“Rhal,” Kenny said without raising his eyes from the Chess board resting before him. “Does it ever stop raining here?”
“No. Not really,” his short, stout opponent answered, hunched in his cushioned chair. Rhal stroked his orange handlebar moustache while surveying the black and white battlefield in between the two friends. “Are you gonna play your turn any time soon? Between your twenty minute decisions and this rain, I'm about ready for a nap.”
Two weeks earlier, Kenny had made his way out of Port Dreq by the skin of his teeth. His friendship with Jillian was all but ruined, and he had nothing but the clothes on his back, a small amount of silver, and his stolen artifact. Kenny's determination to reach the Lucos Mountains, however, had not wavered. He had one last acquaintance that might see him safely to his target destination.
After leaving Port Dreq, Kenny took the Najat Road east. This road had been around since ancient times. Its original function was to connect Port Dreq to Hightalon Keep, the fortress that lay on the opposite side of the Lucos Mountains. As the separate civilizations of Vega collectively grew, the road was gradually expanded to connect all four of the major continental city-states; Port Dreq to the west, Hightalon Keep to the east, the city of Ozu to the north, and the desert city of Bazaq, far to the south.
The village of Clasiq rests some miles off the foot of the Lucos Mountains. It lies at the point where the Najat Road forks north and south to Ozu and Bazaq, respectively. The village itself had a dozen or so homes, an inn, a brewery, and a fledgling courier service known as Rhal's Instant Transport, which was anything but instant.
Kenny and Rhal became acquainted when the former was still a pirate. Rhal had met Captain Zon in a tavern in Tandris and pleaded with her for safe passage to Vega. Much like Kenny, Rhal had engaged in an act of thievery a bit beyond his level of dexterity, and in an instance of desperation, placed his trust in Zon's band of seafaring savages. During the paranoia-filled voyage, Kenny was certainly the only person Rhal could have considered a companion. Kenny often staved off the aggressiveness of other crew members toward the shady trader. Fortunately for Rhal, he not only survived the journey, but turned enough profit to establish his modest business.
“I'm thinking. If you feel like napping then by all means,” Kenny said, still completely captivated by his possible plays.
“Right. Like I'm just gonna leave the board unattended around you. Probably pack up the whole set and leave before I woke up,” Rhal joked as he rose from his chair. “I'm getting us some drinks.”
As Rhal went to his kitchen, he kept Kenny in his line of sight, positive that his weasel of a guest would try to tamper with the game. He quickly opened a wooden cabinet to retrieve two small glasses, as well as a large light blue crystalline bottle with a clear liquid inside.
“That's not necessary, Rhal,” Kenny said, scouring the board for any additional plays while pinching the top of one of his knights between his thumb and index finger.
“What do you mean? It'd be a crime for us not to drink while we play,” Rhal answered as he returned to the table, placing the fine bottle and glasses to the side of the ongoing battle of wits.
“I mean hawk-eying me while you get the drinks. I thought we could trust each other,” Kenny said as he finally made his move.
Rhal laughed and poured the clear, somewhat viscous liquid into the two glasses and slid one to Kenny. “Believe me pal, I trust you. With my life, in fact. You have the trust of being allowed inside my house, and that trust isn't easily gained. But when it comes to Chess, I wouldn't trust my own grandmother, let alone a career criminal,” he said, finally drawing Kenny's eyes off the board and to him. “Eh, no offense or anything.”
“Fair enough.” Kenny shrugged. He picked up his drink and sniffed the contents of the glass. “Whoo, this stuff smells sweet. What is it?” Kenny inquired.
“I can tell you it'll probably be the death of me. They make this stuff right here in the village. It's called Clasiq Syrup,” Rhal raised the glass to his fiery orange moustache. “You never finished telling me what happened, Kenny. With Jill and the bounty hunters.”
Kenny downed his drink in one large gulp as reality returned to him. “Well, Jill doesn't want to see my face again. I just hope she made it out of Port Dreq alright. I left her in bad shape.” Kenny said remorsefully. “The bounty hunters had these strange guns. One of them damn near destroyed the Lady Helena. I wound up stealing one and giving it to Jill. You know, 'token of appreciation' sort of thing. Go figure, a legitimate trade route is more valuable to a pirate than the weapon to end all weapons. I guess in hindsight it makes sense,” Kenny shrugged.
Rhal looked at his friend. He saw the regret in Kenny's face. “I see,” he nodded. “What about the bounty hunters?” Rhal asked as he moved a pawn forward.
“One of them is dead,” Kenny said. “The other got arrested by the Dreqqian guards,” Kenny glanced at the front door of Rhal's home. “But I think he's still after me.”
Rhal looked worriedly at the door. “Yeah, you mentioned that when you got here. And you are certain that he isn't just gonna barge in here and murder us, right? If he was arrested then why are you so certain that he's coming?”
“I know when I'm being followed, Rhal. Relax. He won't try anything while I'm in Clasiq.” Kenny looked up at his pudgy friend. “You're right though. I'm sorry. Look, they mentioned something in Port Dreq to the guards about being there legally. I'm pretty sure he'd like to clap me in irons as smoothly as possible.”
“Well I'm glad that my life is worth a 'pretty sure' from ol' Kenny Rothman. If he did follow you all the way here, he knows where I live, and unlike you, my house can't just wander off wherever it pleases. He might try to question me if he doesn't see you leave the house.”
“True. But he is going to see me leave. As soon as the sun is up, I'll be outta here. I just needed a little bit of time to put together a plan. I don't suppose I could borrow a few things for the journey? I promise I'll bring it all back,” Kenny said as he captured Rhal's recently relocated pawn with his bishop.
Rhal let out a gravelly groan. “You mean besides the horse and carriage that you're already asking for? You're stretching my hospitality pretty thin, Rothman,” he said, analyzing Kenny's move on the board. “Just tell me what you need.”
Kenny grinned. “I knew I could count on you, buddy. All I need is a change of clothes, a weapon, a tarp, and some fishing string.”
Rhal stared impassively at him. “Are you being funny? Can I offer you a hook and some worms to go with that?”
“Oh! And a pillow,” Kenny said. “I mean, if you happen to have an extra one lying around.”
“Fine. You know, you're lucky I even have fishing line, considering we're in the god damn mountains and all. We'll go to the barn and get your wagon set up after this game, then it's off to bed for me. But Kenny,” he said as he moved his knight to capture Kenny's bishop before looking up at Kenny. “Don't get caught.”
“You all set, pal?” Rhal asked as the morning rays of light were just beginning to shoot through the cracks in his barn.
“Think so. Let's get after it!” Kenny could be heard arranging his belongings inside the wagon.
“Alright Kenny, good luck!” Rhal flipped the hatch and pushed the large wooden doors of his barn open. The yellow grass outside was covered in morning dew, and a light fog was just beginning to give way to the sunlight. “You got one of my smartest horses. Go, Desmond! Hyah!” Rhal called as he gave his horse a slap on the thigh. Desmond, a large white and gold thoroughbred, began his slow trot out of Rhal's barn, pulling the cozy carriage behind him.
As the carriage moved into the sunlight, Rhal could only see a silhouette of the transport vehicle. Its driver sat comfortably at the top, wearing a sedge hat with reins in hand. The wagon's large wooden wheels slowly rotated over the dirt path. “Kenny,” Rhal said to himself. “Take care of my horse.” He swigged a shot of Clasiq Syrup before preparing a trough of horse feed for the day.
When Rhal said that Desmond was among his smartest horses, he was being quite genuine. Desmond knew the route out of Clasiq and up the mountains, with only minimal steering required by Kenny. Kenny had hoped that the bounty hunter was alert enough to notice his departure, but he had no real way of looking without being too obvious. His only option now was to try to enjoy the choppy ride up the Lucos mountains.
After a few hours, Kenny's carriage was isolated. The snow fell softly, covering anything and everything for miles. He had finally reached his frigid destination. The bounty hunter, however, had indeed been tracking him all this time. Though the hunter tailed Kenny from a safe, considerable distance, no one knew the subtle art of stealth quite like Kenny did.
The bounty hunter had crept up, parallel with Kenny's wagon. He saw a ledge that would offer him the height required to execute his strike, and hastily secured footing on the large stone before launching atop the carriage. As he soared toward his mark, he brought his sword down through the top of Kenny's sedge hat.
In that instant, the bounty hunter registered that something was amiss. Where there should have been blood, there were only feathers. It was then that Kenny rolled onto the ground from a wooden plank underneath the carriage. He quickly regained his bearings as he clutched a small wooden device that unfolded into a composite crossbow with the flick of his thumb. The bounty hunter turned and saw his critical error as Kenny steadied his aim, still laying on the dirt path just behind the wagon. Kenny squeezed the wooden trigger, firing his one and only shot into the deadly bounty hunter's chest. As the shot made contact, the hunter fell off the carriage. Desmond halted his trot.
“You fucking bastard,” the bounty hunter spoke, before coughing out a spurt of blood. “Did I just assassinate... a damn body pillow?”
Kenny slowly approached the hunter, wide-eyed and cautious. He kicked the broadsword away from his enemy and searched for any other weapons.
The bounty hunter began breathing heavily. “Well played, Rothman.” Sweat began to accumulate on the hunter's forehead. He strained to pull back his hood, revealing a stubbly beard, dirt blonde hair, and more scars on his face than could be counted. “Do me a favor, yeah?” He took another heavy breath. “Take that sword over there and run it through me. It's only common courtesy.”
Kenny looked at the bolt that was sticking out of the bounty hunter's left pectoral. Though Kenny knew this man was no stranger to dealing death, a sense of sympathy reared itself in him nonetheless. “Shit,” he muttered to himself. “I could probably get it out,” Kenny said to his predator.
“Ha,” the hunter was stunned. “Thanks... Really. But it's too cold and you're damn sure not a doctor. Leave me. I will go see my brother now.” His breathing began to slow significantly.
Kenny knew that the bounty hunter was right. “It's just that I've never killed anyone before. Three years as a pirate and I never hurt a soul. But then you had to come along!” He shouted accusingly as he began to grow angry at the man for forcing him to take a life.
“Hm. We both know that's not true, Kennard Rothman,” the bounty hunter said purposefully. “But hey, if some village 'guard' forced my parents into slaves... I'd have slit his throat in his sleep, too. Neither of your kills merit much guilt,” the bounty hunter said with a small laugh, before reclining his head onto the snowy dirt road and letting out a raspy, final breath.
Kenny was shaking. His lips were quivering. Tears streamed from his face. After all these years, he had almost blocked his parents' fate completely from his memory. As he watched the life exit this man's eyes, everything that led him down his morally grey path came rushing back.
Kenny grew up in the Tandrian village of Iloris, in a modest home with his parents. His father, Marcus Rothman, worked in the local grain warehouse. His mother, Julia Rothman, was training in herbology, with aspirations to become a court healer. Kenny lived a carefree childhood.
Unfortunately, the Imperial Triumvirate was ambitious in its growth. Every so often in the provinces of Tandris, select families would be taken for “Imperial Service”. This service was really just unpaid labor, which usually resulted in death due to physical exhaustion. The kidnappings were very subtle and often covered up with some sort of alibi. While most people knew that it happened, they simply lacked the power to do anything about it.
Hours before Marcus and Julia's disappearance, Marcus had heard whisperings at the warehouse that his family might be chosen that night. To spare their son, Marcus and Julia had planned for Kenny's escape from Iloris.
“Kenny,” Julia told her eight year old son one evening. “I want you to sneak into the warehouse and sleep there tonight. Don't ask me why, and don't be seen by anybody, you hear me?” She was holding Kenny by his small shoulders and fighting back tears.
“The warehouse? Why?” A young Kenny asked.
“Didn't I just say don't ask me why?” Julia began to lose her strength as her eyes welled up. “I have a friend who will come find you in the warehouse. He's going to take you out of the village, to Port Kesser. I love you, Ken. You need to get to the warehouse now,” she pulled Kenny in for a hug that she wished could last an eternity. “Go upstairs and say goodbye to your father, Kenny. Then go out the top window. Remember, do not let a soul see you.”
Indeed, nobody saw Kenny that night. He had flitted around building corners and through the tall wheat grass like a breeze, dead set on making it to the warehouse. As he was roughly halfway to his destination, curiosity and fear took control of him. He doubled back home to find his mother and father. Upon returning home, he saw Mikhael, a local town guardsman, smash the lock of his house with the butt of his spear. Moments later, the guard came out with Marcus and Julia in binds.
Kenny was frightened, and only knew to run. He turned back and made his way toward the local grain warehouse. Sliding along the shadows, he cultivated what would become a highly developed sense of covertness over coming the years. When he finally reached the grain house, he scaled a wall and climbed through an upper window. The inside of the warehouse was pitch black.
After casing the warehouse's interior, Kenny found a rag and curled into a dark corner, like an abandoned dog. Cold and alone for the first time in his life, the young boy cried himself to sleep. Kenny had barely managed to get some rest when he was awoken by a tall man wearing all black.
“Kenny,” the man whispered in a calm but stern voice. “My name is Zeke. Your mother and father told me to get you out of here, so that's what we're gonna do. I need you to be strong. Just stick with me no matter what.”
Kenny's large blue eyes were still puffy. He looked at Zeke, a bald man with an honest visage. “Okay,” he wiped the tears and grime from his face as he stood up.
Zeke smiled at the bravery of the frightened child. “It's gonna be alright. You're about the same age as my oldest boy, Quentin. I'm sure you two will get along just fine.”
It was four years later before Kenny could muster up the courage to return home to Iloris, curious of the fate of his parents. When he returned, he found no answers as to their whereabouts, but it did not take the orphan long to discover the home and daily routine of Mikhael. Though Mikhael was no more than a Tandrian pawn following orders, Kenny could not bear to let him live any longer. The dutiful man was still guilty for his part in sentencing Marcus and Julia Rothman to their fate.
One gorgeous Tandrian summer day, Kenny found a way into Mikhael's home, through an unlocked window leading into the guard's kitchen. He stayed in the very back of Mikhael's bedroom closet for hours, waiting like the deadliest of vipers. When Mikhael eventually returned home and drifted off into slumber, Kenny crept out of the closet and drew a small dagger from his belt.
Kenny placed the edge of the blade at the guard's throat, and with a quick slice he cut deep and ended Mikhael's life. Watching the helpless guard bleed out from his neck in terror brought a numb feeling to Kenny. Mikhael's eyes were wide open as he grabbed at the slit in his flesh, but his efforts were in vain. Kenny looked on in horror until Mikhael was no longer writhing on his blood soaked bed.
A petrified Kenny went back to Mikhael's closet and gathered a large amount of dry clothes. The twelve year old boy piled clothes all over the corpse in a juvenile attempt to cover up his actions. He then dropped the weapon he had used to commit the crime and exited the scene through the same window he had used to enter the home.
Kenny might have evaded the certain death sentence associated with his amateur assassination, but his conscience would carry that weight for a long time. His inability to belong in society was a product of his guilt. Any time he was in a town with a uniformed guard unit, he felt like less of a person and more like a ghost. Humanity did not care for Kenny, and the feeling was mutual. Thus, he began his life of illicit activities, which would ultimately lead him to his current predicament.
As snow continued to fall softly onto the landscape surrounding Kenny, he pulled a sheet from inside Rhal's carriage and wrapped the bounty hunter's body in it. He then laid the corpse in an improptu grave made from a mixture of dirt and snow, and marked it with a single leaf from a nearby spruce tree.
“Well Desmond, I suppose we should get going,” Kenny said to the noble steed. He climbed up onto the carriage and took the extra clothes and sedge hat from the slain pillow-dummy that he and Rhal had created in Rhal's barn. He also severed the thin fishing wire that went from the dummy's hands to the underbelly of the carriage, which Kenny had previously used to imitate semi-realistic movement during the trek.
The freedom of not having to hide from anyone revitalized Kenny. For the first time in months, he knew that he was alone, yet he did not feel somber about his isolation. Kenny felt centered. In that moment of not being pursued, he thought of how things might be if he lived an honest life. He had been existing as a leech to society, but vowed to live that way no longer. He pondered returning to Quentin's Quaint Tavern and accept his friend's job offer. Kenny then climbed back on top of the carriage and grabbed the reins, putting his thoughts aside as he continued his journey.
© 2017 Jesse Pennington