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Escort Duty – Part 5

With that, they repacked their things and continued their ride through the forest. Hollo left the glade for a few minutes and returned riding a shaggy pony with a long tail. The tall man’s long legs almost bounced along the path as he rode it, but the pony bore his weight, as well as two large saddlebags.

Hollo and Simon rode a few yards in front of Erika and Greta, while Soren and the mule took up the rear. Once Erika began to talk with her maid, Simon looked over to Hollo and smiled.

“Was that the best you could steal?” he asked as he took one of the saddlebags from Hollo.

“Didn’t have much time to be choosy. It took almost an hour to get your things out of the wagon without being seen, and I had to leave before dawn to get ahead of you.”

“We’ll get you something more comfortable when we can.”

“It’s not so bad, and besides, I won’t be riding him all the time.”

Simon snorted at that.

“We’ll get to the tavern tomorrow, won’t we?”

“It’s too far to try to get there by sunset, not at this pace. We’re going to have to speed up a bit if we want to get through without being hunted down.”

“Give it time. They’ll get impatient and want to get moving once the surroundings aren’t so pleasant,” the half-elf said as the trail narrowed again.

~~~

The rest of the afternoon was spent winding their way through the woods. Just as the afternoon became warm and the forest started to feel close and sticky, the trail pitched upward into a series of hills, and the trees quickly thinned. A breeze, cooled by the snow which capped the mountains beyond the hills, rolled down from the heights, making their going easier in the bright sunlight.

When they reached a small valley between two hills, with a shallow stream only a few feet across running down its middle, Simon raised his hand and reined his horse to a halt.

“We shall make camp here, my lady,” he said, “There’s fresh water and forage for the horses, and the hills will shelter us from the wind while we sleep.”

Erika alighted from her saddle and was soon joined by Greta. Soren took their mounts and removed their saddles and blankets while the ladies settled in the grass.

After dismounting, Simon and Hollo exchanged a look. Hollo nodded and walked up one of the nearby hills. Erika watched him as he went, then turned to Simon.

“Where is your friend going?” she asked.

“He is keeping watch for us, my lady,” Simon answered, “These hills are the border between Ocre and Pesht.” He reached down and picked up a couple of stones, their edges rounded by their tumble through the water. He began to bounce them in his hand.

“So we’ve made good progress today, wonderful,” she answered.

Simon nodded absently as he looked at the heather growing on the side of the hill. “We’ll do better once we fall into a good rhythm, my lady, but yes, this was a good start.”

Suddenly, his arm flashed out, launching both stones into the heather and bracken. Squeals broke the quiet, then Simon walked quickly up the hillside and pulled a pair of furry creatures the size of large rabbits from the undergrowth. He quickly dispatched them and walked back to the campsite holding them by their long, bushy tails.

Erika looked at him in horror, her eyes wide and a hand to her mouth.

“What did you do that for?” she demanded once she found her voice.

“We need to conserve our supplies, my lady,” Simon replied, taking out a dagger and cutting into one of the animals. “This will make for a good dinner.”

“What are they?”

“Ground squonk. Well-fed ones, at that.”

“We are not going to eat that,” Erika said forcefully.

“My lady, have you never eaten rabbit? It’s very similar.”

“Of course, but they were always good, clean animals from a cage. Those filthy things are….”

“Delicious and already dead, my lady,” Simon said, finishing his work, “Let me get a fire started and they’ll roast up nicely. They’ll be good with the rest of that soft bread we had at midday.”

“I said we shall not be eating them.”

“Well, then, my lady, you will be famished by the time we stop to have a hot meal again,” Simon said, spitting the carcasses on a stick and leaning them against one of the bundles from the mule. He reached into one of Hollo’s saddlebags and took out a small wooden box. Opening it, he pinched out some salt and began to sprinkle it liberally on the squonks.

Erika glared at him for a moment, then turned her back to Simon. Soren saw her movement and walked over.

“What’s wrong?” he said, his hand on the pommel of his sword.

“This barbarian murdered two wild creatures and now expects me to eat them.”

“Raw?”

“No, I’ll cook them as soon as we get a fire going,” Simon replied, shaking his head, “Raw squonk is disgusting.”

“My lady, they do appear to be good, fat squonks.”

Erika swung around and glared at both of them. “I will not eat them!” she declared, her hands on her hips.

Simon shrugged and walked off to find wood for the fire. Soren opened his mouth, but had nothing more to say.

Erika turned to stalk off, but paused and looked around the campsite. Soren had unpacked bedrolls for himself and the two ladies, and Greta was laying them out.

“Where is my tent?” she demanded.

“Princess,” Soren answered, “we didn’t bring along tents. We must travel light if we are to move quickly and without being noticed.”

“Then where am I to sleep? Surely, you don’t mean for me to sleep on the ground.”

“My lady, I chose your blankets and pillow myself. They’re the best we had.”

Erika’s face reddened and she opened her mouth to shout. Greta flinched at what she knew was coming, and Soren, who stood two heads taller than the princess, looked as if he were a dog about to be kicked.

“Princess,” Simon said calmly as he walked back with an armload of sticks, “You’ll draw our enemies down upon us if you do that.”

Soren and Erika looked at the half-elf in shock. Simon acted as if he did not notice.

“The rebels fled into those mountains, and I’m sure there are a few here and there in these parts,” Simon said as he stacked the wood into a pyramid.

“Are we in danger?” Erika asked, glancing at Soren.

“I’m sure we’re safe, my lady,” he answered.

“That’s not what the map in Tor’s tent said. There were red X’s all over this place when I saw it,” Simon said, rolling a handful of dry grass and bracken into a ball. He took flint and steel from his belt pouch and began to strike sparks at the tinder.

“But there’s nothing to fear,” he concluded as one of the sparks caught in the grass He picked it up to blow on it gently. After a moment, the ball was burning brightly, and Simon placed it in the middle of the sticks. He carefully laid twigs on the flames, letting them catch before feeding in larger pieces of wood. Soon, the flames spread to the thicker sticks he had piled up.

Soren nodded. “So long as we keep a good watch, we will be fine,” he said.

“Yes, and it wouldn’t hurt to try to keep from being noticed, either,” Simon said, rising up from the now cheerily burning fire. He mumbled something under his breath, and the smoke from the fire dissipated before climbing out of the draw they lay in.

Erika said nothing. She looked from one man to the other, then turned without a word and walked primly over to her bedroll and sat down. Greta took a seat next to her. After a moment, the two women began to talk to each other in quiet tones.

Simon shrugged again and walked back down the hill to get more wood. Soren returned to caring for the horses.

Once the fire had burned down to a bed of coals, Simon pushed two stout sticks into the ground on either side of it and laid the stick with the two squonks on it between them. Soon the aroma of roasting meat wafted through the camp, and even Erika’s mouth watered at the scent.

Once the squonks were cooked all the way through, Simon removed them from the fire. Greta fetched the remaining bread, now a tad stale, and cut it into thick slices. Simon thanked her, and sliced thick pieces of meat from the carcasses, placing them on the bread.

“There’s enough for a good meal tonight with some of those apples,” he said, “and enough for a bit of meat in the morning.”

Greta took two helpings and brought them to her mistress. She offered one to Erika, who huffed at it.

“I’m not hungry,” she said, lifting her chin.

“My lady, you must eat,” her maid replied.

“I will satisfy myself with some fruit.”

“As you wish, my lady. May I eat?”

“Yes, if you can stomach it.”

Greta fetched a pair of apples from the bundle of food, cored them, and sliced them onto the last piece of bread. Erika accepted them with a small smile. Greta picked up her own meal and took a bite of the meat.

Erika watched the other three eat their meat and bread while she nibbled on her apples. After she had finished them and eaten half of her bread, she pointed to Soren.

“Get me something decent to eat,” she ordered, “This isn’t enough.”

“My lady, this is the last of the fresh bread, and there’s but a little cheese left. There is some way bread if you’d like me to soak it in wine for you,” he answered after swallowing the last of his dinner, “If you want meat, this is all we have.”

Erika glared at him for a moment, then snatched the slice of bread bearing her share of the squonks. She tore off a piece of meat and popped it into her mouth, then suppressed a gag at the flavor.

“That’s terrible!” she said, “It tastes awful!”

“My lady, not all meat is raised on sweet timothy and clean grain,” Greta said gently, “This just has more flavor than you’re used to.”

Erika made a face, but chewed the meat and swallowed it. Simon smiled at her, but said nothing. He looked up as he saw movement on the hill above them. It was Hollo coming into the camp, silhouetted by the last light of the setting sun. He raised his hand as he approached, sitting down next to the fire and taking the proffered food from Simon.

“See anything?” Soren asked.

“There’s someone keeping a cold camp in a gully about two leagues north of here,” Hollo replied, picking up a squonk leg, “I thought I saw smoke from a fire higher up in the mountains, but it might have been the wind blowing dust. Gods, but this fire feels good. That breeze was cold.”

“How many were in the camp?”

“Couldn’t tell. There were four horses, though. Nothing else this side of the mountains.”

“You could see all that from the top of the hill?” Soren asked.

Simon broke in, saying, “Hollo is the best scout I’ve ever worked with. He can figure things out from clues most of us wouldn’t notice.”

Hollo nodded at the compliment, but went back to eating. Soren looked from him to Simon and back, then threw up his hands and poked at the coals with a stick. Erika and Greta talked quietly as the sky darkened and the stars appeared.

Simon pointed to Soren and said, “Why don’t you take first watch? I’ll take second, and Hollo can finish the night?”

Soren nodded. “Makes sense. I’ll wake you after moonrise,” he replied.

Simon stood and walked to Hollo’s horse, removing two blankets from the saddlebags, before returning to the fire.

“My lady, he said as he laid them out, “If you wish, we can put your bedrolls nearer to the fire so that you will be warm through the night.”

“I am fine, master guide,” she replied haughtily, “I have no wish to sleep so close to men I do not know.”

“If you wish, I can sleep between you and the others, princess,” Soren said.

Erika considered her options for a moment, then nodded. “All right,” she replied, “but mind that there’s enough space between all of us.”

Greta and Simon dragged the blankets and pillows, which Soren had laid out for the women, next to the fire, then Simon lay down on his own blanket on the other side of the flames. Hollo was already wrapped up in his blanket and snoring softly. Without a word, Simon lay his head down and slept.

“An odd pair we have here,” the princess said quietly to Greta as she lay down.

“Yes, my lady,” Greta answered, closing her eyes. Erika took one last look around the fire, then lay her head down on the pillow.


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

Escort Duty – Part 4

The small group rode at a steady pace along the forest track. Simon led the way, while Soren brought up the rear. The two women looked about as they went, and occasionally spoke to each other or to Soren. Simon attempted to chat with his wards, but none of them made more than perfunctory answers to his questions or comments. Neither did they engage him in conversation as they moved deeper into the forest.

At mid-day, they stopped in a small clearing and ate the bread and cheese Greta prepared for them. Erika sat upon a cloth her maid had laid out for her, and looked around as she nibbled upon her bread, still fresh and soft.

“Isn’t this rustic?” she said to Soren, “Papa would be so proud to know I’m finally breaking away from camp and living rough for once.”

“Aye, my lady,” Soren replied, “But such conditions are only temporary.”

Simon studiously examined the hunk of cheese rind Greta had given him.

“Yes, this is pleasant, isn’t it?” he said with a smile in his voice.

“Did someone talk to you?” Soren growled.

“No, nobody talked to me, so I decided to talk to someone,” Simon said, taking a nibble of the cheese.

“Then hold your tongue,” Soren retorted.

“Soren, you and I need to come to some sort of accord,” Simon said, shaking his head, “You seem to have a dislike for me, but we have a job to do.”

“Half-elf, your job is to get us to Prince Jorgen’s lands. My job is to protect the princess from harm,” Soren replied, “including harm to her honor from smiling thieves.”

Simon nodded at that thoughtfully. Standing up in a smooth motion, he walked to the side of the little glen.

“All right, so you don’t trust me. But, I’ll give you three reasons why the princess is safe from me and why we can at least be cordial with each other,” he said.

“And what are those?”

“First, I gave my word to your lord and liege that I wouldn’t lay a finger on either of these beautiful ladies.”

“And your word is worth, what?”

“Oh, just about every drop of blood in my body. Or yours, as the case may be.”

Soren narrowed his eyes at that.

“And the second?”

“Second, we’re going to be going through some rough terrain and dangerous land. I can’t lead you down a dark trail if I have to worry about a knife in my back. The same goes for you.”

“You have nothing to fear from me unless you try to harm the princess.”

“Good, then I have nothing to fear. You have nothing to fear unless you try to harm me.”

Soren considered that for a moment, chewing on the inside of his cheek for a moment as he thought.

“Don’t ponder too hard, Soren. Your hair will catch afire,” Simon said with a smile.

Greta quietly snorted, but covered her face with her hand after her mistress looked at her sharply. Soren fumed for a moment, then heaved himself up and faced Simon.

“And what’s your third reason?”

“Tor Dveglammar will skin me and dance around a fire wearing only my hide if something were to happen to you or the ladies because of me.”

“So you’re afraid?”

“Of him, yes. Of you? Not really,” Simon said with a grin.

“I suppose you think you could beat me in a fair fight?”

Simon sighed.  “Soren, if I admit you’re bigger and stronger than me,” he said, “can we dispense with this tiresome display of virility and come to an agreement to not snarl at each other until after we have deposited the ladies with the good Prince?”

“I could beat you.”

Simon sighed, saying, “Soren, I’ve killed better men than you, in fights both fair and otherwise. And you’re forgetting something.”

“What’s that?”

“I won’t be alone,” Simon said, bringing his hand up and scratching at his ear.

The whistle of an arrow broke the quiet, followed by the thunk it made when it buried itself in the ground between Soren’s feet. The soldier and both women stared at it in silent shock as the echoes of its impact moved across the glade and into the woods. Soren took a step back and pulled his sword from its scabbard. The ladies continued to gape at the arrow as it quivered in the dirt.

“My lady, allow me to introduce my companion,” Simon said with a bow toward the princess.

A tall, slender man, dressed all in black leather and fur, walked into the glen. In his left hand, he carried a bow, with his right holding an arrow nocked to its string and ready to pull back. An amulet of black stone on a silver chain hung from his neck, catching glints of sunlight as it swayed with his every step. His feet made no sound as he walked into the light.

“My lady, this is Hollo, a dear friend of mine,” Simon said. The tall man bowed his head slowly to the princess, but did not take his eyes off of Soren.

“Put it away, my lord,” he said in a deep, croaking voice, “You’ve nothing to fear from me.”

“Soren, please, you’re being rude,” Simon said, taking a step between the two men.

Soren looked to the princess, who nodded, then put his sword away.

“Hollo is a native of Booda, and knows the country better than I do,” Simon continued, “If we get into a scrape, he’ll know the secret paths and passes to get around trouble.”

Hollo put his arrow back into the leather quiver he wore over his shoulder, then lowered his bow. Turning to the princess, he bowed low.

“Whatever vows of loyalty my friend has made, my lady, I also offer to you,” he said with a rolling accent. He lifted his head, his dark eyes glinting in the sunshine, and offered a warm smile.

Erika rose from her blanket and motioned for Hollo to stand. She raised her hand for quiet and stepped between the three men.

“Gentlemen,” she said in a formal tone, “you are all bound to take me to my betrothed. Such displays of mistrust, as well as goading each other into discord, will hinder us in our travels.”

“Master Soren, you shall be civil to our companions and guides,” she continued, her voice firm, “Masters Simon and Hollo, you shall also keep a civil tongue in your mouth.”

She paused for a moment, then concluded, “Do all of you understand?”

Together, the three men bowed and murmured, “Yes, my lady.”


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

Escort Duty – Part 3

Princess Erika sat on her horse, impatiently strumming her fingers on the pommel of her saddle in the early morning gloom. She wore a deep violet riding gown and cloak, with a plumed hat to match. Her saddle and tack were as fine as her dress, with the former’s ox-blood dyed leather buffed to a high gloss, and the latter made from polished silver, which rang like a bell whenever it moved. The horse was a beautifully dappled mare, with violet ribbons in its mane and tail, matching her gown.

Her maid sat astride a smaller gray horse, her plain dress matching the tawny leather of the saddle she sat upon. She kept stealing nervous glances toward the camp, where men could be heard at some work or another, or toward the woods, where the sound of the wind in the trees mixed with the noises of animals either going to their beds or rising for the day.

“Greta, why are you twitching about?” the princess demanded after a few minutes.

“My lady, it’s not safe to be out of the camp unattended,” her maid answered, “There could be brigands or rebels in those woods.”

Patting the leather sheath on her saddle, Erika smiled.

“We’re perfectly safe,” she said, “I’ll skewer anyone who trifles with us.”

Greta looked at her mistress dubiously, then glanced back at the camp.

“They’re coming, my lady,” she said as a group of men rode out to join them.

Dveglammar reined his horse to a stop a few feet away from the women and nodded to the princess. Behind him, Soren, wearing plain clothing and a long, brown cloak, rode a dappled pony. The only indications that he was a soldier were the shiny black cavalryman’s boots on his feet and the long sword he wore on his belt. A pack mule, bearing several bundles, followed along on a tether.

Simon, clad in a dark gray tunic and leggings, rode between the two guards who had escorted him to Tor’s tent the day before. His horse, a black pony with a white spot between her eyes, pawed at the ground after he reined her to a halt, impatient to be moving again after a long rest.

Simon looked out at the woods around them and gave a low whistle, its tone warbling across the grass and into the trees. His guards scowled at him, but Simon only smiled back, winking at the one who bore a war hammer. After a moment, a bird answered the call with a harsh caw. Simon’s smile brightened to a grin.

“My lady, I hope you know vat you are doing,” Tor said gravely.

“My lord, I am sure that I do,” she replied, “In a month, I shall be home, and you shall be finishing your campaign. I’m also certain that these gentlemen can keep us safe until we cross into Prince Jorgen’s lands.”

“A messenger left out last night to warn the Prince of your coming,” Soren said.

“Ve asked dat he have vatchers at his borders,” Devglammar added in a grave tone, “He vill be expecting to see you in a few veeks.”

“Excellent. I’m sure my betrothed will greet us with open arms.”

Simon looked around, then interrupted, “My lords and lady, might I ask a question?”

The trio turned to him, while the guards smoldered at their prisoner’s impertinence.

“Yes, you may,” Tor replied icily.

“Am I to go about unarmed on this little jaunt?”

“You vill be given your veapons before you go.”

“We’re about to go, aren’t we? Or are we going to waste daylight chatting?”

Soren rounded on the half-elf, his face reddening.

“We will go when the princess and the commander are done speaking, half-breed. Now sit on your nag and do not speak unless told to!” he retorted.  A trace of his northern accent, which he normally suppressed, crept into his voice as he spoke.

Simon’s grin brightened at that, and he bowed dramatically in the saddle.

“Of course, my lord,” he said with his best courtly tone, “I shall be sure to do so.”

Soren turned back to Tor and said, “Is he really necessary? I know the roads well enough.”

“You vent troo dose lands as part of da army, on da main roads, and dat vas only because ve put da strong arm on der rulers,” Dveglammar said, “Simon vill get you troo dem vitout being seen. You know dat Lords Herceg and Kiraly vould like notting better dan to have da prinzess for ransom, or vorse. Just keep a lid on him and for da love of da gods, keep him avay from da prinzess!”

Soren nodded, then bowed to the Princess. “Highness,” he said, “Shall we go?”

Erika smiled and said, “Yes, let us get moving.”

Tor urged his horse forward, saying “I vill accompany you to da river, my lady. After dat, you vill have to rely on your escorts and yourself.”

Erika nodded and rode beside him. The pair was followed by Greta and Sorren, with the mule following docilely. Last came Simon, flanked by his guards.

“I assume that the view will get better with time,” he quipped as he glanced at the back end of the mule. The guards ignored him, keeping their horses a few feet from his.

The small group made their way through the woods without a word. The sound of their horses’ hooves was muffled by the damp remains of the last fall’s leaves on the ground and the heavy canopy of green on the branches above. Even the pleasant sounds of Tor, Soren, and Erika chatting seemed muted and distant. The quiet was occasionally broken by the sound of a squirrel running through the canopy, or the sound of some bird or another calling to its mate.

Simon tried on several occasions to engage his guards in conversation, but was only answered once with a grunt.

“Well, if you fellows aren’t going to participate, I’m just going to ride in silence,” Simon finally said.

Occasional beams of bright early morning sunshine broke up the shade, but their eyes adjusted to the forest’s gloom well enough. The undergrowth of brambles and bushes on either side of their trail might have seemed claustrophobic had it not been for the bursts of spring blossoms and their perfume infusing the air around them.

Presently, the forest opened up to reveal the banks of a wide stream, its flow still swift from the spring melt in the mountains to the north, but only a few feet deep.

“My lady, dis is vere I leave you,” Dveglammar said, halting his horse at the edge of the water.

“My lord, thank you for your help and companionship,” Erika replied, “I hope that the rest of the journey is just as pleasant.”

“Vell, ve can only hope,” he replied, turning to Soren, “Take care of her. Once ve are finished here, I vill send for you.”

Soren nodded and offered Tor his hand. “Good luck, my lord. I hope to see you before the snow falls.”

The two men shook hands briskly, then Soren splashed his horse and the mule out into the frigid water. Once he had gained the other side, the two women rode across to join him. Tor watched them go, his hands tense on the reins until they had ridden out of the water. Soren raised a hand once the women were safely at his side.

Dveglammar turned to Simon, a stern look upon his face. He reached out and put his hand on the blond-haired man’s arm.

“If you survive and dey don’t, I vill find you and feed you to my horse,” he said darkly.

“Then I will have to make sure they survive, won’t I?” Simon replied.

“And Simon, von odder ting,” Tor continued, dropping his hand, “Keep your hands off of both vomen.”

“Tor, I’m shocked! I’ll be a gentleman, of course.”

“I mean it, Simon. Da prinzess is off limits, and so is her maid. Da last ting I need is for Prince Yorgen to vant to know if da child of his vedding night is really his, or vhy his new vife’s maid is no longer a maiden.”

“Tor, I won’t lay a finger on either of them, I promise.”

“Good, den, be off vit you.”

“There’s the matter of my belongings?”

Tor considered Simon for a moment, then said simply, “Give him his veapons.”

The guard carrying the war hammer reached behind his saddle and produced two daggers and a sword, all sheathed in black leather. The guard weighed them in the palm of his hand for a moment before passing them over to Simon.

“Nice toys,” he sneered, “Don’t weigh enough to be of any use in battle.”

Simon smiled as he took his blades from the guard.

“Well, I’m no blade master, and we can’t all carry war hammers,” he replied quietly.

“Be careful, now,” the guard snorted derisively, “Don’t cut yourself.”

Simon’s smile broadened as his wrist and elbow moved as one, removing his sword, Gnarlthing, from its scabbard and swinging it below the guard’s chin faster than the brute’s eye could blink in surprise. The blade, flashing in the mid-morning sun, sliced through the guard’s beard, sending the whiskers fluttering down as Simon brought the sword’s blade to a halt a hair’s breadth from his own thigh. For a moment, the only sound was the play of the stream on the rocks and the sword blade singing after being freed from its scabbard.

The guard squawked as his free hand flew to his bare chin. The other guard just gawked at the sight of Simon casually putting his sword away. Tor reached for his sword hilt, but stopped when he saw no blood on either his guard or Simon’s blade.

The guard, his beard shorn away, bellowed as he raised his war hammer. Simon’s grin never wavered as his sword flicked out again, this time halting as it rested against the guard’s jugular.

“Stop!” Tor cried, his own sword halfway out of its scabbard. The other guard, his eyes as big as saucers, stopped with his spear halfway down from its carry position.

“Nice moustache,” Simon said evenly, his blue eyes locking with those of the guard, “It would be a shame to dye it blood red.”

“Simon, put dat avay!” Dveglammar ordered angrily, “You two, put your veapons down!”

Simon pulled his sword back and smoothly snicked it down into its scabbard. The guards relaxed, with the war hammer carrier slowly putting his weapon down across his pommel.

“Now, get going, you scoundrel,” Tor said once his breathing had returned to normal, “You’ve made your point.”

Simon raised his hand in salute to Tor, then nudged his horse in the flanks with his heels and splashed across the stream.

Soren waited for him near the other side, his hand on the handle of his sword and his horse a few feet out into the water. “What happened?” he demanded as Simon urged his black horse up the bank.

“Oh, that big bastard needed a shave. I just did it dry,” the half-elf said with a smile.


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

Escort Duty – Part 2

Simon, son of Melek, sat in the shade of a supply wagon. His long legs splayed out in the grass in front of him, and he tapped his foot to the tune of the doggerel he was humming to pass the time.  He kept his dark blue eyes fixed on the space between his heels, but occasionally he lifted his head and scanned his surroundings.  He wore a simple gray tunic and breeches, their elbows and knees worn but not ripped.

Every so often, he tugged on the chain which held him close to one of the wheels, but mostly, he just stared at the iron manacles around his ankles and hummed.

Last time this happened, he thought, lifting his manacled hand to run his fingers through his close-cropped blonde hair, I at least had a roof over my head. This is going to get uncomfortable if it rains. Now, how do I get that fool thing off?

A low whistle sounded from the other side of the wagon as something clunked softly against the inside of the wagon wheel next to Simon.

Simon froze, resisting the urge to look toward the noise.

“Hollo?” he whispered.

“Who else?” his friend answered, “Here, see if this works.”

Simon slowly looked to make sure nobody was watching, then reached through the spokes and palmed the object Hollo had thrown. When he opened his hand, he found a small file.

“Perhaps if you piss on the chain, it will rust away,” Hollo whispered hoarsely, “That’ll probably work better than wishful thinking.”

“I was just considering whether to let it rust, melt, or just turn to smoke, but this’ll be more effective.”

“Be careful. I’ll be back at sunset to get you.”

Simon listened to Hollo’s careful footsteps in the soft grass, then waited a few minutes before setting the file’s edge on the cross piece holding the manacles together and slowly sawing across it. He worked at it for an hour before he felt the iron release its tension on his wrists.

He moved his wrists slowly, and felt his fetters start to fall away. With a satisfied smile, Simon held the irons in place and leaned back against the wheel to relax. The file went into the pocket of his tunic as he shifted to lean back against the wagon.

Never know when that will come in handy, he thought as he dozed in the warm noon-day sun.

When he woke up, the sun was beyond its zenith, and a tall blonde man stood in front of him.

“Wake up, thief,” the blonde said as he nudged Simon’s leg with his foot, “Lord Dveglammar wants to talk.”

“Hello, Soren,” Simon replied, carefully standing up without letting the chains fall from his wrist, “You’ll have to get me off this wagon first.”

Two large men wearing the crossed-hammer livery of Tor Dveglammar’s personal bodyguard stood behind Soren. Both guards wore their armor and helmets, their faces obscured by the crosspieces over their noses. One was armed with a long spear, while the other carried a huge war hammer in his hands.

Soren motioned to one of the guards, who lifted his hammer and brought it down on the pin locking Simon’s chains to the wagon. The pin popped out of its enclosure neatly, the wagon barely rocking on its axles at the impact. The guard gave Simon a smug look as he picked the chain up from the grass.

“Nice work,” Simon said as the guards fell in on either side of him, “You’ll have to teach me how to do that.”

Neither the guards nor Soren said anything more as they trooped through the camp. Simon took quick glances around as they went, but caught no sight of Hollo.

Soren stopped them in front of the commander’s tent with a raised hand.

“Stay here,” he said without looking back as he walked through the gray-green canvas flap. The guards grunted and turned to watch Simon. He, on the other hand, looked down at the ground. Around him, the smells and sounds of an armed camp, bread baking, a blacksmith hammering on a weapon, and wood smoke, filled his senses. There was no hint of why he had been summoned to the army’s commander.

This is a lot of fuss for a thief, he thought, I wonder what’s going on?

As he stood there, he heard a faint low whistle. Hollo was close. Simon considered how to signal him to let him know he had heard, but all he could think of was to scratch his leg with his foot.

As he stood there on one leg, the tent flap opened and Soren motioned them inside. Flanked by his two guards, Simon walked past him and into the tent.

Dveglammar sat in his chair facing the door. His cavalry commander, a young Kossaki nobleman, stood behind him. Both officers looked at Simon gravely as he came to a stop in front of them.

“Hello, Tor,” Simon said cheerfully.

“Simon,” Tor answered with a nod, “Vat da hell vere you tinking?”

“It was only a few bags of coins,” Simon said, “And you wouldn’t have a bit of it if I hadn’t found that path behind their lines.”

“You vere supposed to come to me vit any claims.”

“True, but I would have waited for days to see you, and the party was that night, and my dice were feeling lucky.”

The cavalryman behind Tor snorted at that. Simon had seen his face before, probably at one of the illicit gatherings he had attended in the past few months.

“Now I got to do someting vit you. You took from Baron Lovenherz’ tings, and now dat he’s dead, your life belongs to his family.”

“Life? Tor, at most, we’re talking about me making restitution.”

“Dis is not some village market vere you got caught stealing chickens, Simon. You took gold from vat ve seized from da enemy, and da lords have to get deir share before anyvone else gets his. You know dat.”

Simon sniffed and looked around the tent. Tor kept things sparse, but it was cleaner and better furnished than the lean-to’s and large tents the men slept in.

“So, what are you going to do?” Simon said, locking eyes with the Northman.

“Vell, I may be able to spare you. Dat is, if you are villing to do some service to make up for it.”

“Service?” Simon asked, his eyes narrowing suspiciously.

“You know Lord Bogoyin, don’t you?” Tor said, ignoring Simon’s question.  He motioned to the officer standing behind him.

“We’ve met,” Simon said, nodding to the cavalryman, finally fixing a name to his face.

What do you have up your sleeve? Simon thought, You Northmen don’t normally go in for subtlety.

“Ve need a guide.”

“Guide? Where to?”

“Vell, I believe you’ve been dere before, and dat’s all I’m going to say before you agree to do da job.”

“The alternative is to be kept here in chains until the campaign is over,” Bogoyin said with a faint accent.

“I either accept being tethered to a wagon for a few months or go who knows where? Not much of a bargain.”

“You know, dere is anudder alternative. Ve could alvays take off your hands like any common highway robber.”

Simon gave his best sulking pout at that. “Common highway robber? Me? I’m the best you’ve ever seen at getting in somewhere and getting back out. And my taste in loot is exceptional, thank you.”

He looked up at the tent’s ceiling, striking something of a dramatic pose. “Common! I’m insulted.”

“Dat’s vhy ve are giving you dis opportunity. Ve need somebody who knows da back vays and can get in and out vitout being seen.”

Simon considered it for a moment. He made a show of looking from Tor, to Bogoyin, then back. Finally, he shrugged and said, “All right, I’ll go. What’s the job?”

Tor nodded to Bogoyin, who said, “You’ll be escorting a certain person back to their own lands.”

“And you need a guide who can keep this quiet?”

“Exactly. They’ll be going through some rather unfriendly places. We’d rather not have too many run-ins along the way, if you know what I mean.”

“How many people?”

“Ten of my men, the two people you’ll be escorting, and you.”

Simon snorted. “You want to try to keep half a troop of cavalry quiet? Do you want a guide or a wizard?”

“You’ll do your best, I’m sure.”

Simon laughed out loud at that. “I ought to be honored by your confidence in me, my lord. But I’m only capable of the smallest bits of magic.” With that, he let the shackles on his wrist fall with a clatter. A sly smile and a wink crossed his face as he looked at the shocked faces of the guards.

Tor stood up from his chair and peered down at the shackles. Pulling on his beard, he considered Simon for a moment.

“Vitchcraft!”

“No, merely a little talent I have.”

“Vell, if you can’t hide da cavalry, vat do you suggest?”

“I can slip a few people through, but not a bunch of cavalrymen and their chargers. Two people, me, and one other, and that’s it.”

“And who vould be da other?”

“If we’re going through Booda, I have a friend who can help.”

“So, you’ll leave behind the guards, and add a ‘friend’ to go along?” Bogoyin said suspiciously.

“If we do our job right, we won’t need the guards. And if we have to run, we’ll have a better chance of getting away or hiding four people then we will with thirteen.”

Tor tugged on his beard again, nodding. “Dat makes sense. Go kvietly and try to not stick out.”

“I’m the best at not sticking out.”

“I vant your vord on your mudder’s soul dat da people you escort vill get dere safely.”

“Of course. You have my word.”

“I’ll have more dan dat, now dat I tink about it. Soren vill be going too. He’s good on a horse, and I trust him.”

Simon looked hurt at that. “How can you say that after all we’ve done together?” he said, bringing his hand to his chest.

“Oh, yeah, all dat ve’ve done togedder. Like you sneaking away to bed dat girl in dat village outside Franzberg? Or maybe you deciding to lighten the haul from da baggage train ve captured last veek? Oh, I know just how much I can trust you, Simon. Soren goes or you go back on da vagon. I can find a vizard to make sure you stay stuck, too.”

Simon put his hands up in surrender. “All right, Soren comes. That makes five.” He put his hand out to Tor.

Dveglammar took it and gave it a hard shake.

“So, who am I escorting, and where are we going?” Simon asked after Tor released his grip.


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

Escort Duty – Part 1

Tor Dveglammar listened as the captain of his cavalry completed the morning report.

“… over the mountain. We expect them to report back in two days, maybe three. There’s been no sign of the enemy other than isolated groups of stragglers since they ran from their lines near Tanahuk three days ago,” the young officer said, pointing to a map laid out on the table before them, “so their main body must have escaped through one of the passes.”

Tor nodded as he stroked the long braids in his russet beard. His wife had kept him in their tent until she had them perfectly set, but his habit of tugging on them when he was frustrated had already pulled several whiskers loose.

“Dat makes sense,” he said in a low, tense voice, “Report vat da scouts find as soon as dey get back.”

“Yes, my lord,” the captain said, bowing. Tor returned the salute, and the cavalryman turned and left the tent. Tor’s aide, Soren, poked his head in the tent flap.

“Anyting else?” Dveglammar growled. His army had been idle for a week after shattering their foe, and their commander was growing restless. Soren, who also happened to be his wife’s cousin, made good use of his thick skin after the first few days of rest and idleness had worn Tor’s patience thin.

“Two things, my lord. There’s the matter of Princess Erika, and we have to deal with that man we caught stealing from the plunder.”

“Oh, ja, dat. All right, bring in da prinzess. I still don’t know vat to do vit dat damned half-elf.”

Soren nodded and left his commander behind to brood. Tor’s eyes flicked to the steel rings of his armor, which rested on a table in the corner with his war hammers, Ban and Kyk.

Dose tings are gettin’ dusty, he thought bitterly, Need to get dem back in da field.

With a sigh, he rose and paced the ground behind his chair. He was a campaigner, not a general, but when the counter-attack at Tanahuk killed King Henry, the responsibility fell to him. The martial duties, those he had known what to do with. The rest?

“Bah!” he exclaimed to the empty tent.

He considered whether or not it was worth walking outside to enjoy some of the spring sunshine, but the tent flap pulled back and Princess Erika, daughter and only child of King Henry Löwenherz, ruler of the Western Islands, flounced in. She was tall and athletic in build, with hair the color of summer honey and blue eyes like snow with sunshine behind it. She walked with the certainty and grace of a high born lady, and her glare cut around the tent as she surveyed it.

A young woman, small in stature, wearing a shift and wimple, which matched her brown hair, walked behind her, holding the back of the princess’ skirt up from the grass and dirt.

Erika wore what could charitably be called armor and a helmet over her satin gown. The silvered iron wings adorning her head covering, polished to a mirror finish, glinted in the beam of sunlight which followed her through the door. The braids, which her maid, Greta, had made in her hair, dipped below her helm on either side of her head.  Her bodice of silver ringlets, sewn onto dark blue leather, accentuated the pale undergarment that lay between it and her creamy white skin. Overall, when combined with her sharp features and ice blue eyes, she looked every inch of a shield-maiden.

Tor tried hard to not snort when she strutted up to him and stood at attention. He’d seen her fence with her father’s guard, and she had talent. But she had taken to wearing the getup around camp ever since her father had summoned her in the fall.

How did she keep varm in dat ting all tru da vinter? Tor wondered as he smiled at the princess, Dat costume vould be as practical in combat as a vooden sword.

“Prinzess, how are you dis morning?” he asked, bowing deeply and rolling his r’s the way his speech master had taught him.

“Not well, my lord,” she replied angrily, “Your man there tells me that I am to leave for home tomorrow.”

“Ja, your father told me dat you vas to return to da Islands so dat you could get married in Yune.”

“But I swore to avenge my father’s death!” she exclaimed, “How can I do that when I’m being sent home to be a blushing bride?”

“Oh, now, your father vould not like to hear such talk. Prince Yorgen is a nice boy, and he vill make you a good husband!”

“But my oath?” she protested.

“Ach, da Tanahuk rebels are finished. A few more little battles and ve’ll all be on our vay home. Don’t you vorry about dat.”

Erika considered that for a moment. She inclined her head toward the chair, and Tor nodded with a smile.

Taking a seat, she said, “I don’t like it, but if that’s what father wanted, I’ll do it.”

“Gut, gut. I’ll get someone to escort you to da ship, and you’ll be on your vay,” Tor replied, a look of relief coming to his face.

“How long is it to Thameshaven by ship, a month?” Erika asked.

“Oh, no, vit the spring vinds, you’ll be getting dere in tree months.”

“Three months?” Erika exclaimed in surprise, “But I’m supposed to get married in three months!”

Tor shook his head.

“Prinzess, dere’s notting to be done about it,” he said, shaking his head again and spreading his hands, “Da sea is da only safe vay home from here. Overland takes you troo da lands of our enemies. Dey’re da ones dat vere paying Tanahuk to rebel, and dey’d love to get der hands on a prinzess. No, no, you take da ship, and if your vedding is late, den at least it’s not your funeral.”

Erika glared at Tor, narrowing her eyes as her lips grew thinner. Tor wondered if there might be some magic in the royal bloodline, because he could swear he felt a small dot of blazing heat growing between his eyes.

“How much quicker is it to go by land?” she demanded.

“It’s a month’s yourney if you don’t dawdle, but it’s too dangerous.”

“I could be there in a month, or I can be there in three months?” Erika replied icily.

“Prinzess, you’d have to bring an army vit you if you went through Pesht, and a bigger army to get through Booda. Ve only got da one army, and it’s busy right now.”

Erika looked at the map on the table for a moment.  Tor could almost hear the wheels turning in her head.

She is her vater’s dotter after all, he thought, She von’t go vitout trying to get her vay. I vonder vat’s going on in dere?

“Prince Jorgen’s lands lay on the other side of Booda, don’t they?” Erika asked, looking up from the chart and and arching an eyebrow.

“Yes, but vat does dat have to do…”

“If I can sneak through to the border, then he can join me in my journey to my father’s lands. It’s quite simple, really,” the princess said, gesturing toward the map.

“Simple? Prinzess, you vould have to get past tree borders, cross I don’t know how many rivers, and not let anyvone figure out who you are.”

“But it could be done,” she replied, tilting her head, “I’d just need someone who knows those lands and how to be a good sneak.”

Tor looked down at his hands for a moment, then looked up at the young woman seated in front of him.

“Ja, it could be done, and your father’s ghost could come back and beat me about da head and shoulders for letting you do it,” Tor said sternly, “No, it’s too dangerous. You’ll take da ship.”

Erika regarded the tall Northman again, then shrugged.

“Have it your way,” she said haughtily, “I imagine that you will be busy trying to make up the loss of my troops.”

“Loss of your troops?”

“If I am forced to take a ship home, then I shall take the archers and soldiers my father provided back with me,” Erika said sweetly, “A princess needs a proper escort, after all.”

“You vould deprive me of all of da archers and half da foot?” Tor said, a look of understanding dawning on his face.

“Since you only have a few little battles left before our foes are crushed, my people can escort me home.”

“But I, ve….”

“That is, of course, unless you can provide a small guard to escort me overland,” Erica said, her white teeth showing in what some might have called a smile. Tor recognized the expression from when he had seen her father dictate terms to a defeated foe.

Tor huffed through his mustache, fluffing it out. His forehead wrinkled as he considered his options.

“All right,” he said after a moment, “You’ll get sumvun to escort you to da border vit Prince Yorgen’s lands, and your soldiers stay vit da army.”

“Deal. We leave tomorrow?”

“Fine.”

Erika gave Tor a wide smile as she stood.

“So nice when we can reach a compromise, my lord,” she said sweetly as she turned to the door. Her maid followed, averting her eyes from the deadly glare Tor cast into her mistress’ back.

“Soren,” he roared after the tent flap closed again and he counted to thirty slowly, “get in here!”


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

Escort Duty – On Sale Now!

Escort Duty went live on Amazon this morning.  I’d like to thank everyone who pre-ordered.  Having that dump of sales on the first day it’s generally available helps a lot in rankings, which can lead to more sales, which in turn leads to more coffee and ammunition, which leads to a happier writer, which leads to more books.

If you’d like a signed hard-copy, send me an email at daddybear@daddybearsden.com.  The cost is the same as Amazon, $10, and I’ll cover shipping.

Escort Duty is a bit of a grab bag of stories, like I said in the announcement of the pre-order. There is fantasy, religion, suspense, and spoof.  I hope there’s something in there for everyone to enjoy.

I can’t wait to hear everyone’s thoughts on this one, both here and on Amazon.

 

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