“I know this guy,” Lee-Lack thought. “One of the newer recruits. What was his name again?”
“Let’s just kill him, Ereon,” one of the other men said.
“Ah, how unfortunate,” Ereon said. “These are two of my newest gang members, and one of them made the mistake of telling you the name of the leader of the Renuvian Plains Robbers. Now we do have to kill you, but it may be of some comfort to you to know that I will give him a stern talking-to.”
Ereon had drawn his sword while he was talking. From high on his horse he looked down upon Lee-Lack. There was something familiar about the young man, but he couldn’t lay his finger on exactly who he was reminded of.
He rode toward Lee-Lack, his weapon raised high above his head. As he gained speed, Lee-Lack planted his legs wide apart on the ground and took the hilt of his sword in both hands. His eyes never left his opponent’s sword. He knew exactly how he was going to parry Ereon’s coming blow.
To Lee-Lack’s surprise Ereon dropped his sword and clutched his thigh. A small arrow had planted itself deep in his left leg.
Seeing his adversary incapacitated, Lee-Lack didn’t hesitate and ran toward the second assailant.
“Look, there,” the third one screamed. “A Mukthar. Let’s—”
A second arrow flew inches away from his horror-stricken face. Thoroughly frightened now, the man yanked the reins, turned his steed around and gave his horse the spurs. A third arrow lodged itself in his back. Half-unconscious he fell from his horse. Falling backward, his left foot got caught in the stirrups. He died instantly when his head cracked on a sharp rock. The panic-stricken animal tried to run away, dragging his corpse along, once in a while bucking in an effort to get rid of the dead weight. At last the foot slipped out of the stirrup. The horse, not having any reason to run anymore, came to a standstill.
Meanwhile Lee-Lack had reached his adversary who tried to flee as well, but couldn’t get his horse under control.
Lee-Lack grabbed the man by a pant leg.
“Down, you,” he roared, dragging his assailant from his horse.
The man landed on his hips, but he had no time to cry out in pain. Lee-Lack ran him through without a second thought. Once he was satisfied the man was dead, he turned to Ereon, who was still immobilized on his steed. In the same unceremonious way Lee-Lack pulled the impostor-leader from his horse, completely ignoring the arrow sticking out of the man’s thigh, forced him down on the ground, and knelt beside him.
“Ereon, Ereon, Ereon,” he said softly, lowering his voice two octaves. “Do you really think you could replace me as chief of the Renuvian Plains Robbers?”
Ereon became chalk white.
“Impossible,” Ereon stammered. “You’re too young… Who are you?” His eyes narrowed to slits. Finally, he seemed to recognize his former leader. “They said you were dead… How?”
“Are you all right, Ber— Lee-Lash?” Yllyesh shouted as he emerged from behind one of the rocks at the foot of the mountains.
“Yeah,” Lee-Lack hollered back. He turned again to Ereon. “It was nice meeting you again, Ereon, but I have to go. And so have you.”
The former robber chief rose, one foot on Ereon’s chest, and planted his sword between the man’s ribs.
Yllyesh was running toward Lee-Lack.
“Yeah, I’m all right,” the robber said. “Where did that bow and arrow come from all of a sudden?”
“Yes, well… I had hidden them before you arrived and found me.” Yllyesh looked slightly worried.
Lee-Lack laughed out loud.
“Very wise, my Mukthar friend,” he said. “Now, let’s see, we have three dead men here who won’t mind if you borrow their clothes. They may not match perfectly, but between the three of them you should be able to collect a complete outfit without holes or tears from swords or arrows. Get changed.”
“What? Why?” Yllyesh asked. He rubbed the bandaged shoulder.
“I told you. No exertion. Now, see what you’ve done.”
“I’m sorry, but the best I could think of to save your life was to shoot the men who were about to kill you. And drawing a bow takes some effort.”
“I could have handled all three of them,” Lee-Lack growled.
“I wanted to do my part. That’s all. And why do I have to change my clothes?”
“Are you dense, man? Your clothing betrays you as being a Mukthar. You took some pains to point that out yourself, and not ten minutes ago you were recognized as such at first sight. If we meet soldiers of the military governor, chances are they will put out your lights, just like they put out your tribesmen’s. But, be my guest, and wear that cloak and that shirt, lined with fur, if you like people putting red hot pokers in your eyes.”
Grudgingly Yllyesh had to admit this was an unattractive prospect.
“Our friend Ereon has a decent pair of pants, and he just told me he doesn’t need them anymore,” Lee-Lack said, and he chuckled. “Take them.”
Yllyesh crouched down and, reluctantly, began to unbuckle the dead man’s belt.
“Instead of standing there, you could help me by removing his boots, you know,” he grumbled.
To his own surprise Lee-Lack wasn’t offended.
“Sorry,” he said, amused, “I was waiting for your instructions.”
“Yeah, very funny— Oh, by the toothed anus of Shardosh… but will you look at his breeches? They’re beyond filthy.” The young Mukthar rose. He had half-peeled off Ereon’s pants and he gave Lee-Lack a despondent look. “I can’t wear those.” He pointed at the body. “He stinks and his clothes stink worse.”
“And you smell of roses, you think?” Lee-Lack asked in a mocking tone.
“No I suppose not,” Yllyesh erupted, annoyed. “Not after so many weeks on my own in the plains. But at least it’s my dirt. My filth. My very own stench.” He gave Lee-Lack a defiant look.
“Yeah, see, that’s why you need to ditch your Mukthar clothing. We need to get you to the inhabited parts of the region. To a place where you can take a meal and a warm bath.”
“To you they might seem effeminate. You can order a cold bath too if—”
“No, no, no. I’ll try it. ‘When in Zyntrea, do as the Zyntreans,’ my mother used to say. It’s only polite to follow the customs of the land you’re traveling in. Besides, Mukthar honor demands it.”
“I’m sure it does.”
Yllyesh sighed and looked at the half-undressed corpse. He shuddered at the prospect of having to wear someone else’s dirty clothes.
“Before you start embarrassing yourself crying like a baby… I have a proposal. Just pick out the clothes that you like best and that fit you. You needn’t wear them immediately. I know a place where you can wash them and where we can refresh ourselves at the same time.”
“No warm water, I suppose?”
“No,” Lee-Lack said, irritated.
“I was looking forward to a warm bath.”
“You’ll get one. Eventually.”
Yllyesh smiled radiantly.
“You’re easily spoiled, aren’t you?” Lee-Lack said in a dry tone.