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Escort Duty – Part 9

Soren lifted his hand to halt the little group as they came to a flat spot with a spring bubbling out of some rocks. Two days of hard riding had put them deeper into the mountains and across the border with Pesht. The mid-day sun was warm as Greta and Hollo laid out bread and cheese, while Simon filled their water skins from the spring.

“How much further until we come to another village?” Erika asked as she sat down to eat.

Hollo gestured to the valley below them. It was a patchwork of fields and pastures, with buildings sprinkled sparingly across it.  Several silver ribbons of water ran down from the hills, joining in the middle of the valley into a wider river, which flowed out between two low peaks.  Directly across from them, nestled up against the hills, was a village.  As far away as they were, their eyes could only make it out as a blob of darker color against the green and gold of the valley floor.

“There are a few settlements and freeholds down there, my lady, and the village, but we’ll need to avoid all of them,” he answered.

“I’d kill for a night in a warm bed.”

“I’m sure you would, princess,” Simon said, returning from the spring, “But with villages come the eyes and ears of your enemies. We’re too close to the capitol for there to not be garrisons, and it’s best we don’t chance it.”

Erika sighed as she nibbled on a slice of cheese. Greta sat next to her, eating the last of the dense bread Branka had packed for them. The men soaked  hunks of way bread in water, then slurped down the resulting mash.

“We’ll need to do some hunting if there’s to be much to eat tonight,” Soren said.

Hollo nodded. “I’ll see what I can do,” he replied, “Maybe I’ll get lucky and get a wild goat or a deer.”

Erika made a face, but said nothing as she took the cup of cold water Greta offered to her.

Simon pointed to a draw on the other side of the wide valley, saying, “We’ll try to make it there to camp by nightfall. It’s far enough from the village and those farms for our purposes. We’ll be able to have a fire after dark without the farmers down there seeing it. We just have to follow this track through the hills to the other side.”

“I’ll meet you there an hour or so after sundown,” Hollo said, lifting himself up and walking to his pony.

“Why didn’t you get something better at the tavern?” Erika asked curiously, “You always look like you’re about to catch your foot on that nag.”

“Oh, she’s a good girl, and as surefooted as I’ve ever seen, highness,” Hollo said. The black amulet hanging from his neck caught the sunshine as he turned and mounted the little horse. The others watched him ride back into the pines before they turned back to their meal.


Simon guided his charges around the perimeter of the valley that afternoon, being careful to not let them be seen from the fields and homesteads on its floor. As they went, he talked with them in low tones.

“I asked about the plague while we were at the tavern. It hasn’t hit this far out, at least, not yet, but closer to the capitol, it’s killing hundreds,” he said, “That’s another reason to keep clear of the people.”

The ladies nodded at that. The little group quietly made their way around to the southern tip of the valley, then started back up the other side toward the notch in the ridgeline Simon had pointed out to Hollo.

The sun was almost halfway toward the horizon when Simon stiffened in his saddle and put up his hand to call a halt.

Soren put his hand to his sword’s hilt and whispered, “What is it?”

“Thought I heard something, like a foot slipping on the ground.”

All four of them sat silent for a moment, straining their ears and looking around for anything amiss. Simon nodded to Soren and pulled Gnarlthing from its scabbard. Soren copied his movements. Seeing the two men draw their weapons, Erika pulled her short sword from the scabbard on her saddle.

“My lady, please, only use that in the direst of emergencies,” Simon whispered without taking his eyes from the woods.

“I can handle myself in a fight,” Erika replied curtly.

Simon did not answer, but nudged his horse forward. Soren waited for the ladies to follow, then took up the rear. The mule, burdened with gear, plodded along behind him.

The forest sounds continued as always, with birds twittering their spring calls and the breeze causing the trees to groan as their limbs moved. The sound of their horses’ hooves echoed dully along the rude track they followed.

All four riders kept looking about as they rode. Soren turned his head to try to release a bit of tension, and his neck cracked like someone snapping a branch across his thigh. Simon looked back sharply at the noise, but turned forward again when Soren shrugged in apology.

They came to an outcropping of stone, its weathered layers variegated between deep gray and soft green as it jutted out from the side of the hill. The path narrowed as it took a sharp turn around it, blocking their view. The trees to the side of it seemed to close in on him as Simon rode around the rock. The two women followed, Greta first, then Erika, their eyes large as they looked to either side of the path. Soren looked behind them as he went, trying to watch both the path and the rock above.

The path opened back up when the rock was behind them, but remained too narrow to ride two abreast. Simon turned in his saddle to watch his charges emerge from behind the rock, then smiled and waved as Soren came into view.

“I was worried there. Perfect place for an ambush,” he called out. Both men returned their swords to their scabbards. Erika followed their example a heartbeat later.

“I still don’t like this,” Soren replied, looking around, “We should have risked the valley floor.”

Simon started to reply, but instead drew his sword as a figure rose from the top of the outcropping and lifted a staff to the heavens. A loose stone rose up and flew at Soren faster than the eye can see. The soldier crumpled as it hit the back of his head, falling to the ground next to his horse. Simon’s shout of warning was drowned out when more attackers emerged shouting from the woods.

Greta screamed as a man grabbed at the reins of her horse, while Princess Erika snatched at the hilt of her sword. Two men rushed at her, one of them appearing from a puff of smoke at the side of the trail. That one, the man who had stood on top of the rock, swung his gnarled staff at the princess’ body. It caught her in the middle just as she pulled her blade free, knocking the wind from her and toppling her from her mount.

Simon shouted as he rode at the attackers. Gnarlthing sung in the air as he brought it down, connecting with the man trying to unhorse Greta. The brigand, bearded and dressed in rough clothes, screamed as the blade bit deep into his shoulder. He released the horse and slumped to the ground, pawing at the gaping wound with his uninjured hand.

Simon brought Gnarlthing back up to swing at the man standing over Erika’s crumpled form, an axe in his hand, but fell backwards from his horse when the attacker with the staff shouted something unintelligible and struck at him. The half-elf struck the ground hard, but rolled away from the staff as came down with a whistle. The ground where it hit charred and smoldered as its bearer lifted it to lash out at Simon again.

Greta, sprayed with her attacker’s blood and seeing Simon unhorsed, screamed again. The maid kicked her mare in the side, and galloped down the trail, leaving the fight behind her.

Erika gasped at the pain in her gut as she desperately tried to take a deep breath. She saw a shadow fall next to her and rolled over. Her attacker, his face twisted with anger and teeth bared, loomed over her, an axe in his hand. Erika brought her short sword up, striking at the axe. Metal rang as she smacked it aside, then the princess thrust her blade into the man’s chest just where her fencing instructor would have pinned a target for a blunted sword.

The raider screamed as he felt the point of Erika’s sword slip into him, then again as she withdrew it, its wickedly sharp blade grating against his bones and cutting a line down the front of his torso. His blood flowed strongly through the wound, and he fell to the earth with a groan. Erika struggled to her feet, her breath coming in short gasps against the spasms in her diaphragm.

The wizard faced Simon, sparks and smoke spewing from the iron-shod ends of his staff. He was gaunt, his face and head hairless. His eyes blazed as he muttered a curse, and the air around him snapped with energy.

The half-elf swung Gnarlthing at the man’s throat, but in a blur, the staff parried the blow. The wizard brought his weapon back around almost as fast as Simon could see, and the half-elf barely ducked in time as it sizzled over his head.

Simon leaped forward as his attacker brought his weapon around again, this time swinging down as if to pound Simon into the dirt. He brought Gnarlthing down as his legs drove him close to his attacker, the metal slicing into the middle of the man’s staff. The wood between the wizard’s hands cracked at the impact, and the staff bent inward toward its bearer. The sparks on either end of the staff ceased as the wood parted under Simon’s blade. The wizard dropped it and sprang backward, narrowly escaping Simon’s blade as he brought it back up.

Erika watched this with owlish eyes, not sure if she should interfere in another’s fight. She caught movement from the corner of her eye, and brought her blade up by instinct. The forest rang with the impact of steel on steel.

She turned to face her attacker, finding a squat man in brown leather breeches and jerkin, his head balding. In his hand, he carried a long, curved dagger, its nicked and notched edge shining in the sunlight filtering down through the trees.

The princess drew herself up to the fighting stance she had been taught, and by habit, drew her blade up to her forehead in salute to her opponent. The man looked at her quizzically, then swung at her with his dagger.

Erika easily parried the attack, then followed up with a slash at his face. Her opponent dodged the stroke, then circled to his left. His knife hand flicked out a few times, feinting to see what Erika would do. The princess followed his movement, turning so that he remained to her front. At each feint, she moved as if to block the expected blow.

The wizard bellowed as he raised his hands, and Simon felt something fly past his ear as he whirled to his right. The half-elf completed the revolution, bringing Gnarlthing around in a wide arc. The wizard jumped back, and a smile came to his face as the blade continued past him.

Simon brought his sword back and put his free hand on the hilt. He looked to the wizard and smiled. The man looked puzzled for a moment, then his eyes blazed as he brought his hands to his neck. A long, thin, stream of blood seeped through his fingers as the wound Simon had sliced through the front of his neck opened.

“Good luck chanting spells with that,” Simon wheezed as the wizard fell to his knees, his breath and a scream of rage and pain bubbling out between his fingers.

Erika’s foe feinted once again, and she turned her sword to block the blow. Instead of the thrust she had expected, though, the man lashed out with his free hand, catching her on the cheek with a closed fist. Erika cried out as her head snapped back in shock and pain. The man followed up with a slash of his blade, cutting across the back of the hand Erika brought up to touch her face. She screamed as the knife burned a jagged gash through her skin.

The man’s smile widened as he moved in with a whoop of triumph. The princess brought her short sword up, but he batted it away with his dagger. Her sword rang like a bell as it struck a tree several feet away. Erika screamed again, her eyes fixed on the blood smeared on the dagger’s blade.

The man stopped half a step from the princess, his smile replaced with a look of shock, then he fell forward. Gnarlthing protruded from his back, its point stuck between his shoulder blades. Simon put his foot on the man’s shoulder, gave his sword a twist, and pulled it free. The brigand gave out a sharp cry, then convulsed. After a moment, he stilled.

Behind Simon, the wizard fell onto his back with a long, gobbling cry. Erika stared at him in shock. Simon looked from the princess to the fallen man, then shrugged. He walked over to the wizard, who was writhing in the dust of the forest path. Simon placed the tip of his sword on the man’s breastbone.

“Be still, man, and I’ll stop your suffering!” he shouted.

The wizard’s wild eyes focused on the tall half-elf towering over him, and he stopped his twisting and heaving in the dust. Simon nodded and brought the heel of his free hand down hard against Gnarlthing’s pommel, driving the blade deep into the wizard’s chest. The man’s eyes bulged at the pain, then dulled as life passed from him. Simon wrenched his blade from his carcass

Simon turned toward the man Erika had killed. He lay face down on dirt soaked crimson with his blood. Simon regarded him for a moment, then wiped Gnarlthing’s blade on the wizard’s cloak and put it back in his scabbard.

The princess was shaky as she walked to Simon. Mindful that she was no longer armed, she pulled a small knife from the sheath she kept on her belt. She looked over at the brigand she had stabbed and shuddered.

“I…. I killed him,” she stammered.

“Better him than you, my lady,” Simon answered. He used the toe of his boot to turn the man’s body over onto its back. There was a place on his tunic where the cloth was darker than the rest.

“He’s in the service of someone who doesn’t wish to be known,” Simon said, “Cheap bastard took the badge from his shirt rather than buy a new one.”

A wave of nausea washed over Erika as she surveyed the carnage around her. She put her hand on Simon’s shoulder to steady herself while the world tilted around her. It was only after the feeling passed that she remembered Soren and rushed to his side.

The soldier lay on his back, the moss-covered ground under his head stained with blood. He was breathing, but one eye was half-closed and unfocused, while the lid on the other was completely shut. As Erika took his hand, she felt him tremble spasmodically at her touch.

“Soren!” she cried. The soldier made no response to the sound of her voice.

Simon walked over and lifted Soren’s closed eyelid. Gently, he probed at the soldier’s skull, and his hand was stained crimson when he brought it back. He cursed under his breath as he wiped it off on the moss.

“The back of his head’s dished in,” he said, “There’s not much beyond prayer that I can do here.”

“What about a healer?” Erika said, “Could that help?”

“Maybe, but we won’t find one of those here.”

“There might be one in that village down there.”

Simon nodded at that. “We’d risk being discovered,” he said, “but it’s either that or slit his throat to spare him the suffering.”

Erika put her wounded hand to her mouth in shock. “You won’t kill him!” she cried out.

The wounded attacker, who still held his hand firmly over the wound to his shoulder, screamed at them, “I know a healer! Take me to her and she can take care of both of us!”

Simon’s smile was cruel as he stepped over to the man.

“And what makes you think I won’t just make you tell me about her and leave you here for the wolves?” he hissed.

“Your princess won’t let you….” the man said, then cut off when the blade of Simon’s dagger rested against his throat.

“Why do you think she’s a princess?” Simon asked, his voice suddenly gentle.

“Lamlok told us we were going to capture a princess,” the man cried out.

“And who is Lamlok?”

“The wizard!” he said, gesturing to the man Simon had killed, “He’s from Count Herceg’s court. He hired us to capture her and bring her to Pesht.”

Simon nodded at this, then said, “And how does Count Herceg know about all this?” He increased the pressure of the blade against the man’s skin.

“I don’t know!” the man squealed, feeling his skin part before the razor-sharp edge, “We were just supposed to snatch her and bring her back to him!”

“And where is this healer?”

“Lamlok said that there’s one down in Taszar! An old woman!”

“Well, then, I guess I don’t need you anymore, now do I?”

The man’s eyes widened at that, and he scooted back, trying to get away from Simon’s blade. He crawled under the branches of a bush, heavy with spring blossoms, then collapsed once the danger from Simon’s dagger was gone.

Simon looked at the man for a moment, a hard look on his face. He put his blade away without taking his eyes off of the brigand at his feet, only turning his head when he heard the pounding of hooves on the trail.

Greta and Hollo shared her saddle as he brought her horse back to the group. Tears flowed down the maid’s face, then a cry of joy escaped her throat when she saw her mistress. As soon as Hollo reined the horse to a halt, she slipped to the ground and ran to the princess, wrapping her arms around her and crying.

“Oh, my lady, I’m sorry!” she sobbed, dropping to her knees, “I was so frightened!”

Erika, who still knelt next to Soren, put her arm around her maid and hugged her close.

“It’s all right, Greta, it’s all right,” she said soothingly, “There’s no shame in it.”

Greta continued to shudder and weep as she released her mistress and looked down at the man next to her.

“The captain, is he…?”

“Not yet, but he soon will be if we don’t get him to a healer.”

Hollo looked about as he dismounted. “Bit of excitement?” he asked.

“You could say that. Someone in Pesht knew we were coming and sent these lads to fetch us,” Simon answered.

“I saw the maid riding through the woods like her hair was on fire, so I stopped her and came to help.”

“Where’s your pony?”

Hollo motioned toward the hills to the south. “I left her tied up over there somewhere. Once we get this straightened out, I’ll go get her.”

He looked over at Soren and lifted his eyebrows questioningly. Simon said nothing, but gave a small, slow shake of his head. Hollo touched the hilt of his dagger, but Simon raised a hand.

“That road apple over there says there’s a healer in Taszar. The princess’ll be wanting to take him there.

“That’s the big village with the mill to the northwest of here. I checked it out after I left you this morning, but didn’t see anyone in the fields.”

“We’ll have to be careful, but she insists.”

Hollo jerked his head toward the wounded attacker, who had slithered further from the trail and was trying to crawl into a thicket of thorn bushes.

“What’s to do about him?”

Simon glanced over at the women, then said quietly, “Once he’s out of sight, take care of him.”

Other episodes can be found here.  The entire anthology can be purchased at Amazon.

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