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Normally, the sight of the Bern mountains laid out small and distant beneath Gwen was relaxing. Up here in fine weather, just her and her wyvern with no fools to be suffered and seemingly all the time in the world to enjoy the view. Today, though, Gwen was agitated.

The old man had been near to tears. At first, all she could get out of him was an insistence that someone or something had been stolen. Eventually, though, with some impatient prying on her part, a disturbing narrative had emerged: He raised wyverns with his son out of their ranch, just up the mountain from the tiny village down in the valley. For years, they had always had a minor a bandit problem, he'd said -- a sheep or a cow stolen, a mountain trail suddenly turning into an unsanctioned toll-road overnight... mostly, though, there was more money for the ruffians in harassing the wealthier merchant caravans than in bothering the humble villagers. And this particular band was too small and poorly outfitted to do much real damage, usually.

Apparently, though, someone involved in this local bandit clan had put two and two together and realised that wyverns were valuable. One day, in broad daylight no less, they had seized upon the little family-run ranch and made off with nearly all the wyverns there -- the beasts they found pliant enough to direct, they simply road awkwardly off with, the new batch of hatchlings bundled into sacks to be carried away in distress and discomfort. They had killed two of the less compliant wyverns when they wouldn't accept a rider. The sight of the huge animals with their throats slit for no reason at all made a cold, hard knot form in the pit of Gwen's stomach.

The old man had clutched at her piteously as he begged for her help, his hands shaking from emotion or simply old age. His son had gone off to fetch help, he had told her, but it would be days before he could get the army here. If she didn't do something quickly, the thieves could only end up hurting some or all of the animals they had little idea how to care for. He had had precious little to offer even a lone sellsword such as herself, and Gwen made it a rule never to work for free.

... in this case, though, she'd simply demanded food and lodgings for herself and Freyja, and set out in the direction of the bandits' supposed hideout. Just her against a whole gang was risky, however small it was. She would just have to hope her luck and her training would hold out against the sort of ruffians and cowards who would murder a good animal for no reason.
Joachim was in the middle of his ale when a man barged up to him and asked for help. Yes, that wyvern outside was his; yes, he was familiar with them. Joachim ordered another and the story came out in a rush: Bandits (why hadn't the military done anything about them if it was a known problem? Damn politics), wyvern farm he ran with his father, it wasn't hard to see where it was going before the man got there.

He drained his tankard and thunked it to the table, interrupting what was about to turn into a frantic plea. "I'll find them. Just tell me where to look."

"We can't pay-" the man began.

"Worry about it later," Joachim interrupted, before he got to 'much.' He barely had enough money to pay for himself and Fafnir, but if these people didn't have it, then they didn't have it. Maybe he could have a young wyvern sent to Aria. "We'll figure something out."

His mind wandered while he saddled Fafnir. The wyverns that resisted would have been the spirited ones, the ones suitable for battle; inconvenient to a thief, but potentially the most valuable to the breeders. Such a damned waste... He cinched the cross-straps too tight and Fafnir turned to look at him balefully. "You'll live," he muttered, loosened them to the proper length and mounted.

The wind was in their favor, the sky patchy with clouds that hid Fafnir's shadow more often than not. They were nearing the camp, as far as Joachim could tell by the man's somewhat confused directions, when he saw something else flying in the distance. He frowned at it. Another wyvern; likely one of the raiders getting used to a new mount. He squinted, but could only make out a bit of red and the dull gleam of armor. He urged Fafnir higher in the sky and led him into a slow drift toward the stranger. Above and behind, he was less likely to be seen before he got a good look - provided the other wyvern didn't catch Fafnir's scent and get curious.
"... you smell something, girl?" Gwen muttered, although it was doubtful that Freyja could hear her over the rushing wind at this altitude. But the red wyvern was clearly scenting something, her nostrils flaring and her eyes rolling from side to side.

One of the stolen wyverns, maybe? Or something else? Frowning, Gwen did the all-around-scan, carefully checking in every direction for possible pursuit or attackers. To the left, nothing. To the right, some birds. Beneath, the mountains. Behind--

Gwen's eyes widened at the sight of the huge, black wyvern bearing down on her and Freyja. Gripping her lance tightly in one hand, she quickly gave the signal for Freyja to wheel up and around, rising with powerful beats of her wings. Was this one of the bandits? Was the old man really breeding wyverns like this monster? Why wasn't he rich?
The wind betrayed them. Joachim pulled Fafnir back, giving the other wyvern a wider berth. That had been a quick maneuver - more skilled than he'd expect from a common thug, but it stood to reason that someone in a band of wyvern thieves might have actual experience riding one.

He considered his weapons and chose his poleaxe over his spear. He held it close, not yet threatening with it, and swung Fafnir into a sudden sharp dive. He pulled up just before he would have gotten within weapon reach and stalled there, Fafnir's shadow completely covering the other wyvern for a wingbeat. Then he veered away as they lost momentum, raising his weapon only slightly as he passed.

The warning was clear enough. Less obvious to someone not trained to see it was the weapon signal: Friend or foe?
Gwen narrowed her eyes. Beautiful wyvern, and an experienced rider. That didn't match up particularly well with the picture of the bandit gang that had been painted to her by the old man. If he were asking friend or foe, that meant he wasn't looking for a fight. Or he was looking to get her while her guard was down. A one-on-one aerial duel with an experienced wyvern rider was always a risky proposition, though regardless of her own skills or experience -- it was something to be avoided.

With some reluctance, Gwen nudged Freyja into wheeling tightly around and hovering in place long enough for Gwen to adjust her hold on the lance. Freyja, perhaps sensing Gwen's mood, was tense and ready beneath her, waiting for the signal to go on the attack. That wasn't the plan at the moment, however. Holding the lance halfway along its shaft, Gwen moved it in a slow, down-ward half arc several times. Assuming they were both fluent in the eclectic collection of signals common to fliers -- and he did appear to be -- the stranger would know that she was asking him to land.

Aware that she was giving him a very good opening to attack and hating every minute of it, Gwen guided Freyja down in a gentle spiral, toward a relatively flat expanse jutting out of the mountainside nearby. Freyja didn't appear to like this move any more than Gwen did, and made some uncertain grumbling sounds in the back of her throat. But she obeyed, and if this move didn't earn Gwen a javelin in the back, in a few minutes they would both be on the ground and having a chat like civilised people.
Joachim twitched his poleaxe again in acknowledgment of the rider's signal, but she was already turning her mount. Safe to assume she probably wasn't a bandit, then, unless she planned to ambush him on the ground. He drifted above for a moment to give her enough clearance for a head start to land and scanned their surroundings. All he saw were rocks, trees, and a crow noisily startled from its course by the other wyvern's descent. Satisfied, he led Fafnir in to a landing beside her.

Fafnir turned to face her on his own, rumbling low in his throat. Joachim let his axe rest across his knees and sized her up. A young woman with battered but cared-for armor, and an obedient wyvern; it watched Fafnir warily but didn't move to attack. Far too healthy and compliant to its rider to have been stolen. That still didn't rule out a skilled thief with her own mount; her actions could be designed to catch him off-guard. It was becoming steadily less likely, however.

His mind finally registered a detail firmly incongruous to his suspicions. He nodded to her armor. "Bern military issue?" Perhaps stolen as well, or she was a deserter out for money. If she wasn't a bandit, he was well aware that his own ragged appearance wasn't exactly reassuring.
A bit better than simple issue, actually, even if it didn't look it anymore. The armour had been a gift from her family, and its make had been a little bit better than what most of the Bern rank and file got. That was a bit too personal to explain to someone she might need to try to kill in a moment, however. So instead she just said: "Yeah, I was in the army."

Freyja didn't growl back at the man's wyvern; it had to weigh at least half again more than Freyja did, and Freyja plainly did not like those odds. She maintained eye contact, though, neck arched low, ready to strike out fast if the other wyvern decided to do more than growl. Gwen reached out, and rested a steadying hand on the scales of her neck.

"If you were, though, then I'm queen of Etruria." Who was dead, more than likely, but that wasn't going to stop Gwen from using a perfectly serviceable expression. More than the big man's rough appearance, he sounded Lycian. "That's a pretty fine looking wyvern you've got -- did you steal her recently?"
Joachim resisted the urge to roll his eyes and sighed instead. "About twenty years ago. If getting him as payment for a trade delivery counts as stealing. It's in the logbooks under my father's name." He'd nearly been quick-marched back to the farm to check those books once.

His head and gut agreed now that she wasn't a bandit. Moving slowly, he shifted his poleaxe around and secured it back in its straps. Fafnir felt the movement and settled more comfortably on his haunches, wings relaxing. Joachim took some guesses at what she might be thinking, based on past experience. "Yes, I'm from Lycia. No, I hold no allegiance to it." He speared his fingers through his hair and tried to remember if this was the third or fourth time he'd been accused of theft. "Yes, I should learn to do a haircut. The breeder's son sent me."
With one hand, she continued to try and keep Freyja reassured. "The old man's kid actually found someone, then? The old man didn't hold out a lot of help he'd bring anyone in time." Gwen lowered her lance cautiously. This could still be a trap, but that explanation made a lot more sense with that wyvern than the possibility of him being a bandit. "I'm Gwen," she said. "Old man hired me to go see about his bandit problem."

Never mind that he wasn't really paying her anything but room and board -- she didn't want to get a reputation for handing out free work to every fool with a sob story.
"Joachim," he said, and twisted his mouth into a wry smile, or a close approximation thereof. "I appreciate not getting skewered and I suspect Fafnir appreciates keeping the man that buys his meals."

He turned in the direction he thought the camp was. The thieves might be on alert by now if they had any sentries, unless they didn't expect anything coming after them from the air. Just as well they were both on the same job; never hurt to have backup. "His directions weren't clear. Should be east of here - close, by your reckoning?"

Then again, if they knew where the bandits were, exactly, they ought to have been dealt with by now.
"Yeah. The old man says they've got a camp up on that mountain over there." She indicated a short, blunt peak visible in the near distance. It wouldn't take long at all to fly there. "I don't know how much trouble to expect; if they've been here this long, they're either too small for the army to bother with or too big for the army to bother with. Probably the first one. The commander here knew my--" Gwen stopped herself, swallowing the words and then slowly starting the sentence over again. "... the local commander's not crooked, or so I hear. Not the sort who'd turn a blind eye if there were a major threat out in these mountains. This wyvern-stealing, that was definitely new."

Gwen rolled her shoulders, trying to work out some of the tension from the confrontation. "I figure if you're any good in an actual fight, between the two of us we're a match for some idiots on their first day of flying. I'd mostly be worried about hurting the animals if they tried to use them against us." She'd kill a wyvern in the heat of battle and not feel too bad about it, but somehow the prospect of killing the wyverns when they were ostensibly trying to retrieve them just left her feeling unsatisfied.
Gwen's slip didn't pass Joachim, but it didn't seem noteworthy. Wasn't any of his business whether or not she knew the commander. "Easy enough to spook a wyvern not trained for combat into dropping an even less-trained rider. I'd worry more about support from the ground, any archers or mages, but we still ought to have the advantage. With any luck they won't be expecting company. Won't know until we get a look."

He leaned forward, and that was the only warning he bothered with before Fafnir leaped back into the air, much more excited to fly than to wait while humans made noises at each other.

He swooped low and angled for a wide circle around the peak, gaining altitude and narrowing in with each pass. Joachim hoped he'd see their targets before anyone happened to notice him. If Gwen had been in the military, he trusted she'd know how to back him up.
He would fly off and make it look like he was in charge now, wouldn't he? Grumbling something unfriendly under her breath, Gwen urged Freyja back up into the air, following after Joachim and Fafnir. Without needing instruction, Freyja fell in behind the other wyvern and rider.

As they continued onward, a plume of smoke became visible from the other side of the mountain Gwen had indicated earlier. As they rounded the peak, a stand of scraggly trees clinging to a broad ledge about a third of the way up the mountainside became visible -- the shapes of patched homemade tents could be made out, along with the tiny scurrying figures of people. There couldn't have been more than five or six of them. This was a relief, although it was still more than Gwen would have liked to take on by herself.

More importantly, the mouth of a large cave was visible near the tents, and one of the bandits appeared to be dragging a fresh deer carcass into it. Clearly, that was where the wyverns were being kept. So far, no one in the camp below had noticed the two strange wyvern riders.
Joachim considered his options. This was an awfully small group to have stolen wyverns, which meant that some might already be out flying - but they weren't anywhere in sight. He made another circle, cutting much closer as soon as he was out of sight from the camp, watching his surroundings. Still in the clear. He twisted back to catch Gwen's eye and motioned for her to hold her altitude for now. Then, when they came around to the camp side again, he kicked Fafnir upward to give the bandits the scare of their lives.

The man with the meat had vanished into the cave, which left five lolling around when Fafnir swooped over the edge of the plateau and let out his mightiest roar at Joachim's prompting. He landed square in the middle of their camp, scattering the fire with powerful wingbeats. Joachim stood up in the saddle, brandishing his poleaxe with his most practiced manic grin. "Should have stuck to the small-time, morons!" he bellowed, and took a threatening swing at the nearest man who'd toppled backwards into a weather-beaten crate.

Five against Fafnir and Joachim weren't the best odds, but Gwen was nearby, and he'd dealt with thieves who were actually prepared to fight many times - and never lost a shipment. This should be easy by comparison.
Joachim's swing caught the man in the arm he threw up to shield himself with, eliciting some blood and a shriek of pain. He'd probably live, though. Assuming he got basic medical attention.

Another bandit -- a tall, thickset woman with scraggly blonde hair -- had already raised a crudely strung bow in Joachim's direaction when Gwen's lance struck her in the spine. Gwen felt the shock go up her arm as the lance's razor sharp tip cut through clothing and flesh to strike bone. With only a ragged gasp, the woman dropped to the ground, and Gwen wrenched her lance out. Freyja was already taking off again, circling around the bandit camp ready to be directed to the next target. Maybe Gwen hadn't needed to strike to kill -- but she'd seen a bow, and years of combat instincts had kicked in before she could think.

An ugly, piercing sound filled the air, and Gwen saw a bandit with a horn raised to his lips, a second before he ducked into the cave. The racket echoed for what seemed like an eternity before gradually fading into the distance. If any of the bandits had been airborn in the near distance, they would have heard that.

The remaining three bandits were following the man with the horn. They scurried toward the relative shelter of the cave mouth, even as they tried to wrench axes and other weapons out of their belts. They had clearly not been expecting a sudden attack from the sky; sloppy.
"Consider that a warning." Joachim didn't follow up the man he'd already injured; not much more of a threat. He was more concerned with his buddies. He crouched; Fafnir coiled beneath him, then sprang over the bandits' heads. One got in after the man with the horn, but Fafnir's wings and the dull side of Joachim's poleaxe sent the other two sprawling before he landed heavily between them and the cave.

Fafnir's roar shook stones loose from overhead and earned some answering cries from inside. Joachim glanced around, saw an archer lying in a pool of blood. He grimaced and brought his attention back when one man got to his feet and swung an axe at Fafnir's wing. Fafnir moved away from it, and Joachim's poleaxe barely missed the man's arm. His buddy, emboldened, took up a flanking position on Fafnir's other side. Joachim twisted around to check on the two in the cave; he only saw one, hauling back with an axe.

Joachim snatched a hand axe from his belt and threw it, forcing that one to dodge rather than continue his advance, and lashed forward with his poleaxe again. Fafnir snapped the other way with his claws, and barreled past the two, battering them in his wake a second time. Joachim jabbed the tip of his weapon into one's shoulder for good measure. And now the path into the cave was open for the other guy.

Well, so much for that plan. At least Gwen had an opening, though judging by the archer, she was less forgiving than he was.
This time, Gwen didn't aim for vitals. Freyja swooped in low, passing by close enough for Gwen to snake out her lance, and neatly trip the bandit still fleeing for the safety of the cave. Or, in actuality, stab him in the calf -- she wasn't that precise, after all.The important thing was, he wasn't dead, and he wasn't running anymore.

Once Freyja had landed -- flattening a bandit tent accidentally in the process -- Gwen regarded the bandit that Joachim was still dealing with. "I counted two running into the cave, plus the one with the deer," Gwen said.

The man Joachim had jabbed in the shoulder, while not as badly injured as the others left outside of the cave, seemed to consider the precariousness of his situation. He dropped his axe to the ground with a clatter, and slowly raised his hands, backing away from Fafnir's fearsome teeth and claws.
Joachim pointed with his poleaxe, encompassing the injured bandits and then indicating the path that wound down from the plateau. "Get out of here and we won't have a problem."

With Fafnir growling at the unfortunate man, Joachim turned to Gwen. "Give me a yell if we get company." He traded his poleaxe for a shorter halberd, signaled Fafnir to go on guard, and jumped off his back. He only had to go far enough for his eyes to adjust to see the wyverns in the back. One had a rider already, though it struggled against commands, obviously wanting the deer instead; the man who'd blown the torch was still trying to mount. The rest were roped in ways that made Joachim's jaw clench.

He picked his dented hand axe off the floor and marched in. The horn man finally got himself mounted; the other came at Joachim a second time, but a swing of the halberd kept him warily at bay as he tried to figure out an approach. Joachim went straight for the first one. This bandit didn't have a weapon with reach, and his wyvern wasn't trained yet to protect a rider; Joachim easily hooked his belt with the halberd and dragged him to the ground.

He rested the axe blade at the bandit's neck and turned to face the other two. "I'd suggest making no sudden moves. I'd rather not have to kill somebody today." He snorted. "You're idiots, but I hope idiots with self-preservation."