So there I was, incarcerated. Again. I'm not going to go into how they caught me, because it's not really all that important. You know what? Screw it, we have time, and it'll provide a little atmosphere.
So there I was on the Old Road, as you people call it. I've seen older, but hey, if it's the oldest one you've got, you have every right to call it that while in the confines of your own country. Sorry, I digress. I was on the Old Road, because even when I'm on the run it's a lot faster to stay on the road when you can, and I only travel at night anyway, because nobody watches the roads at night unless they're in some town or city. The small places like this one you walk around, because they notice everybody who comes through and it's not that much farther out of your way to take the detour. Bigger places, they're just watching to make sure no one's coming up to the gates with an army or a huge glowing sword and as long as you keep your hood down and don't draw attention to yourself, you can blend in with whatever crowd is clogging up the entrance, which, conveniently, is also the exit. You know, in Estardana, they have two gates right next to each other, one for people going in, and one for people going out. Did you know that? It makes moving through a lot easier, but it's a trade-off, see, 'cause it makes the walls twice as easy to breach if the city ever gets attacked. Not that Estardana's had a war any time in the last fifty years, so maybe they just aren't worried. Who knows? But with the smaller towns like this one, they don't even bother putting two gaps in the fence, because what's the point? They don't have so many visitors, and at best they have a wooden wall to keep out animals and raiders, but the bigger walled cities all do it, like their queen commanded it or something. Maybe she did, I don't know. I went to buy things, not to study history.
I'm getting off track again. So I was on the Old Road, between here and Highridge, oddly enough, going through the woods to Highridge so I could buy a horse and escape to the south. I figure I could lose the authorities once I got to the Whispering Barrens by riding my horse in one direction, leaping off, and leaving a set of footprints going backwards or looping around a few times, and then make my way to Estardana again. You should have seen the look on my cellmate's face when I told him that plan, and the look on my face when he told me Estardana has an extradition treaty with Viridonia. I tell you my face looked just like this…! It's okay, that was a joke, you can laugh. I know I always look the same with this mask on.
I asked one of the other inmates and they said my plan would have worked because it's Estilica, not Estardana, that has the treaty, but I'm not taking chances on that. I'm going straight for the elf-lands where I know they don't prosecute for crimes against humans and I'm just going to rent myself out as a self-defense instructor, adopt a child if I can find one, and retire at the ripe old age of whenever the hell I feel like it. Where was I?
Right, the bandits. Yeah, of course this was about the bandits. I mean, there I was, just marching my happy ass through bandit turf, without paying the toll because like I told the guy in the tree, he can shoot all the warning shots he wants, but I'm not paying two copper, let alone two gold, when I can protect myself from anything in those woods. So I just keep marching through, in the middle of the night because what do I care, I can see in the dark and humans can't. Well, if you know about the bandits, and you obviously do, you probably know they have this guy who calls himself their king. You do? Well, you can see where this is going, then, can't you? So it turns out this one can see in the dark, maybe he's half orc or half ogre, but whatever the case, he wears a mask, too, and a wooden crown. I suppose he wears it so that everyone can tell it's him. You know, in case there's some other guy walking around the woods in a moss-green cloak, near seven feet tall and weighing eleven or twelve stone, because people like that must be oh-so-common in human lands. He introduces himself as the Bandit King, in case I hadn't heard of him or the crown didn't give it away, and says the toll has doubled for me. I say "No thank you, I'll just be on my way, because I don't need to pay for protection, I can protect myself."
Then he says "No, the toll is to feed my soldiers and maintain our gear and keep the roads clear."
So I say "Fine, but you should have your sign say that instead of 'For safe passage, place two gold coins in the bowl' because that's rather misleading and if you didn't want the law-abiding citizens resenting you so much you'd-" but then he cut me off by smacking me in the head with the back of his fist. Well, I'm not one to get in a fight when I don't have to, except that that's actually wrong and that's exactly the kind of person I am, so after I pick myself up off the ground I go for my long knives, which are probably sold on the black market by now, but I had them at the time and he and I start to circle each other in the middle of the road. Now, I figure no one's around but bandits for miles, so I don't want to kill this guy, even if he is a wanted criminal and even if killing him makes me the new Bandit King because what could I possibly want with an army of bandits to feed? So I think, I'll fight this jerk until he goes unconscious, but I'll pull a few blows so I don't kill him, and I'll just take the chance that he won't kill me, either.
Well, let me tell you, that fight did not go as planned. He's got some kind of chainmail that goes stiff when a blade comes too close. I mean, magic, of course, but that's not the effect I normally see and it's pretty effective. But that's not all. Even when I do manage to get a hit in around or through his armor, he's just not bleeding right. I've been in a lot of fights, so I tend to notice little things like that, and I see this guy's wounds closing up. I have something similar, but his wounds are healing as fast as mine and aren't even leaving scars, so now I'm guessing he's half troll. He's too small to be a full troll, and he's too well-spoken to be a young troll – I don't want to sound speciesist, because I'm not, but let's be real, even the smartest trolls don't exactly line up for linguistics education and then become bandits. So he's hard to kill, which, combined with his girth and strength is probably why they made him the leader instead of some fragile con man, and when I realize what I'm in for, that's when I get my first pang of regret. But we're already fighting and as long as I can keep dancing around him long enough, I'll be able to win.
So we're going at it for a about a minute, and I'm feeling pretty good because once I'm in combat for more than about half a minute I'm almost unstoppable from there. He's swinging this iron-shod club at me, and for the most part I'm getting out of the way, but he gets a couple good hits in, and I'm a little dazed, and that's when at least a dozen other bandits jump out of the bushes and wrestle me to the ground. I can handle a few peripheral attackers when I'm a little bit into my dance – I'll tell you about that later – but not against this many guys. So they hold me down and let this guy whale on me with that giant club of his, and I can feel my ribs breaking, which is almost as painful as when they mend wrong a few seconds later, and then they just tie me up and carry me to the edge of the forest and leave me tied to a tree. They let me keep the mask because they're scared of what they see underneath, but they take my knives and bracers and necklace of flesh hardening and all of that, and in the morning, one of the city guards with this ridiculous braided goatee knows just where to find me, and pretends like he's not in league with a bunch of wanted criminals and drags me to the bounty office and asks if there's a bounty on me and of course there is because I'm The Viper and at this point I'd broken out of prison three times already and resisted arrest and escaped custody and all that eight or nine times, so I've got a record, you know. So anyway they look at my mask and peek under it to make sure it's me and I'm still hogtied from the night before with ribs and shins that healed all crooked and I can hardly breathe, let alone resist as they cart me off in a wheelbarrow – for crying out loud, the bounty office has more than one wheelbarrow, I guess dead bodies are more common than they should be for a bounty office – and he takes his gold and the whole time he's carting me to Heslan Penitentiary, he's talking about how he's gonna use the money to buy the fanciest drinks he can get his hands on and if there's enough left over he's going to go play dice with some friends and we both know it's illegal and we both know I can't report him because I don't know his name, and even if I did, he'd deny it and they'd take his word over mine, and like he said he doesn't even need to bring it up, because we share this look and this moment and I can't stop staring at his stupid goatee braid like thinks he's some Ankhtephian prince from thousands of years ago and he probably either lost a bet or thinks it's cool as shit and I can't tell because he doesn't look self-conscious but maybe he forgot it was there so it could go either way… I'm drifting. Okay, we had this weird bonding moment where my feelings for him became a cherished and personal hatred, totally unrequited because this guy just sees me as a way to make some extra money and a chance to gloat.
So we get to Heslan Penitentiary – an ironic name because not a single soul in there is penitent in the least – and he talks to the guards at the front door and they congratulate him but they're clearly jealous, and they let him wheel me in to see the warden, and I'm in too much pain to say anything while he looks me over and they strip me down to my loincloth and take my mask, but once they determine it's not magic, they talk about whether to sell it, but one of the Warden's aides says that it's against the rules and they just stare at him like he's turned bright blue and he says "Look, selling rings and knives and small stuff is all well and good but someone's going to recognize the mask and then we'll have the baron on our asses. We have to let him keep it or put it into storage for real." and they look at me like I'm already dead, and they know I know they're all on the take, but just like Goat-braid I can't go over their heads and report them because they'll just deny it, you know, so I work my face muscles to look extra creepy so they'll give me the mask back instead of having to look at me, and it must have worked because the next thing I know the warden himself is sliding the mask onto my head and telling Goat-braid to return the wheelbarrow and go home. Then two of them haul me upright, and the pain is almost blinding because I'm so stiff and sore and broken. If I were human, I'd be covered in bruises, because fucking Goat-braid must have hit every single pot-hole and uneven cobblestone between here and the bounty office, but I can't tell if that was intentional or just habit. Anyway.
The next few days are uneventful, they set me up with this great big bear of a cell mate instead of putting me into solitary, which was a supremely stupid move on their part, but I'm smart enough not to say anything because if there's one part of my reputation that I don't want to precede me here, it's that I can't get up to my full ability unless I'm fighting someone one on one. So I ask this guy to do me a favor and break my legs in exactly the places they broke the first time and he's a nice enough guy and he helps out, and it hurts like a bitch but now I can set them properly before they heal, so now that I know I can trust this guy I have him repeat the process for the rest of everything that didn't heal properly, and spend a week or so swindling my way through the general population until I can get my hands of a shiv. Everyone thinks I want to kill someone, and maybe I hinted that I had it out for one of the guards – and I do, but Goat-braid doesn't work here – and I get one and the first thing I do is go back to my cell and sharpen it as much as I can without drawing attention and then dig into my own muscle to get all the bone splinters out so I don't get bone spurs or anything and then I give the shiv to Juro - I think that's what my cellmate's name was, he didn't talk very clearly – as payment for services rendered and he just laughs and mumbles something about how he needed to vent some anger anyway, but he takes the shiv because you don't turn down payment in prison and we start to become friends.
Now I know I've spent a lot of time with the setup, for the action, here, but like I said we had the time and honestly I think it adds to the story, since there are a few recurring characters here. But it's okay because now we're back to the part I was about to start with.
So there I was, incarcerated again. I've got a giant musclehead for a cellmate, who, as far as I can tell, is in for something involving violence and poor impulse control, and we're surrounded by petty thieves and patsies and anyone unprofessional or unpopular enough to get caught. At this point Juro and I have been talking for a while, and I've already hatched a plan to get out, and he's in on it. See, when the guards aren't looking, we've been sparring in our cell. There's not a lot of room, but we've only been practicing fisticuffs and I've told him as long as he doesn't break any bones I don't tell him to, he doesn't have to pull his punches, and I'll do everything I can not to hurt him, just tap him, but I have to keep swinging at him or it won't work. It took a while to explain it to him, but after I messed up and socked him in the hip he understood. We had to take a break for a day or so while he recovered from that, but we kept practicing and today was the big day.
So I think I mentioned a bit about my combat style but I haven't really told you how it worked, so here goes. If I can explain it to you faster than I did to Juro, I'll count that as a win. So, whenever I'm in a fight with one person, or at least focusing all of my attacks on one person, I start moving faster and getting stronger. It takes a long time to build up, and wears off really fast, so I have to concentrate, but as long as I keep swinging, I get better and better. It's magical, and it's because I'm not human. We'll leave it at that. What's important right now is that Juro and I were in the mess hall, and we both know that if this fight isn't convincing, we'll be caught and separated to keep us from conspiring again and he knows I'm better at escape plans than he'll ever be so he's not having that. We also both know that if we just end up beating the crap out of each other, we'll be separated and wounded, and might both go into solitary, and neither of us are having that. So we start slow. He bumps into me, my food spills. I swing the first blow, into his shoulder. Just a love tap, but it "gets his attention" and he turns around. Now we both put our fists up, and, bless them all, the other inmates start moving tables out of the way and cheering us on. Now Juro and I have talked about this for hours and hours every night, so we know what is and is not allowed in this fight and he's totally into it because there's a lot more allowed than not allowed and he hasn't had the chance to swing a chair at anyone in forever, so that's the first thing he does, and he swings wide and high and I duck like a pro and jab him in the belly with the tips of my knuckles and it's on. The guards know better than to break up a fight until someone is unconscious or dead, but a couple come over to watch and shout wagers at each other and that's fine because the disappointment when they can't collect will be satisfying for me. So Juro and I trade swings and blows like that for a while until I test my strength by breaking his chair. I do. Now that we know where we're at, we start the part we choreographed but weren't able to practice from our cell. It's all mental from here, and I know I'm going to have to give him a lot of verbal reminders, but this is our only shot, so we have to get it right or start over in three years when they let us out of solitary. He remembers to back me up against the wall opposite the bars. We trade blows, I go in for a tripping move and say "Jump!" and he jumps but he's really heavy and doesn't jump very well, and for a split second I'm afraid he's going to land too soon and I'll have to break out of the infirmary like I did in Eldermarsh, but he's better at it than he looks and it really impresses the crowd so we decide to give them more of a show, with him trying to trip me and grab me and pick up more chairs to throw at me, and when I get to the point where I'm shattering chairs in mid-air, I give him a nod and say "Back!" and we start edging our way to the other wall, where a set of iron bars is the only thing between us and the main hallway, and if we can get past the guards and get out the door and keep running long enough to hide, we can go our separate ways as free men. He walks backwards, feigning the defensive. I'm pushing forwards, still barking little hints about where I'm about to strike because now I know I could really hurt him. We get to the bars and I say "Duck!" but he does it a little too slow and hit his shoulder and his arm goes limp, but now I have his undivided attention and when I say "Duck!" again, he ducks like his life depends on it and my fist goes into one of the bars. Now, like I said before, I'm magically strong and agile at this point, but if I don't at least try to hit my opponent it all goes away. But I found a loophole where I can think really hard about hitting someone while lining up a punch to hit something behind them, and keep what I've worked up to, but I have to strike out when my target is still there. It's tricky, but it works well enough that I break the bar behind him instead of his face. And, because now we're on the same page, it works three more times before the guards catch on that I'm a total monster now and to their credit as smart, rational people, but to their discredit as effective prison guards, they all step at least a dozen feet from the gap in the wall that I've just created. That's when I shout "Now!" and Juro and I both leap through the hole and start running down the hallway and the guards realize how dumb they are and start chasing us. Now, to keep my strength and agility from fading, Juro and I are still slapping at each other and he's getting hits in because I'm running too fast to dodge them, but they don't really hurt anyway, and as soon as we leap through the hole there are about fifty guys behind us who want freedom as badly as we do and they get in between us and most of the guards and Juro and I have a good head start. We make it all the way to the door and I use the last instant of my super-strength to rip it off its hinges. The guards on the outside see a big iron double-door get kicked open and land in the street and they hoof it, which again is a credit to their sanity and a discredit to their work ethic, but it works for me because now Juro and I are being shot at from a much farther distance, and the guards are missing because they're probably afraid to look at us directly. The last I see of Juro, he's running into an alley behind a whorehouse and I'm still running in a straight line, looking for a good place to peel off and disappear. I'm experienced enough to know that a straight, empty alley is not what you look for when you want to disappear, so I find a nice crooked one and go for it, but I learn to late that some prick in the town guard knows the layout better than I do and set up an ambush. He learns too late that when I'm running at full speed and hold my fist up, I hit pretty hard. So here I am with an unconscious town guard, probably still being chased by prison guards, and I'm still wearing nothing but a loincloth and a mask. I only have less than a minute, but I strip that downed guard to his underclothes and put them on myself. They don't fit me, but it's a better disguise than nothing, and the helmet covers most of my face down to my chin, so as long as no one looks into the eyeholes and doesn't see that I don't have visible eyes, I'm fine. I drag him a little further out of the way, grab his halberd, and run down the alley the way I came, just in time to join the prison guards, who are slow from their armor, in chasing myself down the street. I make a point of shouting "This way, we'll cut him off!" and they fall for it, and I run a little slower and a little slower until I'm in the back and then I let them run into what I can only presume is the endpoint of that little crooked alley and I head to the edge of town, the same way I came in because I don't know Highridge that well. Well, there's only one guard stationed at the gate since the alarm bells went off all over town, and I figure I can talk my way past one guy or fight him if I have to, and if someone sees me I'll just take off into the woods again and pay the toll with barter because the stolen uniform I'm wearing has to be worth something, so I walk up to this guy thinking I'll tell him he's needed for the chase and I'm his relief or something and I know it's not very plausible and I'm cursing myself for not thinking this far ahead and then I'm close enough to see this guy's face. Not the whole face, because again the helmet covers most of it, but the chin is exposed. I don't know if this was good luck or bad, but I've run into fucking Goat-braid and I have half a mind to show him how I feel, and while I'm not the kind of guy who gets into fights when I don't need to, that's incorrect because again, that's exactly the kind of jerk I am and I walk up to him, check behind me and by Felclef's good graces, there's no other watchmen in sight. So I point my borrowed halberd at him and tell him "I'm checking for impostors and would he please remove his helmet" because I want to see the look on his face before I break his nose, and he does, and now that I know for sure this is the guy, I take off my helmet and he sees my no-face and his eyes get as wide as fried eggs and I rush in to trip him and he doesn't even resist he's so scared, and I bring my heel down and feel his nose crunch through my boot, but I know how to pull my kicks so his skull's not broken and I leave him conscious to nurse his face while I run off into the woods. When I get far enough into the trees that the city gate's out of sight, sure enough, there's a bowl of gold coins and an arrow in the road, and I start to take the armor off to leave as barter when I feel a lump in my shirt and what do you know, there's a handful of silver in the pocket and I don't feel bad about leaving the rest of the outfit behind and just hanging on to the halberd, you know. I made it most of the way through the woods before I fell asleep because healing factor or no, breaking out of prison and running for your life on an empty stomach is exhausting. I found a comfortable spot out of view of the road and when I woke up, I was down to my skivvies again, and the halberd was gone, but one of the bandits had been kind enough to leave me this brown felt cloak as a blanket. Sorry it smells like wolf piss, but beggars can't be choosers, am I right? After that, I made my way here. Tell you what, you let me stay here another night and I'll tell you about the couple of years I spent as a Balthian pirate….