Here are the first six chapters of the story which is currently in twelve chapters and counting. This is a work of fiction any similarities between the characters, events, or locations in this story and actual locations, events, or people are purely coincidental.. Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org
"Buyin' time, they say, is a dangerous thing,
you never know exactly what the time will bring,
just move along, not too fast,
try to make the good times last."
"All The Time In The World," by The Subdudes
It was my last trip. I walked along behind the idling snow mobile with its three tethered freight toboggans, slowly checking the loads of each of the ten-foot sleds. Slowly was the order of the day, in winter camping. Sweating could easily lead to hypothermia as the body chilled.
The temperature was twenty below zero actual, with a stiff wind as the blizzard gathered strength around me. Its blowing and drifting snow would obliterate any trace of my passage through the Boundary Waters.
My quite illegal (in the recreational area) snowmobile would drag the last of my earthly possessions through the motor forbidden park to the hidden, also illegal, cabin of my childhood friend Robert. His family's cabin, built long before Voyagers Park, even before the State of Minnesota itself existed.
I cast a last nostalgic look at Robert's Dodge Ram One Ton four-wheel drive pick up with the long gooseneck trailer, disappearing under a blanket of drifting snow. The pick-up's license plates were in my hands, and the accessible VIN numbers had been carefully removed before my trip. Tomorrow morning the truck would be reported stolen
There was less nostalgia for what that snow bound truck represented.
My separated, soon-to-be ex-wife and her lover - my boss - made it clear that her divorce would quickly transfer my entire assets to her in a seamless financial transaction. Since their long-term affair had been conducted right under my nose without any suspicions on my part, assumptions that they were so much cleverer than I were doubtless well founded.
Grinning, I thought, perhaps not so seamless.
Right now, two hookers of my recent acquaintance were driving my "bimmer" to Las Vegas with all my credit cards. When they arrived, my 'ex' car was going to a chop shop, and credit cards would be sold. In about a week, my paper trail would evaporate into the Nevada underworld like a mist in the desert.
Wife Natalie, and my best friend boss Bill, were about to discover that the disappearance of a principal plays hell with the legal process. If they were just a bit unlucky, suspicions of their involvement in my vanishing might well completely ruin their party.
I replaced my helmet, muting the now-howling wind. I awkwardly climbed on the heated seat of my Arctic Cat T660 Turbo Touring LE, I was moving with difficulty, in view of the fact that two imaginative call girls (grateful for the gift of a seventy-five thousand dollar BMW) can be quite, um, strenuous in their own exceedingly pleasurable fashion.
I plugged the helmet into the Cat's communications system as I started the MP3 of the Subdudes "...need a minute/take your time/you need an hour/you can borrow mine/'cause I've got all the time in the world."
Following the GPS across the trackless lakes in the blizzards whiteout should have been stressful; it just shows the difference when you have nothing to lose.
I was musing as my snowmobile effortlessly chewed up the miles. Nothing like twenty below to keep things running cool even while pulling a load.
Natalie had been doing an effective job keeping me broke. Her blind spot was my various collections. My gun, knife, cartridge, coin, stamp, music box, lock, and watch collections had all flown beneath her money radar, forgotten.
My guns, blades, cartridges, and locks were with me. My coins and stamps had been liquidated to friendly collectors for cash. With the exception of a few keepsakes and gifts, the music boxes and watches followed being similarly dispersed. That pile of cash financed the purchases for this expedition.
This expedition! This "hiding out," actually!
My boy hood chum, Robert, gave me the key to his secluded cabin in this trackless wilderness, saying, "Take all the time you want. You won't be disturbed."
He patted the small green oxygen bottle next to his hip as he continued softly, "I won't be here when you get back from your sabbatical."
I nodded sadly, as we once more went over the minutiae of my planned two-year stay alone in the wilderness. It was a daunting undertaking. I planned to disappear for at least two years without coming out for any reason, including need for additional supply.
The GPS announcing the lakeshore by the cabin roused me from my memories. I carefully turned the sled with its long tow into the trees, heading for my new home. I had to smile; even after my trips through here, there was little sign of disturbance. The trail behind me was already drifting full.
Now my transit was much slower, as I wound back and forth, picking my way through trees and thick brush, until finally I broke into the small clearing under the giant wolf oak tree that sheltered the stone cabin.
I stopped to marvel at this cabin - my new home. Solid and timeless, built of huge stones and massive timbers with a thick slate roof. Seeming to settle firmly into the ground, its fieldstone fireplace and multiple-flue chimney forming the north wall, while a sheltered porch faced the other three sides
On my previous trips tonight, I'd lit the fireplace and thrown open the shutters. The bright windows, and smell of chili mingled with wood smoke greeted me as I pulled up next to the entrance, removing my helmet.
Now it was more grunt work, as I stripped off my snowmobile suit and began hauling one bundle after another into the cabin. Rapidly, I finished filling the two rooms off the great room. In the kitchen, I added to the mound of provisions and supplies yet to be put away. Another untidy pile grew even larger in the great room. Without delay, the snowmobile was under a tarp next to the cabin, with the now empty freight toboggans lined up under the big oak tree.
After a last look around outside, I staggered through the door. Grabbing my canteen off a table, I collapsed on the leather couch in front of the fireplace. The smell of chili emanating from the big cast iron pot had, by now, permeated the room. I realized that I was famished.
A couple huge bowls of chili with thick slices of homemade bread, chased by one of my carefully hoarded beers, left me full and torpid on the couch. The blizzard winds, muted by the substantial walls and thick windows, were oddly comforting as I settled deep in the cushions, staring at the fire.
My eyes opened slowly. I was looking at the dying embers in the fieldstone fireplace. I started then sat back as I remembered where I was. I looked at my watch to find it well after noon. I had just had my best, most relaxing and refreshing, sleep of recent memory!
I wandered from window to window, looking out at the continuing storm. Robert had promised me a storm to cover my tracks, but this record-breaking blizzard far exceeded his most optimistic predictions. The cabin was still warm. Low-voltage fans distributed part of the fireplace's heated air under the hardwood floor.
The cabin's electrical system was supplied with juice by a small turbine spinning in the nearby swift moving creek. Photovoltaic cells were backup when the creek froze in January. Deep cycle batteries in a cabinet on the porch, fed by a trickle charger, stored power as a further insurance against interruption.
A cabinet in the mudroom, next to the kitchen area, held power tools. Ryobi eighteen-volt power packs were charging on the top shelf, while the rest of the shelves were filled with every imaginable Ryobi battery-powered tool including drills, circular and reciprocating saws.
Before I continued my unpacking, I needed breakfast. I replenished the fireplace bonfire, then started a small fire in the Charm Crawford Royal wood-burning cookstove. I marveled again at Robert's ability to furnish this cabin in the middle of the wilderness.
Using three of my fresh eggs for breakfast with a steak, fried potatoes and toast, I made breakfast just like my frontier ancestors. After I finished eating, I sat at the massive, hand-made dining table, drinking coffee out of the giant enamel coffee pot, planning my day's activities with the wind howling outside.
I finally quit being lazy, grabbing a couple of battery work lights and crawling up the steep steps to open the hatch into the attic. I marveled again at the heavy timbers every couple of feet, supporting the thick plank roofing.
Enough stalling! It was past time to get to work, hauling part of my massive stock of assorted freeze-dried food and paper products up into the attic. Backpacking and survival supplies of all kinds were represented in quantity, along with a goodly supply of Mil-Spec MREs. When the excess food and paper moved upstairs, the main floor was much clearer.
The low-voltage refrigerator/freezer was packed with the fresh meat, eggs, butter, bread, fruit, and produce.
I checked the kitchen pantry, stacking up the six-gallon poly pails of cooking oil, vinegar, vanilla, pepper, apple sauce, molasses, brown sugar, powdered eggs, ketchup, powdered margarine, raspberry jam, peanut butter, chocolate syrup, dry soups, tea, minced onions, and honey. Forty-eight gallon plastic barrels held pasta, flour, dried potatoes, beans, rice, oatmeal, salt, sugar, powdered milk, coffee, cocoa, lemonade mix, and other basics while bulk yeast, baking powder, baking soda, spices and condiments lined the shelves. Cases of Spam, tuna fish, chili, soup, and stew cans were stacked behind forty pound bags of dried apples with ten pound bags of potatoes, and onions. Large cans of assorted canned vegetables, fruits and juices completed my major provisioning. Vitamin and mineral supplements lined one shelf.
Now I grabbed a battery drill, installing my Daisho on the wall along with a couple of pictures. Pocket watches, antique locks, and rare cartridges were displayed on the desk. Guns went into gun racks while handguns and smaller blades went into cabinets with the ammunition. My cylinder six-bell antique music box went up on the fireplace mantle, while my Regina mahogany fifteen-inch disc music box stood by Robert's tall Grandfather Clock.
Next on the agenda was unpacking my various small tools for my hobbies and collections. Soon, my equipment and parts for repairing guns, knives, watches, locks, and music boxes was organized. With the considerable 'spare' time ahead, I brought along a couple of each to repair.
Finally, with everything picked up and put away, I checked the weather again to find the wind blowing and snow falling at a steady clip. I threw on my parka to shovel my way out to the most deluxe outhouse in the world!
It was a pit toilet, but spacious and clean, with a pot-bellied stove for heat. Battery powered lights and fan kept it well lit and ventilated. I stoked the fire, warming this very essential room. In truth it might be easier just to take the toilet seat in and out of the warm cabin when I needed to use it.
Afterwards, I stood on the porch for a brief moment, absorbing the sheer power of nature as the blizzard continued, unabated. The alcohol thermometer hanging from the porch ceiling read minus forty. It was time to get back inside.
I spread newspapers on the big dining room table. My gun cleaning kits were brought out, to clean and lube every one of my guns and knives after the transport and temperature swings. It was a pleasant, calming exercise.
After I was done and had thrown all the trash into the cookstove, I sat down to more chili. The big cast iron pot still had several meals remaining, even with the big dent my newly restored appetite was making. I finally sat on the couch drinking my coffee. I glanced at my watch, and was shocked at how late it was. I certainly wasn't keeping track of time very well.
I realized that I hadn't wound and set the grandfathers clock. Having it gonging the hours, while chiming the quarters, would be a welcome addition. Opening the glass door, I felt around the bottom of the clock for the winder. I found the clock winder and a stack of large manila envelopes.
First I wound the clock, raising the weights carefully, moving the hands forward, setting it. Afterwards, I sat at the table, opening the manila envelopes to find...keys.
First, a huge key, over a foot long with a heart shaped bow and a bit nearly three inches square. The bit, the part that fits in the keyway, was fine metal filigree almost like lace. In another envelope marked "outbuildings", a ring with several normal sized skeleton keys. Finally several envelopes, each with a very fancy skeleton key.
I was confused to say the least. There weren't any outbuildings! At least, none locked with those keys -- and where did the 'singles' fit? -- but most intriguing was the huge 'key to the city' key. Papers with it showed, by simple diagram, the key fitting into one of the fireplace stones! It was Robert's handwriting on the diagram. I would naturally assume this was some kind of elaborate practical joke, except Robert is a singularly humorless person, with zero talent for, or interest in, jokes!
Standing up with my flashlight, I found the opening next to the mantelshelf. A keyway the exact size right into the rock. I carefully inserted the big key. The shoulder hit the rock, with a satisfying 'clunk' I turned the heart shaped bow clockwise half a turn, until I heard and felt a 'click' feeling the key catch and stop. I don't know what I expected, but the result was anticlimactic. Nothing.
I had to grin at that. Sort of like the rest of my life.
I tried to remove the key. It didn't budge. I shrugged; it wasn't hurting anything, so I left it. I could only conclude that Robert worried about my sanity, and keeping busy, and had left me a puzzle to solve. With that in mind, I hung the key ring marked 'outbuildings' with my Daisho. The fancy individual keys were lined up on a shelf just below it.
Still shaking my head, I made a cup of hot cocoa, sipping it while I made up the big bed in the corner of the great room. When the cocoa was gone, I crawled under the comforter and in the warmth and quiet I closed my eyes.
I started to come awake, with warm sunshine on my face and bird songs in my ears. My eyes opened, and I stared at the ceiling, listening. This was not the distinctive call of the Chickadee, who mocks the cold; this was the song of a summer songbird. I began to realize how warm I was, even with the comforter kicked off sometime in the night.
I rolled out of bed, moving to the nearest window to look out. I stared outside, holding the window frame for support. I gasped, finally remembering to breathe.
Green grass, lush foliage and wild flowers had replaced the winter landscape. Colorful noisy birds and butterflies moved among the trees.
What happened to my snowstorm?
Moving slowly around the cabin, I carefully looked out every window. The perspective changed slightly, the view stayed the same. I was looking at greenery. Only what I should be looking out into was the aftermath of a blizzard.
Jerking open the cabin door I stepped out onto the porch into a warm spring day. My senses all agreed - spring! Walking around the three sides of the cabin on the porch just confirmed the situation. Didn't explain, just confirmed.
Breakfast first. Back to the stove for three eggs, a mound of hash browns, a pile of sausage links, and hobo toast. I centered myself while I cooked, solely focused on the mechanics.
I sat at the dining room table, eating an unhurried meal, my over easy eggs slathered in Tabasco. Finally sipping my coffee, I ruminated on my next steps.
Walking over to the gun cabinet, I decided that, in this case, "old friends were the best friends," screwing a 'can' to the muzzle of my Colt .45 auto, then strapping it into a tactical holster on my thigh. with my wakizashi on the other hip. Picking up my Streamlight flashlight along with the Robert's 'ring of keys' I walked off the porch into my unexpectedly transformed yard. Only the snowmobile and freight sleds gave any cue that the blizzard trek was only the night before.
I was looking at a loose row of outbuildings just beyond the Oak tree from the cabin. I decided to tackle them in order. Though in good repair the buildings had an air of long abandonment. They shared the building details with the cabin, being constructed with timbers, fieldstone, and slate roofs.
With my gun in my hand, I walked up to the first, and unlocked the full-width, hinged double doors, swinging them wide open to find a blacksmith shop with a forge, furnace, anvils, and extensive inventory of metal working tools. Carefully looking around, I found no evidence of any person. Leaving the double doors open, I moved down the line to the next.
This door opened into a machine shop filled with lathes, drill presses, milling machines, and other powered machines. Playing my flashlight around as I again looked for signs of 'human habitation'. I was shaking my head, wondering how Robert made this work without electricity. Then it dawned on me that belts connected the machines to a long shaft near the ceiling. I walked out side and behind the building to find a brick-set Horizontal Return Tubular Boiler connected to a Stationary Steam Engine whose pistons spun a hefty wheel attached by wide leather belt to a tiny pulley. driving that main shaft inside the building.
I had to smile at Robert's (or somebody's) ingenuity as I moved to the next. Swinging open the door to the next building I found a general workshop with broad workbenches, and ample storage shelves filled with hand tools, hardware, and parts.
I moved on to the last building. This one was very different, built entirely of stone, with a heavy, iron-bound plank door, and tiny windows barred by thick iron lattices. Unlocking and swinging open the door, I confronted an iron gate. Unlocking that, I entered a jail, with a pair of ten-by-ten cells along the back wall each framed with heavy, close-set iron bars even across the roof, and thick stone walls. The front wall by the door was hung with dozens and dozens of Darby handcuffs, leg irons, and combination restraints including chains with a cuff every couple feet, all of them lightly oiled and hanging ready on wood pegs.
Now I wasn't just wondering where or when I was but what I was?
Standing outside the jail holding my last key, I looked around, spotting an overgrown cluster of lilac bushes. Robert always talked about his love of lilacs...
Pressing into the center of the of the thicket, I found a modern steel door, set horizontally in a frame just inches above ground level. I'd found my last door.
Unlocking the door and swinging it up and open with a chain holding it upright I walked down the brick steps well below ground into the long narrow tunnel. Lights every ten feet brightly illuminated the brick lined shaft. Chambers widened every twenty feet, providing ample storage space.
A white piece of paper pinned to a cross beam fluttered in the breeze. I pulled it down to read in Roberts's careful script:
JEB, welcome to my and your world, a place of magic. You are well suited for your role here. I could tell you everything but that somehow seems unfair. Look around; I have left notes scattered about with essential information. The rest you must learn. Good luck -- RJ
That would be the Robert I remembered. He always called me JEB, my acronym I guess you could call it, with my name John Edward Brock. Robert also hated to ruin the surprise!
I wandered down the tunnel to the first widening, where I found a framed mural over four feet high by eight feet long. It was a diagram, with the grove surrounding this cabin at its center. It showed in some detail the roads, streams and the great woods close by. The attached note merely said to hang it in the cabin's great room. A three-foot-diameter globe sat next to it. Lying in front of it was a smaller, flexible, map with a brass compass next to it with a lid like a pocket watch. I picked up the map, to find a very detailed topographic map with many symbols. The note pinned to this one said:
This is a magic map. I read a story and liked it so much I had a wizard make one. The diamond at the center is your location. It will move as you do with the map magically updating your location and the features around you.
I folded the map, slipping it into my pocket along with the finely made compass as I moved forward. The rest of the tunnel was likewise filled with treasures and tiny cryptic notes, as I moved from one chamber to another, finding leather clothing, armor and chain mail, crossbow, a magical pack basket, and even an enchanted light crystal.
Finally, my mind overloaded, I carried the mural up the stairs into the cabin, hanging it from the hooks already set in the wall.
I was looking at it, trying to get the lay of the land, when it unexpectedly seemed to come alive. Tiny cartoon horses with riders suddenly appeared at the top of the map traveling down the map, following one of the lines representing a road. Startled, I stared at the mural for a moment. I grabbed my Steiner 10x50 binoculars as I ran out of the cabin to that end of the grove.
Hastily flopping on my belly behind a bush right at the edge of the woods, I saw the horsemen loping along the road, splashing across a small stream. The number of mounted horses and pack animals were exactly as depicted on the mural.
Looking closer, the men were well armed, with half of them holding lances. While none was wearing what could be described as a uniform, all were wearing armor or mail of some sort. No pennant or flag was displayed. I wondered if they were mercenaries or outlaws. They disappeared into the thick woods as I rose to walk back to my cabin with even more to think about.
I sat, staring at the globe, trying to make sense of my new world. The wall map was much like the old television show The Prisoner, with the nearby inn in the vast forest called The Inn, and to the West the closest town further in that forest on the river called River Town and the larger one beyond that with the castle, yep, Castle Town. North beyond the plains and scattered woods were the mountains, while East was seacoast, and South beyond the forests was desert.
By now I'd found the cache of money. I had a mound of copper, silver and gold coins on the dining room table. According to Robert coppers were 1000 to 2500 for each silver coin with silver coins some 500 to 1000 to a gold one. All dependent on the exchange from dealers in places like Castle Town.
Next to the coins was a smaller mound of gems; diamonds, rubies, sapphires, and emeralds, of varied size and high quality to my untrained eye. Again, dealers in Castle Town would set their value.
Robert wasn't telling me much about what I'd find in this world. As I made my supper I pondered my next steps. It never even seriously occurred to me that I might turn the key and return home. I was well and truly hooked, as Robert knew I would be.
It was time to reconnoiter. I would dress in the clothing I found in the tunnel and walk to The Inn and from there to River Town. If this went well I'd keep on to Castle Town.
I spent the next weeks gathering my supplies for my foray into my new world. First I moved all my firearms and ammunition down into the tunnel. I held out only two guns, my old reliable Colt 45 Auto with a detachable STW silencer and a Ruger Mark One 22 with its own integral silencer. These "last resorts" with their ammunition would go in a hidden pocket in the bottom of my pack basket. The fancy single keys from Robert were also placed in this secret compartment.
The magicked pack basket was a wonder. Bigger on the inside then the outside, and enchanted to weigh only a couple pounds, no matter the load. First, clothing, food, light crystal, first aid supplies and magic telescope. Since I had ample room in my pack I added a selection of tools for repairing watches, music boxes and locks as well as for maintaining my knives and sword. My coat and waterproof were in the pack until needed.
A tiny grate along with "Y" stands, a rod and "S" hooks along with cooking and eating utensils coupled with a few MREs and a selection of freeze dried food completed my preparations if I was caught in the woods far from an inn or tavern. A couple water containers went inside, with a canteen lashed to the outside of the pack
Darby cuffs and leg irons went on the pack bottom, with an added chain and padlocks. One set of Darby cuffs was lashed to the outside of the pack. Might as well find out what it meant to own them.
My lock picks, and a selection of skeleton keys, were carefully placed in the money belt, with gold and silver coins and gems. Coppers went in my belt pouch with my watch, compass, map, and fire starter. A Swiss Army pocketknife, folding Balisong knife and SOG utility tool also went in the pouch.
I'd be wearing a soft buckskin shirt and pants, with heavy leather moccasins like light boots. Chain mail leggings and a chain mail shirt went over that, with a metal breast and back plate over all. A sheepskin lined leather vest and leather leggings covered the mail and plate. The mail shirt had sleeves ending in finely made mail gloves. I wore the mail glove on my left hand under a leather glove with my right hand bare.
Now I began to lay out my weapons for this world. My Katana and Tanto would go on my belt. Throwing knives in a sheathe low on my right thigh. A pair of throwing axes, a war pick and a bowie knife with brass knuckles and skull crusher pommel was lashed to my pack. Shuriken -- both spikes and stars -- were tucked in the pack, along with extra one-piece throwing knives. Two Sai daggers would be in the pack. A cross bow that looked very much like a Barnett Commando with its six spare bolts underneath would be lashed to the back of the pack along with a full quiver of quarrels. A single edged drop point utility knife with blade point in line with the handle on my belt would complete my edged weapons. My snake whip, and Tonfa, would also come along.
Those weeks were also spent acquainting myself with my weaponry. I practiced firing and quickly reloading the crossbow. The stock broke open like a shotgun to cock the bowstring. It allowed fast follow up shots. The crossbow was very accurate, with a ghost ring and a bright bead front sight.
There were two different quarrels for my crossbow. One was a ringed broadhead, with an extended, hardened needlepoint. The other was a metal shaft, with a diamond point the diameter of the shaft. The second had shown excellent penetration of mail and armor in my test shots. I would be quite well supplied with the second war quarrel, its metal fletching allowing me to tightly pack a large quiver lashed to the pack with many war bolts.
Throwing my knives, axes, and both kinds of shuriken was practice time well spent. I stepped up the intensity of my Kenjutsu exercises with my katana sword. My kata included my sai daggers, tonfa, while I spent time reacquainting myself with my favorite snake whip. Finally I felt ready for my excursion.
I decided not to procrastinate. Before dawn the next morning, I ate a large breakfast, cleaning up after myself, then carefully locking up all the out buildings, the tunnel and the cabin, with the keys secreted in a small birdhouse attached to the huge oak tree.
I left my small woodland in the false dawn, walking south through the high grass paralleling the road, following a faint game trail. I crossed several small shallow streams in the intervening grassland as I walked to the big woods.
The sun was just coming over the horizon as I reached the edge of the woods gazing back over my shoulder to take a last look at my grove.
As I moved into the forest with its dawn shadows, I was comforted that the sun was at least operating in a familiar predictable pattern, rising in the East, setting in the West while the compass needle wanted to orient North with the same cardinal points I was used to. Though it seemed less about magnetic north and more about true north, so perhaps a bit of magic was helping the direction-finding process.
I was following the toe dragging trail of a large buck deer. It picked easy passages avoiding the swamps and thickets as it sauntered along. It stayed away from the road, except on two occasions, when it moved to the road verge to observe some activity.
Both times, the buck had stood watching an ambush site along the road. I slowly and carefully cast back and forth across the road, as I surveyed each position. The myriad tracks, cigarette butts, and tiny mounds of tobacco from emptying their pipes behind rocks and downed timbers showed where men had waited impatiently. In one place a log was at ready with ropes tied to it for men to drag into the road, halting the traffic in their crude killing zone.
Taking out my map and stretching and manipulating it had a large-scale representation of each ambush site where I drew notes and diagrams on the map. After that I was less about sightseeing and more vigilant to avoid falling into a surprise attack of my own. From then on the crossbow was in my hands as I ghosted along that game trail and across several small streams.
I started with the ringed broad head in the crossbow hoping that any potential assailant would be wearing leather armor or light mail, both easily breached with a greater wounding potential from that broad head.
By noon I still had not reached the inn. I eased into a shady spot with lush grass and just sat resting against a tree with my pack beside me while I drank water from my canteen chewing ruminatively on an energy bar. Briefly I closed my eyes, listening to the sounds and rhythms of the woods, hoping to hear a discordant note before stepping into a trap.
Checking my pocket watch, I roused myself, throwing on my pack while again grabbing my crossbow. I stood for a moment listening, then moved out along the game trail, still headed south. I was consulting the map more frequently as I approached the inn.
Finally, after a rest stop to tie my sheepskin vest to the pack in the afternoon's warmth, I was about a quarter mile from the inn. Moving to the road's margin, I placed the pack beside me, then sat down cross-legged to watch the inn, using my telescope to look it over carefully before I stepped out on the road.
The telescope was a beautiful multi-section brass instrument, with leather covering and leather caps at both ends. An extended leather hood prevented reflection from the glass disclosing my position.
I saw a fortified two-story building, with a stockade wall on one side surrounding a yard, probably the stable area. A low stone wall on this side seemed to be designed to keep back the woods. Fortification surrounded the inn's roof, and I saw heads peering through its loopholes. Two armed men sat on the porch looking up and down the road.
After long careful study, then easing back into the woods, putting the telescope away, I took the bolt off my crossbow, lashing the crossbow on my pack. I moved back along the trail until I was around a small bend. Out of sight of watchers of the inn I stepped on the roadway approaching the inn walking confidently down its center.
There was no hue and cry. I walked up to the porch greeting the two sentries. The larger, with plate armor and a halberd staff, welcomed me saying in a loud friendly voice, "Greetings, welcome to The Inn in the woods. I am Trevor, captain of the guards. Come in; join us; be welcome."
I nodded, smiling, saying more softly, "Hello and thank you. I am Brock, a hungry, tired traveler."
I shrugged off my pack while Trevor responded by ringing a small bell on the main door's lintel. The door opened immediately and two lovely young ladies spilled out onto the porch. The blonde hastily grabbed my hand while the brunette reached for my pack. The two of them pulled me through the door, into the common room.
The common room was cavernous, with high beam ceilings. Three stone fireplaces for heat and light were along the outside wall. Oil lamps with glass chimneys at intervals along the walls, and hanging by long chains from the ceiling, gave a soft yellow glow to the room. Long wooden tables with benches filled the floor space, with a bar spanning the full length of the room.
On this end of the bar, it turned six feet to meet the wall, and this alcove held the chalkboard with the prices and service offered. A fat, jovial, bald-headed man was waddling swiftly toward us, calling out a greeting. I was calmly studying the chalkboard while I waited, when I suddenly realized the two young ladies were kneeling next to me. Before I could react, the innkeeper reached over the bar to grasp my hand saying loudly:
"Welcome to my inn. I am Luther, innkeeper. These are two of my slaves, Cori and Ria. How may we serve you today?"
I saw that lodging was one or three "c" with food another two "c" and a bath one "c" and "companionship" was two "c" I made an assumption the lower case "c" meant coppers. I decided on food and bath with my room. I dug into my pouch and found my coppers placing six in a neat stack in front of Luther saying:
"Thank you, Luther. My name is Brock. I'd like a room, food and a bath, please."
Luther smiled happily, then he frowned, saying, "Brock, gentle sir, this is too much money. A private room is three coppers while sleeping all together on straw in the big space next to the stable is but one copper. Both include food here in the hall, while the private room includes a bath, and use of one of my house slaves during your stay."
I must have looked confused, because Luther continued filling the silence with his carrying voice. "There is little traffic through our forest with recent events. The inn is almost empty. I am somewhat surprised you chanced it. Still, we serve a meal, six until eight, for everyone in the Inn."
Then Luther looked down at the two kneeling girls, asking, "Yes, Cori what is it?"
The blonde quickly answered, while pointing at the pack I was still holding by the strap.
"Master, Brock is a hunter."
The brunette, Ria turned my pack slightly so Luther could see the pair of Darby handcuffs hanging on the outside. Luther clapped his hands happily as he exclaimed, "Oh, excellent. A hunter. No wonder you have no fear of the forest denizens two or four legged. I'm so very glad you're here Brock sir. We have a selection of the papers you need posted by the stable entrance, please have Cori or Ria show you at your convenience, good sir. Brock if you could sign our book first please."
I was more than a little confused by the reaction to the cuffs, but pleased by the prices. At this rate, my money would go far even if I didn't make more right away. Apparently I already had a 'trade' in this world. Hunter. Whatever that exactly entailed we'd have to find out. From Luther's remarks, the two ambush sites I found must be active. I leaned forward, signing the Inn's registration book, as I pulled myself back into the conversation, saying calmly, "Luther, take the coppers. I pay for good service. For now I ask a small favor please. Is it possible that I could be fed? I'm quite hungry after my trek."
Now Luther went into his host innkeeper role as he ordered, "Cori, show Brock to his room. The large one in front, please. Ria, make up a plate for him with a pitcher of ale, please."
Then, to me; "Would it be acceptable to serve you in your room?"
I nodded, as Cori made a grab for the pack strap. She gently wrested the pack away from me, leading me to the far end of the great room, then up the broad timber stairs and along the hallway toward the front of the inn.
She threw open the door to my room. It was an airy, spacious room, well lighted by tall narrow windows with its own fireplace. A large bed, couch, and a table with chairs furnished the room. Cori carefully set my pack on one of the chairs as she explained, "This is our nicest room, but it is far from the toilet and bathing facilities. However, you should have no problems. The Inn is empty of guests, save you. Unless someone else dares to travel the road, you will be our only one."
I started to remove my armor, with Cori rushing to lend a hand. With her giggling assistance, I was soon sitting in the couch in just my buckskin pants. Cori was hanging my clothing and mail; sword and armor were stacked, while other weapons went on shelves. She poured me a tall glass of water from an icy pitcher, while I relaxed.
Cori smiled happily as she knelt on the floor by my feet. Her thighs were widespread as she settled her butt back on her heels. I looked at her more carefully now. She was a perky blonde, dressed in a shapeless white shift made of thick cotton, the hem past her knees with leather sandals. Her only ornament was a stout leather collar around her neck.
Finally I roused myself to ask gently, "Cori, please tell about the troubles on the road here in the great woods."
She nodded more somber now as she answered slowly, "Yes, sir Brock. We don't know exactly when it started the woods have always been a dangerous place. Slowly it became obvious that something was very wrong. The depredations began choking the commerce of this whole area. Most of those robbed were killed out of hand to be found later, but enough escaped to tell us of this group of robbers who lay in ambush along the road robbing, raping and killing any travelers who fell in their clutches. Only large groups of armed men traveling in daylight are immune from attack."
She looked at me with a smile, saying, "That is why your arrival was such a shock. To just walk alone through the woods..."
Shaking her head she continued, "...You must be a great hunter, indeed."
I smiled as I spoke still softly. "Just lucky, more likely. How many men are in the robber band, Cori?"
She thought for a bit as she answered slowly, "There are many wild theories, but Ria and I are convinced, after listening to many accounts, that there are less then a dozen; perhaps a few as six."
I closed my eyes, picturing the two ambush sites. I mentally counted positions, boot prints, cigarette butts, and pipe ashes. Finally, I nodded as I opened my eyes. Just then, a soft rap on the door interrupted. Cori jumped to her feet as she quickly moved to open the door.
Ria entered, carrying a large tray filled with food. She was dressed similar to Cori, a long shapeless heavy cotton shift, sandals, and that leather collar. While it was hard to judge their shape, both had very pretty faces.
They set to work, putting my meal on the room's table, while Ria served me a chilled mug filled with amber liquid saying gaily, "Luther told me to bring you our Birch Mead instead of Ale. I hope that's to your liking, Brock sir."
Yes that was just fine. Nodding smiling to myself I rose to look over the repast. Thick slices of bread enclosed tall stacks of beef with plates filled with deep fried wedges of potatoes and sliced fruit. Sitting down at the table, I began to eat with gusto. Cori and Ria sat beside me, helping to serve me. Finally I was stuffed. Staggering back to the couch, I collapsed.
Ria sat on one side with more mead while Cori sat on the other with coffee. When I was comfortable, Ria handed me a nine by twelve leather dispatch case filled with heavy weight papers. I pulled them out to find what I would call 'wanted posters' or 'circulars' as they were known in the old west.
Ria informed me that these were "papers" and posted across the several kingdoms. An efficient mail system girdled these kingdoms with the kings' post arriving at least each week at these many locations bringing new 'papers' as well as canceling old ones.
I sipped my mead as I flipped through the stack of papers. They seemed to be of three types: Animals to be killed, criminals to be killed or captured, or runaway slaves and indentured servants to be returned.
The criminals' papers typically were without a portrait sometimes having a fairly detailed description. A good quality drawing showed the animals to be dispatched. The runaways had what could only be described as a photo. I pointed to one asking:
"Is this illustration really this fugitive?"
Cori answered, "Yes, Brock sir. Every slaver hires a wizard before the sale, who makes a copy of every slaves or indentured servants face and body for just such a purpose."
The rewards offered varied greatly. A rogue wolf to be killed might yield five hundred coppers. A criminal wanted for several murders might bring a silver coin, dead or alive. A slave or servant on the run might bring a silver coin if captured alive, but only one hundred coppers if dead.
Two papers from these very woods had my immediate interest. One showed a saber-toothed cat with a bounty of a single gold coin for killing him. The other was for the highwaymen, offering a gold coin reward for each one brought in dead or alive with a bonus of 12 gold coins for the gang's destruction.
Along with my hike, the food and mead, even the thinking had taken their toll. I was worn out.
I announced, "I'm tired, ladies. First a nap, then bath before supper."
The response from Cori and Ria was immediate. They swiftly pulled the shifts over their heads and threw them on the floor. They revealed slim shapely bodies. Now both naked, Ria knelt, pulling my pants down, while Cori stood, kissing me. I was hard before Ria ever touched me. She kissed the head of my cock, then opened her mouth as my cock slid in the warmth of her mouth. I knew I wouldn't last. My hands held her head. I was taken by surprise as my cock spasmed. Ria swallowed my spending as she continued to suck, her fingers cradling my balls until my cock softened.
Cori smiled happily, hugging me as Ria stood up, kissing her. Then they both giggled. Cori released me only long enough to turn down the immense bed. I walked over to the shelves to find my pocket watch. I opened the cover and turned on the chiming mechanism; I set the watch on the small table next to the bed.
I crawled into the bed, settling in the soft mattress. Ria climbed in behind me, pressing into my back in a delightful manner, while Cori spooned in front of me. Her tight butt pressed against my cock, while she held my hand covering one of her breasts. I kissed her shoulder, then nuzzled into her blonde mane. My eyes closed, and I was gone.
I woke on my back, with two delightful companions tucked one under each arm. There was a moment of disorientation just before my eyes opened, but my memories came rushing back. The room was in shadow, with dusk outside the windows. I started to reach for my watch. Cori lifted her head, asking, "What do you wish, Brock sir?"
I settled back, saying quietly, "My watch, please." Cori picked it up carefully and handed it to me. I pushed the 'repeat' and it chimed five times. Cori and Ria looked surprised at this little demonstration. I said, "It's after five. By the time I clean up supper should be ready in the commons room."
Giving the lie to my words, I settled back on my pillow. Ria giggled softly as she cuddled against me.
I had a question for my two bed partners, asking quietly, "How do people feel about traveling in the wooded area even without the highwaymen?"
Cori answered quickly, "Brock sir, we are all of us uncomfortable even on the roads as we go through the woods. We are all most comfortable in inns, cities and towns around other people. No one save hunter travels IN the woodland."
I asked, "What about Trevor and the guards? Don't they patrol?"
Ria spoke up. "Yes, up and down the road, but brave as he is Trevor would no more walk deep in the woods..."
Words simply failed Ria at the thought of Trevor and his men leaving the road and going into the forest.
I mused quietly, wondering, then how do the highwaymen overcome this conditioning to hide out in these deep woods? I sat up, growling, "Enough laying about in this big bed. A bath, please."
Even though my smile belied my tone, Cori and Ria were in motion. Ria scampered out the door to ready the bath, while Cori pulled me from the comfortable bed, saying brightly, "Don't bother to dress, come along."
With a tiny, nagging thought that I really had to start thinking about my security, I gave in to the naked girl, following her down the hallway in the nude.
First, Cori led me to a small room, its only furnishing a low wood box with a hole in its center. Luckily for my comfort, a low shelf filed with sheets of soft paper was close at hand. I had secreted several rolls of toilet paper in my pack basket, and was just as happy not to need them so soon. I'm not sure what happened to the waste. Sometimes, it's just better not to know.
I left the little room much relaxed, to find Cori waiting patiently for me. She led me next door to a somewhat larger room, with a drain in its center and a large copper tub along one wall. Ria was already busily filing the tub with steamy water. Cori had me stand over the floor drain as she sluiced a bucket of warm water over me. She began soaping my damp body, using her soft fingers. Ria joined her in spreading the soap, both scrubbing gently from the soles of my feet to my hair. Cori giggled as she cleaned my ass crease, perhaps, from the constant rubbing, over cleaning it, while Ria was soaping my cock and balls. Both kept at their intimate caresses until my cock sprayed Ria with ropy white spending. That was the signal to begin rinsing me with buckets of warm water until I was free of soap.
Cori led me to the big tub, now that I was clean. I stepped into the hot water, slowly lowered my body until the water surrounded me. Relaxing in the water's warm embrace, I thought about my next moves here in this new world.
How did I feel about being a hunter? I'd killed animals, but could I now kill men? What about this institution of slavery? Could I also be a part of that, not just making use of slaves like Cori and Ria, but also capturing them for return to their masters? And the biggest question; was this all "real," or just some elaborate hallucination?
Of course, the image of my ex, Natalie, wearing only a collar crouched at my feet, while I whipped her back into bloody pulp interfering with any rational thought. This pleasant vision prompted a question as I lazed in the tub. I opened one eye to ask quietly, "Are there limits to how slaves or indentured servants are treated?"
Ria and Cori looked at each other then Cori answered, "For a slave, none. Ownership is total without boundary even to death. For an indentured servant, most are purchased from debtor's prison. That contract is between the debtor, the ruler who keeps the prison, and the buyer. The debts are paid from the price paid by the new owner. Some of those contracts are like an apprenticeship with a specific term, but many, when involving large sums of money, are so close to slavery to be indistinguishable."
Now Ria spoke. "The treatment of the indentured varies from place to place. Duke Edgar of Castle Town has little patience with the pleas of slaves or servants. Owners have a very free hand in their treatment of their chattels. A runaway returned to Edgar's realm can expect a harsh, even fatal reception."
I nodded. The water was cooling rapidly. I stood up, stepping out of the tub. Cori and Ria now rubbed me briskly, with large swaths of thick cotton. I was thoroughly dry and refreshed after their rubdown.
Cori led me back to my room, with Ria following close behind. I dressed in light cotton pants and a cotton shirt. Ria helped me with my money belt while saying, "All men of substance have one. No surprise that a mighty hunter has riches to carry." She was quick to add, "Your secret is safe, Hunter Brock."
I had to smile. Safe except that everyone expected to find such a belt. Oh, well. I strapped on my thigh holster with its throwing knives, and my utility knife. My sword belt, with its Tanto and Katana, was next,. I picked up the small metal case that held my steel knife, fork and spoon. Cori, dressed in her shift again, led me to the stairs and down into the inn's common room.
I walked past the several long tables filled to overflowing with food, each surrounded by men at arms. Trevor greeted me warmly, stopping me to announce to his assembled men in a loud voice, "This is Hunter Brock. Make him welcome and give him every assistance during his stay with us."
There were greetings up and down the tables as his men acknowledged me. I reached in my pocket pulling out the paper showing the saber tooth. I held it up, asking loudly, "Is this cat still around?"
Trevor looked around as one of his men down at the end of the table answered, "A few days ago while patrolling east of the crossroads we found a horse dead on the road, the carcass showed evidence of the long tooth."
Trevor nodded as the other men agreed. Several grizzled veterans shuddered at the mention of the saber tooth. One said softly, "Good luck in your hunts, Brock."
It was a sentiment quickly echoed. I thanked then for their thoughts as I walked toward a smiling, gesturing Luther.
Luther had set a place for me in one of the curtained alcoves next to the front fireplace. The space held a round table surrounded by cushioned chairs. A platter in the center held bubbling cuts of prime rib over an inch thick and several feet across. Next to it was a huge plate with potatoes covered in some kind of cream sauce. Big bowls with carrots and string beans and plates with slabs of bread sat next to bottles of red wine and pitchers of Birch Mead.
I just stood for a moment admiring the presentation before sitting down. Taking one of my all metal throwing knives, I cut a corner from one of the prime ribs. I tasted it, then turned to Luther, saying, "This is an excellent meal, Luther. The meat is superb. Thank you."
Luther beamed as Ria joined us. Now she and Cori took up stations to serve me while Luther chatted away, bringing me the gossip of the day as he diligently kept my glass filled with wine and mug filled with mead.
Given the vast quantity of food on the table I had no hope of finishing it all but I certainly tried. In the end, I sagged back in my chair, completely sated. Cori brought out a coffee service, pouring coffee for me, while Ria offered me a pipe or hand rolled cigarette. I pointed; Ria lit the cigarette and tucked it in my lips, and Luther brought forth a snifter of brandy to sip with my coffee, while two more slaves from the kitchen cleared the table.
I was settled in my chair when the sound of hoof beats echoed through the room with the jingle of horse harness and wheels creaking. The tinkle of the lintel bell was interrupted as the door crashed open and a short figure dressed all in black strode up to the bar, slamming his fist on it yelling loudly: "Innkeeper, Innkeeper, where's the lazy fucking innkeeper?"
I wouldn't have gotten involved at all but when he glanced over I could see full well he knew Luther was only a few feet away.
I said very softly, "He's busy."
His head snapped around as he regarded me balefully. He had black hair, a black beard and mustache with his black uniform he squared up to me speaking in his loud menacing voice, "Who speaks to Baron Radcliff of the King's Bodyguard?"
Now I could see the stylized Lion on the cloth over his armor and mail. I could also see his lack of stature. This spelled trouble.
I smiled as I spoke slowly and even more softly, "Hunter Brock."
He pointed one mail gloved finger at me as he said, "Hunter this is not..."
And his sneering expression so reminded me of boss Bill's when he told me of his affair with my wife. I moved all in one motion. The throwing knife stuck in the wood post, near the Baron's head. While he started, I unsheathed my katana, taking a middle guard stance staring fixedly at the Baron over the naked blade.
I heard a woman's full-throated laughter in the doorway. I spared a glance to see a tall women warrior also in black mail and armor leaning on a two handed broadsword. She asked in an amused tone, "Who is he?"
One of the other black armored guardsmen answered, "Brock, a hunter."
She continued in her same dismissive tone, "Baron, the hunter seems unimpressed."
The baron's choleric face now twisted in rage. His hand already on the hilt began to draw his sword from the scabbard. Before he could fully react she continued coolly, "Baron, put that away please. Hunter, may I join you? I am Princess Nadia, niece of King Oswald."
With the Princess's words, the Baron stood glaring at her. She frowned, gesturing rather emphatically. Radcliff slammed his sword back into its scabbard, before he stalked to the tables where the other black clad guardsmen were gathered.
A guardsman stepped up to the bar by Luther. This one had the mien of every 'non-com' I've ever seen, as he requested stabling the horses then made arrangements for food and lodging, digging in his purse to pay for it all.
Now the princess's gaze settled on me. She walked forward I was forced to put up my Katana. Before I belatedly remembered my manners, she was already seated, gesturing to my chair and saying softly, "Sit, Brock, and let us talk without formality, one warrior to another. I am Nadia."
As I sheathed my blade, Nadia smirked, saying in her amused tone, "Very foolish hunter. Why?"
I shrugged, saying, "He reminded me of someone. Someone I did not like very much."
She cocked her head as she grinned. "Obviously." She continued, now more serious, "And if I had not interfered?"
I smiled coldly. "We would have danced, the baron and I."
She nodded, smiling in genuine amusement. "I've seen the baron dance. It might have been amusing, but I could not risk it."
I was puzzled and must have looked it, as she went on, "You might have killed him. What if the King chooses to imprison you for killing his pet baron? Far worse, he might have killed you."
I raised an eyebrow as I asked, "Far worse?"
She nodded, saying calmly, "Who knows how hunters might act in response to stories of the black baron killing one of them. The last time there was anything close to such a dispute was in my grandfather's grandfather's time. The hunters reacted badly to one of their own being jailed by the king."
I was interested in this little history lesson, so I asked eagerly, "They attacked, freeing him, my lady?"
The princess smiled prettily as she shook her head. "Nadia, please, but no, hunter Brock, far, far worse. Hunters, one and all, merely disappeared back into the forests. Animals ran wild; criminals were untouched while slaves ran away with impunity. The king was nearly deposed before he released the hunter, with lavish gifts of jewels and gold. It was years before hunters completely forgave the king, returning in numbers to the kingdom."
Nadia reached across the table, picking up my wine glass, taking a taste. I refilled the glass; she smiled, taking a healthy swallow while I sipped my coffee.
Nadia smirked at me as she continued, "No more, Hunter, please, with your attempted dance lessons for our baron or others high born. The kingdom can ill afford it. Rather you would dance at one of the receptions at King Holm."
She looked at me archly as she dipped her finger in the wine, then used it, wetting her lips, saying seductively, "I would welcome a dance lesson."
With my start of surprise, I looked to see Cori and Ria busy helping the other slaves serve the platters of food and drink to the guardsmen. In the midst of all this activity Baron Radcliff's black eyes were locked on our table. Seeing my look, Nadia, grinning, made a dismissive gesture with her fingertips in the Baron's sightline. The sound of his palm striking the tabletop echoed through the great room like a pistol shot as he angrily turned away from us.
Nadia settled deeper in the chair as she looked tiredly at me while I again filled the wine glass for her. She smiled gratefully as she said with a sigh, "Hard journey from Port City, hunter. We will rest, then late tomorrow on to Duke Edgar in Castle Town, then from there we press on to King Holm."
I nodded even though I did not yet have a good sense of geography and distance. I looked up to see Cori at a dead run toward our table bringing wine and ale for the princess. As Cori set the tray on the table, Nadia said appreciatively, "Thank you for this, but I will be dining with the guardsmen."
After another glass of wine disappeared in a swallow. Nadia looked over at me, asking, "And what of you, hunter?"
I shrugged as I answered, "I, too, travel to Castle Town."
Before I could elaborate, the Princess's face with wreathed in a huge smile as she practically gushed, "You must travel with us, Hunter. We have extra horses and the coach. I am sure the baron would be happy to provide a mount."
I am not sure if Nadia was aware of the fine irony of her baron providing a horse. My guess is that Radcliff's choice would qualify for a saddle bronc slot in the National Finals Rodeo. Climbing aboard would be an exciting few seconds for me I'm sure. Very God Damn few seconds!
This odd mating dance of Princess and Baron was making me nervous. Now that my brain was back somewhat in control I wondered what possessed me to call out a member of nobility in the middle of his troops. An armored, well armed and competent...
Then, too, the lovely Nadia throwing me in the baron's face was hardly likely to endear me. Not that I minded this time with Nadia - she was lovely. I would like to see what she looked like out of her armor. Okay, in a fancy dress at one of those royal balls. It seemed unlikely that she'd remember her invitation or me once she was on the road. Even more doubtful that the Black Baron Radcliff would let me get close enough in the future to remind her.
Before I could say or do anything getting me further enmeshed in the Nadia and Radcliff soap opera, Luther was standing next to our table. Nadia looked up, saying in an inquisitive tone, "Yes, Innkeeper?"
Luther answered in his best Innkeeper manner. "My lady, I have served the guardsman and Baron."
Nadia answered in a pleasant fashion. "Thank you, innkeeper. I will join them."
She started to rise with Luther quickly grabbing her chair. I stood up as well. Nadia grasped my hand as she smiled at me, saying with genuine warmth, "I enjoyed this time, hunter. Uncle Oswald will know of your hospitalities."
With that, she released my hand in one lithe motion, spinning and striding to join the guardsmen. She was already seated between two of them far down from the baron before Luther or anyone at their table could react. She was immediately talking animatedly with them and Trevor sitting across the table. Now they had full benefit of Radcliff's baleful looks.
Luther looked over at me with a neutral expression. I shrugged as I asked softly, "Luther, would it be possible to get an early meal?"
He nodded. "Certainly, Brock, sir. How early?"
I answered, "I would like to be gone before dawn."
Now just a hint of a smile as Luther said, "Certainly, Brock, I will inform Trevor of your intentions while Cori and Ria will be sure that you awaken in good time. Will there be anything else?"
I nodded, saying, "Yes, Luther I'd like to remain a guest here at the inn."
Luther looked pleased as he said, "Of course, we will keep your room and any item you leave here will be in our safe keeping."
I picked up my Katana that had been leaning against the table and began walking toward the stairs. Suddenly the guardsmen 'non-com' blocked my way. Aw, shit.
Then he spoke in an altogether unthreatening way saying quietly, "Hunter, your knife."
As he pointed to the post behind us. He stepped around me pulled the knife out of the wood then smiling presented it haft first. I closed my mouth with a snap then taking the knife and sheathing it as I thanked him. He almost inaudibly said, "You missed."
I started, then grinned as I replied, "I was aiming for the wall."
Now he snickered as he returned to his seat. As I came abreast of the several packed tables, I realized the guards for the inn and the Baron's were intermingled. Trevor waved, wishing me a good night that was echoed up and down the tables. After a particularly pointed look from the Princess, Baron Radcliff offered his tepid one. I thanked them, as I waved and kept moving, away from any possible display by the Baron.
When I reached the steps, Cori was waiting with a small oil lamp. She led me up the stairs and along the hall to my room. There, the lights and fireplace were already lit. I set my sword and weapons aside, setting my watch to wake me with its chime. Cori threw off her shift and was swiftly at work stripping me. Soft knocking on the door announced Ria. Joining us, Ria pulled off her shift; then, naked, she knelt next to me, pulling down my pants.
Cori was turning down my bed as Ria leaned forward, kissing and licking my exposed cock. She lifted it against my belly as her tongue swabbed with long, slow strokes. She paused, then her wet mouth engulfed my balls She let them fall out of her lips slowly; then her lips slid over the head of my cock. As her tongue lashed at my piss hole, my balls drew up, tingling, and I spasmed strongly into her mouth. Her cheeks bulged, then Ria swallowed, cradling my balls in her warm fingers. She smiled happily as she gently kissed my cockhead, before standing to lead me to my bed.
Ria carefully positioned me supine in the center of the bed, while Cori knelt between my spread legs. She leaned forward until she took my soft cock in her mouth. Not sucking, just holding it between her lips as she settled on her stomach with her breasts on my thighs. Ria tucked herself under my arm kissing my cheek as she whispered, "Cori will spend the night holding you while I warm you."
I could only nod. I was spent, but her warm mouth on my cock sent erotic shivers though me. I settled back in the soft pillows, with Ria's soft breasts pressed against me. Surprisingly, I was asleep in an instant.
Awakening in the morning darkness was disorienting, until my mind caught up with recent events. I had awakened before the alarm. This was my accustomed internal clock, and it was nice to observe it carried over in this 'alien' environment.
Ria was cuddled with her head on my chest. Warm breath on my balls was Cori under the coverlet, with her face nuzzled against them. My cock was hard with my 'morning wood,' as I remembered vivid erotic dreams of languorous blowjobs in the night. I was abruptly unsure if those were dreams.
Glancing around the room in the morning darkness; lamps turned low with the fireplace reduced to a few glowing coals in the white ashes. I strained my ears, but all was silence outside my door. Lying quietly, I simply enjoyed the warmth of my companions.
Soft chiming from my pocket watch brought Ria's head up. She kissed me softly as she welcomed me to wakefulness. I felt Cori's soft lips kiss the head of my dick; then, with a giggle, the bedspread lifted and I saw her bright eyes peering at me.
Ria excused herself from my bed to turn up the lamps and stoke the fire. I stood up next to the bed, watching Ria, when I felt Cori stroking my cock. I looked down to see her stretched out on the bed with her honey blonde hair entwined around my dick. I hardened even more under her ministrations, with her hands stroking insistently. Her lips were far down on my shaft as her head bobbed back and forth.
The firelight made her skin blush, with the twin globes of her perfect butt gleaming in the red-orange light. I reached forward, squeezing her ass, as Cori drew me deeper into her mouth. Her warm fingers, cupping my balls, set me off. I grabbed her butt in a bruising grip as I sprayed her mouth. She swallowed it all, then licking just the head, as she ended with a kiss to the crown. Cori looked at me with a grin, then kissed my cock head with an infectious giggle.
Ria joined us, slapping Cori on the ass asking me quietly, "Bath, Brock, sir?"
I answered, "Yes, please, but a quick one."
They both giggled as they answered, "Yes, sir of course sir."
We were naked as Ria and Cori each took an arm, leading me out the door and along the hall to the small toilet room; then, after my morning 'business' was done, into the shower room.
They both scrubbed me with soaped fingers, Cori starting from my head and Ria my feet. Then Cori rinsed me with buckets of warm water, while Ria prepared the tub of hot water. When I was free of soap, Cori settled me in the steaming tub. Today I did not have time to laze in the tub. As I stood and stepped out of the tub, Cori began a brisk rubdown with a thick cotton sheet.
With the big towel still wrapped around me, she led me back to my room, where Ria was busy laying out my clothes and weapons for my excursion into the woods. Starting with my soft buckskin pants and shirt, then my mail, armor, and weapons. With their help, I was swiftly dressed and my pack basket filled.
I was carrying my Katana, with Ria leading, while Cori followed with my pack. At the bottom of the steps, I took in the common room, deserted, quiet and only dimly lit in this early morning.
Luther spotted me and immediately signaled me to the same alcove where I had had my evening meal. The table was already set with juice, coffee, mead and wine. As soon as I was seated, Luther gestured and platters of food appeared from the kitchen. I was confronted with huge portions of eggs and potatoes with sausage, ham and bacon garnished with fruit and surrounded by rolls and biscuit. I did my best to make a dent, but as soon as I made any headway, a fresh laden tray would appear. I finally sagged back in 'defeat,' fully sated and sipping my coffee while I smoked a cigarette.
Now Cori appeared with an oilcloth bundle and a tin quart container, saying brightly, "I have lunch for you Brock with coffee. This tin container is enchanted; it will keep hot for you."
She tucked it in the top of my pack basket as I checked my watch. Luther saw my look as he asked, "Brock sir, would you like to speak to Trevor?"
I nodded as I stood. Luther went to the door and gestured. Trevor quickly joined us. I grinned as he said, "You are up early, hunter. What can we do to help you?"
I said softly, "A favor Trevor. Could you please arrange a bit of diversion, so that a person would be distracted from seeing someone leave by that door?"
Luther and Trevor smiled as Trevor said, "That will be my pleasure, hunter Brock. When?"
I looked out the Inn door that Trevor had left open to see the first faint light of false dawn. I pointed, saying, "Now, or soon as possible please."
Trevor nodded as he shook my hand, saying, "Certainly, Brock, and good hunting."
I said, "Good luck to you, Trevor."
He turned and headed out, leaving the door still wide open. I reached down to retrieve my crossbow, cocking it and setting a quarrel in place. Last, I tucked my Katana in my belt. I shrugged the pack onto one shoulder, holding my crossbow as I continued to calmly smoke, standing back from the door.
I shook Luther's hand then kissed and hugged Ria and Cori. I handed Ria my empty coffee cup as I took a last drag on my cigarette, handing the butt to Cori just as Trevor blew a brass whistle, and began loudly assembling his men in the middle of the road in front of the Inn.
Giving it a second, then, I moved out the door, then sideways to the end of the porch. Without pause I swung under the porch railing. I moved swiftly across the open space, jumping over the low wall and into the thick forest.
I stopped in the thick foliage, looking and listening, but nothing seemed amiss. I changed out of my boots and into soft thin-soled moccasins that would allow me to move silently. As dawn broke I drifted westward away from the inn paralleling the road to River town.
The faint game trails gave me easy passage as I took my time, vigilant to the possibility of ambush. I saw the lightening ahead of a clearing. I approached even slower. Peering through the thick foliage I thought I saw a slate roof
I moved on my knees, in slow motion, until finally only a thin shrub screened me from the tiny glade. Peering through the brush, I shrugged off the pack, still holding the crossbow at ready. In this clearing was an especially small house. Almost a doll house, but well built, made with slate roof, fieldstone and timbers.
After seeing no movement, I dug out my brass telescope. Suspiciously, I glassed the surrounding woods, open space, and house. Finally, at full magnification, I peered in through the visible windows. The house appeared deserted, and I could see and hear nothing of the surrounding woods to make me more than wary. I was already wary - actually, I was scared that I might have found the robbers and an ambush. Two for the price of one!
Tucking my telescope away, I picked up my crossbow, and, leaving the pack on the ground, I moved stealthily into the lee of the building. Standing still, I swiveled my head, looking in all directions. Finally, I paused with my ear against the wall, but I could hear nothing.
Moving carefully, I went to the single doorway. I studied the ground in front of the door. The grass was long and unworn, showing no evidence of recent traffic. Reaching into the compartment on the inside of my left wristlet, I removed my Swiss Army Locksmith knife and my lock picks.
Leaning the crossbow against the wall, I bent over the door lock. It had a simple, unwarded tumbler, with ample room for my picks. In seconds I was standing inside the little house, holding my crossbow as I closed the door. I could see everything from my vantage.
The closet next to me was half filled with leather and fur coats. The main room had a. square dining table in front of the stone fireplace. A single cabinet with a hand pump completed the modest kitchen. A hanging red blanket half covered the doorway into the sleeping room. Two strides, and I was in the abandoned sleeping room, looking down at the cot that filled it with its Buffalo robe covering.
Abandoned was exactly the word. The look, smell, the very feel was of place long deserted.
I walked the one long step to the kitchen table, setting down my crossbow. I looked out each window, studying the clearing and surrounding forest, but there was nothing to see. I searched the cabin's nooks and crannies, but found nothing about the former inhabitants. No books, papers, pictures or personal effects, save simple clothing along with the coats and boots in the entryway. I did find one door key that I left hanging. By now, I was thirsty.
Checking the hand pump, I found that - as expected - the leathers were dry. Searching just a bit, I found a jar of water. I used it to wet the leathers and prime the pump. It was only a matter of two good strokes on the handle, and it pumped full stream into the brass basin. I found another quart container that I filled, then dropped in a couple of iodine water purification pills.
Yeah, it was probably late, but this abandoned cabin cried out for caution. I shook up the water, then let it settle as I pulled out my map and carefully marked the cabin's location. I spread the map out on the table. I began to study the great woods surrounding the Inn and crossroads.
With this quiet time, I had a better appreciation of the lay of the land. As I poured the water into my collapsible cup, drinking to hydrate myself, I contemplated the route I'd take the rest of this morning; paralleling the roadway, searching for the brigands and their likely ambushes. Not to mention a certain large cat.
I refilled the jar of priming water, dumping the last of my drink, then I needed to toss the basin. I looked around before I opened the door. I poured it out on the ground just beyond the threshold stone, making a satisfyingly large muddy spot.
Picking up my crossbow and scanning the room to make sure it was much as I found it, I stood on the threshold as I locked the door. Still cautious I stepped around the puddle as I moved carefully to my pack, finding it undisturbed. I stood on the verge of the clearing as I contemplated another mystery! Who was the owner of this cabin who overcame the pervasive conditioning to live here in the great woods?
I moved around the clearing and pushed through the aspen brush until I found another game trail. I moved cautiously along the trail until I came to the edge of a swamp. The game trail turned north, staying on dry land. Mr. Deer did not want wet feet.
I moved to the road verge. This part of the road traveled through swamp on both sides. They built a cordwood road, an expedient common in Minnesota road building. They threw logs (something they have in abundance) in the swamp, one after the other, until they had a solid wooden foundation for their gravel; a sturdier version of the old time corduroy road.
Though, come to think of it, this was 'old times", I guess. The down side was the back breaking, jolting ride as your car wheels - or, I guess now, coach wheels - hit every log.
The water level was over the road, with the sheen of water joining the two swamps. I moved back along the trail, confident the animals would show me a crossing.
I paused again when I saw the ground disturbed right on the edge of the swamp. Moving slowly, I walked forward with my crossbow ready. Blood and bits of fur in the mud showed where a Muskrat had died violently. Luckily for me, the big predator was no longer around.
I knelt in the mud, studying the massive paw prints. They showed injuries, with one forepaw half gone and another with a claw or two ripped out. He had a limping gait as he left. If this was the saber tooth, he had apparently been pushed out of his pride and must be quite injured to give up his preferred larger prey for a measly 'swamp rat'. A human would be a tasty morsel indeed as hungry Smilodon lay in wait for his killing rush. Just another thing to fucking worry about!
I walked north along the swamp, away from the road. Just after I glanced at my watch and noted the proximity to noon, the game trail swung into the swamp. I cut a staff and followed along. The mossy hummocks were yielding under my mocs, and I found a slow moving creek cutting through the swampland. A windstorm had knocked down several trees, with their leafy crowns falling in the small creek. As more silt and debris filled in around the leafy boughs, the water backed up, surrounding a hill, making it a dry island in the center of this increasingly wet zone.
I quickly found out why the animals chose this route. Downstream from this impromptu dam, the water was shallow, with several dry patches making an easy crossing. For me, the island was a better find.
I waded the creek below the dam, then another downed tree made a bridge over the creek back to the island. I used my staff as a balance pole while crossing that bridge.
Moving to the top of the hillock, I found a grassy vale with shade trees screened all around by aspen brush. The massive roots from a downed oak gave shelter from the north. I dumped my pack in the grass, then wandered the hill for a bit with my throwing axe, collecting downed wood and stacking it against the Oak roots, using them for a reflector. With no one to observe I used a Trioxane tab to ignite the damp wood. I soon had a cheery fire.
Now I took my spyglass and observed the woods and swamp around me. Afterwards, I walked around the tiny glade to see if my fire or any smoke was visible. Nothing showed in either case.
Returning to my fire, I dug in my pack to find the food and drink Cori had tucked away only this morning. Opening the oilcloth bundle, I found a smaller bundle with sandwiches made from thick pieces of homemade bread and slabs of beef. In another bundle, I found assorted fruit slices, while a third held vegetable wedges.
I pulled out the tin container and found the coffee steaming hot. This enchanting worked better than the best thermos I'd ever used! I was warm, fed and sipping my coffee as I checked my location and carefully marked my map.
While I drank my coffee I dug my two guns out of the pack's secret compartment. I had a foreboding about this magical realm. It was long past time to test them.
First my Colt .45 Automatic -- after screwing the silencer on the barrel threads I stroked the slide and immediately fired into the dirt clump of the overturned oak roots.
Ejecting the misfire, I tried again and then once more. All duds! Examining the shells found the primers fully indented. I pulled one apart to verify that it had its powder charge. They were mine, brought here, so I was confident that they worked in MY world at least. I tossed them into the hot coals of my fire followed by a couple unfired rounds from the same clip. Next, I brought out my Ruger .22 auto and a couple tries brought only squibs. Again, I tossed the misfired ammo in the blaze along with a couple untried rounds.
I was puzzled, sipping my coffee watching the ammunition melting into slag puddles. Neither powder nor primer ignited despite the intense heat. Magic had trumped simple chemistry in this case. Magic so finely calibrated that it could differentiate fire starting from firearms! I had much to think about as I tucked the useless guns back in the pack basket's secret compartment.
I looked up in the trees above me for a hiding place for my pack. Digging in the basket I found a twenty meter coil of eight millimeter mountaineering rope. I clipped it to a carabineer on my belt along with two Darby Handcuffs. The smaller quiver for 'war' quarrels also went on my belt.
After putting away the remains of my meal and snuffing the fire, I carefully climbed up in the beech tree overhead. The pack was hung from a high overhanging branch by one of my chain and padlock combinations. Back on the ground I looked around carefully, but I still seemed alone and unobserved.
With my Katana back on my belt and crossbow in hand I crossed the creek. I moved south along the swamps periphery until I was again paralleling the road. It was slow going. I took my time, feeling the nearness of the highwaymen with every step.
That's why the encounter was such a shock!
One moment I'm in thick brush the next I'm in an open grassy area right by the road and face to face with a greasy looking fellow in a leather jerkin. I pointed my crossbow at him, which garnered a big smile with many missing teeth as he raised his hands slightly then backed up against a tree. He spread his arms at shoulder height.
Watching his eyes carefully I was wondering what his display was in aid of. He was looking everywhere but at me when suddenly his eyes flicked up over my shoulder as I sensed movement. I fired the crossbow!
The ringed broadhead, slamming into his chest, pinned him to the tree. Tossing the crossbow onto a grassy spot, I pivoted to the left as I drew my Katana in a 'water wheel', bringing it around as I spun. The blade slammed into the iron-bound head of a massive wooden maul, wielded by a giant. Okay, not a giant, but plenty big enough that he wielded that massive sledge like you or I would a sixteen ounce carpenters hammer.
After parrying my stroke he swung at my head; I moved feeling the breeze as the war hammer missed. I wasn't armored enough to take even one hit from him. I had to end this before he got lucky.
I slashed at his ankles and he quickly dropped the hammerhead to block me. My right hand dropped off my hilt as I drew a throwing knife from my thigh holster. I snapped a quick sidearm throw that ended with the blade buried in his cheek, biting into his gum.
He yelled, swearing loudly, as his hand reached for the embedded knife. I stepped over his dropped hammer to make a horizontal cut along his upper chest, side to side, the blade sliding along one of his ribs. My sword blade bit deeply. The adrenaline I was feeling powered the keen blade through his sternum, cutting through muscle, veins and arteries and out the other side.
As the blade exited I stepped back quickly with the blade up in guard stance. He was attempting to raise the hammer. My stroke had done massive damage as it cut his aorta, trachea and esophagus. His chest cavity was filling with blood and bile as his brain lost oxygen. He made eye contact with a hateful look, as he collapsed like a tree falling. I quickly moved driving the point of my katana into his eye in a killing strike.
Now I came out of my tunnel vision to look around for other threats. His partner was still pinned to the tree. I stepped forward, slashing his throat then pulled him loose. He sagged lifelessly to the ground.
I shoved the point of my Katana in the soft ground as I half collapsed against a tree. The adrenaline, leaving my body, left me shaking. The incident was over before there was any time for me to think, only to react. I patted myself, looking for a cigarette. The makings must still be in the pack...
I walked across the road but apparently my two were alone. Rolling the two bodies over, I cuffed their wrists behind their backs. First I dragged the 'greasy' one out onto the road; then, using my rope tied around his ankles, I laboriously hauled the hammer-wielding giant over next to him.
It was time to look at this situation more carefully. They were preparing to deploy their ambush -- a heavy rope hawser strung between a couple of big trees, spanning the road four to six feet off the ground. Greasy had a bronze short sword, with a horn re-curve bow and several barbed headed arrows lying in the grass, while the giant had his hammer and a small dagger on his belt.
On a hunch I checked their feet. Greasy had hobnailed leather boots while the Giant had sandals. BIG sandals!
I pulled off their footwear and walked further down the road, toward the woods boundary. I found a vast mud puddle along the road's edge. The sandal tracks led into it, then the hammer grounded and the sandals backed out. Giant was in the puddle before he realized. Seemed to indicate that they walked in along the road before sunrise when the water was probably quite chilly on his 'less than dainty' toes. A bit farther and I found another muddy spot that had a boot heel print that matched the one in my hand from my greasy antagonist. I pondered the situation, slowly walking back to the ambush site.
Kneeling down, I used my folding plier tool to unscrew the ringed broad head sticking out of greasy's back, then jerking the quarrel shaft loose. The ringed broad head went in my pouch while the bent shaft tucked in back of my belt as I reloaded my crossbow.
While I was engaged I heard the sounds of horses splashing through the swamp water that was over the road. Many horses. We spotted each other at the same time.
They were half dozen lancers cantering abreast. With a loud shout, they lowered their spears to horizontal and kicked their horses into a gallop. The thunder of their hoofs was deafening in the quiet of the woods, while the sun glinted off the shiny blue black spear points.
As the horsemen closed, my vision fixated on those sharpened points. Clearly they were from the "spit'em and let somebody else sort'em out" school. No pansy ass "innocent until proven guilty" bullshit for these bad boys.
Their abruptness, however, left little time to explain my presence here in the big woods. With the looming cavalry, it was rapidly dawning on me that standing in the road at an active ambush site, with my sword in view and loaded crossbow in hand, might be an error. A big one, maybe my last one! And grounding that crossbow was not slowing them.
Just as I made a despairing curse at Robert for his 'fucking secret keys', a strident bugle call echoed through the woods, followed by the insistent ratta-plan of a kettledrum.
The lancers' discipline and training more than matched their aggressive tactics. Spears snapped up to vertical as four galloping horsemen altered course to pass me, taking a blocking position in the road. Two horsemen skidded to a halt as they bracketed me mere feet away, their lances leveled while their excited horses danced in place.
The drumming and bugle calls continued in counterpoint, as more horses thundered up to join the van. Mounted crossbowmen charged past, linking up with the advance guard, as more guardsmen dismounted up and down the road -- some facing me with drawn sword, others facing outwards.
Guidiron, along with the Halbmond of the mounted bugler among a cadre, announced the leadership cantering to the fore, closely followed by a massive black coach with its still pounding war drum mounted on the roof. The coach was festooned with heavily armed soldiers on the roof and hanging from every window and door.
My eyes were drawn past the coach to a lone figure in black armor laying over the horse's neck approaching along the road margin at a 'horse killing' gallop, passing the others while continuously whipping the frothing horse already at a dead run.
Closer, the figure was up off the saddle, holding the saddle horn, with only one foot in a stirrup, still lashing the horse. As the horse threatened to trample me, the black clad figure dropped off, running next to it holding the saddle, then let go, throwing her helmet on the ground, grabbing me in a fierce hug. The impact took us both off our feet, rolling on the ground.
Luckily, I ended up on top. Not very chivalrous, I know. But God Damn It, she was the one in the heavy plate armor.
Even at that, I was bruised and out of breath as the noncom helped me to my feet. By contrast, Nadia bounced to her feet, grabbing me and again crushing me to her chest. Another experience fairly ruined by combined breastplate and mail. (Okay, the kiss was nice. Turns out Nadia is a world class kisser, with the softest, 'poutiest' lips this side of Angelina Jolie.)
I was even more out of breath as she pulled back fractionally. I was looking deep into those green eyes with little flecks of gold, as the catcalls and whistles built in volume. She held me at arms length, examining me with a critical eye as she asked loudly with much concern, "My hunter, are you all right?"
The noncom answered for me, "He barely survived our rescue, never mind the greeting, your Grace."
She looked over with one eyebrow up, and in a withering tone said, "Fuck you, Nolan."
He nodded calmly, saying blandly, "Yes, of course your Grace, as you wish."
While their little byplay was going on, I was catching my breath and observing the scene. Aside from the clot of soldiers who were standing around grinning and watching us, the rest were vigilant in surveillance of the forest with their weapons at ready. Observant Lancers were continually up and down the road.
Looking back at the Nadia, I saw an adorable smudge of dirt on one cheek, with more dirt streaking her armor, and even some in her hair from our rolling around. Her long black shiny hair was lying over her shoulder, done in a single tight braid held by alternating silver and gold colored bands. On second thought, they probably were silver and gold!
I looked around for the black baron Radcliff. He was next to the carriage, still mounted. The tallest horse in the company, of course. Tallest fucking horse I'd ever seen. Of course! His face in that perpetual scowl I was now so used to. Of course.
A deep well-modulated voice spoke up loudly, "Why don't you just drag him into the ditch, Nadia?"
My head snapped around to see a tall, black clad figure slouched comfortably on horseback, with one leg casually hooked over the saddle horn. Long blond hair framed his handsome face, which was marred by a long crescent scar puckering one cheek from jaw to temple. His eyes glittered even in repose, but he seemed in good humor with his swipe at the princess.
The comment caused a grinning Nadia to turn facing him. She clearly took no offense. Nadia seemed altogether comfortable in this company, and from what I could see, they respected her as a comrade besides her rank... or perhaps more to the point, despite her rank.
Nadia looked up to ask good humouredly, "You have a problem with my behavior, Logan?"
Logan leered as he drawled, "Certainly not, Nadia. My concern was only and always for the tender sensibilities of these poor horses."
Now his eyes found me and I got full benefit of his measuring gaze as Logan said softly to no one in particular, "I have no problems that can't be dealt with on the practice square or outside the castle wall at dawn."
He lifted the reins, breaking his intense scrutiny, and his horse turned, walking away slowly as he slouched in the saddle. At that moment, Radcliff's big black horse shouldered into our circle. The noncom Nolan had his back to the black baron, and I caught the flash of his smirk as he winked, just before his countenance returned to its professional mien.
Radcliff was in full cry immediately. "God damn you. Explain what the fuck is going on here, immediately. You impertinent cocksucker, I'll leave you kicking at the end of a rope if you don't tell me everything to my satisfaction right now."
I stepped back, gesturing silently to the two bodies. Although they hadn't been completely ignored, they certainly hadn't gotten much attention before now. Then I drew their awareness to the rope hawser. Nolan pointed, and the bugler stepped down, pulling the saddlebags off his horse. They were both kneeling next to the bodies examining them and their weapons, while scrutinizing the contents of the bugler's kit.
During this interlude Nadia grabbed my arm, pressing against me, those moist full lips and little pink tongue poised inches from my ear. Once again, armor and chain mail ruined what might have been a lovely effect. The only heat I got for my trouble was from the laser like glower of the black baron. He, for his part, sat in his saddle muttering about what was going to happen if he didn't get an answer "right fucking now."
Nolan finally stood up, followed by the bugler, now holding two pieces of paper. The bugler spoke directly to the Baron, "Both of them, Sir. They match the descriptions we have of members of the highwaymen. There is no doubt with the giant and the big hammer."
Gesturing with his papers as he continued in our silence, "This bowman, with his short bow and barbed arrows, is also known to be part of the rabble."
Radcliff was off his mount and kneeling next to the giant just that quick. He stared pensively at their faces poking them with his finger. Looking up he asked in an aggrieved tone, "Where the fuck ARE they?"
Nolan musing answered what was likely a rhetorical question, "Giant hasn't been seen in the kingdoms since the robberies started. The bowman is unremarkable. He could blend into any market day in Castle Town, or the less savory river taverns outside the walls of our own King Holm might be a haven for him."
He glanced around as he continued to ruminate. "The gold coin offered as reward even for him made it however unlikely to find succor even in those rude haunts. Still, as a group they are not being identified and reported, even with the many silvers being offered for information about their warren."
The bugler looked into my questioning glance, saying, "King Oswald has long since offered reward of 100 silver coins simply to point out the robbers nest."
Nolan commented, "The lack of response in the kingdoms even among the poorest would indicate a well hidden lair perhaps deep in this very forest."
At their shuddering over the scary forest, I came to a decision. I was definitely feeling light headed from all those poised, plump, pouty lips but fuck it! Loudly and clearly I said, "They're not hiding in the forest."
The princess was suddenly an arms length away staring intently as the Baron regained his feet, looking stonily at me in dead silence. I continued in the same tone, "Baron, Princess and gentlemen, I give you this bit of information for free. The robbers walked up this road today before dawn to this ambush site. They did not come through the forest nor spend the night here."
Gesturing down the road I said, "You may find their horses or a wagon at the edge of the wooded area."
Nolan looked at me speculatively as he asked, "They were readying their ambush. That's how you took them?"
I nodded. He shook his head still looking at the giant as he said matter-of-factly, "Even with your surprise, winning single-handedly against him was hardly easy."
There were nods of agreement around the circle. Nolan pointed silently and the two bodies were loaded into the coach's boot. As they passed him, he asked, "Do your shackles bear your mark?"
I nodded. Robert had marked the cuffs and chains with our, now my brand, either on the frame or on a tiny brass tag. In fact he marked all the gear for this world with our special symbol, Ouroboros.
This snake devouring his tail held a special place for him. I can remember his fascination from our earliest time together. I had not thought of it until just now: one of my first memories of our friendship is of his father presenting matching silver rings to us of Queztacoatl, the Aztec winged serpent devouring his tail. The serpent circles our finger with the head in place of a stone.
For years, I wore the ring wrapped with tape until I grew into it. Now it's always on my right hand. I glanced down to see the sun glitter off the snake's ruby eyes. I held up my knife for the bugler, who made note on his papers of the round snake symbol embossed in the haft, while Nolan supervised lashing the bodies into place.
We were standing by the boot when Nolan commented, "These highwaymen will be displayed in the public square at King Holm. King Oswald makes the reward at that time. You can pick up your cuffs there."
I looked at him with a bit of distaste, pointing at the two bodies saying, "They'll be pretty ripe by then."
He smiled. "We'll buy an enchantment in River Town, good for the trip at least."
Radcliff was up on his horse. Gone any semblance of reflection, back to his dark angry visage. He looked down at me and barked angrily, "Your money?"
I must have looked puzzled by the abrupt question. Nadia smilingly offered an explanation. "The reward is made when we have The Raising, the bodies are hung in the square displayed for a fortnight then moved outside the walls where they hang until thoroughly rotted.
When I stood in quiet contemplation of that little ceremony Nadia continued brightly, "You or a representative receives your gold during the raising ceremony. If you have no one in King Holm..."
Radcliff barked loudly, "There are always the lenders."
Nadia frowned prettily. "But they will charge him usurious interest just for safekeeping of his gold."
A safekeeping charge instead of interest! Wait until the banks back home hear about that one. Then her eyebrow came up and she smirked. Nadia's eyes opened wide in apparent wonderment as if she'd just had that second come into a brainstorm. "I'll hold your coins for you, hunter Brock. You can contact me when you reach King Holm. In fact..."
She began to worry her braid, unplaiting her hair. One of the rings in her braid was different. A finger ring cleverly placed with the stone inside her braid out of sight. The huge blood red ruby was now revealed among the black tresses.
Nolan's worried tone cut through. "Princess Nadia, Please your Grace."
Now I heard the steel in the Princesses voice as she barked, "Nolan, you overstep."
He was quite unabashed as he pressed, "Yes, your Grace, when I must."
She stared hard at him, and he met her gaze coolly. Nadia spoke evenly. "I will do this, Nolan. Attend me, please."
Reluctantly, he slowly acquiesced. "As you wish, your Grace."
I was still confused, even as Nolan reached over, gently taking my right hand holding it palm up. In the silence Nadia held up the ruby ring. Its quite substantial red stone glowed with internal fire as it caught the sun. The massive setting with the writhing snakes around the stone and finger, and its one snake holding the stone in its distended mouth was oddly unsettling. Nadia set the ring in the center of my palm; Nolan closed my fingers around it.
Nadia nodded curtly. "Thank you, Nolan."
Still unsmiling, he replied briskly, "Your Grace."
Then he stalked off his back stiff. Nadia smiled as she said serenely, "This is my ducal ring, Brock."
At my start of surprise she smiled happily and I heard a strangled sound from way up on that tall horse of Radcliff's. She looked delighted now as she continued, "This ring has been in my family for more than one hundred generations and is well known in the kingdoms. We too favor snakes in our heraldry."
She paused, smiling happily, then continued, "This ring will gain you entry in any of the several kingdoms castles or its forts, government, or military installation. Further, it will allow you use of military transportation or membership in our convoys. Finally, displaying it allows you entry into King Holm and its many castles."
Her eyes narrowed a bit as she frowned continuing in a low tone, "This allows entry into Castle Ethelinda, show this at the town gates. They will direct you to me."
Looking at her then over her shoulder at the very somber faces around us it was starting to dawn on me that something was going on here. That something might not be so very good for me. (Yeah, and what was your first clue there, Sherlock? Aw, shit!) Suckered again by a good looking woman.
I put on my brave face as I bowed my head saying, "Thank you for this my lady and for the trust it represents."
Nadia smiled as she spoke gaily, "I do understand that your work here may not be finished. Know that your reward in King Holm will be in my safekeeping. I look forward to your arrival at Castle Ethelinda..."
Here her voice dropped an octave and she looked intently into my eyes. "...Soon."
Her fingers lingered, then Nadia turned away Nolan was all business, now, as the bugler began blowing. The column reformed, while Nadia was remounted on a fresh horse. A trooper handed over my crossbow as I stood in wonderment from the side of the road, watching as the cavalry moved through dappled woods and was swallowed up in a cloud of dust.
Just before they were lost from sight, a tall slouched over blond turned and waved.
That went well - NOT!
I was back on my island hillock, sitting against a pine tree, with my cape intertwined in the boughs above me shedding the persistent drizzle, while the wood fire past my feet sputtered.
My Brunton Optimus backpacker's cook stove was next to me under the canopy, heating my MRE and boiling the water for my tea, while the uncovered light crystal was on my opposite side. I'm an indifferent cook, but enough Tabasco seems to make almost anything better. I mixed together the Beef Ravioli and Spaghetti with meat sauce rations in my one pot, and it was steaming hot. My tin cup held boiling hot tea, with a generous slug of honey. Eating by myself on top of this darkened hillside provided the opportunity to review recent events
My plan had been to disappear into the north woods and spend my time alone. I needed that solitary time to get over the disaster that was our sham marriage and my betrayal by Bill and Natalie (The Bitch). The disappear thing seemed to have been successful, but the hermit act was a dismal failure.
I was in the company of more people than ever before, sexually involved with two slaves at Luther's Inn, had killed two natives, and now the lovely Nadia and I were a 'something' and by way of her ruby ring I was up to my ass in a circumstance that looked, paddled, and quacked like some sort of a palace intrigue.
A cold drop of water ran down the back of my neck, while I sat turning Nadia's ruby ring over and over in my fingers. How the fuck did she know that left to my own devices I'd have 'blown off' those gold coins and gone back to my reclusive existence in the cabin?
I still could! I could toss this ring in the swamp, go back and turn the key, and just forget it ALL!
Right now he was sitting somewhere laughing his ass off. He KNEW I'd never be able to turn that fucking key back once I got here.
I sat staring at the fire: What key did Robert choose?
Where did HE end up? Once I was safely bundled off to the north woods cabin, I was betting that Robert had disappeared, through another convenient portal, to his chosen place of magic where he could lose that hated green oxygen bottle.
Would I ever see my best friend again?
Covering the light crystal, I settled in with my space blanket around my shoulders, staring at the fire until it or I went out.
My eyes snapped open to a foggy landscape, the rain now reduced to a mist. One disadvantage to my campsite in that swamp was that the fog always settled in the lowlands. My makeshift shelter held up overnight, so I was dry, if not warm. I boiled water for tea, quickly solving the warm part. I crawled out to take care of my urgent morning business, then got the wood fire going.
Standing next to the roaring fire, still wearing my space blanket cape, sipping my tea, I stared anew into Nadia's ruby ring, trying to discern my next move.
Nadia's cavalry column was on their way to King Holm -- wherever the fuck that was. Radcliff (The Blowhard) was likely stopping at every hamlet and crossing to show off those bodies. He'd be eager to prove to the inhabitants that they were being well protected.
Now I looked off into the fog. Yeah, but then what...
Word would have to get back to the gang that the giant and bowman were dead. They might or might not believe it. How would they confirm it? I stood in thought; one way for them might be to check the ambush site. And that meant I needed to be somewhere, watching it.
Jesus, deeper and deeper into the quagmire. I guess I'm not going back to my cabin anytime soon.
Camp was struck speedily after that. The fire was quenched (not too tough in the rain) as I loaded the packsack. Nadia's ruby ring was tucked into the small medicine bag around my neck. I slipped on my leather boots and threw on my rain cape.
I must have looked quite hump backed with my pack under that cape, moving through the fog and mist. Even with the lousy weather I was quickly back at the ambush site. Radcliff's troops had taken the rope hawser along when they left with the two bodies.
Standing on the road verge I was looking all around, finally searching up into the trees for a needed vantage to observe this spot. I spotted a tall oak tree, well back from the clearing that seemed to have an open sightline. I moved under it as I shrugged out of my pack. The crossbow was tied to the pack, as the rain cape came off, while the ghilley suit went on.
The rain slicked tree trunk was not going to be a treat to climb, and falling would lead to very bad things. I dug into the pack for my Ashiko and Shuko, my hand and foot claws. Tying off a line to my pack on my belt took only a few seconds, and, finally out of excuses, I started up the greasy bark. Fear lent me strength and speed; it took only moments for me to reach the lofty tree limb that I selected.
While there were ample leaves and branches to break up my silhouette and camouflage me, they did not seem to interfere with my seeing the ambush clearing and the road in front of it. My soaring aerie allowed observation of an extended stretch of the forest road.
I tied a makeshift flip line around the tree trunk, then dragged my pack up out of sight. Sitting on my bough with my brass telescope, I carefully glassed the target area, then I sat quietly (not necessarily patiently) to observe the traffic on the road. I was depending on the foliage, my ghilley suit and (mostly) the natural tendency not to look up to keep me unobserved and unpunctured.
As I sat sipping my water and chewing on an energy bar, I saw several groups of armed horsemen pound by. They did not slow, pause, or so much as look at the site as they trotted past. I continued to sit and wait unmoving. I dislike still hunting but I can do it, if necessary. With much bitching, complaining and whining, I can do it. I did mention it was still raining? Thought so.
It was soon dusk and I was beginning to think that I had misjudged my quarry when a wagon heaped with straw and pulled by a yoke of oxen slowly moved up the road. An old man in a long tattered robe limped along next to it tapping the ox with his staff. For lack of anything better to do, I focused my telescope on him at full magnification, as he moved in and out of my sightline among the trees. Imagine my surprise when I discovered he was wearing a broadsword under his robe. Then I noticed that he'd occasionally forget to limp as I followed his slow progress.
Finally he was in front of me, right at the ambush site. He stopped the wagon right by the clearing, making a great show of adjusting the yokes and harness of his oxen.
A movement from the wagon drew my eye. There was a hiding place under the straw as two men crawled out from underneath the wagon. I focused my spyglass on them, looking at them, carefully finally studying their faces. Both were well armed but unkempt, with skulking demeanors as if always up to something illicit. They seemed even less comfortable in these woods than others I'd seen. Their words back and forth removed any doubt that I was observing a part of the band of highwaymen.
I Listened to them swearing and talking. They were exhibiting no skills of the woodsmen or trackers as they tried to figure out what happened to their comrades. The rain had obliterated the obvious signs of my encounter, and they were having no luck at all with deciphering the rest. Walking back and forth, tossing cigarette butts on the ground, was not helping their efforts
Finally the drover became impatient to know 'when they could get moving.' He clearly did not want to give an explanation of what he was doing out here in the big woods after dark. Maybe he just did not want to be out here in the big woods after dark.
I saw little likelihood of his having to explain. Even smart as Nolan or Trevor, they'd ride right past this slow moving straw wagon without a second glance.
The red headed one they called Tor told Jeremy the drover to turn the wagon around. Then he asked Harold if he'd seen enough. Harold pitched an absolute bitch, yelling and swearing. Finally he calmed enough to ask Tor what the fuck could have happened to his brother Henry. Now I began to see Harold's strong resemblance to the greasy man I'd killed, right down to the bronze short sword and scraggly teeth.
I could hear them plainly as Tor said, "That fucking Radcliff had Big Hammer on display at the crossroads. They say there was one more fucking body, likely your brother. Who knows how they got'em, maybe it was that fucking Logan, the king's assassin. Somebody got a fucking look, said they was shackled behind. Fuck knows who belongs to those chains. Maybe some fucking answers at The Raising. Until we know more, we just make god damn sure we have more of us at the traps from now on. Now lets get the fuck out of here."
Jeremy carefully swung the oxcart around without tipping it and halted in the middle of the road, just as Tor dragged Harold under the wagon and into their hiding place. Impatient Jeremy gave the oxen a good crack with his stick to get them moving. They being oxen, that got him a bellow of annoyance, much head shaking, an attempted kick, and the same slow walk.
I was in motion as soon as they were started down the road. First I lowered the pack, then once I was past, the limbs and forks used the flip line to power down the tree trunk. I think my foot claws touched bark twice as I dropped out of my perch.
On the ground I paused, listening, but the soft ground, and Jeremy's preoccupation with having to walk in the drizzle and the recalcitrant ox, meant I was undetected.
I quickly stuffed the ghilley and rain cape in the pack. My Katana and crossbow would have to suffice for the immediate. My armor and mail was going to need a thorough cleaning by the time this was all over.
I swung into the pack straps and moved out, keeping in the brush, paralleling the road just back from the slow moving wagon. Even when I couldn't see them, Jeremy's constant complaining along with the wheels creaking led me
In fact, my fear was that I was being tolled along. But no ambush was planned simply because they just did not expect to be followed.
The woods darkened until the wagon was just a dark blob ahead of me. I gave up trying to navigate through the brush, and just followed along on the edge of the road. Jeremy stopped the wagon, and I faded into the ditch. He dug around until he lit a candle inside a reflecting box. Then he moved back up, grabbing the nose ring of his ox, leading them along the road. I was on the opposite corner from the light, in the deep shadow cast by the straw pile while Jeremy had his night vision ruined by the lantern.
As the woods thinned I began to worry about cover but the wagon just kept plodding along. Suddenly at an almost indiscernible muddy track Jeremy turned the wagon off the forest road and to the muddy path.
Jeremy's complaints ratcheted up, as he now had to hike in that sucking mud, stopping periodically to replace his sandals after he walked out of them. I stayed up on the grass, ghosting along from weed clump to thicket as the wagon creaked along.
We walked a couple of winding miles until the glow of lights announced our destination. I stopped, crouched behind a low ruined stonewall, as Jeremy turned in the driveway. He loudly 'helloed the house,' getting a mute wave from the cockeyed wood shutters facing the drive.
I dropped my pack, then slithered over the wall following the wagon to the crude barn. Peering through a gap in the weathered boards, I watched Jeremy open a trap door in the barn floor as Tor and Harold passed him their weapons. Jeremy carried them down a ladder and out of sight. As Jeremy and Harold led the animals out of the barn, Tor closed, then artfully covered the trapdoor with straw. He furtively peered over his shoulder, then stretched a piece of fine thread suspended over the flap.
Tor, Jeremy and Harold strode into the house, to be greeted loudly by an argumentative woman's voice. Tor yelled back addressing her as 'woman' with his own litany of complaints.
By this time, I was carefully standing an arm's length back from the rotting shutters of the kitchen window, peering in on their domestic scene. The three men were sitting at a rickety table while a buxom blonde dressed in mended and patched cotton dress stood with her hands on her hips letting Tor know, in no uncertain terms, that she was tired of life in this hovel. Tor loudly told 'woman' that he wanted his food and drink immediately, while Jeremy and Harold looked like they wanted nothing more than quiet. You could clearly hear the sound of the crockery she slammed down on the table even over their yelling, as I unobtrusively backed away.
Sliding over the wall, I scooped up my pack; moving across the road into a grove of trees, I paused to take stock.
I could find a king's soldier, show him the Nadia Ruby, and swiftly earn one hundred silver coins when they raided this farmstead. Hell, they'd probably even give me the gold coins for the bad guys they found. The only problem was that robbers were unaccounted for. I knew, from examining the ambush sites, that there were more people in this conspiracy. Where were they hiding?
Digging in my pack I pulled out my rain cape. I uncovered just a sliver of my light crystal as I marked my map with the location of the robber's nest. Leaving most of my gear, I hung up the pack in the crown of a tree, well back from the muddy path, then walked briskly back down the mucky lane and further along the highway, away from the forest.
As I walked, the trees thinned giving way to broad open fields. Looking in the distance, I saw a single building with a glow coming from every window. Closer, the noise sounded like any tavern.
My crossbow was on my back, with my Katana in my left hand as I pushed open the door, stepping into the hot, smoky, and loud interior. No bar, simply a couple tables pushed together, with more rude tables scattered about, and benches and stools shoved against them.
A fat man in a white apron with a cudgel shoved in his back pocket presided over the room. He shouted a greeting that I answered quietly. When I asked about food he held up two fingers. I dug in the pocket of my rain cape and brought out three coppers carefully setting two on the tabletop. The fat man drew an ale. I retreated to a far corner of the room sipping my mug of ale. I set my crossbow on the bench next to me, with my Katana leaning against the table.
Shortly, I had a tin pot filled with stew, a wooden spoon, and a round loaf of bread sitting in front of me. Not served by a cute slave, but by a hard-bitten cook with a cigarette permanently growing from one corner of his mouth. I dug into the stew gratefully. I'm no big fan of turnips, but there were nice chunks of actual beef. I was tearing the bread apart and using it to sop up the juices from my second big tin pot full when a ferret faced little man walked up to my table pulled out the stool across from me and asked confidently, "Mind if I join you?"
I waited until his ass was just about planted as I said, "Yes, I mind very much. Go away."
As I raised my Katana for emphasis he tipped over backward. He had no sooner hit the floor on his back, than I was loudly rudely shoveling food into my mouth ignoring him. I must have looked like I hadn't eaten in a while. No breakfast and the day's strenuous activity, and I was fucking starved, so it wasn't exactly an act.
When I finally came up for air, the cook smiling now cleared the tin pot away, bringing me another ale, and sharing the big urn of pipe tobacco. I stoked my pipe and slouched back, puffing quietly. I didn't have long to wait.
The ferret was back, along with a greasy and scraggly toothed bastard who could only be related to Harold and the late unlamented Henry. I looked up in utter boredom as he asked again if they could join me. At my silent gesture, they sat down with big insincere smiles and much talk of the inhospitable weather Ferret had an extra mug of ale that he placed in front of me. I exhaled a colossal blue cloud of tobacco smoke in the ferrets face, and sat staring at them in absolute stillness.
Now the ferret began to blather to fill the hush as he blurted, "This is Howard and I am Alvis."
I kept my gaze on Alvis as I replied flatly, "I don't remember asking," and went into a great show of playing with my pipe.
Instead of discouraging Alvis my rudeness only seemed to spur him. Howard sat attentively like an eager spaniel, as Alvis continued to chatter about the weather and road conditions, not very subtly pumping me about my recent travels. He was trying his devious best at finding out where I came from, and who or what the fuck I was. I had no answers, not talking at all.
Finally with a tired yawn, I started to get up. Howard finally spoke up in a querulous tone, asking, "Where ya going?"
I shrugged, saying serenely, "To find a hay stack to sleep in."
Alvis immediately protested, "But you can sleep in the tavern's haymow for nothing."
Giving Alvis an icy stare I said sternly, "Fuck you. So I can get my throat cut for my last penny. No thank you."
I was on my feet as Howard made a placating gesture, saying, "Finish your ale. Hear us out, will you. Would you like to make some money?"
At my nod, he continued, "I mean plenty of money. Heaps of fucking money. Easy money."
Now he looked around as he leaned over the table towards me, saying in a conspiratorial whisper, "Just not necessarily legal money, mate. Is that a problem?"
I settled back, sipping my ale. They were looking at me expectantly, so I finally offered,
"When I'm hungry, taking what I need from some rich bastard who never earned it and has too much anyway, aint really stealing is it?"
Goddamn, where the fuck did that come from? But Alvis and Howard were wreathed in smiles. Howard nodded as Alvis said, "Just so. You gotta take care of yourself. Make your own way. Otherwise there's the debtor's collar..."
They both winced earnestly at the mention of that collar. Howard leaned forward conspiratorially. "This is all a secret, but we will take you to meet our chieftain...."
I put up my hand rather emphatically, and Howard mumbled to a halt. I looked around the room carefully, then back at the two of them. I took a deep breath, saying slowly and carefully, "It can't be too much of a secret, with you two drunk idiots talking about it in a tavern. I go nowhere after dark with anyone, certainly with neither of you. I meet your leader here tomorrow night. If I find something else for work, I won't be back. Don't follow me."
Alvis laughed, as Howard looked aggrieved. "No need to go on like that. We're not drunk and we aint idiots."
Alvis then asked with a snarky tone, "Where the fuck you gonna find work? Decided to take up hunting?"
They both laughed uproariously at the idea. Alvis grinned. "Tomorrow, then. If nothing else, we buy you a meal."
I nodded tightly. Standing up, I knocked out my pipe, emptying the bowl in Alvis's ale mug. I scooped up my crossbow and was out the door, into the night.
Moving swiftly away from the tavern, I jumped over a low stone wall on the edge of a field and stood in the weeds, observing the entrance. Alvis, the ferret, had a discreet wrist sheathe on his right arm. He might be a lefty, making him ambidextrous as a practical matter. Despite his tolerance of my antics, he might very well be competent and that plus ambidextrous and quick would be bad things, perhaps very bad things.
I eased away from the road about two hundred yards, and started back the way I'd come. My eyes were soon accustomed to the darkness, and I made very good time to the muddy lane. I was presently standing in the grove, across from the robber's nest. I dug out my telescope, and made a discovery. It was magicked to be a night glass. Through it, I could see the farmhouse clear as noon, despite the overcast and lack of moonlight.
I sat, well hidden, observing the house. There was little to pique my interest. About midnight, the sound of hooves at a gallop brought me out of my reverie.
A charger came dashing up the path, spraying mud in all directions. The horse had no sooner skidded to a stop, than the rider was out of the saddle, pounding on the farmstead door demanding admittance. I got an excellent look at his face as the open door illuminated him.
The ground tied horse was standing quietly, and I had just decided to take a closer look when the meeting broke up. The door was jerked open, and the horseman stomped out into the yard. Tor accompanied him out the door, and the horseman jerked the saddlebags off his mount and tossed them to him.
The horseman shook his finger in Tor's face and admonished him loudly, "Just get it done, and no fucking excuses. She dies or you're all forfeit."
After a hard eyed look he leapt up on the horse and without a backward glance cruelly spurred his mount. Two jumps; they were out of sight down the narrow road. Tor gazed down the empty lane for a long time then his shoulders slumped as he carried that bag into the house.
Okay, I definitely wanted that look-see now.
With my crossbow in hand and Katana loosened, I moved across the lane and close to the farmhouse. I was once again standing an arm's length back from the gaps in the kitchen shutters, listening to an altogether subdued group as Tor and Donna (his 'woman' turned out to be named Donna) stacked coins on the table, while Jeremy whined about the peremptory nature of their orders.
Tor couldn't get angry; he seemed resigned as he told Jeremy, "It doesn't matter. None of it matters. Not even how many guards and outriders. We must kill her when her coach rolls through the forest on the way to the Port City or we have to flee for our lives."
Jeremy droned on, "Couldn't have been a worse time to lose Giant and Henry."
Donna looked at him incredulously as she barked, "When's a good time to have your friends killed, you dumb fuck?"
Tor was shaking his head; he looked like he had quite a headache. Finally he looked over at Jeremy, asking, "Where the fuck are Harold, Howard and Harvey? And Alvis? Of all the nights for them to be off getting drunk and whoring."
Donna looked over, saying in exasperation, "You paid them, what do you expect when they got coppers rubbing together in their pockets?"
Tor finally roused himself. He looked over at Jeremy, and, in a tone that brooked no argument, he said, "Find them. Get out there right now and find them, sober them up and have them here. No fucking excuses. Not a word, Jeremy. All of them here at dusk for that meeting; then we go to the forest, set the ambush and kill her."
Tor stared malevolently at Jeremy, who slowly rose with great show of unconcern, donned his cloak, and walked out the door and down the muddy lane without a backward glance.
Jeremy was no sooner out of earshot, than Donna started her own entreaty, asking Tor to grab all the loose gold and silver coins, load them in the horse cart, and they'd run for it!
Tor ignored her as he went to a cabinet, brought out a gallon stoneware jug, and shambled dejectedly out of my sight. Donna sat silently at the table with her head in her hands.
I eased away from the farmstead moving back to my vantage in the grove thinking about what I'd seen and heard.
The robbers weren't just thieves, but also had a more nefarious purpose as assassins and likely spies. Their robberies a perfect cover for these tasks. Somebody big and important, with a long, deadly reach, pulled at least some of the highwaymen's strings. In exchange, of course, he fingered fat scores for them. It was a perfect partnership until now.
Today a female, somebody rich with a coach and outriders was their target. This somebody so important that the puppet master was pulling strings HARD prepared to wipe out his carefully constructed crew if necessary in order to execute her.
Was it Nadia? Somehow I did not think so. After all, she just left the bullseye. The puppet master had a chance and did not take it. No, this was clearly about somebody else.
Funny; I'd already come to my decision. Must have happened while I was outside the farmhouse. I counted up the people involved and discovered that it did not matter. I was committed.
I moved back in the grove until I found a deadfall. I rolled up in my cloak and rain cape, lying against the big fallen log, and went to sleep. My last thought as my eyes closed were of that buxom blonde in the farmhouse
My eyes opened in this dark before the dawn. I lay unmoving listening questing with every sense and nerve. Slowly raising my head over the log I looked around carefully but there was no one.
I sat up stretching as the sky lightened. The farmstead was silent as I peered through my telescope. Moving back deeper into the grove, I decided that I'd risk lighting my Optimus stove in order to have some hot tea. While I waited for water to boil, I stood in a clear space and performed kata with my Sai daggers.
Sipping my tea and honey, I stood, with some of my weapons arrayed on the fallen log. I tried to focus and visualize my encounters. I set the tea aside as I stood, spinning and twirling the Sai, picturing the bad guys. Okay, it was not terribly useful, but it relaxed me nonetheless.
I surveyed my gear. My coil of mountaineering rope with a several carabineers went in an inside pouch of my cape, along with my last Darby cuffs and a ring gag. Yeah, maybe Robert was weirder than I thought.
I finished my morning 'necessary' ablutions then my tea and an energy bar before I reloaded the packsack, and then carefully moved it under a bush, next to the muddy lane, right across from the robber's farmhouse. It was a risk, but not much more than all the others I was running.
Now I looked carefully at my magical map, picking a route that kept me under cover until I was on the opposite side of the tavern. I followed this by sitting quietly until I saw Tor stumble out of the house to visit the outhouse. Donna trailed along shortly after. Tor went on to the barn to feed the stock before he returned to the house. Donna staggered back into the house. Clearly Tor shared his gallon of moonshine with Donna, but consumed plenty himself.
I sat watching the house, never quite sure whether Donna would finally prevail convincing Tor to run for it. All that transpired was two hangovers so big they seemed to make the very house itself hung over! The rather intense silence from the house seemed to indicate they likely knocked back a bit of the ol' hair of the woof woof!
Finally it was afternoon; time for me to put my plan in motion. Moving through the glade, I started a meandering route among the trees and groves, taking my time to avoid detection. Finally well past the tavern, finding a farmstead, I made a show of not terribly carefully sneaking out of the barn. Then walking up that farmer's lane to the main road and back toward the tavern.
With the open, cultivated fields, my progress toward the tavern on this main road was visible for a while. By now it was late afternoon as I walked up the steps and pushed open the door, greeting the fat man. The common room was still hot, and, with the low ceilings, smoky, just not as loud as before. I tossed my penny on the table, and he drew me a mug of ale.
I found my corner seat and settled with my back to the wall, nursing my drink. I rolled and lit a cigarette, more to pass the time than anything else. The fact that my hands were steady enough to get a 'tight roll' surprised me, actually.
The cigarette was barely half gone when Alvis and Howard made their appearance. Gone the relaxed approach of last night, they were all business and both of them tense as long tailed cats in a room full of rocking chairs. Howard stood looking out the door while Alvis came straight to me, saying brusquely, "You have to come with us."
Even knowing what was going on I was surprised by his manner it took no great stretch to say, "Fuck you, I changed my mind."
Alvis stepped around the table. Now that he was closer I could see him sweating. He leaned over and said quietly, "Honest to god. There isn't time to explain everything. Things have changed; we need you. We need you a whole hell of a lot. This could be a heap of money for you, for all of us. You gotta trust us, just shut up and come along."
I looked at his eager face and decided I'd pushed enough. Standing up I picked up my crossbow slung it over my shoulder and followed him out the door. As we started toward the farmstead I was careful to hang back and let them lead me along. Finally we were walking along with then flanking me Alvis on my left and Howard on my right. During this hike Alvis was talking steadily questioning my skill with the crossbow. With their bowman gone they had need of a long distance killer so I was a candidate, especially in this rather dire situation.
By now it was sunset as we entered the muddy track to the farmstead. They still flanked me as we walked through the mud. Our pace was slower in the twilight.
As we walked neither was paying much attention to anything save their footing in the muck. We were just at the glade when I reached under my cape with my left hand pulling my Tanto. Holding it in an ice pick grip, I slammed it into Alvis's chest. Releasing it I drew my Katana in one motion I wheeled taking Howard's head off his shoulders. Alvis took a couple rubber legged steps and collapsed without a sound. I drove the Katana into his eye but it wasn't necessary. I quickly dragged their bodies into the glade.
Watching the farmstead there was no alarm in the gathering dusk. I heard a faint noise; I decided to check the barn. Imagine my surprise when I found Donna carrying bags of coins up through the trap door. Her feverish pace left her vulnerable.
Grabbing Donna lifting her out of the hole. My one hand was over her mouth while the other held her waist she kicked and flailed until I flipped her on her back. Still holding her mouth, I showed her my Tanto. With me kneeling, on her she relaxed for just a second, allowing me to push the ring gag into her mouth and buckle it behind her head. As she reached for the gag, I twisted her around and secured her hands behind her back in the cuffs. I lifted Donna, moving her back against the wagon wheel, then re-cuffed her through the wheel.
Standing quietly, I breathed deeply from the exertion. I stood looking at Donna in the light from her candle. Her tits were heaving as she tried to yell, kick me, and get loose all at once. Taking my blade, I cut her dress from bodice to hem in one stroke. Donna froze as I flipped the fabric exposing her. I whispered:
"You sit quiet and don't make a sound. I'll be back with many questions. You better be ready to tell me the truth, Donna. Don't even think of lying."
I stared into her eyes until she looked down. I blew out the candle then sidled out into the yard. Staying low along the stonewall I was back to the track when I heard voices. Peering along the trail I saw Harold and Harvey tramping through the muck. I didn't hesitate I raised my crossbow and shot Harold who was slightly behind Harvey. It was so unexpected that Harvey was still turned around, looking down at his brother Harold flopping on the ground, when I made the killing stroke on Harvey then finished Harold.
Swiftly, I dragged them into the glade next to the other two. I moved into the lee of the farmstead listening, but all I heard was desultory conversation from Tor and Jeremy. Finally Jeremy told Tor that he'd keep watch for the others and asked where Donna was off to. Tor quickly answered 'outhouse' and they both laughed. Jeremy was standing in the front window directly behind a rotted shutter. Taking my Katana in both hands I punched it upward, through the shutter, penetrating his abdomen, solar plexus, and into his chest. He sagged forward in silence from the massive shock. I pushed Jeremy backward off his feet as I flipped the shutter wide open to see Tor reaching for his gallon jug. He looked over in surprise before he could react I raised the crossbow and fired, pinning him to his chair. I flowed through the window with my Tanto in hand; I cut Tor's throat an instant later. Without pausing, I drove the blade downward into Jeremy's eye.
Standing with my head down breathing deeply as I calmed and focused. I peered out the window, but there was no sound or movement, the highwaymen were dead.
How then to discover their target and the puppet master
I came down out of my 'warrior mind' to confront my recklessness. I had a 'clean sweep' here; I'd killed everybody who could ferret out the conspiracy and help me save the girl. Whoever she was!
I looked over at Tor, sitting incongruously in his chair with his head far back and throat, gaping killed so quickly, so thoughtlessly. My sensei tried to teach me "mind like water," a heightened perception and rational assessment in combat. So far, I did not impress myself. I knew sensei would have MUCH to say, little of it complimentary. I was going to die, here, in the mud, outsmarted by primitives because I quit using my brain! I bowed to sensei in apology, then knelt in contemplation.
Standing up, I studied the two bodies. Grimacing, I grabbed Jeremy by the ankles, dragging him out the door, followed by Tor. Leaving them next to the house, I walked across the lane, carefully looking and listening, but there was no sign of anyone else around. I lifted my pack and headed for the barn. There was one person left who might give me some answers - Donna.
I dropped my pack by the entryway to the barn, stopping to retrieve my light crystal. I was uncovering the crystal as I walked in. Donna grimaced, squinting in the sudden bright light. I greeted her calmly. "Hello again, Donna."
She yelped in surprise at my voice. Her eyes snapped full open staring at me in horror. I placed the crystal on the floor close to her before I threw open the big door just past the wagon she was shackled to.
I wandered around this corral, gathering wood just a few feet from the opening, even pulling a couple railings off the wooden fence. I had my back to Donna, so I used another Trioxane tab to start the fire. The unpainted, weathered railing blazed up into a blistering fire, hot enough that Donna flinched away.
I kicked her ankles apart as I stood towering over her, saying evenly, "Donna, I want you to tell me about your friends and the woman you would kill."
She was still gagged, shaking her head emphatically. Kneeling, I studied her until her eyes dropped again. Using just the pad of my thumb, I pressed on nerve bundles in her legs and arms. As the pressure became pain, her body writhed while Donna's breath whistled though the ring gag.
The metal circle of the ring gag in Donna's mouth fascinated me. I pushed my index finger deep in her mouth until she choked, unable to close her mouth or bite. She gulped and heaved, with her body convulsing as I withdrew my probing finger.
A flickering, brief vision of Natalie, vulnerable, in place of Donna, put me back on my heels. I had to be careful. With few limits on a hunter's behavior, my bitterness toward Natalie could spill over, with ugly results.
Crouching as I showed Donna my Tanto. In silence I held up my finger, she froze as I slipped the blade along her cheek under the gag strap with a tiny movement severed it. The gag fell away as Donna stared at me in shock. Showing her the dagger again, I said seriously: "You will tell me everything. I may not kill you, but you won't be pretty anymore."
At her hiss of indrawn breath, I walked out by the fire standing with my back to her. Turning and looking in the barn, I saw a piece of scrap iron hanging on the wall. She watched in trepidation as I shoved the end of that iron into the coals at the center of my fire.
Now I knelt next to her, saying quietly, "If I cut you here..." and as I gently touched her skin with my fingernail alternating with the intense 'acupressure'. Donna screamed, jerking her body away as far as the shackles allowed.
Her eyes were red from her tears, throat hoarse from screaming as I picked up the iron, glowing on the end, moving it inches from her face, saying softly, "This will hurt terribly and mark you forever."
Donna stared past the glow into my face, begging hoarsely, "WHO are you?"
I stopped, saying loudly, ""Please, who are you, sir?"
She shook her head as I waved the glowing metal, reclaiming her attention. In a defeated tone, she asked, "Who are you, please, sir?"
I nodded calmly as I said, "Someone who can do as he pleases."
Her eyes widened as with a shaky voice, she asked, "Am I your slave?"
I waved the hot iron in time as I corrected her, saying slowly, "Please sir, am I your slave"
Her head went down, then came up, as, resigned, Donna repeated, "Please, sir, who are you?"
I tossed the iron back into the fire as I answered: "Brock, a hunter."
She shook her head as she thought aloud, "Tor was right. Fucking Howard."
Now she looked at me saying all in a rush: "You're the crossbowman. Tor suspected a trap. He wanted to question you closely. He only risked it because we required a bowman, and we hoped you were already part of The Thistles with us. He'd have killed Howard and Alvis outright for even talking to you except for that possibility and because all were crucial to kill the Princess. Princess Veronica, King Oswald's daughter."
Donna stopped suddenly, her eyes big as she quickly added, "Sir."
I nodded in a distracted manner as I processed the information, asking her, "Who pulls the strings, Donna?"
Donna frowned prettily as she thought then replied, "Lord Chasseur delivers messages to us with instructions and information from Cinquedea; otherwise, Devlin or the spice merchant."
I smirked as I said, "Lord Chasseur is the man on the big black horse?"
Donna started as she replied, "You saw him arrive?"
I nodded. "Yes, I saw him. But Donna, the name 'Chasseur' is a fake. It's a word that means 'one who rides a horse'."
Donna started looking at me with an "O" of astonishment. I recalled an earlier comment of hers as I asked, "What did you mean, 'I might already be with you?' Don't you know all your gang members?"
She shook her head emphatically. "No, Brock, sir. We know only few of 'The Thistles', Clark the tavern keeper; Devlin the merchant in River town; and Saiful Haq, a spice peddler who travels the region by wagon. The rest identify themselves as we hoped you would. Tor thought it possible that Devlin might have sent you. Since you seemed so rude Alvis was convinced you came perhaps even from Cinquedea himself."
I nodded, as I asked quietly, "How might I have proved my bonafides, Donna?"
She smiled more calmly as she answered, "Showing a thistle plant or thistle blossom."
I nodded as she continued, "Identification by sign and countersign with the current words: Clover and Rapier."
Now I was confused as I repeated, "Clover and rapier?"
Donna was enthusiastic as she answered, "Oh yes, Brock sir. You might say 'the fields are filled with clover' with the countersign 'the rapier is sharp' and then you would know that person is one of The Thistles.
I shook my head, staring off into the distance, as I contemplated my continued health depending on not laughing during this childish secret word shit. I looked down at Donna as I asked, "So why didn't Alvis just ask me?"
Donna looked shocked at the question. "Tor would have killed him he'd so much as breathed the secret words in a tavern. Only Tor could put the questions."
I pondered how close I came to being found out and killed. Only Tor's distrust of his subordinates saved me. I knelt next to Donna unlocking the cuffs. At my gesture Donna brought her arms around in front of her and I relocked the cuffs in front of her. This gave me an opportunity to look Donna in the eye from close ranges as I asked an all-important question. "Why, Donna? Why are you telling me all these secrets?"
Donna looked back at me levelly as she answered calmly, "They are not here. Only you are here, Hunter Brock. Besides, you are different from them. Tor would have burned me without hesitation."
She nodded as she continued, "I will be honest with you in all things, doing anything and everything that you ask. Perhaps by that you can be persuaded to save me from 'the raising'."
Donna shuddered again at the thought of that barbaric hanging, looking in my eyes as she repeated in little more than a whisper, "Anything and everything, Brock sir."
I shook my head clearing it of the jarring overlapping images of Natalie then looked down at Donna, nearly naked in the ruins of her shift. I reached down grabbing the center chain of the Darby cuffs, pulling Donna to her feet. The adrenaline had come surging back and I was intensely horny.
Pulling her along I walked out of the barn. Donna followed in docile manner. Walking us into the house I glanced back to see her eyes get big as she spotted the bloodstains from Jeremy and Tor. I kept her moving into the bedroom.
The bed was barely a double, the mattress a feather tick suspended on a framework of ropes. I shoved Donna to her knees. Again she was unresisting, which, in some murky fashion, increased my need to control her.
I removed my armor, weapons, and then my clothing, quickly disrobing leaving an untidy mound in the corner of the room. Striding quickly back to Donna and grabbing her blonde hair, I pressed her into my crotch, scrubbing her face against my balls. I tipped her head back, studying her face while reaching down, pulling her jaw down with my thumb. Shoving my hardening cock in her open mouth I mashed her nose against my belly. I held the back of her head as she struggled then abruptly I released her head.
I was almost idly stroking my hardening cock, staring down as Donna bent forward on her hands and knees, gasping and choking. Reaching down with my finger tangled in her blonde hair, I pulled her upright at eye level with my cock.
Donna looked up at me, smiling as she willingly opened her mouth, engulfing my cock. Her head came far forward as she swallowed my cock far back in her throat. The pressure on my cock as she swallowed was exquisite. Her head bobbed with her blonde mane swaying. At my touch she stopped, continuing to stroke me while looking up at me.
My belt pouch was lying on the floor. I retrieved the key for the restraints on Donna's wrists. At my brusque gesture Donna held up her arms presenting her cuffs. I unlocked the cuffs, tossing them and the key on a rude table. She rose gracefully stepping out of her ruined shift as she took my hand leading me to the bed.
Donna lay back in the soft mattress pulling me on top kissing me as she caressed my body. She stroked my slick cock as she spread her legs widely, pulling me to her center. I slid deep inside her, surprised as her wetness engulfed me. I grabbed her thighs roughly as I stroked into her while Donna pulled at my shoulders loudly encouraging me. I "slam fucked" her, fingers squeezing her breasts. My balls tingled as I slammed forward, my cock spasming deep in Donna as I shouted my completion.
I collapsed bonelessly with my weight fully on Donna. She held me close with her arms and legs tight around me as my breathing slowed. She nuzzled me stroking my back as my eyes closed.
My eyes opened slowly as I swam into daylight wakefulness. My head was pillowed on a naked thigh; glancing up, a meaty breast shaded me. Lifting my head slightly, I found Donna sitting up with her back against the headboard, my head in her lap, fingers playing in my hair.
Settling on my back I looked at her with a questioning expression. Donna shrugged, blushing as she commented quietly:
"You slept plenty hard. In truth I don't completely know why I did not. I am capable of harnessing the horses after all."
I reached up to tweak a nipple as I smiled. "I appreciate your not cutting my throat, Donna, but this is a dangerous path. You would have been well advised to run like hell."
Now Donna grinned, then she studied me carefully, saying, "You are a good man, Hunter Brock, despite your protests. I cast my lot with you, Brock sir."
I lay quietly as Donna continued playing with my hair. I looked up to ask, "And how would you know that, lovely Donna?"
Donna looked abashed for just a moment as she replied, "Your aura, Brock sir, mirrors a worthy soul damaged by a woman's infidelity and a friend's betrayal."
I lay lost in wonder, then I shook it off as I asked, "Tell me about Tor's plan for killing the Princess. When is she due?"
Donna's hand stilled as she marshaled her thoughts. "According to Lord Chasseur, Veronica's coach is due to pass here this afternoon trying to make Luther's Inn before nightfall. Tor planned to overturn the hay wagon blocking the road in the swampy part of the woods..."
Her voice trailed off and it took no great imagination to fill in the rest.
As enjoyable as laying on the bed with Donna, we needed to move. Reaching up I pinched Donna's nipple hard. She yelped stridently then looked at me in an accusing fashion. Then Donna snickered as she helped me sit up.
Donna lithely stepped out of bed. I admired her naked form for just a moment before I joined her. I felt grubby. Tor, as you might guess, was not much for washing. I ended up in the back yard, standing in a copper laundry tub while Donna scrubbed me, then sluiced me with warm water. I returned the favor, spreading the suds on Donna's slick body, rinsing her with pails of water thrown on her giggling form. Something about our bathing in broad daylight outside just made it that much more salacious and fun.
Finally we called a halt to our wet fun. Donna looked at me happily as we stood, drying ourselves in the sunlight warmth, asking, "Brock sir, could you give me a little time to clean up the messy house before I feed you?"
I nodded, then she looked at me ruefully, saying, "You made a bit of a mess in there, sir."
It was only true. We moved back inside, Donna found another cotton shift to wear as I dressed in my soft buckskins and moccasins. While Donna carried buckets of water into the farmstead. I dragged Tor and Jeremy's bodies in the grove across the road and lined them up with the others.
Now that it was daylight I searched all of them, emptying pockets, and took stock of their possessions. I gained only meager intelligence, with the exception that every one had a thistle flower! I wrapped their belongings in Tor's shirt, and carried the package back to the barn.
In the barn I opened the trap door. I used the light crystal to take a quick survey of the cellar. Weapons and armor were stacked untidily with two large chests in the center. The sack Donna was trying to fill was still at the bottom of the ladder, with Lord Chasseur's saddlebags next to it.
I threw a few more jewels, with some gold and silver coins, in the sack, along with a goodly selection into the saddlebags. I was going to remove a portion of the loot before the authorities arrived to confiscate it. The sack was going to Donna, with the saddlebags hung from a tree branch in the grove for me to retrieve at some later time. I tossed a couple of nicely decorated daggers in the sack, assuming that Donna would know how to use them.
Lifting the light crystal, I found a small shelf high up on a wall behind the largest chest. There were several finely decorated jewel boxes. I shuddered to imagine what had happened to the owners. I flipped them open one after another, gently as if I was intruding. The last was most intriguing, and I took it down for a closer look.
This box was made of wood laminations, alternating blocks of light and dark wood mixing Birch, Walnut, Maple and Cherry for different color, texture and grain.
I flipped open this box and then stopped. I stood, pondering the jewelry pieces. They weren't just in padding, they were each inset in a carefully carved, incised niche, exactly shaped to the form of each individual piece, jewel or coin. I closed the box, turning it over and over in my hands. I opened the box to verify that each space was filled, then I closed it again.
It was a puzzle box. I was sure of it. I set it on the large chest trying to discern a seam or lap as I closely examined it with my light focusing to see a pattern to the colors and textures. Gently I began to prod and touch the laminations.
I don't know how long I was engaged when I felt a square give, then another turn, and another move, until a click as a small drawer, quite invisible to that point, suddenly slid open.
I looked carefully into the drawer before reaching, in but there was no obvious snare. The drawer was completely lined in deep pile to prevent "hollow sounds" from revealing this void, as well as preventing movement and muffling sound from the three small leather bags the drawer contained. Opening the bags, I dumped the contents on the top of the large chest.
What is it with these people and snakes!?!
The signet ring was a hooded cobra motif, with a large marquis cut star sapphire of a rich blue coloring. Next was an ornate skeleton key, with a cobra and sapphire gem set in the bow. Then another "key," with its sapphire and cobra bow and its blade consisting of a short, pencil thin square shaft ending in a "cross" point, akin to a Phillips screwdriver but not pointed. I sat back on my heels as I studied my find. Then it dawned on me what this was about.
These primitive locks with their skeleton keys almost fall open with any kind of key, and were dead easy to pick with the simplest tools. One defense of the time was subterfuge.
My guess was that this lock was outsized with ostentatious decorations and ornate engraving. To open it, the key goes in the obvious keyway, then the minuscule screwdriver key would be inserted into an insignificant opening concealed by embellishments, and turned to actually open the lock.
Now that I had the keys, it was "only" necessary to find this cobra sapphire lock.
Since the puzzle box was here in the possession of the robbers, the owner or person with best information was probably dead! Given the traffic on the main road the robbers preyed on, "my" lock could be anywhere from Coast Castle to King Holm.
I smiled grimly. One more mystery to layer on top of all the others.
Putting the ring and keys back in the leather bags, I replaced them in the drawer of the puzzle box. I closed the drawer, carefully returning the wooden laminations to their original locked condition. The puzzle box then joined the rest of my loot at the bottom of the ladder.
I tossed a handful of assorted coins into my belt pouch, with another assortment going in my concealed money belt. Finally, with a last look around, I began handing my booty up the ladder.
I dug Alvis' wrist sheath out of my pack while the puzzle box and light crystal went in. The sheath went into the bag of "goodies" for Donna. Pack and goodies were dropped at the farmhouse door.
I walked across the lane, carrying the saddlebags past the bodies until I reached the deadfall where I had spent the night. Looking around, I selected a Pin Oak for my pouch's safekeeping. Standing under a likely branch, I made a couple of tosses until my moneybag settled securely, straddling the limb.
I sauntered back toward to the farmhouse. Seeing Donna standing in the farmyard, peering around, looking concerned, I stepped into the lane, waved, and whistled. She spotted me, and her face was wreathed in a huge grin.
Donna was wiping her hands on her apron, saying, "Sir, I have a meal prepared."
I nodded as I picked up the pack and bag by the door, entering the farmhouse. Donna had opened the shutters and cleaned up. The sunny kitchen looked much better. I thought the pots and bowls filled with good smelling foods looked best of all.
Washing up in a basin of water on the sideboard I said: "Thank you, Donna. This meal looks and smells wonderful."
It was only true! Huge slices of ham and potatoes covered in some kind of cheese sauce. Did I mention the big chunks of home made bread? Thought so.
Donna smiled prettily. "You're welcome, Sir. I do so love to cook. Momma is the cook at Lusty Rose and Anchor on the docks of King Holm. I was her apprentice, then chief cook on the galley Sandra Dear."
I must have looked puzzled as I asked, "A galley, Donna?"
Donna answered enthusiastically, "Yes, Sir!"
Then she smiled in fond recollection as she kept spooning more food on my plate. She continued, "Twenty four oars and two masts. We sailed the vast inland sea carrying goods between King Holm and Port City."
Her smile died as she said more softly, "Not directly to the port, and there's the rub."
We both began to eat, and there was little conversation as I shoveled excellent food into my mouth Eventually, I pushed back from the table and its emptied plates as I sipped a glass of sweet wine. Donna began picking up dishes. I stayed her hand and pointed at her chair. "Please tell me what happened to your cook's job, Donna."
I refilled her glass as she sat frowning. "It's a long story, Sir, and well known to all."
I grinned. "Pretend I know nothing about all this. I'd really like your opinion, Donna."
Donna looked surprised that anyone would solicit her views, but she sipped her wine and gamely began. "Port City is separated from the inland sea by a wide expanse of land. A broad meandering river - The Red - named for the coloring it picks up from its clay banks, flows from the inland sea to the ocean."
I nodded as she continued, "When I first sailed, we'd pay a toll at Passage then our oarsmen would pole the galley to Port City. We'd return against the current with our oarsman pulling us along the towpath. If we were heavily laden and the current was strong we'd hire teams of horses."
I asked, "Passage?"
Donna smirked as she replied, "You take your pretending serious, Sir."
Then her frown returned. "The castle at the mouth of the Red River is called that. The castle that controls all traffic in and around the river, source of the troubles that force the people surrounding the inland sea into financial ruin."
She sat in silence as a big tear coursed down her cheek. I sat quietly waiting as Donna gathered herself. Finally, she softly continued, "It started when the man who calls himself "Sun King" toppled the leaders of Passage. His first act was to throw them and their entire families off the highest battlements to die on the stones below."
She continued: "The river tolls began to climb. Then, one day, a massive chain blocked the channel. This Sun King announced that cargo must be off-loaded on his docks then loaded on barges to be carried down river to the port."
Now she laughed, ruefully. "The toll, always high, climbed higher still and now varied with the cargo. Far worse, part or even all the shipment might be confiscated at the whim of the Passage tax man."
She sipped her wine as she continued to shake her head. "The whole of shipping on the inland sea fell apart. A few ships that still trade with Port City or the caravan masters and the fishermen, the rest sit idle their furled sails rotting."
She looked up as she said, "That's where Tor found me, on the dock, just days away from my own collar. I make no excuse, Brock, sir. I know what we did and the cost. If I had one wish, it would place me back on the fantail of the Sandra making for Port City."
Donna looked forlorn as I pulled her to her feet hugging her. She kissed my cheek then pulled back to say with some energy, "Enough of your pretending, Brock, Sir. I must clean up if we are to have guests."
I nodded, saying, "It's time for me to go to the road and meet a princess."
Her laughter followed me into the bedroom as I dressed in my armor and gathered my weapons and toys.
I came out with my crossbow slung over my shoulder, carrying my Katana. I picked up the bag of goodies for Donna and placed it on the now cleaned table, saying, "This is for you, Donna."
Donna looked inside, her mouth an "O" of surprise. She upended the bag, and the coins, jewels and daggers spilled on the table. Her eyes wide, she looked up at me, stuttering finally saying, "Sir, Brock, sir this is too..."
I raised a hand halting her words as I said, "Donna, take the weapons. I require you to be armed now. Frankly, before this is all done, it'll necessitate you having money."
Donna just stood, rooted. I grinned, saying loudly, "I leave a princess to meet a princess."
Donna smiled now as she replied, "Such bullshit. But nice all the same."
She quickly came into my arms, kissing me lustily as she ground her pelvis into mine. As she felt my hardening cock, she giggled, saying: "Hurry back, Brock sir."
I laughed as I turned her around and slapped her on the butt, eliciting a satisfying yelp as I walked out the door.
I walked along the grassy verge of the muddy track away from the farmstead toward my rendezvous with Princess Veronica. My thoughts were in turmoil.
Despite my brave words, there was no guarantee I could keep Donna alive. So much depended on the mood of this royal. A sullen, surly princess would be a very bad thing, and just about guarantee poor Donna being guest of honor at the next raising.
A Buckthorn grove on the road's edge by a rock wall was my blind as I waited for the princess's coach. Traffic was sparse, giving me pause. Was this meager travel normal? Had a warning been issued by the conspirators?
Slipping Nadia's ruby ring on my left index finger, I used my spyglass to look up and down the road. I rested my hip against the wall; breathing calmly, and staying centered, I waited. Did I mention that I hate waiting? Thought so.
Movement in the distance drew my eye. A great white coach fairly glowed in the afternoon sun as its team of six black horses trotted toward me.
One trooper alertly cast back and forth in the van, while the rest looked bored to the point of sleep as their horses shambled along after him. I pondered yet again why Black Baron Radcliff was not protecting her. Sure, Radcliff's an S.O.B but his lancers are aggressive and competent. Everything these stupefied horsemen obviously were not!
Fuck competent, I'd settle for conscious!
I closed my glass with an annoyed snap, dropping it in the pocket of my cloak as I stepped out on the road. The lead trooper, who looked all of about 14, spurred his horse, the two-handed broadsword on his back bounced, and the hilt smacked him on the back of the head. He rode toward me with the reins in one hand, rubbing his head with the other.
He pulled up, and standing in the stirrups to look around, announced grandly: "I am Jeremy, of the guards."
Then he settled back into his saddle as he asked, "Who are you and what do you want?"
Close up, Jeremy looked even more callow. Glancing at his approaching comrades, Jeremy was the best of it.
Holding up the "Nadia Ruby Ring," I said calmly, "Brock, a hunter, and I would speak with your princess, please. She is in danger."
As secret de-coder rings go, Nadia's is damned impressive. Jeremy was off his mount on one knee to kiss the ducal ring just that quick. I was beyond surprised by his reaction. I gestured Jeremy to his feet and tossed him the ring, saying again, "The princess, please."
Jeremy turned and took off for the coach at a dead run, his sword beating against his back as he pelted. I caught up his horse's bridle. Horse and I watched his mad dash with interest.
As Jeremy approached the coach the door opened and a female figure dropped to the ground landing in a light and collected manner. She was a slim athletic platinum blonde, her hair cut in a mannish fashion. Dressed in dark green linen pants and shirt, with a Shamshir on her left hip and a Bedouin Dagger thrust in her belt. She had a chain mail sleeve on her left arm from shoulder to wrist.
Jeremy greeted her as "Hjordis" and she utterly ignored him as she sidestepped away from him to keep me in sight. Jeremy pounded on the coach door and was granted admission.
I walked back toward the coach unhurriedly, holding Jeremy's horse's reins. Hjordis' left hand lightly tugged the hilt of her sword loosening it in the scabbard as she observed my approach.
The coach door popped open and Jeremy tumbled out. He stood at something approaching attention as he handed down a radiantly lovely honey blonde dressed in a confection of light brown leather and blue silk, a riding habit, that had a split and weighted skirt with a modesty panel buttoned on the front.
With a sunny smile she turned to me, saying, "Hunter, I am Veronica."
She held up Nadia's ruby ring, saying serenely, "Perhaps you'd care to explain."
Hjordis plucked the ring from her fingers, saying, "Ronnie, a moment."
Squaring up to me, Hjordis settled into a balanced stance as she asked quietly, "On which hand does the Princess wear this?"
I shrugged. "No idea. When she gave this ring into my keeping, Nadia was in armor and it was woven into her braid."
Veronica sighed softly, and Hjordis visibly relaxed. I glanced around to see all the troops gathered around us, with no one, not even Jeremy, looking outward toward possible threats. I said, "Look, I have much to explain, but we need you off this road, Princess. This is just too dangerous."
Veronica replied quickly, "Yes, we are on our way to Luther's Inn."
I shook my head. "No, I'm sorry; that is not a good idea. If you could follow me..."
Hjordis spoke up. "Ronnie, we must get moving, all along this road is ideal for ambush."
She turned to me. "Yes, we will follow you, hunter. Lead on, and then I wish to know how you came to have a ring that every man in King Holm covets, most especially the Black Baron himself."
I was sitting on Bernard's horse in the middle of the road. The coach and the troopers had already long since turned up the muddy track towards the farmhouse. After some discussion, Jeremy was leaving Bernard as a lookout in "my" buckthorns. We could easily spare him to this task. We could easily spare him if he deserted. Of all of us, Bernard could afford to miss a meal. Bernard was short, fat, bald, sloppy, and lazy. So fat that he looked shorter than he actually was. Slow moving and slow thinking; Bernard was a prime example of some of the less than perfect warriors looking after Veronica's safety.
I stood up in the stirrups, looking both ways with my glass at maximum magnification, but saw no one approaching. Finally, it would be up to Bernard to tell us if anyone was interested in our tracks leaving the road.
I eased the reins, and my horse slowly walked into the pathway. I stopped him as I peered into the brush past the low stonewall, to see Bernard sitting on a log, his back comfortably against a tree.
I smiled coolly as, drawing my Tanto, showing it to him, I said: "Bernard, Stay alert please. I will be back here in a little while. If you are asleep, I will cut your throat and tell Jeremy that's how I found you."
Bernard started so violently; he almost fell off his perch. I sheathed my Tanto as I lightly kicked my mount and cantered along the muddy trail.
I slowed my mount to a walk, approaching the farmstead. A veteran soldier sat on the ruined wall bordering the yard, with a crossbow on his lap. He was calmly smoking his pipe and keeping watch down the lane. Perhaps some few were capable after all.
There had been changes since I'd left Donna to prepare for our guests. The big white coach that was sitting by the barn was least of it.
There were now three cook fires next to the farmhouse. A haunch of beef turned on a spit over one. Several cook pots hung on hooks over the second, while an adorable pirate labored over the grill on the third.
Okay it wasn't a pirate! It was Donna; in leather pants and a doeskin leather shirt, with its quite overtaxed leather laces trying desperately to keep it closed and those tits under control. She had knee high seafarer boots, with a dagger tucked in the left one. The wide leather belt held a straight bladed fencing saber with a basket hilt on her left side, and a matching basket hilt dagger on her right.
I stepped down and Jeremy grabbed the reins to take my mount back to the corral where, he informed me, Princess Veronica, our horsewomen was looking after all the stock. As he took the reins Jeremy, his eyes big as dinner plates, told me excitedly that Hjordis and Donna had already had a contretemps. He went on to say; "I think they've made up." Hjordis was now helping Donna, mostly by bossing the troops helping with the meal.
Tables had been moved out of the house and a hogshead keg of ale was sitting on a farm wagon under the big tree with a good-sized wine cask next to it.
Standing in the eye of the storm, watching the activity, I laughed as Hjordis used the flat of her sword and a sharper tongue to send two soldiers fleeing from the ale keg and back to work.
I decided it made good sense to kiss the cook, first thing. Not that kissing Donna constituted a chore! As I walked up, she spotted me and just flowed into my arms. Her sweet soft lips chased away my thoughts. My fingers found the leather ties on her shirt irresistible.
Dona was giggling softly as she pulled back to make eye contact through her blonde tresses. "Sir, you should let me finish cooking. Not that I object..."
Donna looked down at my fingers engrossed in her shirt's drawstrings as she said, "I'm so glad you approve of my outfit. It's from my sea chest. Tor never even let me open my things. After you heard my story and giving me the daggers..."
Smiling I nodded, I looked over to see Hjordis snickering. Releasing Donna, I strode over to Hjordis swept her into my arms and kissed her soundly. At first she did not respond then she came to the party. I put my lips next to her ear as I whispered, "It's better when you help."
Her giggles as I let her go were an agreeable sound. Hjordis reached into her pocket and handed me Nadia's ducal ring, saying, "You should take better care of this."
I shook my head as I replied, "You needed to see it, study it, be sure."
Hjordis nodded in silent agreement. Before I could say anything more Hjordis spotted another trooper starting for the ale and she was off. Donna was laughing as she returned to her cooking duties. Discreetly taking my leave, I wandered toward the corral.
The corral separated the long low stable building from the barn. From the sounds and activity in the stable, the robbers had accumulated much livestock along with their other loot. I stood at the corral fence and watched Veronica work. She was putting a tall red thoroughbred through his dressage paces, controlling her mount imperceptibly, almost by telepathy.
Veronica noticed me; "Big Red" essayed a bow as she saluted with her riding crop. She stepped down out of the saddle and walked to the fence, leading her mount.
Veronica was armed, wearing a rapier with a simple knobbed quillon guard. On her opposite hip, a double-edged dagger with its matching quillon guard curved slightly forward, allowing blade-trapping tactics.
When they got to the fence, Red immediately shoved his velvet nose at me, demanding attention. Veronica laughed happily: "He is a big baby, always wanting to be the center of attention."
Looking at me in an appraising manner she said quietly, "Unlike you, hunter, who seems quite content to live in the shadows. You seem uncomfortable being in view "
That was a bit too close for my comfort, so I reached over the fence and pulled at the pommel of her sword. As it came out of the scabbard I saw, the blade was wider than a "classic" rapier, slightly more edge to work with. A straightforward, well made weapon.
I let the blade fall back into the scabbard as the princess laughed saying: "Is that all you men think of?"
I grinned: "Not the "only" thing we think of in the presence of a beautiful woman but I am curious my lady. It is a very simple blade..."
Veronica smiled as she interrupted: "And you were expecting something ornate, garish, gilded, perhaps crusted with jewels?"
At my slightly chagrined nod, she continued: "Logan would not allow it. He is my fencing instructor, an unforgiving taskmaster even to a princess. But then my enemy at sword point would hardly be affable."
She rubbed the red horse as she giggled merrily: "The entire castle thinks we're fucking. They have no idea, I've actually learned to fence from the best swordsmen in the kingdoms."
Looking into my expression, Veronica smirked: "Brock don't look so shocked. I've been riding since before my second birthday when father put me on a horse. I've spent my life around stables and barns. Even a princess can't avoid reality around a stable."
I nodded again as she gave my ruby ring a speculative glance saying: "He isn't fucking 'her,' either."
At my start of surprise, Veronica laughed, continuing, "Logan finds the ladies of nobility, tedious and annoying. This of course makes him endlessly fascinating to many, but not Nadia or I. We know Logan finds his pleasures in the low dives along the docks. It is the danger I think...."
Veronica's blue eyes settled on me as she studied me in silence. The blue became glacial as the silence built around us. There was no smile, just her neutral expression and penetrating gaze as she asked flatly, "Your companion, Brock, she was part of the highwaymen who preyed on this road? The very ones intent on attacking my party?"
I nodded as I said, "Yes, your grace."
"She should be in chains, hunter, and on her way to The Raising. Yet clearly you wish her spared. She is lovely, but somehow I don't believe sex is the key to it. Tell me, Hunter Brock. Tell me why I must spare a woman who would have killed me."
If the eyes are the windows of the soul, Princess Veronica had the shades down, drapes drawn and shutters closed. I was getting nothing from hers. Softly I said, "I gave my word, your grace."
"Even knowing you could not keep it, Hunter?" she asked, in that same cool cadence with no expression.
I nodded as I agreed. "Yes, your Grace, knowing that I did not speak for anyone but myself, but knowing even more that I wish Donna to live. She told me much..."
One eyebrow came up just fractionally as she interrupted, "But they are dead."
I shook my head, saying, "No, not all. There is 'something'. Far more than robbers, Princess, and I want Donna, who has some knowledge of this 'something,' to accompany you on the rest of your journey."
Into her palpably quizzical silence I forged on, "It is not highwaymen or isolated thievery, your grace. Some agency is making widespread disorder. I do not know who is responsible or the purpose of this chaos, not yet. I have 'not yet' the full knowledge that I need. This unknown something is a danger to the kingdoms, and especially to you."
I took a deep breath, saying forcefully, "I am convinced, your grace. Nadia, you Veronica, and Donna hold keys to my unlocking this treacherous mystery."
I realized my subconscious mind had supplied those words. In sudden clarity as I spoke them I understood their truth. In the shared silence that followed I stared into those hypnotic blue eyes.
Sudden gonging as Hjordis pounded an iron plowshare announcing supper caused us to start in surprise. Veronica smiled as she offered, "Very persuasive, Hunter. Do you always thus convince your prey that they must willingly step into your enticing traps so that that you may capture them?"
Before I could respond, she laughed softly, saying, "Never mind, let us eat, drink and talk. I will feely tell you about my trip with Hjordis. I expect the same candor from you concerning this 'something' of yours."
She glanced over to the cook fires as she said softly, "I find myself persuaded to let your comely seafarer live. I am open to being fully converted."
With that, Princess Veronica turned, leading her horse to the stables and leaving me musing at the corral fence.
I walked over the windmill with its pump jack to wash before my meal. I rinsed the worst of the mud off in the stock tank, then washed up in the tin basin next to it. After drying my hands on the filthy towel, I glanced around. Seeing everyone focused on the upcoming meal, I pulled an antiseptic wipe out of an inner pocket and cleansed my hands.
A soft, over-germicided modern, I had little of the bacterial resistance of these soldiers. I'd better stay clean until my body became acclimated to this dirtier life. The used wipe and torn wrapper went back in my pocket, to be disposed where it would not cause comment.
Donna was placing the carved meat and the last items of food on the long plank table. Unruly soldiers were impatiently waiting to be fed. Hjordis stood at the end of the table, first in line, ostentatiously cleaning her nails with her dagger while ignoring the anxious soldiers who, for their part, were extremely careful not to jostle her.
A beefy very bald soldier in a leather jerkin was forming the troops in a column, by the simple expedient of profuse obscenity while shoving them roughly into single file with the haft of his bearded war axe. He had muscles, scars, and tattoos in equal measure, with a truly breathtaking command of profanity.
As this was going on, Jeremy gave himself a boost in my estimation. He tasked those first in line to fetch food and drink for sentries before their own meal. They complained loudly about the 'injustice' of his orders despite the fact they were first in line mostly due to shirking their duties. Jeremy listened as the malingerers' complaints built to a whiny crescendo. He finally told them to take it up with 'Blade' and the voices quieted considerably, amid sidelong glances at the bulky, hairless axe wielder.
I was watching the byplay just as the stable door opened. Princess Veronica stepped out, holding the door for her stable hands. She waved them toward the food line before she moved with a purposeful stride to the washing area.
Jeremy saw her, turned and began yelling loudly. A trooper with a towel over his shoulder carrying a silver basin of water headed for the princess at a run, accelerating as Blade bellowed curses at his back. By the time he skidded to a stop in front of the princess, he was very wet with basin empty. Princess Veronica smilingly thanked him for the clean towel as she washed up in the same water as everyone else.
Veronica completed her wash-up. Blade moved quickly to her side, and his meaty paw engulfed her daintier appendage. Blade escorted his princess across that yard to those rude plank tables as if they were crossing a palace ballroom headed for a banquet hall.
As Veronica was on her way to take her place at the head of the line, she paused to gesture at me to join her. I demurred, and immediately her hand seized my shoulder in a surprisingly strong grip. Before I could protest Veronica was pulling me into line next to her.
I was sitting on a blanket, leaning against the farmhouse, my Katana and crossbow beside me, with my plate on my lap and a mug of ale next to me. My delightful companions on the picnic blanket were princess, assassin and sailor. We were surrounded the yard, covered with random groupings of soldiers also sitting on the grass, eating and drinking their fill. Blade was sitting with back against the same wall, only scant feet away, his axe hard by as he watchfully ate his own meal near at hand to his charge.
As Donna refilled our mugs, Jeremy toured the yard informing the troops that anyone found drunk would be flogged by Blade. His announcement that the flogging would carry on "until Blade's arm tired," accompanied by Blade's canine growl, noticeably slowed traffic to that big keg.
Princess Veronica or as she quickly exclaimed, "call me Ronnie" told us of her diplomatic mission to Port City and King Ethan, saying, "Nadia was to carry half the documents and I the other. We were to travel in one column. Unaccountably, before I could go, disagreement and nit-picking redrafting of minor words delayed me. Nadia had to press on to meet the king and his generals, leaving me to travel as you see."
With that Ronnie gestured at the party scattered on the grass.
I nodded as I asked, "What were the documents?"
Ronnie smiled as she answered, "Hers was military, mine trade."
Grinning into my puzzled expression, she continued, "Nadia delivered the mutual defense treaty. She and the Baron were meeting with their top military leaders. The Black Baron's Guard was conducting a military survey of the roads, bridges, and terrain."
Taking a sip of her wine Ronnie continued, "I carried a bold plan to break the river blockade of Passage and its Sun King."
Ronnie smiled into our dumbfounded expressions as Donna and Hjordis gasped loudly in astonishment. Hjordis said, "I had no idea."
Ronnie nodded soberly as she replied, "No one did, or more to the present point, no one was believed to. My undertaking was among the deepest and darkest of secrets of our realm."
Ronnie gave me a hard eyed glance before continuing, "Yet, somehow, a hunter came to be standing in the road waiting for me."
Donna asked quietly, "I'm curious, your grace. How were you planning to get through that chain blocking the mouth of the river at Passage?"
Ronnie grinned, saying, "Ronnie, please, and that's an order. We will bypass the river and avoid confronting this Sun King, at least to start. We took our lessons from the caravan masters who cross the vast deserts and steppes to trade from the spice lands."
We must have looked puzzled as Ronnie continued more slowly, "The desert caravans use huge, six-wheeled freight wagons. On the steppes, wagons are paired in tandem, one behind the other, with each such pair pulled by a team with 20 or more brace of oxen or mules. A caravan might consist of one hundred or more of these wagons and teams."
We were all nodding slowly as she continued, "I have a proposal from Oswald, King Oswald ..." She dimpled prettily as she realized we all knew who this particular 'Oswald' was, and continued, "...And the Merchants' Guild of King Holm. We would start with a dozen of the tandem pairs of wagons, loading them on the Port City docks, traveling through the big forest to River Town then on to Castle Town and King Holm. I am to meet with the Sea Farers' Guild to discuss the proposal."
Donna suddenly looked very pensive and went quiet. I reached over to lightly touch her shoulder, saying softly, "Is there something wrong with the princess's plan, Donna?"
She shook her head briskly as she replied, "I'm sure it's not my place to question, Brock sir."
Ronnie's eyes narrowed as she silently watching this byplay. I turned to Ronnie asking, "Are you familiar with Port City?"
Ronnie grinned as she shook her head. "I've never been to Port City or Coast castle for even the shortest visit. My only acquaintance in the kingdom is Princess Jessica. We've ridden together when her father, King Ethan was in King Holm for a state visit." Ronnie's hand came up as she continued, "And to forestall your next question. No, I don't know why I was selected for this task. I doubt it was common knowledge that Jessica and I even met. I'd like to think it was my knowledge of horseflesh but..."
Shaking her head ruefully Ronnie trailed off into silence. As Ronnie was speaking I watched Donna who was fidgeting and nervous as Ronnie's story unfolded.
Finally I pointed at Donna saying sternly, "Donna, you must talk to the Princess. She needs your help. YOU are the only one who has stood on those docks and know the players in this drama."
Ronnie followed my with her entreaty, saying, "Yes, please, Donna I do need your help and won't be angry about a criticism. Promise!"
Finally, with a tentative smile, Donna said, "This is the second time today that Brock, sir, asked my opinion."
Looking directly at the Princess, Donna said firmly, "If you go ahead, meeting with only the Seafarers Guild, your plan is stillborn."
Ronnie gasped, as Donna forged ahead. "They are one guild of several, and not even the most important for your purposes. The Navigators Guild, The Masters, Pilots and Captains Guild, The Shippers Guild, The Dockage, Drayage and Warehousemen's Guild all would desire a separate meeting or be affronted."
I laughed as I said, "You made that last one up."
Donna grinned. "No, Brock, sir. They control every inch of those docks, the warehouses and not incidentally whatever moves on or off the docks."
Hjordis had a serious look on her face as she asked, "Is that all of the guilds?"
Donna said, "You'd also have to think about the Merchants Guild or Guilds. Not sure how they're organized. Oh, and the Teamsters Guild provided teams of horses and drivers for pulling our galley along the river towpath."
Ronnie looked stunned as she gamely asked, "Tell me the most important guild Donna?"
Donna smiled as she answered, "Not really sure, ummm, Ronnie. The Navigators Guild is especially powerful because of their unique knowledge plus alliance with the astrologers. That ties them to a whole host of workers in the magical realms."
I interrupted to ask, "Alliance with astrologers?"
Donna grinned, "They both use the astrolabe, Brock sir."
Then Donna looked more sober as she continued, "But, there is it seems to me a glaring omission. The Shippers Guild is made up of the captains and crews who voyage the inland sea, as I did on Sandra Dear. There is also, within this guild, a separate council for the bargemen who travel the rivers. Your plan seems to completely put ALL of them out of business in a way even the big chain didn't. Yet you are not going to meet with them."
Veronica looked peeved as she glared at Hjordis, saying slowly, ominously, "Yes, Hjordis. I was instructed by my father's most trusted advisor Morley exactly - what to do - where to go - who to meet."
Veronica took a deep breath. " I must not deviate from this masterful plan, silly goose that I am. This being the same fucking Morley, of course, who had such trouble with writing, then rewriting, my documents, causing us to be grievously delayed, so we could not travel with the Black Baron's Guards."
Ronnie was building quite a head of steam as she continued, "Luckily this traitorous bastard Morley provided - THESE - his own 'hand picked' guards for my protection."
Ronnie's head snapped around, as she looked me square in the eye. "Goddamn him to hell, and you, my hunter, are going to send him on his journey."
In the silence that followed that declaration Veronica's unseeing eyes were wild and glaring as Donna threw her arms around the furious princess. It seemed a good time to absent myself from the vicinity.
I caught up my Katana as I stepped away from the blanket. Hjordis lithely rose joining me as I walked around the yard now dotted with campfires and tents. I stopped at the cook fire pouring two steaming mugs of strong tea for us to carry.
Hjordis nodded her thanks as she sipped, then asked, "Where are the dead highwaymen?"
I pointed across the road and she made a 'lead on' gesture. As we crossed the muddy lane, entering the twilight grove, Hjordis reached down to manipulate the buckle of her sword belt revealing a light crystal. The bright light revealed the row of bodies to her expert inspection.
Kneeling next to each body as she examined the wounds, Hjordis asked the circumstances of my last encounter with the dead man. I was unsparing in my mortification for killing them without gaining anything useful in the way of knowledge of the conspiracy.
Hjordis looked up at me perceptively as she said, "One against many. By the end, you were berserker."
She stood up, looking into my eyes. "Remember, hunter, far better you live to have such regrets, than die in the mud and have the Princess die soon after you."
I nodded in understanding as she completed her scrutiny. Hjordis stood finally and looked over at me, as she asked, "And the stolen money, hunter?"
I was surprised by her bald question, but I answered evenly. "Hidden under the barn."
She nodded as she inquired, "Did you take a share as your reward?"
I decided to be straightforward, saying simply, "Yes, I did."
Hjordis grinned as she replied, "Good. Oswald can be such a pig when confronted by gold. Often forgetting to reward those who brought him riches."
With those words, Hjordis picked up her mug, closed her buckle and led me back to the farmyard and princess.
We stopped at the cook fire, refilled our mugs with more tea, and grabbed two more mugs of tea for Ronnie and Donna. When we arrived back at the blanket, we found Ronnie calm.
Well, not exactly C-A-L-M.
Ronnie still wanted to reach down Morley's throat and rip out his heart. Just composed to the point that no one in the immediate area was in jeopardy.
Ronnie saw us and smilingly said, "I think it's safe to approach."
Hjordis handed her a mug of tea as she asked, "Are you quite sure, my princess?"
She glanced, smirking, over at Donna as she continued, "I can have the hunter show me more of the sights."
I groaned as I contemplated three pairs of eyes regarding me with various levels of amusement. It was time to move this on to a safer, or at least different topic. As I seated myself, I looked over and said, "Donna, tell the princess about the Thistles and Tor's gang."
Donna looked startled, but Ronnie looked sympathetic as Hjordis, gestured urging her on. Donna started her story on the docks where Tor found her, ending with my grabbing her in the barn.
As Donna ended her narrative Hjordis turned to the princess saying hotly, "These traitors, Devlin and the spice seller, must be turned over the royal executioner to be tortured until they tell ALL!"
Ronnie looked at her very seriously, saying quietly, "Torturing them would be a pleasure, Hjordis but do not become confused, their pain does not necessarily add to our knowledge of the treachery. They or anyone else being tormented would tell us any fanciful tale to gain the surcease of death."
She patted Hjordis as she went on, "You yourself would admit being a member of this gang, and accuse your family of being its leaders, after a session in Father's dungeon."
Looking over at me, Ronnie continued, "Far better our hunter follows the traitors we have identified, to find more vipers yet hidden."
I nodded as I replied, "I am more than a little surprised, Ronnie. They have not done a proper job of keeping the conspirators hidden from one another. Too many people know far too much of the members and workings of these Thistles."
Donna then told the princess that I'd seen 'Lord Chasseur' and that I'd said his name meant "one who rides a horse" and perhaps that was a clue. Ronnie looked over at me smiling as she exclaimed, "But it doesn't mean that at all, Brock!"
Ignoring our flabbergasted looks Ronnie continued, "The word for horseman is "Chevalier" while "Chasseur" is a hunter."
She looked over at Hjordis asking, "Whom do we know, in King Holm perhaps, who is arrogant enough to style himself 'hunter'?"
Hjordis blurted, "Burke and Blunt!"
Ronnie's visage took on an appraising expression as she sat quietly staring into the fire.
Donna and I probably appeared just as confused as we felt, looking from Ronnie to Hjordis and back again.
Hjordis saw our puzzled looks and took pity on us saying, "Burke and Carlyle are two exceedingly handsome and especially inseparable men in the court of King Oswald. Carlyle is the rudest and most sarcastic man in King Holm, hence his nickname of 'Blunt'. Burke, the most pampered of fops, thinks he and his partner are hunters."
Looking over at me, Hjordis snorted. "Though not in any way a real hunter might recognize."
Ronnie took up the story, saying, "They fancy themselves hunters and wished to stage a hunt. First, they had their servants build a blind in the middle of a hay field. Then slaves, supervised by actual hunters, drove animals out of the woods onto the field, within the range of the pair's crossbows."
She took a sip of her tea then continued, "With servants handing the pair loaded crossbows continually, they slaughtered many animals. Since they shot anything and everything that showed itself, they also killed three slaves on the drive before the real hunters could call a halt."
Ronnie went on, "The genuine hunters, and many in court were mortified to discover that Burke and Blunt planned to display the dead slaves as trophies along with the horns and hides of the various animals they killed. The bodies hung framing the fireplace during the wild game feast celebrating the success of their slaughter."
Ronnie then looked over at Hjordis, saying in a silky soft, very dangerous voice, "Burke and Carlyle are Morley's closest confidantes in court."
We sat, sipping tea, each of us wrapped in our own thoughts.
Thistles' leadership seemed to lack any discernable tradecraft with no compartmenting of conspiracy members into cells, and even a leader who apparently chooses a code name that points right to him!
I had to keep in mind there was at least a possibility that antipathy Burke and Carlyle had accumulated by their disagreeable personalities, and unpleasant dealings was causing the Princess to focus her suspicions on them. I searched my recollections of the Chasseur horseman but nothing helped me to identify the rider.
Princess Veronica suddenly turned to me, saying briskly, "Tell me, hunter, do you have an alternate plan to get me safely through the big forest and continue to Port City? I presume my guard as presently constituted is not to your satisfaction."
I laughed as I replied, "No, your grace, your current travel situation is not to my liking and Yes, your grace, I have formulated a bold and radical plan that has a chance of success even as you are unlikely to agree to it."
To be continued