“Stand, and deliver,” shouts the robber.
I look behind me. There’s no one else there. So I put on a bold front. “I think not. I think I’ll get down off my horse and skewer you precisely through the throat, just for practice.”
“You’ll be dead before you get off your horse,” replies the robber.
He has a point. Well, two of them, if you count the one at the end of his sword. Time to put some magic into practice. Just a little trick: cause his sword’s pommel to heat up.
My robber yells, and drops his sword. I say to him, “Are you going to get out of my way, or do I turn you into a pillar of fire?” When he hesitates, I raise my left hand, as if to strike him down. My bluff works. With another yell, he runs off into the woods on my right, and is gone from sight.
I get off my horse, and (carefully) pick up the discarded sword. It’s actually a very fine piece, probably an Etralstan officer’s sword, to judge from the quality and pommel design. Which raises the question of where the robber got it. Etralsta is far to the west along the Green Sea, and we haven’t fought a war with them in decades.
Still, it’s a better blade than mine, and it’s even lighter, which matters when you’re as slight as I am. I remove my own sword, tie it to my baggage, and store the Etralstan sword in my scabbard. That leaves the robber without one. I don’t pity him for the lack.
It’s strange. I’m not in a hurry to go fight a dragon. In fact, the idea still scares me. And yet, once I get back on my horse, I feel the need to hurry on my way. I eat my lunch in the saddle, and give the horse as few breaks as possible. So I’m saddle-sore when I reach an inn just about nightfall.
The landlord tells me they haven’t had much trouble with highwaymen, and can offer no insight on my would-be assailant. He catches his daughter, who is my waitress, flirting with me, and gives her a horrible scolding, telling her she shouldn’t want to sleep with every tramp on the road. And then he spends half an hour apologizing to me, saying he wasn’t implying I’m a tramp. Since I get a free beer from him by way of apology, I bear him no ill will. The daughter is noticeably absent when I am served breakfast the next morning.
My third day on the road is uneventful. By the fourth, I’m leaving the woods behind, and climbing up into the foothills of the Farasi Mountains. On the fifth, I reach the village of Tebestora. It’s time for a rest, and I know exactly where to get the best one: the Tebestora School. So I turn off the main road, go along a well-known dirt road, and cross over the saddle into the Tebestora Valley. The school is spread out below me. It hasn’t changed, at least not from this view.
I got most of my education at Tebestora. It was my mother’s dying wish I be sent to school, and my father, for once, spared no expense. Not to pat myself on the back too much, but I was clever, and excelled in school. I expect a warm welcome from some of the teachers there.
I am to be disappointed. As I get closer, I notice a curious lack of activity. I hear no one stirring at the school. When I take the last corner on the path, I see the main building. It looks deserted. The front door is wide open, but there is not a soul to be seen.
I get down off my horse and draw my Etralstan sword. I tie up my horse out front, and enter into the main school building.
If it weren’t for the lack of people, the school would look normal. There are lessons on some boards. Books and personal items, as one would expect, are scattered about the building. It’s as if everyone suddenly got up and left in the middle of the day, leaving everything behind but the clothes they were wearing.
There’s one obvious possibility: plague. People would leave in a panic as quickly as possible. But where are the bodies of the first victims?
I check the dormitories, the infirmary. No one. The faculty housing, the gym, the administrative building, the laboratories. Nothing.
Finally, with a heavy heart, I go to check the graveyard. There is one fresh grave. No headstone.
And then I hear a noise from the chapel in the middle of the graveyard.