I wrote this story some years ago, and tried to get it published professionally, without success. It seems a shame though that only about 6 people have ever read it, so I’ve put it up here for a wider audience.

Like a quarrelsome and indecisive old man finally committing himself to an unpleasant decision, the first rays of the sun emerged over the horizon and shot towards the waiting man, illuminating, almost as an afterthought, the murky grey waters of the ocean. The water was transformed from dull grey uniformity into a mixture of vibrant blues, and the boats of three fishermen were revealed, little specks of white sail standing out like pearls on some noblewoman’s dress.

As the daylight travelled inland, the rooftops of a small fishing village were exposed, although at this distance the only evidence that the occupants were about their business was a handful of smoke plumes rising above the buildings, swiftly dispersed by the slight breeze from the ocean. After the village came fields, and in this case the specks of white dotted about the motley of greens and yellows were livestock, their patient movement an implicit rebuke to the hasty sun. Closer still, and the fields became hills, jealously shielded from warmth and light by a canopy of trees, vying, as they had for centuries past, for the attention of an indifferent sun.

Onward, then, to the gorge where the old man stood, and the light reflected off the leisurely waters of the river far below. The soft melody of water striking against the rocks below was punctuated by formalised phrases of bird song from nearby trees, thin enough here to afford the panoramic view that he was studying so intently as he leaned against a tree, panting and exhausted from the effort of the walk uphill. Smiling as if at some old joke, he allowed his gaze to wonder down to the narrow valley below, and the meandering river running through it.

“It’s a beautiful day,” he announced, to no-one in particular, and calmly stepped off the edge of the ravine.

“It’s a beautiful day,” Trysallia muttered, to no-one in particular. She had risen long before dawn and crept out of the house in order to avoid the tedium of the usual morning routine. Remembering this caused a momentary prickle of guilt, quickly suppressed. After all, it wasn’t as if her sisters couldn’t manage perfectly well without her. She’d be in trouble once she returned, no doubt. It would be just like her parents to ignore her needs, dismiss her problems, but there was no sense in worrying about all that until it had to happen.

Unfortunately, her rebellion didn’t seem to have helped. She was bored with the household chores, and bored with this walk, and she couldn’t even understand why. Up until recently, she’d been content to play with the other children whenever she could, and not mind too much about anything else. Since she’d turned fourteen, however, things just didn’t seem so simple. All that she could see ahead of her was a life of hard, boring work, to no purpose. There just had to be more to life than this.

Naturally, her parents didn’t understand. They couldn’t, having been stuck for so long in the same routine that she doubted whether they had, since they got married, had a thought between them that wasn’t about the day to day grind of staying alive. When she had indiscreetly suggested as much to her father, he’d given her one of those horrible “you’re too young to understand” looks and told her to stop talking such nonsense. She hadn’t mentioned it again.

A sharp bang on the knee as she grazed herself on a rock caused Trysallia to forget her problems in favour of an examination of her surroundings. She had been so tied up in her thoughts that she had walked right out of the forest and some way into the gorge, drawn by the soothing sound of the river. At least it knew where it was going. Trysallia tried to work out how far she had come. The river was narrowing here, and the banks were decorated with thick growths of rushes and other water plants. Several birds flew overhead, calling to each other in raucous agitation. Beyond the vegetation on the bank, the terrain became rocky, and what started out as a slight incline soon steepened to become the stark walls of the ravine, towering grey structures with the occasional persevering green patch of vegetation. Normally Trysallia did not usually wander this far from home, and so did not recognise her immediate surroundings. Fortunately she only had to follow the course of the river back in the direction she had come in order to get home.

Just as she was turning back it struck her that one of the clumps of plants a little further down the valley looked slightly odd. The idle speculation of only a few moments earlier was now totally gone as Trysallia recalled stories told in the village of robbers lying in wait for unsuspecting lone travellers. Trysallia shrugged. Why would a robber wait here in the middle of nowhere when he could have much richer pickings nearer to the road? (Not that they would be exactly spectacular even there.) Her fear mollified somewhat, Trysallia wondered over in the direction of the object that had caught her eye. The browns and greens slowly resolved themselves into the cloak and boots of a reclining man, and reddish brown stains splattered the nearby rocks. “He must have fallen from the top of the gorge,” Trysallia thought. “The poor thing didn’t stand a chance.” Certain that she should be leaving now, but unable to rid herself of the sick fascination that she felt at this first real encounter with human death, she reluctantly inched closer. Despite the obvious violence of his passing, he seemed somehow peaceful, his eyes shut and arms spread wide, as if embracing the ground. Trysallia knelt to examine his blood caked face. Oddly it seemed to have a look of immense weariness about it rather than the fear that she might have expected.

The old man’s eyes flicked open. Birds scattered from the surrounding rocks as Trysallia screamed and fled downstream at top speed.

Someone behind him screamed in shock at the suddenness of it all. Nysol turned to face those standing there, pointedly feigning indifference to the body lying on the ground. Very slowly he crouched down, carefully wiped his hunting dagger clean on the dead man’s clothes, and rose to face those that he had lead for the last eight years. Agitated bird calls from the direction of the ravine broke the silence that had become like another fight in itself.

“I have told you many times,” Nysol said. “I never kill in anger. This is the reason that after twenty years as an outlaw my head remains firmly attached to my shoulders, and why all of you still have your heads too. If any of the rest of you feel that you could do my job better than I can, then my advice to you is to find another band to do it in, unless you’d like to end up like Ran here. Do I make myself clear?”

The respect, and fear, in their eyes was answer enough. “Someone get rid of that body,” he said, as he walked towards the shelter of his tent. Closing the flap behind him, he lay down on the bedroll and sighed deeply. “And that makes twenty in as many years,” he thought. “Be thankful that it gets easier each time.” He had never wanted to kill any of them, except perhaps the first, and then only before the event. How ironic that that action, performed out of a sense of righteous anger, had lead directly to his present life. Scruples, after all, were for those who could afford such luxuries. He knew that the band’s chances of survival under the leadership of a reckless hothead like Ran were less than good, and he had taken steps. That was all.

There would come a day when he wouldn’t be fast enough to cope with the likes of Ran though. What would he do then? He had no wish to finish his days with a knife in him. That set him thinking about the old man again, as he often had in the last year. There just had to be something to it. A lone traveller, old and slow. “Easy pickings,” he’d thought. The ambush had gone smoothly enough, and the traveller was surrounded before he even realised that there was something amiss. When he eventually did realise, however, it was not shock, fear or anger that had registered on his face, just a terrible expression that Nysol could only interpret as weariness, with an unintelligible undertone that seemed incomprehensibly like eagerness.

The man had carried on walking, as if the outlaws weren’t there. Before Nysol could speak, one of the men had struck out with his weapon, and the old man, no longer able to support his own weight, had fallen to the ground. A quick search revealed that he hadn’t been carrying anything of value. Nysol knew that the man didn’t stand a chance out there injured as he was, and slit his throat there and then.

Regrettable as it was, that should have been the end of it, would have been too, had Nysol not come face to face with the old man’s ghost. No, not his ghost; the figure had been flesh and blood, spotted in plain daylight, albeit only for an instant. Despite the briefness of the encounter, Nysol was sure it was he. It was difficult to forget the face of a man that he had seen die.

What did it all mean? Nysol didn’t know, but he had an idea, and that idea had kept him on the trail of that man ever since. One day the chase would end, and then Nysol would take his time getting to the bottom of this enigma. The old man wasn’t going to like his methods much, but if Nysol’s suspicions proved correct then Nysol’s problems might just have a solution.

Reth opened his eyes, then abruptly wished that he hadn’t, since he had absolutely no idea where he was. The room had no windows, and was illuminated by a single tarnished oil lamp that gave off a dull glow and smoky fumes that made him choke. Most of the room was taken up with his bed, a makeshift wooden frame without a mattress, covered with an old blanket. What little space was left was crammed with containers, but from the bed he couldn’t see what was in any of them. Perhaps this was a storeroom, then. His first thought had been of a prison. It would not have been the first time that it had happened.

He rose to get a better look at his surroundings, and the symphony of pain that his body had been quietly playing crescendoed alarmingly, causing him to cry out and collapse back onto the bed. Reth was surprised to see from the corner of his eye that what he had assumed to be a bundle of old rags rose, concerned, and came to examine him, revealing herself to be a young girl.

Her face was small, and angular, and not what most would call pretty, although it was difficult to make much out in the dim light. The long brown hair that surrounded it was unkempt, dirty, and loosely tied back with a length of twine. Her wide grey eyes stared at him with an expression of worry. All in all, she was quite unremarkable; no different from dozens of village girls he had seen in settlements throughout the land, and yet there was something about her that felt familiar, something that he did not wish to think about at the moment, pained as he was.

“Now stop that!” She said. “You really shouldn’t be moving about.”

Reth scowled at her. “Thanks for the warning. If you had mentioned it before I sat up, it might actually have been some use.”

The girl’s features lost their determined edge, looking first confused, then hurt. “I’m sorry,” she said, “perhaps I’d better leave you to rest.” She turned, and made for the door, without making a sound. As she opened the door, Reth spoke, more softly this time.

“Wait. I have no idea where I am, or how I came to be here.”

The girl shut the door and turned back to face him, avoiding his eyes. She came over, and crouched by the bed. “I found you at the bottom of the ravine,” she recounted. “I thought you were dead, so I came back here and told my father. He and my brothers discovered that you were still breathing, and brought you back here. We . . . we didn’t think that you were going to live. I’ve been dressing your cuts for you.”

“Thank you,” Reth sighed, flat and without emotion. “My name is Reth, and it seems that I owe you and your family a great deal, although I regret that I have no way of repaying.”

“I’m Trysallia, and I’m afraid I have to go now. If I don’t get my chores done, I’m sure to be in trouble. I’ll try to bring you something to eat a bit later, and we can talk more, if you feel up to it.” The girl left the room, closing the door behind her, and Reth rolled over on the bed, trying to find a position that did not hurt somewhere.

He knew, however, that the physical pain would not last. For the deeper pain, however, there was no respite, as he had just proved yet again. He had known it wouldn’t work, of course, but sometimes everything just got too much, and he had to give it another try. There was always more suffering afterwards. He turned over again and tried to get to sleep. Eventually, sleep came, but the dreams made sure there was no rest with it.

Trysallia was on the verge of tears, and not for the first time in the last few days. As she scrubbed the pans from the evening meal, she silently wished again that she had never wandered off and found Reth that day. Her mother kept complaining about an extra mouth to feed, but her father was much worse. When Reth had first been brought back, father had sent for the priest to examine the man’s injuries. The priest had taken a long look, examined Reth thoroughly, and declared that Reth had not even broken a bone. If the man had fallen from the ravine, then evil forces were at work. Father, being a devout man, had taken this very seriously, and it was only mother’s adamant refusal to turn a sick man out of the house that meant that Reth stayed. Reth was not welcome, but it was Trysallia who bore the brunt of her parents’ discomfort.

The result of all this was that Reth became Trysallia’s responsibility, and there was no lightening of her other duties. Her father would not even come near the man, and waited eagerly for the day when Reth was well enough to leave. Added to all this, Reth himself was a moody patient, usually quiet and uncommunicative. Occasionally, though, he would seem to forget himself for a while, and talk about things from his youth. Trysallia would sit, rapt and unmoving, as he told of his life as an apprentice (what kind of apprentice, he would never say), and stories of his travels around the world. Trysallia could listen to tales of such places and things, but Reth would often stop in the middle of a particularly fascinating tale and refuse to continue. Trysallia came to suspect that he might be making these stories up. The people that she knew were not like the men and women of his tales, who seemed somehow more cunning, more gifted, more alive than the people she knew.

The dishes were done, and it was time to collect the plate that had contained Reth’s supper. Trysallia could not put it off any longer. As she entered the room, Reth was sitting up on his bed, the empty plate on the floor beside him. Softly, she closed the door and turned to face him.

“Father says you have had enough time to recover, and he wants you to leave tomorrow.”

Reth winced briefly, then shrugged. “He’s right. I have outstayed my welcome. I’m well enough to manage on the road now. I shall leave first thing in the morning.” He turned his tired eyes toward Trysallia, not quite disguising the regret on his face. That was more than she could bear.

“Please, take me with you.” She asked.

“Don’t be ridiculous, girl. You belong here, with your parents.”

“Why do I belong here? Do I belong here so that I can slave away at boring tasks all day? So that I can receive nothing but complaints for my efforts? So that I can marry some oaf of a fisherman when my time comes? So that I can bear him child after child until I am an old woman? Is that what I belong to? A life of slavery? Let me come, please.”

“Poor girl. I’ve filled your head with fancy tales, and now you feel that your life is lacking. I could tell you that you are mistaken about your life, but I’ll not lie. You may be right. However bad it is though, you can be sure you will be better off than you would with me. There is a lot to be said for the safety of a warm roof. Perhaps if I had realised as much when I was young, I would not be as I am now. Where I am going, girl, you would be a fool to follow

  • especially if I find what I seek, although I doubt I will.”

“Don’t call me girl! I have a name, and I’m not a girl anymore. As for your quest, I don’t care about the danger - I can’t bear to stay here a moment longer.”

“If you are no longer a girl, Trysallia, you should stop behaving like one. Your responsibilities are here, mine lie elsewhere. You may not come with me.”

“I thought that you were different, but you’re just like the rest of them really. No-one wants me to be happy.”

The end of Trysallia’s sentence came out as a choked sob, and she started to cry in earnest. Reth placed his hand on Trysallia’s shoulder.

“I’m too old and too tired to argue with you more, Trysallia. We can talk about it more in the morning, but if I am to be off tomorrow, it is essential that I get a good night’s rest. Please let me sleep now.”

“Yes Reth,” she answered, and ran from the room, tears still flowing down her face. Reth watched her leave, lost in his thoughts.

Nysol’s face was not known in this village, yet. He found that it often benefitted him to get friendly with the locals, and a small investment in ale for a couple of locals usually paid dividends later. Today the beneficiaries of his largess were a couple of fishermen and the village blacksmith, already loose tongued, and somewhat the worse for wear.

“There is evil at work in our land, all right,” the blacksmith was saying. “What with the rumours of outlaws spotted in the forests, the poor harvest, and the strange weather that we’ve been having.” The blacksmith’s tone became conspiratorial. “And I’ll tell you something else too, there was something very funny about the old man that was found at the bottom of the gorge a while back. I heard say that there wasn’t a single mark on him, and I don’t claim to be a learned man, but it doesn’t take a scholar to see that a fall like that could kill a man in his prime, never mind an old timer like that one. And how’d he fall in the first place, that’s what I’d like to know? I mean, it’s not unheard of for a spirit to take on human form to trap a victim, is it? I’m no priest, but it’s plain that the time has . . . “

Nysol had stopped listening. The warm contentment he was feeling had nothing at all to do with the beer. He finished off his drink and left the tavern, smiling predatorially.

The fire had finally caught alight, and meagre though it was, it at least served to relieve some of the chill caused by the cold night wind. Reth had hoped that he would have got further today, but knew that his recovery was far from complete. He would not have chosen to leave in the middle of the night either, and even the fallen branch he had been using as a walking stick could not carry him further, but it had been easier than a protracted argument with that foolish girl.

It had been ill-advised whimsy to talk to her about his life, even as little as he had, but what else had there been to do? Hopefully his desertion would ease her pain at his leaving, although he had briefly been tempted to take her along. It was lonely on the road, and he’d been travelling it far too long without company. There was a time when . . . no, he didn’t need her, and he didn’t want her here. He had come to love her like a granddaughter, but they belonged to different worlds.

After travelling half the night and all day, he had more practical reasons to regret his precipitous departure. The weather matched his mood, and the weeks spent recovering had blunted his resistance to the cold and the damp. As a meagre supper of foraged roots began to cook in the fire, he pondered what the journey ahead of him tomorrow would bring, assuming he didn’t die of cold in the night. He laughed bitterly at the thought.

This night seemed alien and hostile, stealing the warmth from his fire. The forest, like him, did not sleep, and the darkness made its sounds foreboding. Not for the first time that night, a rustling nearby disturbed his contemplation He tried to make out movement in the trees around him, but the shadows cast by the fire confused him. Reth shrugged, and moved closer to the fire. Animals from the forest would not approach, but the fire would not protect him from more dangerous predators in search of more than food and warmth.

A hand clasped him by the shoulder, and a coldness that had nothing to do with the temperature came over him.

Trysallia laughed. “I startled you, didn’t I?”

Reth tuned around very slowly. There was fear in his eyes, but this was momentarily eclipsed by anger. Trysallia’s smile froze on her face, and slowly faded.

“I’m sorry Reth, I didn’t mean to scare you,” she said.

There was no reply. Reth’s anger faded, to be replaced by a terrible hardness that frightened Trysallia far more than the anger had. He simply sat and stared, until Trysallia had to look away. Finally, he spoke.

“Go home,” he said.

Trysallia’s spirits sank further, the excitement that had sustained her throughout her pursuit of Reth seemed to have deserted her totally now. She slumped down by the fire, and watched the fire burn.

“Go home, I said.”

“But . . . I thought you’d be pleased to see me,” she replied timidly.

“Don’t be such an idiot, girl. Why do you think I left in the middle of the night?”

“Oh, Reth. Please don’t send me back. I missed you - there’s nothing for me back there. I can help you, collect firewood, cook, . . . “ Trysallia started to sob, a low moan at first, which grew into great sobs that shook her whole body. Her tears hissed as they fell into the fire. Slowly, hesitantly, Reth put his arm around her.

“We’ll talk about it in the morning,” he whispered.

She pushed him away violently. “Like we did last time?” She shouted.

Reth sighed. “No, I’ll still be here this time. You’d probably only follow me again anyway. Would you like something to eat?”

Still crying, Trysallia nodded.

The disturbed ashes revealed a small morsel of food. So someone had been here recently then. Nysol hated these guessing games, he much preferred lying in wait for his prey to chasing it across the countryside. In this matter, however, he had no choice, even if it did cause the others to grumble. Fortunately, Ran’s death was still recent enough that no-one did more than stare reproachfully.

Nysol stood. Pain from an old wound in his knee rose to a slow crescendo, then gradually subsided. His face didn’t reveal the hurt. Strolling over to the stream, he examined the soft ground for footprints. There, at the edge of the water was a small print, presumably made by someone going to fetch water.

Cursing, Nysol turned away. The print was too small for the old man’s boot. No doubt some woodcutter and his lad had camped here. Nysol had been following the wrong trail.

The smells of dinner cooking drifted over to the tree under which Reth was sitting, and he smiled with something like contentment. He knew that he should have sent her back to her parents - taken her back if necessary, but he’d been a fool for most of his life, and old habits die hard, Somehow the road seemed less cold and lonely with Trysallia by his side, and she had this way of looking at him that made it hard for him to deny her anything.

Trysallia was singing as she cooked, a high, pure, yet mournful tune that resonated through the tree branches. Reth listened as she sang.

 Sometimes when I'm lonely, 
 Sometimes when I dare, 
 I think of all those moments 
 That we could never share.
 But please do not think that I sit here 
 Mourning all night and all day.   
 The years make the pain seem so muted, 
 But they can't make the pain go away.
 For life it goes on just as always, 
 Although it seemed done for a while.  
 My world will not stop for one person, 
 So forgive me, my love, if I smile.
 And there's no way to tell when they look at my face, 
 'Cause sometimes I can't tell myself.  
 But I'll see that gold band 
 Or his hand in her hand 
 Then the pain will return just the same as before, 
 But the pain is worth more than great wealth.
 Sometimes when I'm lonely, 
 Sometimes when I dare, 
 I think of all those moments 
 That we could never share.

Reth’s cheerfulness had vanished now. The song was so beautiful, but Trysallia had no understanding of the words she was singing, as if the song were written in a foreign language. Reth, however, understood it too well.

No, best not to think of that, of her, of Marile. He had managed for so long to keep Marile out of his mind, although it had taken much time since her death to be able to do so. He didn’t go to the funeral, that would have raised too many questions. She had said he had been an idiot, and she was right of course, but he hadn’t really known it until he had heard of her death. Then he had finally understood the enormity of what he’d done, and what he had lost in the single minded pursuit of it. In truth he had lost Marile long before she had died, and she had tried to tell him so, but his ambition was all that he was listening to then.

Trysallia resembled Marile in so many ways: her looks, her stubbornness, her dreams. Reth couldn’t send Trysallia away because he needed her so much, and because she needed him too. However it wasn’t fair to use her to journey back to a past he’d left behind of his own arrogant will, and where Reth was going, he had no wish for her to follow. He would have to make her leave him, but he couldn’t bear to be alone again.

The meal was burning. Trysallia moved the ashes around with a stick to distribute the heat more evenly. At home, she would have resented the chore of cooking, but here it took on a different character - if she didn’t cook, they didn’t eat, so she did cook. It was strangely liberating.

Reth sat a little way off, lost in thought, like he seemed to be most of the time. The more she came to know him, the less she seemed to know about him. There had never been anyone quite like Reth - everything he said seemed to mean three different things, and she couldn’t understand any of them. Sometimes he just wouldn’t talk at all, or he would say something comforting, only to rebuff her with his next words. She had considered going back to her parents, but something about Reth fascinated her, like a puzzle she had to solve, and anyway her parents didn’t want or need her like Reth did.

The old man stirred and approached the fire, a grim expression on his face.

“Please, Trysallia, I beg you to leave me and return to your parents,” he pleaded.

“Never, Reth, I like it with you.”

“Why will you never do as you are told?” He snapped.

“Why will you never stop treating me like a little child? You don’t know what’s best for me, I do. It’s my life!”

Reth took Trysallia’s hand. “Perhaps you are right,” he admitted, “and perhaps I do treat you like a child. Very well, I will do so no longer. You have a right to know the reason that you must leave. Forgive my reticence - I have never told another what I am about to tell you.”

Trysallia’s anger turned to fascination as Reth began to speak.

“You may find this difficult to believe, but a long time ago, I was young like you are, hungry for knowledge, like you are, and arrogant, like you are. I have told you already, that I lived in a great city. This city was a centre for learning and research. In my pride, I believed that I could master that which had eluded many who came before me, and control the fabric of reality. There had been so many that had come before me, I knew that I could not learn all that they had left behind in one lifetime, so I resolved to discover a way to live as long as I needed.

“So I learnt, and learn was all I did, for if I were to complete my task, there was no time for anything but learning. I had a very dear friend, Marile, and she tried to persuade me to take an interest in other things. She failed, and I forgot that I loved her. Eventually she forgot that she loved me too, and took another for a husband.

“In the meantime I studied, and the years passed unnoticed. Years were spent fruitlessly searching blind alleys, and many times I gave up the quest in disgust and frustration, only to return again the next day. It felt as if I were in a race with Death, and must reach the finishing line first at all cost. Finally, so unexpectedly that I almost fell over at the shock, the answer came to me. I knew the secret of eternal life.

“Without thinking (and I will not say how) I made myself eternal. I could not, I cannot die. Two weeks later, I heard the news that Marile had died. Of old age. I had taken so long in my quest that I too was old, as you see me now, and all of those I had once called friends were now gone.

“Perhaps I could have borne this by itself, I do not know. For I returned to my studies with renewed vigor (if more leisure). It was then that I began to understand the enormity of what I had done. The world that we live in is connected in subtle and mysterious ways that cannot be understood, and all of our actions have effects that we cannot foresee.

“Death, you see, is part of the process of change. By preventing my own death, I had, in effect, disrupted the pattern of change within reality. The truth is that because I refused to die, the world is destined to remain forever as it is. There can be no new inventions, discoveries, art, or music. No-one may think a thought that has not been thought before. For the sake of one man’s pride, one man’s life, the human race has lost all that made life worth living in the first place.

“So I look for Death. We race again, but this time the rules are different, and Death is always slightly in front. I do not believe that this is a race that I can win, but I must try nonetheless, for I have sacrificed something that was not mine to give. You, however, must not come with me. I may not find that which I seek, but I fear that it might find you instead. Please, go home.”

Trysallia began to cry again, but this time her tears were for an old man who had lived too long. She put her arms around him and held him tight. “I’ll never leave you,” she whispered. Reth too started to cry.

The birds sang a counter-melody to Nysol’s mood, mocking his frustration. Surely the old man could not have vanished? Yet who knew what powers an immortal had at his disposal. For Nysol, however, time was running out. The band’s food supplies were diminished, and they must return to more profitable work soon. He knew that he could push them so far and no further, and besides he himself had no wish to go without food. It seemed though that coming so close to his goal had only increased the urgency that he felt. He could sense the vitality trickling from his body as each second passed, and he simply must find the old man.

Above all, he wished that the cursed birds would shut up. Birds, he thought with an inward smile, don’t usually sing words, but something, someone else certainly was. If nothing else, the incautious singer might generously agree to replenish their supplies.

“Spread out,” he ordered. “You get around the back of where the singing is coming from, and the rest of us will wait here for her to approach. You all know the signals. And remember, no-one is to attack unless I give the word. No unnecessary violence.”

The song ended, but the poor singer was already trapped, no matter that she wasn’t aware of the fact. Nysol doubted that she had much of value, but it would at least keep the men in practice, and less likely to complain.

Nysol could here the crack of twigs as she approached and stepped out from behind the tree, sword at the ready. Instantly his mood got a whole lot better.

“You’ve no idea what trouble I’ve gone to to find you, old man,” he laughed.

The young girl yelped in shock, and clung to her companion. This time the old man did look as if he were scared.

The rest of the outlaws stepped out from their hiding places wielding an assortment of makeshift weapons, only a few being lucky enough to carry bows or axes. Reth knew that they could never get away. He would survive the encounter, naturally, but Trysallia was another matter. Carelessness had been too long a habit, and she would die, or worse, as a result unless he could talk his way out of this. Trysallia felt too heavy clinging to him, and he leant on his staff for support.

“I’m hardly worth the trouble, I’m afraid. As you can see, neither of us have anything of value.”

The scarred man’s smile made Reth feel queasy. Deliberately he strode towards Reth and spoke in tones too low for the rest of the band to hear. “Oh, but I think you do. You see, we’ve met before - I distinctly remember it because I killed you at the time. But here we are again, and you’re going to tell me how you did it.”

“I have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about,” Reth indignantly replied, but the look of panic on Trysallia’s face was plain enough for the robber to read.

“Don’t waste my time, old man. You’ll tell me now, or you’ll tell me later, but it would be much better for you if you were to tell me now.”

“What are you going to do? Kill me?”

The outlaw scowled. “That is not something that I do lightly, and as you know, I can’t kill you anyway. Before I’ve finished with you, you’re going to wish that I could, though. Just spare yourself the trouble.”

Reth saw the desperate longing in the outlaw’s face, and pity mingled with fear. “You don’t want anything that I could give you,” Reth replied.

“Of course, there are other ways in which I could persuade you.” The thief’s gaze lingered meaningfully on Trysallia. Reth knew then that there was no hope. All he could do was to create some confusion and give her a slim chance of escape. As quickly as he could, he lifted the staff and began to swing.

“Reth!” Trysallia screamed, as the arrow flew towards him. Trysallia’s hand struck Reth’s chest, and he sank to the ground, overbalanced by the weight of the staff. There was a terrible soft sound. The shock of realisation and the pain of it made it difficult for Reth to breathe. A terrible scream scattered the birds from the surrounding woodland. Reth lifted his face from the mud of the forest floor, and turned to see the wound, the flow of blood issuing from the base of the arrow where it had penetrated Trysallia’s chest. He hurled himself to his feet, caught her and gently lowered her until she was lying in his arms.

Trysallia was trying to look at him, but her eyes seemed to lack the ability to focus. Reth’s vision blurred too, obscuring the pain and fear in her face. Shakily, she grasped his hand, and tried to speak, but Reth could not understand the shapes that her mouth formed. With a sound that was half sigh, half groan, she released her hold.

Reth’s tortured shout echoed around his head. Trysallia died, and his pain doubled as he desperately tried to contain the grief, the guilt and the anger, but there wasn’t enough room inside him. His body shook and his breath came in great gasps as the anguish of his loss grew within his torso. The pain came in great waves, so that he barely noticed as he collapsed to the ground for a second time.

With a spasm that felt like a detonation of agony within his chest the pain abruptly halted. Reth died.

Oddly enough, the germ of the idea for this story came from reading epic fantasy, hence the slightly hackneyed fantasy setting. In these types of book, there is often immortals who are thousands of years wondering around, yet in all the time they’ve been around, no scientific progress has occurred. I just wondered why.