by Dawn Elliot

Something was wrong. Haril could smell it–literally–and he knew no one else could. For some odd reason, he always caught a whiff of a bad odor whenever there was trouble, and he’d been smelling a stink all day. Sighing, Haril checked the set of his sword and sat a little straighter in the saddle. He couldn’t see anything ahead, but he trusted his nose over his eyes.

He didn’t have long to wait. He drew his sword a split second before the three mounted bandits thundered down on him, yelling to spook his horse. Of course, his horse was from the royal stables and was neither spooked nor amused. Her ears back, she raised her tail in challenge. That was the bandits’ first surprise. When Haril threw back his cloak and his envoy’s badge flashed in the sunlight, that was their second.

“Exarchs’ blood!” the lead bandit cursed. Then Haril skewered him. That was the last surprise he had for them. In the frantic mess, they took his horse down. Cursing, Haril dodged the hooves of his own beast as she shrieked in agony.

“Damn you all!” he shouted, angered at the poor horse’s agony. He punched the nose of the nearest bandit’s horse with the pommel of his sword, and the animal reared, throwing its rider off. None of the bandits were true horsemen. Dodging a deadly blow from the remaining rider, Haril spun, grabbed the man’s boot, and dragged him from his horse.

“Now we’re all on the same level, boyos,” he panted, glaring at his unhorsed opponents. They didn’t answer, rushing him in tandem. Haril twisted nimbly out of the way, using a clever little maneuver he’d learned as a child in the Kernish court. Hooking a heel under the first man’s boot, he dumped him to the ground, with a kick to his temple put him out, hopefully not permanently.

That left him with the leader, a cunning fighter with burning eyes, speaking of some Shadowspawn blood in his veins. The two swordsmen danced back and forth among the fallen bandits and the pooling blood of Haril’s horse. The scout found himself at a disadvantage; he was trying to disable, not kill, his opponent, while the other fighter had no such restraint.

Pressed back, Haril realized he didn’t have the skill to take the bandit down without killing him. The robber’s blade suddenly slipped past Haril’s guard to stab his upper arm. He hissed, eyes widening in sudden agony. The blade had poison on it. Groaning, Haril struggled to kill the bandit now, before it could take effect.

It was more luck than anything, a tiny slip of the bandit’s boot, but it was enough. Haril’s blade sank home, and he watched as those burning eyes dimmed in death.

“Ah!” Haril sank to his knees, shuddering. He could feel the heat of the poison working its way through his body. He wondered if there’d be any victors in this battle. “And what surprise do you have for me now, eh?”