It was obvious that they were not here to talk. She could hear the scraping of metal upon metal as one of them -- the shorter one -- drew his sword.
Arianne opened her eyes, regarding the two men who stood before her. Both were dressed in burnished armor of silver and white, unscuffed and untainted by the rigors of the wood. Although she could not see their faces underneath their helmets, their stance was unmistakably hostile... albeit cautious.
They were almost certainly afraid of her.
The taller of the two removed his helmet, although his companion still held his sword in a threatening manner. The knight was young, perhaps less than twenty years of age. He was handsome, olive-skinned, and almost certainly still a novice. Arianne wondered exactly why they had come here.
The knight cleared his throat. "You are a Druid?" he asked.
"Well met," Arianne answered.
"Well met," Arianne said, with uncharacteristic patience. "I had thought that the Galenics were respectful enough to bid a proper greeting, but it seems that I was wrong."
The knight glanced at his helmeted companion, who did not relax from his hostile stance. The second man only nodded slightly at the gesture.
"W... well met," the first knight conceded. "My name is... Ostran, of the Allandrian Galenics. This," he said, gesturing towards his companion, "is Kessler. And you are..."
"Arianne," Arianne said.
"You're a Druid," the second knight said, in a muffled voice.
Arianne gave them a narrow look. "I know," she said.
Ostran cleared his throat again. "I wonder, then, if you could offer us some assistance."
* * *
"What do you think, Silverwood?" Vordan asked.
The old healer stared into his bowl of tea. "There have been more killings of late," he said. "There have been far too many killings as of late."
"Yes," Vordan said, deep in thought.
"I've seen a lot of grevious wounds in the last few months, Lord Vordan. We have acquired a certain reputation among most travelers now."
"This is wrong," Vordan said. "We're wardens of nature, not zealous murderers."
"Too many of the younger ones engage in it," Silverwood cautioned. "They claim to protect the sanctity of the land, yet kill interlopers for sport. Some of the teachers even encourage their behavior."
Vordan glanced at the healer once again. "We cannot prevent people from passing through the wood," he finally said. "I don't know how they see it, but the Druids still have to live together with the rest of the world. How can they not understand that?"
"It is the isolation, perhaps," Silverwood said, sipping his tea. "Isolation unhinges the minds of men and forces them to deal with true reality. It is our task to teach them how to live with these new perceptions."
Vordan watched the old Druid, marveling at his composure. "Do remind me why you never became Grandmaster, Silverwood," he said in passing.
"I refused," Silverwood said.
"You know you would command far better respect than I, in this position."
"The fact that you are Grandmaster in the first place, Lord Vordan, implies that the Druids hold much faith in you as it is."
"Then why do they refuse to listen to me?" Vordan snapped. "Am I the only one who sees that their hatred is tearing us to pieces?"
Silverwood remained silent for a while before finally giving his answer. "I am not afraid of the possibility that they do not know, Lord Vordan. What I fear, however, is the possibility that they simply do not care."
* * *
"What sort of assistance?" Arianne asked suspiciously.
"We're looking for a murderer," Kessler said. She could not see the expression beneath his helmet, but she knew the threat for what it was.
Ostran held up a hand. "No, no," he said, "we're... merely looking for... someone."
"A murderer," Arianne said, her eyes narrowing.
Ostran gave a nervous sigh. "A man named Yseth passed by this area about a week ago. He followed the same trail as this one. He was about as tall as I, with black hair and brown eyes, and he wore the robes of a Galenic healer."
"Yes." Arianne said, listening carefully.
"Someone killed him here," Ostran said. "The peasants found his body at the edge of the woods, rent from side to side like a slab of meat."
"You carry weapons," Kessler observed in a flat, unfriendly tone of voice.
Arianne's hand strayed towards the blades tucked into her belt. Kessler tightened the grip on his sword. Ostran tensed noticeably.
"Yes," Arianne finally said. "I carry weapons."
Ostran took a deep breath. "No bandits operate in this area, Lady Arianne," he said. "Every peasant for ten leagues knows that this is the domain of the Druids, and we know that you are very... protective of your home. What I... what we... I mean... what we mean to say is..."
"What we mean to say," Kessler said in a dead voice, "is that one of you did it. You will tell us which of you bastards killed my brother, and you'll do it now."
"The man was your brother, then?" Arianne asked.
"Yes," Kessler said, through clenched teeth.
"I saw him pass by this trail some days ago. It was perhaps a week since then, just as you mentioned."
Ostran leaned back. "So... you know?"
"He reached this same clearing in the gathering twilight, and hunted for food. He caught a baby rabbit for its meat and fur, then killed a grouse with six hatchlings. And he roasted them over a fire made from the roots of an ancient tree."
Ostran's eyes widened slightly. Arianne had to admit that he was far more perceptive than his companion.
"I felt that he would gain a far better perspective on things if he were to experience the same pain he caused the land," she said. "He asked for mercy only once, near the end. But as he showed none, so did I give him none."
The clearing was silent.
Arianne turned to the second knight, who was now breathing heavily. "What do you say, Sir Kessler?" she asked him. "Perhaps I should have let him plead for his life a little longer?"
Kessler roared, charging towards her with sword held high.
* * *
"I have a favor to ask of you, old one."
Silverwood leaned forward, and something in his eyes told Vordan that he already knew what it was. "Name it, Lord Vordan," he said, "and I shall fulfill it to the best of my ability."
"Guide my apprentice," Vordan said.
Silverwood nodded. "Arianne, you mean?"
"Yes," Vordan said, feeling the strange taste of the word across his tongue. "Arianne."
"Surely you do not mean to speak of her in that way."
Vordan closed his eyes in quiet frustration. "The bear is a peaceful animal -- great and majestic, and very protective of its family. But some bears acquire a taste for human blood, Silverwood, and those creatures threaten our way of life to the point where they have to be destroyed. Arianne has tasted the same, and I fear that she has found it to her liking."
Silverwood hesitated. "I may not be the best teacher for her, my lord. The younger ones may commit such atrocities right now as we speak, but I must admit that even I was not sheltered from such beliefs when I was young."
"You learned, Silverwood. It is far better than I can say for many of the others."
"Yes, Lord Vordan."
"She no longer listens to me," Vordan said, sadly. "You may be the only one she would listen to."
Silverwood nodded. "I understand, my lord," he said.
* * *
Arianne sidestepped the blade rather easily. Hatred focused a man, but rage quickly unlearned everything he would have known.
Kessler recovered easily, however, and swung once more. The blade passed mere inches in front of Arianne's face, although she barely noticed. She dropped to the ground, avoided another of the rampaging knight's wild strikes, drew her blades, and rolled away.
"Stand and fight!" Kessler roared at her. Arianne ignored him.
She waited in a defensive stance, watching him carefully. Her eyes flicked to the side only once, to see what Ostran was doing. The olive-skinned knight had taken a few steps back, unsure of how to proceed.
Kessler's war cry brought her attention back. He swung once, then twice from two different sides. Arianne dodged the first blow, and caught the second one on the hafts of her blades. Then Kessler bellowed his displeasure, and smashed one armored knee into her stomach. She staggered back, winded.
Kessler advanced with murder in his eyes. Arianne took two steps back, and waited for the strike.
She didn't have to wait long. The knight was gone, taken by the throes of bloodlust. He swung his blade one final time, cleaving the air where she once stood.
But by that time, Arianne was already in the middle of her leap. She cleared the path of his sword easily, brushing one gauntleted arm as she aimed for the slits in the visor of his helmet. Her weapons struck with a violent, meaty sound, and this time it was she who roared in the face of Kessler's whimpering.
The knight fell back, blood streaming from the openings in his helmet. He pulled the straps open with shuddering hands, and tore the metal gear from his head to expose the terrible wounds to the sunlight.
And in one fluid motion, Arianne buried her blades into the knight's skull. The sound of metal shattering bone filled the clearing.
Then there was nothing but a sodden, forlorn sound as Kesslar's corpse hit the forest floor.
Arianne raised her head to the heavens and howled her victory.
And then she remembered the other one.
* * *
"She has blood on her hands, Silverwood."
"We each have blood on our hands, Lord Vordan. It is merely a question of whether or not we choose to wash our hands."
* * *
Ostran moved quickly, running as fast as he dared among the rocks, the trees, and the bushes.
He didn't want to think of what would happen if she caught him. Not after what had happened to Kessler.
There was a rustling in the trees. Was it her? Was it something else? Was it the last thing he would ever see?
He had to get out of the woods. Aran help him, he would never insult another Druid again.
"Aran help me," he said.
"Aran's not here," Arianne said, from right beside him.
Ostran shirked violently, losing his balance and falling into a bramble patch. He thrashed about in confusion for a few seconds before finally locating the scabbard at his belt and drawing his sword.
And she was there, standing right before him, blood drying on the blades she held by her side.
"No," he said, nervously.
"I have no argument with you, Sir Ostran," Arianne said. "My matter, it seems, was only with Sir Kessler, and we did eventually resolve everything."
"What do you want?" Ostran asked in a shrill whisper.
"Nothing beyond what we already have," Arianne said. "This is our home, Sir Ostran. This is our land. This is our life."
"You only come here as guests, Sir Ostran. While you are here, you follow our rules."
The young knight paused, somehow finding a coherent moment in the face of madness. "But what are the rules?" he asked fearfully.
And to that, Arianne only laughed.