Philius Teirwin was lost.
No, he reasoned, not lost, just currently uncertain of his whereabouts.
After all, without a destination, could he really consider himself lost?
No, certainly not. This was just a… lengthy detour. Taking the scenic route, as it were.
Philius sighed, throwing his pack to the ground and leaning against an outwardly-jutting rock. Now was as good a time as any to take a short break, and maybe regain his bearings.
Well, it was not as though he needed a break to begin with. One of the perks of his race was a near-limitless stamina, which he had put to use travelling across what felt like half the supercontinent of Alveus. In fact, his shoes had worn out before he had.
Looking down, he noted with some displeasure his tanned, leathery feet. He really should have brought a second pair of shoes on his journey. Stamina aside, it was simply uncomfortable to walk barefoot across the arid landscape he found himself in. But then, who could have foreseen his journey would be so insufferably long? Was there nobody in dire need of help in this world? He only had a week left.
It was then that, quite by chance, Philius’ eyes wandered over a scene beginning to unfold not a quarter-mile from his location, down at the bottom of the mesa he had climbed.
Yes, this would do. This would do just fine.
“Just what is it you expect from me?” the woman asked, crossing her arms in front of her. Contrary to the general populace of the two neighbouring countries the mesa bordered, she had rather dark, earth-coloured skin, suggesting a Southern origin. Under the faded grey hood she wore to keep the ever-present sun at bay, long locks of charcoal-coloured hair spilled out in disarray, framing her expression of obvious displeasure. The only other parts of her visible beneath her oppressively warm cloak were her feet, which were wrapped in white strips of cloth and garbed with simple woven sandals.
“I really don’t know how I can make myself much clearer.” The man opposite her sighed, leveling his broadsword at her. “This is a textbook case of “stand and deliver”. Your money or your life. You get the picture.” The man’s skin was tanned and battered like an old saddle, fringed with a squared-off set of dust-coloured mutton chops, which bordered a thick, droopy mustache of a similar hue. The man was garbed in the remnants of what was most likely at some point a military jacket, only now it was crossed with an old dusty traveler’s cloak, equally threadbare. In spite of his ragged appearance however, his bearing was that of a man of action, and he maneuvered his sword as such, occasionally punctuating his remarks with a deft flourish.
“And I keep telling you that you won’t get so much as a bent Etrurian half-penny out of me,” the woman replied with just a hint of irritation. “Now do me a favour and put that pig-sticker away so we can both be on our way.”
“Ma’am, with all due respect, I’d be a failure of a bandit if I let you go on your way without so much as a “by-your-leave”,” the man retorted. “It’s a matter of professional integrity.”
“Ah yes, you truly are a credit to your profession, holding a lone, unarmed woman at bay with nothing but a rusty saber to your person. Truly, I admire you, sir," the woman shot back, her voice dripping with sarcasm.
“Now then, there’s no need to take that tone with me, ma’am.” The man frowned, his mustache dancing a jig of irritation. “Why, I’ve half a mind to…”
“Pardon the intrusion!” a youthful voice interjected from above. Both turned in response as a barefoot figure scampered down the steep incline of the mesa behind them, dropping into a roll which carried him barely a dozen yards away from the pair.
The youth was dusty from his acrobatics, his pale skin looking a little rosier under the red mesa dust. He was dressed in a utilitarian manner, with a simple shirt and trousers belted at the waist with a knot of rope, and a red bandana around his head, thick shocks of black hair peeking out from beneath.
“Oh look, you brought reinforcements.” The woman sighed. “I feel almost flattered. If I applaud your courage, would you let me go?”
“No need for that!” the barefooted teen declared, scrambling to his feet and drawing a sword of his own. “I’ll dispatch this ruffian for you!”
“Oh, really?” she returned, looking mildly amused. “Chivalry isn’t dead, I see.”
“Indeed, it looked like you were in quite a bit of trouble, so it’s only natural I’d lend a hand!”
“No, not really,” the lady responded, waving a hand dismissively. “This gentleman here has been more of a nuisance than any kind of a threat.”
“You wound me, lady.” The robber sighed, lowering his sword.
“So, you really don’t need my assistance?” the youth asked disappointedly.
“At the very least, none of the sort you intend to offer,” she returned, eyeing his sword pointedly.
“Well, that was a waste of time.” The youth sighed, sheathing his sword. In a trice, he scampered up onto a nearby rock, resting his head on his hand. “Well, by all means then, proceed sir.”
“Thank you, lad," the robber returned, nodding politely. “Now, once more from the top; hand over all your valuables, lest I be forced to run you through, lady!”
“And for the last time, I haven’t a thing of value on me!” the lady returned, spreading her arms wide dismissively. “All I have to my name is my sandals, my clothes, and an empty canteen.” She punctuated the word by uncorking and upturning the container belted at her waist.
“You’re broke?” the bandit asked in plaintive disbelief.
“Not a penny to my name,” the lady returned. “Can I go now?”
“Now see here!” the bandit shot back, his mustache twitching with indignation as he worked himself up into a temper. “Do you think its easy work waiting in these godforsaken wastelands for travelers to rob? The law of the land is that every traveler carries a little gold to pay off bandits, and in return, we leave their belongings alone, and don’t check for the hidden compartments they store their true valuables in!”
“Is… is this true?” the lady asked in disbelief, looking up to the youth who was still perched on the nearby boulder, looking on with an air of indifference.
“Pretty much, miss," he answered lazily. “Even peasants make sure to have a couple coppers on them to shake pitifully at any robbers, so the robbers can in turn tell them it’s barely worth their while, then send them on their way feeling quite proud of themselves.”
“That’s right, it’s tradition!” the robber continued. “Look at the position you’ve put me in, now I have to kill you. If I don’t, every traveler will make the same excuse that they’ve got no money, and all us honest robbers will have to go and find another job!”
“For once… Just for once… can’t you human-types come up with a sensible tradition?” the lady complained, planting a palm across her face. “Tell you what; you let me go this once, and I won’t tell a soul that you let me off the hook. That way, it won’t damage your “business”. Deal?” She extended her hand. The youth noted that it was wrapped in the same spotless white bandages as her feet.
“No! No indeed!” The robber huffed. “I’d be mortified to accept such a half-hearted conclusion!”
“Let me guess.” The lady shrugged, retracting her hand. “Professional integrity?”
“Absolutely.” The robbed nodded, his mustache following up on the motion. “If I make an exception for you, I’d be honour-bound to make the same exception for others. No, as much as it pains me to do it, I must cut off your head now.”
“Oh, this is perfect!” the youth exclaimed, bounding to his feet.
“I beg your pardon?” The bandit's eyebrows shot up to his hairline.
“Hey miss, I bet you’re troubled now, right?” He leapt off his rock. “If I kill this bandit for you, it’ll be a huge favour, right?”
“No, not really.” The lady sighed, flicking back her hood. “Do you think a lone lady wold be travelling though the wilderness like this, unarmed and unprotected if she feared for her life?”
“Errr…” the youth stammered, mulling it over.
“As it is, I am simply on a pilgrimage to Eldarth Forest, where I intend to die anyway. This would merely be an unexpected setback.” She turned to the robber. “You’ll be satisfied with just my head?”
“Eldarth Forest, you say?” the robber exclaimed. “Why, that’s practically my backyard. If you just carry on straight along this path and take the next left…” He paused under the amused gaze of the lady. “Hrrrmmm.” He cleared his throat. “This is all highly irregular. Still, I suppose it’d ease my conscience a little if you’re at ease to accept it. Very well, I’ll take your head, and this matter will be closed in my eyes.”
“Done.” The lady nodded, approaching the man and kneeling down on the ground.
“Oh, go to Xarando,” the youth swore, hopping back up on his rock. “Is it so much to ask for just one person with the request of a lifetime? Whatever, get on with it, old man.”
“You… you intend to watch me behead this lady?” The man complained, his mustache drooping unhappily. “This isn’t the proudest moment in my career, you understand. Some privacy would be appreciated.”
“It’s a free country," the youth shot back. “I’ve never seen a real beheading. Carry on as if I wasn’t here.”
“Oh, for goodness sake…” the lady muttered. “Now I’m a circus attraction.”
“Most improper,” the robber returned. “No, I don’t like it one bit. I shant behead the lady until you depart.”
“Well, I intend to sit right here until you do behead her," the youth shot back. “How do you like that?”
“If I may…” the lady interjected
“The nerve!” The robber retorted, his mustache bristling. “Have you no heart? Think of the lady! You think she wants her death to be a spectacle?”
“Says the one about to behead me,” the lady retorted.
“Hear, hear!” The youth applauded. “Anyway, I bet you just don’t have the guts to do it.”
“If you weren’t just a snot-nosed guttersnipe, I’d duel you for that,” the robber retorted haughtily, his nose in the air.
“Oh, don’t let that stop you, old man,” the youth taunted. “I’d be happy to cross swords with you. I’m a bit put out at the moment, and I think running you through should improve my mood a trifle.”
“Well, if that’s how you want it…” the man muttered darkly, maneuvering his sword in a pattern in front of him.
“IF YOU DON’T MIND," the lady interjected heatedly.
“Well, what is it now?” the bandit snapped.
“Are you going to behead me anytime today, or should I go brew myself a cup of tea while you two bicker like dogs over a scrap of meat?” she snapped back.
“What gall!” The robber harrumphed, his mustache sticking out straight with indignation. “Very well, I’ll behead you here and now, but know that I’m doing it only as a special favour to you!”
“How can I ever thank you?” The lady rolled her eyes. “Just get on with it.”
“Very well.” The robber sniffed. “I’ll make it quick.”
With deft hands, the lady tied up her hair into a bun, pinning it off with a carved wooden pin she procured from the folds of her robe. “I’m ready.” She nodded.
The robber nodded back, holding his sword in front of him in a warrior’s salute. Then, in a single motion, he lashed out and severed her spine.
The head rolled to the ground, coming to rest next to the boulder the youth was sitting on.
“That was anticlimactic,” the boy complained. “I expected more blood.”
“Little savage," the robber muttered, examining his blade. “Indeed though, decapitation is usually a far more gruesome affair. I suppose I’m just getting too fast with my sword. Must’ve sliced so quickly I didn’t get any blood on the old blade.”
“Now, as promised, you have my head.” The disembodied voice of the lady emitted from the kneeling, beheaded body. “Now that we’re all done here, I’ll be on my way.”
And with that, the headless body got to its feet and began to casually stroll away.
“Hold it right there!” The robber stomped his foot indignantly. “I say, do you take me for a fool ma’am?!?”
“Is there some kind of problem?” The lady turned around, sighing. Although how she sighed without a head, the youth was unsure.
“What kind of tomfoolery is this?” the robber retorted.
“Why, it's just as you see," the lady returned. “You said you’d be satisfied with my head. You have it right there, so I can be on my way now.”
“Well, yes, but…” The robber paused. “Well, confound it all, generally when you behead someone they have the goodness of heart to die then and there!”
“So sorry to disappoint.” The lady bowed sarcastically.
“No, this won’t do at all," the man continued. “My apologies, but I’m afraid that I must finish what I started, whatever that takes.” He leveled his sword against her again.
“Oh, blast it all!” the lady exclaimed heatedly. “What an absolute pain of a man you are!”
The youth’s ears perked up.
“Sorry to interrupt…” he started, hardly daring to hope. “…but would you consider it a favour now if I skewered this old man?”
“Oh, of all the idiocy…” The lady made to plant a palm against her face, but then realizing she didn't have one anymore, simply lowered her hand again. “Yes, thank you, if you would keep this confounded bumpkin from slicing me into kindling, I really would be terribly grateful.”
“Kindling?” the youth thought. “Well, no matter.” He leaped off his rock for the second time. “Well then, I would be happy to oblige, lady.” He turned to the robber. “My name is Philius Teirwin, and I’m afraid this is the end for you, old man.”
“Hmmmpf,” the old man grunted. “I don’t normally approve of wanton fighting, but in this case, I think you deserve a lesson, brat.” Redrawing his broadsword, the old man assumed a ready stance.ns 188.8.131.52da2