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by R. Michael Card

Epic Fantasy
March 2018

He’s a renegade, she’s cursed, together they’ll save a kingdom.

Three years ago, Col was pushed into the wilds by the cruel and power-hungry Lord Gariast. Since then Col has collected a band of men and women, similarly driven from society, and made a name for himself… as the Black Bandit. But everything changes the day Dalia arrives.

Dalia was a normal young noblewoman, bored with her privileged life. She’d read too many stories of heroes and maidens and when offered a life of adventure, she took it. But what she thought was a blessing turns out to be a curse. Now she has strange abilities and can fight like a demon, even if she can’t recall what she does while in ‘The Fury.’ When Col rescues her from Lord Gariast’s men, she finds he’s the only person who understands her.

Together they must save the kingdom from the wrath of Lord Gariast who will stop at nothing to claim every ounce of power he can. But he is a formidable foe, and there are other dark forces at work behind the maniacal lord which are even more fearsome.


Chapter 1

Despite the heavy clouds and light drizzle, the day seemed remarkably bright. Where Col crouched, far below the thick canopy of the Sandren Forest, only a few drips and drops of rain pattered against his oiled cloak. The lush mosses and flora of the forest floor came alive in vibrant verdancy, from deep, dark greens to bright emerald tones.

It was too bad he was going to have to step out onto the road in a moment, where the break in the foliage above would turn the packed earth trail to mud. Not to mention he’d be under the full force of the pattering rain.

Col shrugged. He’d survived far worse in his time hiding away from civilized life.

“Ready?” he whispered to Ayneii.

Ayneii was a sprite, a small fey, who hovered next to him, hanging in the air.

The sprite didn’t respond for a moment, probably communicating with the other sprites in some manner Col couldn’t hear or understand.

Col shook his head slowly marveling at his companion. All fey were genderless yet despite this Col couldn’t help but think of Ayneii as a tiny woman. The sprite’s body was slender, seemingly stretched, with too-long arms, legs, and torso. Shimmering wings, moving too fast to be seen, created a faint blur above and behind her. She wore no clothes but instead glowed with an inner light, which made it hard to truly see her miniscule features. The radiance which emanated from her, was a brilliant green speckled with points of gold, like new leaves dappled in sunlight. Her hair was the dark green of mature leaves and floated behind her, free and wild. The sprite’s ears were tall and lobeless, tapering to a fine point above the top of her head. She wore her usual mischievous grin and winked at him as her communication with the others ended.

“All set,” she said, her voice high and light. There was a bit of an odd vibration to her voice, perhaps from the rapid beating of her wings behind her, Col wasn’t sure. Now wasn’t the time to think of such things anyway, his prey was drawing near.

He rose and stepped out from hiding onto the road, his gait long and confident. The hood of his cloak was pulled low to shadow his face. He also wore a soft leather mask, which covered the top of his face from nose to forehead, with holes for his eyes. Under the leather hung black silk to further obscure the bottom of his face while not hindering his voice.

He held out a hand before him and yelled, “Halt!” affecting his best Malacaster accent, guttural and slightly slurred. It was easy enough as his grandfather had been from Malacaster.

On the road before him were six knights, mounted and in full-plate, escorting a carriage through the forest. With them were a dozen footmen each wearing boiled-leather armor and carrying a spear, with a sheathed sword at their side.

Surprisingly, they did stop. The horses sidled and frisked as the soldiers scanned the forest around them, expecting an attack. It was a good instinct, but Col’s companions were well hidden and wouldn’t be seen. There were mutterings among the men on the road. Col smiled as he heard the words “Black Bandit” whispered. His reputation was well known in these parts. Hopefully that would help him get what he wanted without anyone dying.

He threw back his hood, not liking how it limited his peripheral vision in a fight. Also, it would help to reinforce his image as the Black Bandit — his mask was rather unique. Rain, light but steady, peppered the top of his head.

He slipped three arrows from the quiver at his hip and nocked one, aiming it at the lead knight.

“Surrender your cargo peacefully, and none of you shall be harmed,” he called out.

“You think they actually will?” Ayneii asked, hovering beside him. He knew the other men wouldn’t be able to see or hear her. He gave a quick laugh as a response.

No, he didn’t.

One of the knights called out to him. “Are you Arron of Malacaster, the one they call the Black Bandit?”

“I am!” he shouted across the score of yards that separated them.

There were more murmurings throughout the group.

The knight who’d called out looked around. His helm had a full faceplate with slits for eyes, which made seeing anything difficult.

Col added, “My men are well hidden. You won’t see them until it’s too late.”

The knight turned back to him. “My master has a message for you,” he shouted.

Before he could pass that message on, however, there was a commotion from inside the carriage. It rocked violently before one of the doors swung open and a man came flying out backwards. He landed in the mud with a heavy thud of expelled air. The door broke from its hinges and clattered to the ground as well.

Even from this distance, Col heard the curse muttered by the lead knight as a woman, bound hand and foot, jumped down out of the carriage.

This was not what Col had been expecting at all.

He whispered to Ayneii, “Tell the others to wait.”

She nodded.

Col stalked in a little closer hoping to get a better look at this woman.

Wild was the best word to describe her. She looked around, frantic. Brilliant blue eyes, filled with some inner fire, caught his for a moment as she took in the situation. An oval face with a slightly too long but straight nose and small lips was framed by a tangle of light brown hair. She wore what looked like it had once been a lady’s gown of silk and lace but now was torn and dirty. She had the marks of a fight: cuts and bruises, on her face and exposed arms. Those slender arms were tied tightly behind her, and another cord bound her ankles. Whoever this woman was she seemed to have gone through some great ordeal.

For a moment, as the guards stared at her, she flexed those thin arms trying to escape the bonds, but could not. She shrugged and began hopping toward the forest. She wanted to get away from these men; that was clear enough to Col now.

But… who was she?

Col had gotten word that this carriage was carrying a cargo of great value. Could this woman be the cargo or just some hapless passenger with it? And if she was the ‘valuables,’ why was she so important?

And why was she trying to escape?

Col couldn’t make sense of any of this.

The knights managed to recover from their shock before he did. The one in the lead yelled out, “Capture her!” to his men, adding, “I’ll take this one.” The knight spurred his horse.

Apparently, there would be a fight.

Col loosed an arrow, which the knight deflected off his shield.

As he nocked his next, he said to Ayneii, “The others can join in anytime. New plan; steal the carriage and help that girl.”

“What about you?” Ayneii asked, eyeing the charging horse.

“I’m well enough. I’ve got you.” His next arrow hit the knight on his pauldron and bounced away harmlessly. “I’m assuming you can do something about the horse. I’d rather not shoot it.” His third arrow was nocked and ready.

“Of course.” Ayneii zoomed away and waved her arms about in front of the horse’s face as it drew perilously close to Col. He stepped to one side as the mount reared.

The knight was an accomplished rider and stayed in the saddle, but had to pay attention to doing only that for a moment, which gave Col an opening. His next arrow took the man in his shield arm, near the shoulder, finding the gap in the metal plating.

The knight gave a cry. He lost control and fell backward off the horse. The mount frisked and pranced off to one side as Col drew his sword and stepped up to the prone knight.


The man groaned in reply.

“I’ll take that as a yes.”

He glanced at the carriage to see how the rest of his men were doing… and his jaw dropped in awe. The wild woman from the carriage was successfully fighting off a dozen soldiers and five knights.

Chapter 2

Tom Willow stood atop the carriage blinking in disbelief.

He’d dispatched the driver easily enough with an arrow while still safe in his hiding spot in a tree overlooking the road. He’d hit the man in the leg then swung down on a rope to knock the man from the driver’s bench onto the road. Between the wound and the fall, the man was not a concern. He’d then meant to take control of the carriage and drive it away, but he’d turned at a commotion to one side and found that strange woman doing impossible things.

The soldiers had been closing in, spears pointed at her. She’d jumped, and somehow tucked her legs up high enough to bring her arms underneath and in front of her. When she’d landed, a man had tried to poke her with a spear, but she’d deftly stepped to one side and, without cutting herself, used the spear’s bladed tip to slice through the ropes binding her hands. The guards had hesitated a moment, while the woman had shaken out her arms.

Tom should have done something, but he was too caught up and just watched for a moment.

A knight called for the soldiers to part and rode in toward her. Tom thought she’d be trampled, but as the horse drew near the woman grabbed some of the tack around the mount’s neck, ducked under its head and swung herself up such that she kicked the knight right out of the saddle. Then, even more stupefying, she landed crouching in the saddle before leaping away to the top of the carriage with him. All that with her feet still bound.

Tom stood there staring at her while she stole his knife and quickly sawed through the ropes at her feet. Once free, she was the one who took the reins of the carriage and started it moving.

That was what snapped Tom from his reverie. He steadied himself as the carriage began moving. Hopefully the others in Col’s little band were fleeing now since their primary objective was being driven away by their newly acquired secondary objective. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to sit on the bench next to her, so he dropped to his knees then slipped over the side of the carriage top to the footman’s rail along the side.

Ahead, Tom saw Col standing in the path of the carriage. Col had captured the lead knight, but as the carriage barreled down on them, the knight dove to one side. Col couldn’t follow without being trampled by the horses. Tom saw his captain shrug and hold out his arm to Tom, who caught it and swung the man up beside him onto the coach rail as they picked up speed down the road.

“That was… interesting,” Col said slowly.

“That’s one word.” Tom nodded.

“Any idea where she’s taking us?”

“No clue.”

“I’ll go ask.” Col gave his signature roguish grin and headed toward the bench at the front. Tom would let Col handle the woman while he checked inside for any loot.

* * *

Dalia blinked as her mind returned to itself.

Where was she?

She gasped and nearly screamed as she realized she was holding the reins to a speeding carriage! She’d never driven anything like this before.

She nearly screamed again when a man appeared next to her. He was dressed all in black with a mask covering his face. She felt the terrifying sensation of The Fury coming over her again. It didn’t fully take hold, but kept her ready in case this man was a threat.

He sat beside her. “Hello.”

She could faintly see a friendly grin through the dark silk covering the lower half of his face.

“Hello,” she replied, voice shaky. “Do you know how to drive a carriage?” she asked, feeling The Fury fade.

“Don’t you?” he asked, looking at the reins in her hands.

She shook her head.

“Ah, then allow me.” He took the reins and held them steady. He seemed confused for a moment, but that didn’t surprise her. She was even more confused. It didn’t help that her memories were always a little foggy right after The Fury had taken her. She’d remember everything in detail soon enough.

She just hoped she hadn’t killed anyone this time. Even if they were evil men taking her to her death… well they may not be evil. They were just doing what they’d been told. She didn’t really know who was evil these days. She’d seen and done too much in the past week to know anything for sure.

“Thank you,” she said to the man next to her.

He grinned. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance. I’m Arron of Malacaster, the Black Bandit.”

The Black Bandit!

The Fury threatened to take her again, but something stopped it. As much as this man was a known rogue who’d been pillaging this part of the Sandren Forest for over two years, he didn’t seem to be threatening her in any way.

“What are you going to do with me?” she asked hesitantly.

He laughed. “I have no clue. I raided this carriage because there was supposed to be a cargo of great value on board. I don’t steal people though. So you’re free to go whenever you like, m’lady.”

Lady? It was her turn to laugh, though after one guffaw it turned to tears.

She had been a lady only a few days ago, but now… she didn’t know what she was.

She quickly sniffed her tears away. “I’m sorry, it’s been a long week.” After a moment, remembering he was about to let her go, she added, “Thank you.”

She couldn’t quite describe the look in his brown eyes. It seemed like some odd mix of pity, confusion, awe, and fear.

A wild idea jumped into her mind and, before she could think better, had burst from her lips as well. “Take me with you.” It had come out partly as a question and partly as a command.

He nodded slowly. “Perhaps.”

With a glance behind them, he flicked the reins and called a “whoa” to the horses. The carriage slowed then stopped.

“One moment, m’lady,” he said and then called out, “Tom, did you find anything?”

A voice issued forth from the carriage. “No, Captain.”

The Black Bandit turned back to her with a new, appraising look. “Well miss, it would seem you are the valuable cargo. I won’t ask why. But if you want to come with me, now is your chance.” He hopped to the ground from the driver’s bench and offered her a hand to follow.

She hesitated, but only for a moment. As much as her younger self might have thought following a bandit off into the woods to be romantic and mysterious… she’d recently been disillusioned of all of her fantasies. However, going with him was better than being alone or being recaptured by those knights and sent to her death. So, she took his hand and was quickly down off the carriage.

There was a second man there, tall and lean. The mask he wore was a little rougher around the edges and didn’t have the silk along the bottom, so his mouth and jaw were exposed.

“She’s coming with us?” the man asked.

The Black Bandit smacked one of the horses in the team pulling the carriage, and they started off again at a trot, slowly gaining speed.

“Yes, now let’s get into the forest before those knights catch up to us.”

They were quickly amongst the trees. Only a faint heartbeat later the six knights galloped around a corner in the road. For a moment, Dalia thought they would be spotted, but the knights rode past without a glance.

She was breathing hard and realized she had been for a while. The memories of what she’d done during this most frequent bout of The Fury started to come to her in flashes. With it came exhaustion. She fell to her knees, crumpling to the ground and shuddered. It was a reflex. None of these memories seemed too horrible, but there had been so many in the past that had been.

“Are you alright, m’lady?” the Black Bandit asked.

She had no energy to look up at him but could hear the hesitation in his voice. He wanted to say something more. Perhaps he’d witnessed her in The Fury and couldn’t reconcile the trembling woman before him with that devil.

A tender, tentative hand brushed her back and she heard the rustle of his clothes as he knelt next to her.


He kept saying that…

She couldn’t take it anymore and she wept, heaving sobs.

“Hush now,” he said softly. “They can’t get you now.”

She wanted to laugh through her tears, a hard, bitter laugh. It wasn’t those knights she was worried about. It was what she might do to them if they did return. But she couldn’t laugh. Her world was on its head and all she could do right now was weep for a life forever lost to her.