“The Queen’s Deception”
by T.A. Saunders
Death came silently to the mercenary. The blade pushed into the back and had sliced cleanly through both padded leather armor and muscle to find its target in the left lung. The wound itself was not the death of the unfortunate would-be bounty hunter, but rather the pale hand that had reached around his head from behind and snapped his neck. Had his helmet not been a full-faced one, he might have seen the hand out of the corner of his eye. The body was dragged into the surrounding density of woodland with no more fanfare than any other of the wild things in the Nyseeah Forest ever brought to killing their prey.
This was a common fate for those who took the bounty the Kingdom of Vyss posted for their most wanted felon. Murderer, traitor and outlaw, the Wraith of the Wood was rumored to be mixed breed abomination, driven insane by his very nature. What had started as a small bounty for a killer of guardsmen of the crown became an urban legend that was used to frighten children to obey their mothers when bedtime was near. Heroes from across the vast realm of Imarel, of both honorable and sinister repute sought the growing pile of platinum coins to kill or capture the Wraith of the Wood, only to join the pile of bodies he always left at the gate.
Those that perished never died gently. Often found butchered in indescribable ways, with organs missing or limbs twisted in unnatural positions, the more that sought the fiend that lurked in the forest, the worse the butchery was. It was as if the Wraith was writing his warning on the ledger of these broken bodies and giving it to illiterate fools who missed the words under the gleam of treasure. Sometimes it was one person, sometimes an entire hunting party. The Wraith did not discriminate between men and women, content to slaughter them with equal fury.
Advisers had begged Queen Arisyeema to lift the bounty she had called five years ago so the eventual appearance of another horrifically mutilated corpse would not be found by children playing near the gates of the city, but she would not hear of it. Even King Nevrezh could not dissuade his queen; it was not an uncommon sight at the Twilight Court to see them quietly arguing with smiling faces and hissed words over the matter that she would not allow to rest. Nevrezh often wondered if his queen had a personal knowledge of this Wraith of the Wood, though he never spoke such suspicions aloud. The king was patient when it came to his wife’s penchant for plotting and had chosen to watch and learn, rather than to shout and demand his will that this hunt be done.
And so a new day rose and with it, more hunters to seek the Wraith of the Wood’s head. The King, who had business in the neighboring Grand Duchy of Brookshire did not attend the arrival of this band of three that came to seek the bounty. On this day, the queen herself saw to it and was glad in her own silent, smiling way that he was not in attendance.
Arisyeema had the appearance of a pretty porcelain statuette upon her shaped-wood throne. She wore pale pink gown with a flattering neckline and a string of pearls to match the platinum, pearl and diamond tiara upon her brow. Courtiers danced to music played with wooden instruments and drank deeply of dark wine cultivated from the tart Marsilla fruit. The whole arrangement looked like something that might have been a part of a child’s music box the way the Elves of Vyss danced together around their queen. She was the center of their world and they orbited her with their movements and watched with their eyes but most importantly, listened for truth to supplement the rumors of recent days.
“This is a most delicate matter,” Queen Arisyeema began as she sat upon the throne shaped from a living, spidery-branched Forgora tree, wrapped with vines and made soft on feather down cushions. “So many of the kingdom’s heroes have been vanquished by this Wraith of the Wood, that the legend of him is becoming greater than the actual man. This cannot be allowed to pass.”
“He is a mortal thing then?” Asked the first of the three heroes before the queen. He was a broad-shouldered sort, with shaggy red hair and a thick beard to match his thick torso. A Brookshire Hillsman by the look of him , with three flintlocks in his belt and a falchion sword strapped to his hip.“We were made to believe this was a creature of darkness and not a mere murderer.”
“To capture a mere murderer would not require heroes or hunting parties,” Arisyeema replied with a smile upon her soft pink lips that, however demure also seemed almost pleased to answer the question for the horrific truth of it. “He is not merely a murderer. He is the embodiment of murder. He takes joy in murder like we take joy in a finely prepared feast or a well-written poem.”
“Not much for reading poetry ashamed to say, Your Majesty,” Said the second of the three heroes who stood before the queen. He was a reedy thin man with pale skin and dark eyes. His head was cleanly shaved save for a thin goatee on his chin that gave him an unseemly look to match his dark and loose-fitting clothing. Arisyeema guessed him a Xosian man from the moon, Ishaela. “But I know what don’t sound right and this has a stink of something we’re not being told of rightly. What stops you from sending in your army and sweeping the wood for this madman?”
“I concur,” Said the third hero, a woman who had been standing between the two men and had remained silent through the discourse until now. Her inky black hair was sheered short like a man’s and her left eye was covered by a leather eye patch, leaving her with a single bright green eye. The jagged scar running down her left cheek spoke of the cause to the loss of the covered eye, but added to the intensity to which the gypsy woman carried herself with. Like the first hero, she donned padded leather armor, but carried a pair of basilards that were sheathed at her hips. Her olive skin gave her away as a Tashrani gypsy from across the Sea of Whispers. “If this Wraith of the Wood is such a menace, why not flush him out with the royal army and take him by by numbers?”
Arisyeema folded her hands upon her lap before she offered her response. While most would not think much of it, those who have attended court understood that the very subtle gesture was a mark of mild irritation from their queen. It was enough to slow the rotation of dancers and to make the music a tad softer. Two of the three heroes barely seemed to notice this very subtle change in their environment, but the Tashrani woman did and even went so far as to glance over her shoulder at the quieting splendor, before turning back to face the queen and her response.
“You are new to Vyss and our troubles,” The queen said with a smile to be too pleasant to be a reflection of joy. “We are rare to admit foreigners into our lands and for that I do apologize. It is a tradition amongst our people that we keep our history, our culture and our way of life as pure as possible. Unfortunately, this makes you ill-informed of our troubles to the north, where the Xannti Dragons stir and seek to make dispute with borders that have been known for centuries. We have had to advance our armies to address this growing conflict and can not spare them to deal with this matter.”
The queen made a reasonable statement and one that did not seem to trouble the three heroes overly much. Nations had their conflicts and an old kingdom, such as Vyss would likely have more than a few disputes over land and resources. There was quiet amongst the three as they exchanged glances before the red-bearded Hillsman spoke for the trio. “We’ll take to the hunt of the Wraith of the Wood, but we would like fresh horses and supplies for the journey into the forest.”
“It is the very least I could do for you three brave souls,” Arisyeema said gracious tone. A motion made with a slender hand donning a ring with a large and strangely luminescent blue gem brought forth one of her handmaidens. A slip of a girl perhaps no more than twenty years old, only barely coming into her slowing of age. “Send word to the servants that these three are to be given fresh horses and given all manner of supplies they seek.”
All three heroes bowed to the queen, only rising after she gave her leave to do so with a gesture of her right, ring-bearing hand. The departure for the trio came on purposeful boot steps, for having a mutual discomfort for the barely concealed disgust and whispered mockery of the watching courtiers. Their kind was a filth to them that they barely tolerated within their borders at the best of times. When there was blood to be spilled, it was well enough to have the short-lived humans expend themselves instead of an Elf of Vyss, who might live thousands of years.
Still, their coin spent as well as anybody’s so it made little difference what these soft, decadent elves thought of them. So long as they were paid for their trouble everybody would be happy in the end. Except of course the Wraith of the Wood, who was now the primary focus of the trio’s conversation, as they escaped the tall entryway of the palace, onto the marble-paved roads of the vast and ancient city of Am-Raynia.
“I know why t’was we took the job Malcolm,” The wiry Xosian of the trio said to the burly, red-bearded Hillsman. “But did you see how they all had a smug look on their faces? You’d think we were being fed to a lion and not ridding them of an unseemly problem of theirs.”
“Saw it.” Malcolm replied while motioning the group to head to the guest house they were being put up in for the night. “And given the body count this Wraith of the Wood has amassed, it’s not wrong to think that we are being fed to a lion. Doesn’t change there’s a job to do.”
“I do not disagree with Quinton that there is more to this than what we are being told,” the one-eyed Tashrani woman chimed in with a sidelong glance to the bald Xosian man. Her scarred countenance grew thoughtful for a moment as they crossed past a looming Hirsalas tree. Sacred to the Elves of Vyss she was mindful to not step on its roots or even risk brushing against one of its low-hanging branches. “It would not be unreasonable to think, given how little value these elves put on human life that a blood sport might have developed around this bounty, yes?”
“Ashya,” Malcolm began while observing the same care around the sacred tree. “It doesn’t matter if it’s blood sport or a bounty, it pays. We do the job. I don’t much care if this Wraith of the Wood is a demon or a common cut-throat, we’ve got a boat sitting in the docks near Moonfall that won’t be sailing till we repair the damage we took from that pirate cutter of the western waters. Don’t complicate matters.”
“I would never dream of doing such a thing, Mal.” Ashya replied in an entirely too cheery manner as they came to the door of the guest house. Quinton knocked sharply, despite the fact there was a door man standing right there in some attempt to annoy the poor fellow. “I will do the job and not bother telling you that the elf that had the fancy yellow buff coat? He bet thirty gold coins that you would be the first to die.”
“What?!” Malcolm roared while the trio wandered into the guest house. “When we come back with this Wraith of the Wood’s head, I’m going to find that stupid dandy and slap him in the face with the fiend’s own tongue!”
“Won’t comment on how you giving another man tongue doesn’t sit well with me, given we’re sharing close quarters this evening.” Quinton added while tipping an imaginary hat to the Elvish maiden awaiting them within.
The merry banter continued, much to the duress of the far more proper Elvish hosts all the way up to the trio’s room and into the night. Discussion of a plot to capture this Wraith of the Wood was mingled with drink and laughter. While they were joyous in sound and boisterous with vows of victory, each held a silent dread for the impending task the rising sun would bring. Given the extraordinary body count tallied up thanks to others that have gone after the Wraith of the Wood, their plan had to be perfect. One small error on anyone’s part would likely mean death for the lot of them.