in this region are next to non-existent. The Goblins have done their part by destroying traps, over-killing game, and keeping town watches on edge. The Gnolls will continue to keep trade caravans at bay, our agent is closing on his targets down in the capital, and the Lizardmen are almost in position.

"Now we can move."

The Illorc's gaze shifted to the four Orcs; "First I want all four of your Orc clans to totally destroy a village in each of your areas. It must look like Hobgoblins did it. The clan that does the best job will be allowed to keep all the treasure and slaves they want. However, the clan that does the poorest job will be allowed to keep nothing at all. The other two clans keep half and give half to me. Understand, I said villages, not towns, not tiny hamlets. I will send one of my warriors to each clan to make sure my orders are followed. If they should happen to die, I will hold that clan leader personally responsible."

One by one the Orcs nodded understanding. Two looked happy, one annoyed, the last fearful. At least what Kandric took for fear. It was not easy judging the kind of pig-faced hairy beasts, especially the way their tusks got in the way of a real facial expression. Nevertheless, body language told a great deal of the story and the body language of all two legged intelligent beings seemed to be pretty much alike.

Finally, the Illorc turned his attention to the armored man, "As for you, I do enjoy the paperwork you provide. It has brought both of us great profits. However, it is time you took a more active role. I need well-crafted weapons, armor, and other skilled labor goods. Orcish and Goblin forged goods will never stand up against what a real Metal Worker, Leatherworker, or even cobbler can do in a town where he does not have to stay hidden. I need you to start buying up goods at an enormous rate. I want there to be even more shortages than just food.

"While my army will be well equipped and fed, anything the others can muster will be just the opposite!"

"That will take money!" the man complained.

"Yes, I will give you some, some you will pay for on your own. What you want out of this cannot be given away. It is time to start sacrificing, just like the Orcs are doing with those two youngsters. Besides, I have brought you a gift to ease the pain on your pouch."

The Illorc clapped his six fingered hands together twice and grinned.

A third Illorc pushed through the brush pulling two chained youngsters of about nine or ten. Both looked fairly clean and clearly terrified. Their heads had gags tightly wrapped around with an extra wad of cloth stuffed into their mouths to prevent any noise. They both wore skilled peasant clothing: woven shirts, animal skin leather jackets, soft furry boots and cloth britches.

The taller one appeared to have bloodstains on his shirt. Judging by the sheer amount it probably wasn't his. His wide fearful eyes were blue and his tussled hair dark, but it was hard to tell if it was black or brown in the firelight.

The smaller boy looked far less unkempt. His gray eyes stayed glued on the Illorc pulling on the chain and his golden hair reflected the flames making him astonishingly beautiful. His clothing had no blood and it appeared he wore a nightshirt under his outer clothing. Unlike the other boy who had to be pulled and dragged, he kept pace so he wouldn't have to feel the bite of raw metal on tender bare wrists.

At the sight of the boys the Orcs started mumbling in angry tones. All looked upset.

With a wave of his hand, the smallest Illorc hushed them, "Relax, I have something for all of you as well." He turned to the Illorc leading the boys, "Leave them. Fetch the rest!"

The armored man went over to the two boys taking the chain away from the newest Illorc to the group. Quickly, the creature disappeared back into the brush.

"Very nice!" the man remarked while running his gauntleted hand down the taller boy's tear streaked cheeks.

The youngster jerked his head back, kicking wildly.

The man let loose with the evilest sounding laugh Kandric had ever heard. Involuntarily, he slid further back into the swamp only stopping when he realized he was moving at all. Fortunately, the years of work with Glaster seemed to take over automatically as well. He made no sounds and luckily no one had noticed his movements.

By the time he looked back to see what was going on with the boys, he noticed the taller one was being held up high in the air by the chains around his wrists. The armored man jerked up and down several times shaking the child unmercifully opening cuts where the shackles dug into the wrists. He then pulled the boy up by his hair. Once standing he moved his left hand down to over the lad's boyhood and squeezed, "You try that again and this will seem like a summer day of relaxing and swimming. Understand?"

Tears rolled down the boy's face like raindrops. Some even hit the ground. The gag absorbed whatever he tried to say, but the nod answered the question.

"Good!" The man let the boy fall back to the ground. He turned looking at the smaller boy, "You look smarter. Are you going to give me any trouble?"

Rapidly the boy shook his head causing his thick golden hair to wave around wildly.

The man motioned, "Come here then!"

The boy walked up slowly, but with no hesitation

The man removed his gauntlets before stroking the younger boy's cheeks. Methodically he moved his hands down caressing the entire face and neck. Briefly he pulled up the nightshirt and slid his hand into the boy's loincloth.

The boy tried to whimper, but the gag stopped any noise. A few tears threatened to fall, welling up in the corner of his eyes. And he lowered his head and chewed on his lips. He remained as still as he could and made no attempt to pull away or strike back though.

"Very good." The man somewhat snarled, "Remain this smart and you will be far happier than your partner will."

Seconds passed before he grabbed both chains and secured them to a metal ring on his horse's barding. "Oh, I will enjoy you two!" he snickered walking over to the Orc children.

He was rough as he quickly found two branches, tested their strength and secured the young Orcs' arms to them. He did this by placing the branches behind their heads forcing them to wrap their arms around it at the elbows. He then tied their arms to the branch and put an extra loop around their necks and tied it off at each end to their wrists. If they tried to struggle loose, the loop would tighten. The end result made an effective strangle device. An extra length of rope secured the branch to a second metal ring on the other side of his saddle.

He did the same thing to the taller boy without making the strangle loop. Instead he kept the chains on, which would cause intense pain because as the horse pulled on his arms, the branch would be pulled onto the back of his neck.

The smaller boy was spared this torment, but was warned about any misbehavior. Just to make sure his point got across, he pulled a small backpack out of one of his saddle bags, filled it with rocks and made the fearful child wear it. None of the children were allowed to sit. When one of the Orcs tried to, the man broke a long thin stick off a tree, pulled the Orc's britches down to his ankles and switched it until the back of the calves, thighs, and butt cheeks all showed angry welts. The little creature's screeches fell on deaf ears. If anything, the man seemed to enjoy the young creature's pain and thrashing about.

Kandric wanted to react, but he knew to do so would only lead to himself being captured or killed. If he really wanted to help the other boys, he would have to out think the beings within the camp. Inwardly he felt lost and hopeless, but he knew his only chance at stopping this group would be to watch and learn. He turned his attention back to the adult Orcs.

The Illorc was motioning toward a group of four other captives and speaking in Orcish. "We also managed to get these four. Well, truth be told, we got a few others as well, but I need my recreation too. You will have to figure out who gets what though. As you can see the women are clearly of prime breeding age, as most likely is the older girl. I seriously doubt the younger one is though."

The strongest of the Orcs laughed, "Me think we should fight for them!"

"No!" the Illorc leader commanded, "I do not need any of you hurt."

Kandric's heart sunk even further as he looked over the females. All four of the newest captives were chained like the boys. Two were somewhat older, probably in their early twenties. One was maybe fourteen or fifteen. The last couldn't have been more than eleven, if that.

Clearly the Illorcs had not been gentle to any of them. The two adults showed recent welts of black and blue forming on their faces. The older girl's face was somewhat bloody, probably from a shot to her nose, and the younger girl's knees were skinned and still bleeding. Like the boys, their clothing showed them to be skilled peasant or higher in cast. Unlike the boys, however, their clothing looked highly disheveled, torn, and dirty. Their treatment had left them exhausted and barely able to stand. In the young girl's case, probably unable to stand. The poor youngster had most likely been dragged some opening up the wounds on her legs.

The biggest of the Illorcs pushed them one at a time to the ground, leaving the young girl laying in semi-conscious agony where they had stopped. He went over to each one, splashing water on them and giving each a long drink. The younger girl even got a little basic bandaging at the lead Illorc's order. He wanted them alive and reasonably healthy.

There was no risk of any of them running and the Illorcs knew it. Still one rested a six-fingered hand on his battle sword and kept an eye on them.

Kandric realized he had missed some of the conversation between the lead Illorc and the others. The reason for them meeting so close to Slome escaped him, as did the way the Orcs settled on which of the females to take. By the time he refocused on what was going on the Orcs were each grabbing the chains to one female and pulling them toward their tents.

One didn't even make it to the tent before a dagger had cut off her clothing. She tried to struggle but the Orc outweighed the woman by a good 75 kilograms and was in very good shape. The creature slammed a finger into her anus as his razor sharp dagger removed the last scraps of material. Her screams were just the start. All but the tent the youngest had been taken to, soon echoed with sounds of fear, disgrace, despair, and pain. The last one had only an occasional whimper emerge from within.

Kandric felt his gut heave. Never could he imagine such horrendous cruelty. The fact the Illorc leader was smiling in sheer enjoyment of it all, only made it worse. Somehow he would have to make every single one of these creatures pay. Unfortunately, it would have to wait. Acting now would do nothing more than guarantee failure, especially when he saw what else was in the camp.

Out of each tent two more Orcs emerged and stood guard. Kandric breathed an angry yet nervous sigh of relief. Had he attacked earlier, the addition of eight more Orcs against him would have spelled certain death. It had never occurred to him the tents might hold others. Regardless of anything else, this oversight would be remembered as a powerful lesson. Glaster always reminded Kandric to learn with every experience. His master's words rang in his mind as if the man was standing next to him. A mistake which doesn't teach is a failure, any other is just a mistake.

Kandric quickly realized he would have no chance against the Illorcs or Orcs, so he focused in on the armored man who was clearly getting ready to leave. He was mounted but had two Orc children and two human captives to lead. The chains on the humans would make noise to cover his attempts to follow as well. All he really had to do was slip away from the camp without the beasts noticing and to circumvent wherever the Illorcs had brought the captives from.

As long as he kept the fire between himself and the monsters in the camp, the crackling flames would blind their Infravision. The wind still blew into his face so his scent was hidden. Finally the noise of the creatures talking and the cries of the female captives would cover minor slipups to his moving quietly in the woods. Kandric gave himself a satisfied nod. Everything was in his favor as long as he used what was available.

Quickly as he could, Kandric moved deeper into the woods and worked a parallel path next to the armored man. Two kilometers passed underfoot before he figured the camp was far enough behind him to stop watching his back as often. From here on out he had an advantage. Much like hunting game animals, he would strike only when he was ready while letting the prey get a false sense of security from seemingly peaceful surroundings. It felt good to put aside his earlier embarrassment and shame heaped on him by two boys. For now he was the hunter!

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