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Escort Duty – Part 25

In the hallway outside, the two servants listened to the noise and exchanged a knowing look.

“He’s found one with some fight in her, hasn’t he?”

“Remember that one from Pesht with the dark hair last fall? The duke spent three days in bed once he was finished with her.”

“Too bad about the woman, though. She’s the prettiest one yet. Hopefully, he’s more gentle this time.”

The pair stood next to the door and listened to the moans, shouts, and rumbles coming from the hall.

~~~

Simon eased his way along the wall. He could hear people talking in what seemed to be a summer kitchen on the far side of the tower as he crept closer to the tall building. The smell of roasting meat overpowered every other scent, but his ears did not pick up the sound of soldier’s boots on the courtyard’s flagstones. When he reached a door at the tower’s base, he silently pulled Gnarlthing from its scabbard and eased the door open a few inches.

Looking through the crack, he saw a hallway lit by torches. Two men wearing silver and black livery stood next to another door. The sound of a man bellowing and furniture moving across the floor came from beyond the door, and the two men chuckled and talked in a low whisper.

Simon slipped through into the hall and approached the pair. Their attention was on what was going on in the banquet hall, and the soft footfalls of Simon’s boots were lost in the ruckus. Simon brought Gnarlthing up, its blade gleaming in the torchlight, and brought its pommel down on back of the larger one’s head. The servant stumbled forward, bumping his head on the heavy wooden door, then dropped as Simon bludgeoned him again.

The second servant opened his mouth to shout. Simon flicked his arm down and rested his blade against the side of the youth’s neck. The servant closed his mouth immediately.

“Where is Princess Erika?” Simon hissed, “Speak!”

The boy, wisps of hair on his chin quivering in the torchlight, pointed to the door behind Simon and stammered, “In there!”

~~~

Erika kicked out at Kyrali’s knee and missed. Her heel impacted on his shin, drawing a howl of pain from him as he stomped down onto her ankle. Erika cried out and scooted away from the larger man. Kyrali heaved himself up onto the table and reached down at her. His fingers entwined in her hair, and he yanked her out from under the table. Erika twisted to get free, but the duke wrenched her around, tightening his grip.

“Bitch!” he growled, “You’ll pay for that!” He lunged forward to slap her again.

Erika let her legs go out from under her, her weight pulling the duke off balance. He fell to the floor beside her, his breath coming out in a whoof as he landed. She leaped onto his chest and struck at his face with her fists. The duke pulled back on her hair again, then struck her on the side of the head.

The princess recoiled from the blow, falling hard on the stone floor next to the duke. For a moment, both lay there, stunned and breathing hard.

Kyrali heaved himself up and used the table to regain his feet. Looking down at Erika, he kicked her in the ribs with his uninjured leg. The blow rolled Erika onto her side, her arms flailing away from the duke.

He reached behind his back and tugged at the knife. His eyes rolled into his head for a moment as he did, and his knees buckled. Catching himself on the edge of the table, the duke kept himself from swooning from the pain.

“We’ll just see how much fight you have left in you after a few months in the cellar,” he wheezed, turning toward the door, “You’ll beg me to put you up in that nice, dry tower.”

As Erika returned to her senses, she felt something cold and hard under her hand. She wrapped her fingers around it and wobbled to her feet.

~~~

Simon looked around the hall, but saw nowhere to stash the two servants. For a moment, he considered slitting the young man’s throat and moving on, but thought better of it.

“Kneel,” he hissed, his eyes ablaze in the torchlight. The young servant gulped hard, but obeyed.

Simon pointed to the prostrate form of the other servant.

“Take his belt off and wrap it around your wrists,” he ordered.

With shaking hands, the servant reached over and pulled the leather strap from around his friend. He wrapped it loosely around his wrists. Simon took a hand from his sword’s hilt and pulled the belt tight.

Cinching it down, he said, “Now, don’t make a sound, or I’ll come back and finish the job.”

“But the duke…” the servant replied, flinching as the leather strap bit into his wrists.

“Sounds like he has his hands full,” Simon said, lifting his blade from the young man’s neck.

Just then, the door swung open, striking the half-elf in the back and shoving him forward. His blade skimmed along the servant’s cheek, laying it open before falling from his grip. Simon stumbled to his knees, then twisted toward the new threat.

Duke Kyrali stood in the doorway, his fists raised. He roared incoherently at Simon and pounced upon him. Simon was quick, but Kyrali was upon him before he could bring his sword around or dodge out of the way. The big man clubbed the half-elf with his fist, sending him to the floor in a heap.

Kyrali snatched up Gnarlthing from where it had clattered to the floor and swung it up to stab at Simon. He stopped, though, as he raised the sword, a look of shock on his face. Then, with a gasp, the duke slumped, face first, to the floor. He lay there, his breath coming in short, gurgling gasps.

Simon looked at him in shock, then saw the carving knife sticking out of his ribs. As the half-elf watched, a pink foam came from his mouth and dripped to the stones. The duke took another shuddering breath, then stilled. His lifeless eyes stared at Simon in disbelief.

Erika stood over him, her hair tangled and her dress ripped and smeared with blood. Her lower lip was swollen, and the skin under one of her eyes was already beginning to bruise.

The young servant took all of this in, opening his mouth to scream, both from the pain of the wound on his cheek and at the sight of his dead master sprawled on the floor.

Erika pointed to him, snarling, “If you make a sound, I will cut your throat and send your liver to your mother!” Her teeth gleamed sharp and white in the torchlight as she spoke.

The servant closed his mouth.

~~~

Hollo squatted in the bracken, looking down the chalk bluff at the city below. His purse was much lighter than it had been before he had entered Booda, but he had been able to get through the gate and across the bridge without anyone raising an alarm. Now, he gnawed on a crust of bread while he waited for Simon.

Where is he? Hollo thought as he looked at the dimly-lit road which led up from the river, We’ll need to get far away before sunrise.

He waited some more, each minute making him more impatient. Finally, he heard footsteps on the cobblestones.

He pursed his lips and whistled in a low tone. After a moment, a whistle from down the hill responded.

Hollo stood and stepped out onto the road. In the dim moonlight, he saw Simon and Erika walking up the road. Hollo’s smile at seeing his friend melted when he saw that the princess’ dress was stained with blood as Simon helped her hobble up the steep incline.

Erika saw his concern and said quietly, “It’s not mine,” before following Simon off the road and toward the tree where Hollo had tied their horses.

Simon collapsed next to the tree, his hand on his bruised ribs.

“You didn’t happen to steal a skin of wine, did you?” he asked bleakly.

“Nope, but we’ve enough money left to buy some if we can get into those hills without getting caught. My cousin has an inn on one of the side roads.”

“Thanks be to the gods,” Erika said, holding up the gold chain around her neck, “I hope this will be enough to buy me some decent clothes, too.”

“How did you get across the river?”

“A woman saw a phantom drenched in blood looking through her window. Her screams drew the guards away from the bridge,” Simon replied.

Hollo mounted his pony, and his companions followed suit.

“If we get moving, we can be there by mid-day.” he said, “How far back is the pursuit?”

“Well, unless someone discovers the duke’s body or his servants know how to get out of my knots, we’ve probably got a few hours before they even know to come looking for us,” Simon replied.

“Apparently, it’s not unusual for his lordship to spend the night…. entertaining his lady guests in that hall. The servants know to not disturb him. Those two will lay there, trussed up like Yuletide gooses all night, and I doubt their master will stir to raise the alarm,” Erika said through her fat lip.

The three rode away from Booda in silence. The only sound that split the gloom was that of their horse’s steps across the field of soft bracken and fern as they left the road behind them. Soon, the lights of Booda’s watch fires faded from view as they crested the hills above the city. They rode through the night, putting more distance between them and anyone who tried to track them.

As they rode into the foothills of the mountains, the eastern horizon turned a rich pink and gold. Erika turned to look at it, then looked around at the ground around them.

“I’m starving,” she said to Simon, “Do you think you could find us a couple of squonks for breakfast?”


I hope you’ve enjoyed Escort Duty.  There will be more stories of Simon and his adventures in time.

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

Escort Duty – Part 24

Erika watched in distaste as the duke picked up his fish and ate it in two large, rapid bites. She took a dainty bit of trout from her plate and chewed it thoroughly before swallowing.

“You need to eat more, my dear,” the duke said, grease from the fish glistening on his lips and beard.

“I’m enjoying the meal,” Erika replied in a soothing tone, “but what I’m craving is a good bit of meat.”

“Ah, then you’re in luck,” the duke said, raising his hand and snapping his fingers. Two servants came in bearing a large haunch of meat, steam rising from it in the hall’s muggy air.

“This is my kitchen’s specialty,” he said, watching the servants as they set the food down. One of them picked up a large carving knife from the tray and sliced into the pale flesh.

“Boar?” Erika asked.

“Oh, no, this is hand-raised sow, just finished weaning her first litter of piglets. The meat is so tender and mild that it will melt in your mouth!”

Erika nodded in thanks to the servant as he laid a slab of meat on her plate, then poked at it with her fork.

“It certainly looks good, my lord,” she said, “but why have I no knife? Am I to pick it up and eat it like an animal?”

The duke looked at her in shock, his serving of the meat already halfway to his mouth.

“Of course not, my lady,” he said after setting it back on his plate, “You, fetch us a pair of knives for our meat!”

The servants bowed and scurried off. One of them returned a few moments later with a pair of knives from the kitchen. Erika noted that, while they were rather plain compared to the rest of their cutlery, they looked to have a fine edge on them.

The princess picked up her knife and drew it across the pork. The blade cut through the meat as if it were warm butter.

“Oh, much better,” she said in a pleasant tone, “Nothing like good meat when you’re hungry.”

~~~

Simon crept through the shadows between the market stalls and the castle wall. Behind him, he could hear the guards talking to one another.

“If you ask me, that new subaltern is going to be a good officer,” one was saying quietly to his comrade, “Stays out of our way, and doesn’t poke his nose in the wrong places.”

“Sounds better than Captain Torok. I swear, you could measure your entire watch by how many times he’s come by to check up on us.”

“Speaking of which, he should be along soon.”

Simon crouched next to the wall about fifty feet from them. Its stones, their rough exteriors facing out from the compound, towered ten feet over him. After listening to the guards complain a bit more, he heard them take a step away from the guardhouse and begin trooping in front of the gate.

“Halt!” one of them called out in a loud voice.

“It’s Torok, soldier,” a deeper voice responded. Simon heard the guards brace to attention and started climbing up the wall.

“Anything happening?” the officer asked.

“Nothing, sir.”

“Quiet as the grave, captain.”

“Good. The duke has a guest tonight, and he doesn’t want to be disturbed.”

“Someone important, sir?”

“Don’t know. Just got told to make sure nothing interrupted his lordship or there’d be hell to pay.”

Simon pushed up with his legs and felt his hand go over the top of the wall. He clasped the iron spike projecting between the stone blocks and pulled himself up. He lay on top of the wall, waiting for a chance to descend.

“We’ll keep a good watch, sir.”

“Good. I’ll see you two in a bit.”

Simon listened as the officer passed below him. The guards also listened, and when his footfalls faded, went back to their spots next to the guardhouse.

“Three more trips around the perimeter, and we can go to bed,” one said in a low tone.

“Did you bring your bottle again? I’d kill for a nip.”

Simon silently crept down the wall. There was just enough space between the stones for his fingertips and toes. Crumbling mortar occasionally slipped out of the crevices, and once, an entire chunk pivoted out, threatening to fall and alert the guards. Simon carefully pushed the sandy mortar back into its space, then dropped the remaining few feet to the ground.

Flagstones met his feet as he landed, bending his knees and leaning against the wall to blend into its shadow. Simon listened tensely for a few moments, but the guards gave no hint that they had heard anything. Standing up, he slowly walked along the wall toward the long, low building at the foot of the tower.

~~~

The meat was almost tasteless in Erika’s mouth, even after she liberally sprinkled it with salt from the cellar one of the servants offered to her. With skill which would have made her mother proud, she kept a saccharine smile on her face and made small talk with the duke as she ate.

“So, my dear,” the duke said, pushing his chair back from the table and patting his belly once his portion was gone, “have you given my offer any thought?”

Erika looked to the servant with the carving knife. “May I have a bit more, please?” she asked sweetly. The servant, a young man with a wispy beard, blushed at her attention, then cut a large hunk of the pale flesh and placed it on her plate. Erika smiled radiantly at him, which only made the boy blush more deeply.

“Yes, my lord,” she said, turning her attention to the man across the table, “I have.”

“And your answer?”

Erika glanced at the servants, saying, “Might we speak in private?”

Kyrali snapped his fingers at the servants, who turned and hurried from the room. Erika picked up her knife and began to cut her meat into small pieces.

“So, your answer, my lady?”

Erika took a long time eating a bit of meat, but looked up and smiled at the duke as she chewed. The duke smiled back, his eyes twinkling. Erika put her hands on the table, and stood. As she did, she palmed her knife and slipped it into the sleeve of her dress.

She walked around the table, then stood in front of the seated duke. Looking down on him, she said, “My lord, I believe that your idea of joining our kingdoms would be most profitable.”

The duke’s smile warmed, and he stood, putting his arm around Erika’s waist.

“So you’ll agree to marry me?”

“So long as I can come down from that wretched tower, yes.”

“Well, that depends on whether you’ve gotten over your opinion of my plans for Pesht, now doesn’t it?”

“They aren’t my people, my lord. What you do to them is none of my business,” Erika said, putting her arms around the duke’s neck.

Kyrali pulled her close. Erika could smell the wine on his breath as he said, “An outstanding way to look at it, my dear.”

“So, when shall we be wed?” Erika asked, slipping the knife out of her sleeve.

“Oh, as soon as we can get a proper ceremony together,” Kyrali said, slipping his bearded cheek down to lay next to hers, “There’s a summer festival next week. That would be perfect.”

“Sounds wonderful,” Erika said, “I’ve always wanted to be a June bride.”

With that, she drove the knife into the duke’s shoulder, feeling the blade grind against bone. He roared like a skewered boar, and shoved the princess away. The knife stayed embedded in his flesh.

Erika jumped back on him, trying to grasp at the knife’s hilt, but Kyrali struck her across the face, throwing her back against the table. The haunch of pork, its silver tray, and the carving knife the servant had used to cut it, clattered to the floor. Kyrali swung at her again, but Erika ducked below his arm and scooted under the table.


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

Defending His Master’s Keep

This one is for Moonshine, who ended up in the emergency vet’s office last night for stitches after taking on an assault gopher.  That’s what most normal people call a groundhog.

If you like this, and want more, check out “Coming Home“.


 

Water of Fire settled down upon the floor in front of the fireplace. The mistress and her pups had left him inside this day, believing that the ground outside was too wet and sloppy for him to stay in the yard while they were gone to visit neighbors. He did not understand this reasoning, for there were few things in life he enjoyed more than taking a long run at a mud puddle, then slipping and sliding across it. A smile came to his muzzle at the memory of mud dripping from his sides and tail as he lined himself up for another run at the low spot in the corner of the yard.

Other than him, the house was empty. The new dog, whom his humans had christened with the name “Bounder,” was with the Master of Beasts, he of the liver-flavored biscuits and occasional stabs in the rump, for the day. She was a good sort, if a bit too energetic for him, but she was fitting in well with his family. The elder war hound, Turf of Azure, rest her soul, no longer occupied her usual spot in the warmest part of the kitchen, and had gone on to that place where the sunbeams never moved and the bowls never emptied.

The cats, those skulking hunters of mice and filchers of treats, had been banished to the barn so that they could clean out an infestation of mice, which had chewed their way into the grain stores for the coming winter. One of the felines, the tan one with the black face and blue eyes, had cursed in his high, lilting voice the entire time that Water of Fire’s boy had carried him out of the house. That memory caused the hound to chuckle as he lay his head upon his paws.

The warmth of the fireplace and the absolute silence of the house, not even broken by the soft pads of a cat’s paw on the pantry shelves, overwhelmed the hound with bliss. As the sun peeked through the tall windows in the north wall, a broad sunbeam washed over him, infusing his black fur with even more heat and relaxing every muscle in his body. Soon, the silence was broken by his snores and an occasional whimper as he chased a horde of bloodthirsty squonks in his dreams.

Overhead, a flight of geese honked loudly as they cleared the manor’s roof. Their calls to one another caused one of the sleeping dog’s ears to cock up for a moment, swivel as he tried to find the source of the disturbance, then drop as the noise faded. His mahogany eyes never opened, and the incident only intruded momentarily on his dream of small, fuzzy creatures in an open field.

Then, an almost imperceptible breeze swept across the study, which ruffled the fine silver hairs frosting the hound’s black fur and caused some of the papers on his master’s desk to stir. Water of Fire opened his eyes at this, wondering if there was a window open somewhere, when he noticed more movement upon the desk.

Lifting his head, he saw a piece of paper swirl, as if caught in a zephyr, and lift from the desk. He sat up completely and cocked his head to the side, never taking his eyes from the floating piece of vellum. Then, to his surprise, it began to fold inward upon itself, first pulling one side toward the other, then the top to the bottom.

After a few moments, in which the paper fluttered and twisted a few feet in the air above the desk, it took the form of a small paper bat. Flapping its wings, it sailed around the room. Alarmed at such wizardry, Water of Fire stood up and barked at the paper flying mouse, causing it to hover for a moment and turn its face toward him. The hair on the back of the dog’s neck stood up and his ears lay back when he saw that instead of eyes, the apparition had two red, glowing spots, which bored down at him.

A deep growl rose from the hound’s chest, and the war dog leapt at the paper bat, trying to grasp it in his teeth. The bat swooped away, making chattering noises as it flew higher than he could jump. As he watched and snarled at the creature, it flew up to settle on one of the high beams supporting the peaked roof. Water of Fire barked again, filling the study with his high-pitched war cry.

“This is my domain!” he cried out in a way any foe worth having could understand. “I accuse you of being a coward and a fool if you do not come down to face me!”

This caused the bat to squeak loudly in indignation, hurling insults down at the war dog. It launched itself from its perch, pulling its wings back and diving directly at the black hound. Water of Fire jumped up to meet it, barely missing its tail with his teeth. The bat whooped in triumph, and banked hard to avoid crashing into the polished wooden floor.

Water of Fire tracked his foe as it swooped back up toward the rafters, then leapt at it. Two fast strides brought him to his master’s chair, and he reared up on his legs, pushing off from its high back to leap high into the air. Behind him, the chair fell back onto the floor with a thud and a rattle, but he was rewarded with the taste of parchment in his mouth as he caught one of the demon’s wings with his teeth.

The hound landed on his mistress’ writing desk, scattering papers, crystal vials of potions and ink, and a book of poetry, in which she was pressing several flowers from the garden. The bat squealed in pain, tearing at his face with its papery claws, then shrieked as he shook it as if it were a rat. Pieces of paper fell like new snow upon the desk and floor beside it as he tore it to bits. Finally, he chewed up and swallowed the pasty remnants of his foe, triumphant in defending his home.

Water of Fire sniffed the scraps of vellum scattered across the desk, then surveyed the mess around him. Iridescent ink dripped from a vial without a stopper, causing a swirling purple puddle to expand on the floor. Meanwhile, another vial lay in the middle of a sizzling pool of some potion or another, which was slowly eating into the desk’s finish. The vapors from it smelled of rotten eggs and ashes, and made Water of Fire sneeze when he sniffed them.

The book of poetry, most of its pressed flowers scattered across the floor, moved when his paw brushed it as he descended from the desk. The hound pushed at the tome with his nose, curious about the many smells that its contents exuded, then left it behind as he returned to his spot next to the fireplace.

Water of Fire pushed out his front legs, arching his back and tail to stretch after his exertions. As he took the first of his customary three turns before resuming his favorite resting position, he heard something scrape on the floor behind him. He turned in a flash, his ears back and teeth bared, ready to pounce. But instead of another paper bat diving at him, the dog saw the book standing up on its own. As he watched, small arms and legs popped out from the cover, and with the rustle of pages against one another, it sprinted toward the door.

The hound yipped in surprise. His nails skidded on the floor, trying to gain purchase as he pursued the demon in its new form. He skidded into a bookshelf on his way out the door, dislodging a vase of dried flowers, which shattered against the threshold. Bits of glass and flower petals flew in all directions as the war dog righted himself and shot out into the hall.

The book, still running as fast as it could go, vaulted onto the bannister at the top of the stairs. Water of Fire heard its evil laughter echoing from the stairwell’s high ceiling as it slid down, leaving him behind. He sprinted down the stairs, gaining ground by touching only every third step. His teeth crashed together several times as he tried to catch the book, but always missed by not more than the width of a few of the book’s pages.

With a cry of glee, the book sailed off the end of the oaken bannister, flying through the air toward the open door to the kitchen. Water of Fire vaulted off the last step, colliding with the book in mid-air and dragging it down. The two combatants slammed into the wall and ripped down a tapestry depicting a scene from the Eyrisch countryside. The book hopped up and tried to make its escape, but was slammed to the floor by a mighty paw. It screamed as Water of Fire sank his teeth into its pages, then shook it back and forth. The book opened and shut itself forcefully, smacking its cover into the dog’s face in its struggles.

Water of Fire shook the book again as he stumbled into the kitchen, then slammed it back down onto the floor again. He held it down with one paw, ripping at its soft paper underbelly. Finally, the book moaned and ceased its struggles, its pages torn and its spine broken.

Water of Fire panted for air as he lifted his head from the demon’s carcass. His mouth was gummy with ink and the remnants of the dried flowers he had consumed during the fight. One eye was sore where a stiff corner of the cover had caught it in the battle, and one of his ears rang from a blow. He gave the book a final swipe with his foot, then limped over to the water bowl to wash the taste of paper from his mouth.

Lapping up the water, Water of Fire pondered what was to be done about the state of the house. While she was an intelligent creature, his mistress could not understand him when he tried to communicate with her, only catching the occasional vague idea of his meaning. Lifting his head to gaze back toward the hall, he knew that there was no way that she would not notice the mess his battle had created. Perhaps if he were to show her the items the demon had possessed, she would sense the residue of its presence and forgive him.

As he pondered what would happen when the family returned, he heard a noise coming from the other side of the kitchen. A sound, similar to that made by a morsel falling from the table to be scooped up, made his ears perk up and his mouth water. He bent down to look along the floor and sniff, and saw an entire loaf of fresh-baked bread lying in front of the oven.

He approached the bread, sniffing the intoxicating aroma of yeast and wheat deep into his nostrils. The loaf remained inert, even when he poked it with an outstretched paw.

No, he thought, better to leave it. He was not that hungry, and he knew that the mistress would not want to bake more bread, even though this piece was on the floor, which was normally his domain when it came to food.

Water of Fire turned away from the oven and took a few steps toward the door. He just wanted to go back upstairs and sleep until the family returned. Perhaps he could think of a way to deal with their displeasure. His reverie was broken, however, when he heard the sound of small, soft feet padding across the tiles.

The war hound spun around, expecting to see a maniacal cutting board or meat mallet racing toward him, but was surprised to see the loaf of bread, now sporting a set of stubby, crusty legs, running toward the open window. It left a trail of golden crumbs in its wake as it raced across the floor. With a growl of frustration, Water of Fire gave chase once again.

This time, the demon chose to fight, rather than run, when it noticed his pursuit. The bread turned, red eyes glowing in the wall’s shadow, and launched itself at the dog. Surprised, Water of Fire skipped to the side with a yelp as the heavy loaf impacted on his hindquarters, knocking him sideways. The bread jumped upon his back, grabbing at his fur with two stubby hands. More crumbs flew about the kitchen.

Water of Fire whirled around in a desperate attempt to rid himself of his attacker. The bread cackled as it hauled back on his fur, then grasped at his tail. The war dog cried out in pain as he felt the end of his tail pull at an odd angle toward his back.

The hound rolled onto his side, extracting a squeal of anger from the yeasty demon as he crushed it with his weight. He swung his head around, again catching his foe between his teeth, but this time he took no chances. Rather than rip the loaf to bits, as he had done with the book and the paper bat, he swallowed it in three large bites. The demon screamed as it went down his gullet, then fell silent.

Water of Fire collapsed to the cold tile floor. His tail ached badly, and he whined in pain every time he tried to move it. His stomach hurt from being overstuffed with paper and bread, and his back was sore where patches of fur had been ripped out by the savage baguette monster. He limped out of the kitchen, his belly gurgling and his ear ringing, and up the stairs to the study. There, he found that the potion, which had pooled on his mistress’ desk, had stopped smoking and sizzling, although it had eaten a hole about a quarter of a paw’s depth into its thick wooden top. The numerous papers and other things he had knocked to the floor were intermingled with the spilled ink, which was coagulating into a pearlescent purple blob. He almost cut his paws on a few sharp pebbles of glass, but made it to his spot next to the fireplace without injuring himself further.

The war dog, the silver highlights in his fur now muted by dust, crumbs, and bits of his enemy, flopped down onto the floor without any of his customary ceremony. With a final sigh, he closed his eyes. Perhaps the mistress would not be too upset about the damage if he met her at the door and tried to explain.

Besides, he thought as he drifted off to sleep, I did it defending my master’s keep.

Escort Duty – Part 23

Erika was pulling the gown over her head when the matron and the rest of the servants came through her door. Behind her, the sun was just touching the horizon.

“My lady, you should have waited for us,” the matron gently scolded.

“Oh, I’m not used to servants anymore,” Erika replied airily, “My apologies.”

The servants closed the dress up around her and pinned it in place. One laid the heavy gold chain around her neck, while another pulled her hair back and braided it for her. Soon, her reflection in the mirror was of a china doll in a yellow dress.

“Oh, my lady, how nice you look,” the matron said, ushering her out the door, “The duke will be so pleased to see you.”

Erika let herself be led down the stone stairs to the ground floor, then through long corridors to a great hall. Its walls were festooned with tapestries and dusty trophies of long-forgotten hunts. A long table, its dark wood polished so that it gleamed in the light of candles and torches, ran down its center.

The duke waited for her there, wearing black silk and suede. A lion, embroidered in gold, lay across his chest, while a gold chain, matching the one around Erika’s neck, hung from his neck. It matched the topaz studs which were affixed to his ears.

“My lady,” he said as he bowed, “you are the most beautiful creature I can imagine.”

Erika said nothing for a moment. Most beautiful creature you could kidnap and imprison, she thought as she gazed down on the thinning hair on the back of his head.

“My lord,” she said primly.

The duke straightened and reached to take her hand. Holding it aloft, he gently guided her to a seat at the end of the table. Gold and crystal wine goblets, along with polished silver plates and flatware, were laid out at two of the chairs.

A servant filled Erika’s glass after she sat down, and the duke walked to his own chair across from her. Kyrali picked his cup up and raised it in salute to the princess.

“To happier days and prosperity for our lands!” he said before tipping his glass back.

Erika brought the cup to her lips and took a sip. Her eyes flitted across her place setting, and she had to fight to not curse when she saw that there was no knife next to her plate.

A servant brought out a steaming tureen and ladled green broth into her bowl. Erika smiled emptily at the duke as she picked up her spoon and tasted it.

~~~

Simon and Hollo stood in the alley’s shadows, watching the guards standing watch at the tower’s gate. Every so often, an officer would come by on his rounds. The guards seemed to know his routine, because a moment before he arrived, they would stop their idle conversation and push themselves off the wall to walk their post. A moment after his departure, they had their backs to the wall and discussions of women or work resumed.

“There’s about half an hour between visits,” Hollo said, “Might be enough time to do away with the guards, grab the princess, and get out.”

“I think I’ll try something a bit more subtle,” Simon replied, “Think you can fly up to that tower and see which room she’s in?”

Hollo nodded, and reached for his amulet. A moment later, a large crow flew through the courtyard and over the gate. The guards watched it go, then shrugged and returned to their discussion of the merits of blondes versus those of brunettes.

Simon waited patiently as the officer made another round, then heard a rustle in the alley behind him. Hollo kneeled next to the wall beside him. He panted with fatigue, and his brow was wet with sweat.

“Barely had enough to get back without falling from a house’s height,” he said tiredly.

“Did you have a look up there?” Simon asked.

“Yeah, she’s not in any of the rooms with windows.”

“Damn it. She has to be in there somewhere. See anything else?” Simon asked curtly.

“See that long building at the base of the tower? Something’s going on in there. Heard voices and smelled food.”

“Have to start there.”

“How’re we getting in?”

“You’re getting back to the horses and meeting me at the top of those bluffs over there. Bribe your way across the river if you have to, but don’t raise an alarm,” Simon said, rising from his crouch, “Wait for us until an hour after sunrise, then head for the border.  Find some of the Prince’s troops and tell him what’s happened.”

“And you?”

“I’m going to get in there, fetch our fair lady, and get out, hopefully without being seen.”

Hollo snorted and shook his head.

“Good luck,” he said, stepping back up the alley and heading toward the city gate.


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

Escort Duty – Part 22

Olo, the sergeant of the gate, watched as the brightly painted wagon rattled to a halt on the paving stones in front of him. He waved his oaken rod at the flies humming around his head, which bothered him almost as much as the rivulets of sweat which ran down through his beard.

“Where’re you going with that rolling calamity?” he called sarcastically to the driver.

“We’re the entertainment for the festival next weekend!” the rotund man with a pointed beard replied, “His lordship wants to hear the finest music in the world when he celebrates the first day of summer!”

“Entertainers?” said the sergeant, motioning to his men, who moved to surround the wagon.

“Yes,” the man said nervously, “Singers, jugglers, you know, entertainers.”

“And what’s in the wagon?”

“Just our costumes and instruments. The rest of the troop will be here tomorrow. We’re just here to get things set up.”

“We’ll see what that means when you pull it all out, now won’t we?”

The driver clambered down from his perch behind the horses.

“Please, sir, it’s all packed in there good and tight! It’ll take hours to put it all back without breaking something!”

“Well, that’s too bad, because I didn’t see you on any list to be exempt from searches, now did I?”

The driver considered the soldier for a moment, then said quietly, “And what would it take to be put on such a list, my good sir?”

The sergeant’s face broke into a knowing grin. “Why, a little donation to his lordship’s budget might suffice to make that happen,” he replied.

The driver reached into his pouch and pulled out two silver coins. The sergeant flushed at that, and pointed to the guards.

“Haul all of that junk out so I can inspect it, and be quick about it! Two silvers! I’ve never been so insulted!”

The driver took three more coins from his purse and held them up. The sergeant cocked his head and thought for a moment, then smiled again as he took all five coins.

“Nice to meet someone in the service of the duke, sir,” he said, “Enjoy your stay in Booda.”

The driver said nothing as he remounted the wagon and snapped the reins at his mules. The wagon started with a rattle and made its way through the gates. After they crossed the plaza beyond the gates, he turned into a side street, reining his horses to a stop. He handed the reins to his wife, and climbed down, looking about for soldiers and anyone curious about the strange wagon on their street.

Walking to the back of the cart, he pulled up the canvas cover and hissed, “We’re inside!”

Simon and Hollo slipped out from under the cover and onto the cobblestoned street. Hollo immediately started looking around for danger, while Simon reached back into the cart and removed a couple of items.

Handing the driver a sack that jingled with coins, Simon said, “Thank you, good sir. You’ve done us a great service today.”

“Just mind that you forget how you got in here and where you got those things, and I’ll call it even,” the driver said, snatching the purse from Simon and climbing back onto the wagon. While it clattered down the street, Simon and Hollo hurried down a narrow side street toward the first tower.

“So, what’s the plan?” Hollo asked.

“First we have to figure out which tower the princess is in.”

The two men approached the first tower. The courtyard in front of its gates was deserted, and only a pair of bored guards stood watch.

“Probably not here,” Simon said, “but it never hurts to check.”

He pulled the cloak he had taken from the cart on over his armor, then put a large, floppy straw hat on his head. He strode out into the courtyard and sat down near the gate.

Leaning his head back, he began to sing.

In Nottingham there lives a jolly tanner,

With a hey down down a down down

His name is Arthur a Bland;

There is nere a squire in Nottinghamshire

Dare bid bold Arthur stand.

 

He continued with the ballad as the guards watched him, but neither made any move to stop him. After he had finished, he began it again. The larger of the two guards looked to the other, shrugged, and stuck his arm through the gates. He pitched a bronze coin at Simon’s feet.

“Here, now, take that and be off with you,” he said gruffly.

Simon stood and bowed, saying “Thank ye, sir, thank ye” in his best country accent.

The guard watched him walk back to the alley, then resumed his post.

“She’s not there,” Simon said as he rejoined Hollo, “Let’s go to the next one.”

They approached the second tower, which had a courtyard bustling with merchants and people buying their wares. All of this was watched by black-garbed guards, both at the gate and from within.

“More guards here,” Hollo said, “this must be the place.”

“Your turn,” Simon said, taking the hat off and handing it to his companion.

“Me?” Hollo replied, “I can’t sing.”

“Someone might notice if the same man sat in the courtyard of all three towers and sang the same song.”

“But I don’t know that song!”

“Nonsense, you listened to it for a month while you perched on top of that hut. Now go on. I’ll watch the tower while you sing.”

Hollo sighed and put on the hat. He kept his head down as he walked to the gate, then sat down with his back to the guards and began to sing.

In Nottingham there lives a, uh, holly fanner,

With a hey down down a down, uh, down

His name is Walter, uh, Brand;

There is nere a flyer in Nottinghamshire

Dare bid old Walter stand.

 

Simon winced as he listened to his friend stumble through the verse, his voice a loud croak which seemed to carry and fill the entire courtyard. All of the merchants and their customers stopped to gawk at him, and after a moment, a clod from inside the gates landed next to Hollo.

“Get out of here, ya idiot!” one of the guards boomed, “Before I have my men come out there and kick your ass between your ears!”

Hollo quickly stood up and scurried back to the alley. Every eye followed him, and the noise of the market did not resume until after he disappeared into the shadows. Simon met him a few yards back from the plaza, trying to suppress a smile.

“Yeah, laugh,” Hollo hissed sarcastically, pulling the hat from his head, “I told you I can’t sing.”

“It was good enough,” Simon said, “Only one tower left.”

The last tower’s courtyard had but a few people in it, most of them either buying vegetables from one of the carts and stalls ringing its perimeter or drawing water from the well at its center.

Simon put on the hat as he walked casually to take a seat next to one of the stalls. After a moment, he began to sing.

In Nottingham there lives a jolly tanner,

With a hey down down a down down

His name is Arthur a Bland;

There is nere a squire in Nottinghamshire

Dare bid bold Arthur stand.

 

~~~

Erika sat on the windowsill, looking down on the gates and the courtyard beyond. She was not dressed in the fine gown and jewelry the duke had sent for her, but it was a constant reminder that eventually she would be taken into his odious presence once again.

As she sat in the light of the setting sun, the sounds of someone singing down in the courtyard came to her. She began to hum along to the familiar tune as she idly ran a silver comb through her hair.

Soon, she realized that she recognized the song and the voice singing it, and her heart skipped a beat. She opened her mouth and began to sing along, her voice ringing down into the courtyard below.

“Marry gep with a wenion!” quoth Arthur a Bland,
“Art thou such a goodly man?
I care not a fig for thy looking so big;
Mend thou thyself where thou can.”

Then Robin Hood he unbuckled his belt,
He laid down his bow so long;
He took up a staff of another oke graff,
That was both stiff and strong.

~~~

Simon heard the sweet sound of Erika’s voice, and a smile came to his face. He continued to sing, finishing the song with a bow to the crowd that gathered to hear him. The guard on the other side of the gate tossed a couple of copper coins to him, as did several of the onlookers.

“Thank you, good people, thank you,” he said as he backed into the alley. Hollo waited there for him.

“This is the place. I knew she’d hear me and answer if she was in any of the towers,” Simon said, taking the hat off, but leaving on the cloak.

“Where is she?” Hollo said.

“Somewhere up in that tower, near the top, I think. Not sure how we’re going to get up there, but at least we know where she is.”


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

Escort Duty – Part 21

Simon and Hollo looked down at the capitol. Booda was a large city at the bottom of a large valley, with a river port, which drew in both barges and cartloads of goods on their way to the sea. The bluffs beyond the city were of white chalk, and several paths and narrow roads led up their sides.

Their horses stood in a clearing behind them, eating and resting after a hard night of travel. Their saddles lay to the side, and the men had given them all a good rub down with their saddle blankets before collapsing to gaze across the valley.

“Haven’t been here in a while,” Hollo said quietly, “They’ve cleaned the place up.”

“Where does the duke live?” Simon asked, “The princess won’t be far from there.”

“His father had three places around the city. See those towers?”

Simon nodded as he peered down. This far out, the figures of soldiers on the city wall or atop the towers were dark dots against the gray stone.

“Think you can fly down there and have a look?”

“We’ll have to get closer. I’m exhausted. Won’t be able to hold the spell together for long.”

“We’ll go in this afternoon and see what we can find out,” Simon said, “I need to find a way to figure out which tower the princess is in.”

~~~

Erika watched as the maids laid out an elegant gown and jewelry. The dress was of fine, saffron-dyed silk, and it was accompanied by a heavy gold chain and pins for the dress.

“My lord asks that you be ready to have dinner with him this evening, my lady,” the matron said as she smoothed the silk out on the dressing table.

“Tell your lord that I will not be eating with him tonight, or ever again.”

“My lady, there is no choice in the matter. You will either walk to the table, or be carried. I’ve seen it happen before.”

Erika closed her eyes and shook her head slowly, her breath coming out in a huff.

“All right, tell that toad I will be ready for dinner, but I do not wish to be disturbed until then,” Erika said, her lips curled back on her teeth in disgust.

“Yes, my lady,” the matron replied, bowing as she closed the door behind her.

Erika walked to the window and looked down. Far below, several soldiers stood in the stone courtyard. The gate to the compound, made from wood and iron, lay at its far end. The plaza in front of it held a communal well and several merchants’ stalls.

One of the guards saw her poke her head out of the window and raised his hand in greeting. Erika quickly pulled her head back into the room.

Not that way, she fumed, drumming her fingers on the sill, unless I learn to fly.

She crossed to the door, and was surprised to find it unlocked. She opened it an inch or so, and startled at the smiling face of a guard looking at her through the opening.

“You desire something, lady?” he asked.

“Uh, no, thank you,” she said, closing the door.

How am I going to get out of here?

~~~

Simon and Hollo watched as farmers and traders made their way through the city gate. The guards either leaned against the stone walls or stood to search some random cart. Simon pressed his lips together and blew his breath out through his nose.

“Not going to get through there too easily with a sword,” he said, putting his hand on Gnarlthing’s pommel.

“Have to sneak in,” Hollo said flatly, “And I can’t carry you over the walls.”

The men knelt in tall grass at the edge of the woods. The wheels of carts and wagons creaked on the nearby road as they passed. Most were piled high with produce from the spring crops, while some carried trade goods. One, brightly painted and festooned with banners, caught Simon’s eye.

Its driver sat next to a woman, whose silver hair blew freely in the breeze as she sang to the rhythm of the horses’ steps down the road.

“If thou be Robin Hood,” bold Arthur reply’d,

“As I think well thou art,

Then here’s my hand, my name’s Arthur a Bland,

We two will never depart.

 

“But tell me, O tell me, where is Little John?

Of him fain would I hear;

For we are alide by the mothers side,

And he is my kinsman near.”

 

Simon listened to her for a moment, then began to tap out the familiar tune on the ground in front of him. Hollo scrunched his face up in a questioning look. Simon’s face, on the other hand, broke out in a wide smile.

“Wait here,” he said as he rose and jogged to catch the wagon. “I’ve got an idea.”


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

Escort Duty – Part 20

Erika sat on a stool before a bronze mirror as a girl brushed her hair out. The soldiers had handed her over to the Duke’s guards late the night before, and the marks on her wrist showed how she had struggled against her bonds as she rode. She felt some satisfaction in knowing that her resistance had slowed her captors’ return to the city. The captain of the guards, a man with one eye who introduced himself as Gabor, had instructed several servants to assist her.

Now, she was thoroughly scrubbed, dressed in a silk gown the color of dragon’s fire, and sat having her hair and jewelry gone over by two servants. She looked about in disbelief, half expecting to see Greta’s smile reflected in the mirror as she fussed with the princess’ hair.

“Now, lady, you are beautiful,” the matronly woman who managed the servant girls said in a thick accent, “The Duke will be happy to see you in such a state.”

Erika looked at her sharply, but said nothing.

The servants finished their work, then helped Erika to her feet. The shoes they had put on her were too tight, and they pinched as Erika walked to the door of her chamber. Two guards, their clothing black with a bronze dragon embroidered on the chest of their tunics, escorted her down the stairs. Late-morning sun streamed through windows as she was led to a large meeting hall below.

A man, tall, stout, with grizzled gray hair clipped close to his scalp, sat in a chair at the end of the hall. Next to him stood an older man, wearing a woolen cloak dyed the color of ripe wheat. He held a wax tablet in one hand and a stylus in the other.  He scribbled rapidly as the seated man talked.

“Tell him that payment for his curse will come when I have taken Pesht. Butter him up a bit and tell him the plague is working better than expected, and there will be plenty of open lands to reward him with once the campaign is….” the man said, looking up and smiling as he saw Erika walk into the hall.

“Ah, my lady, so good to meet you at last,” he said as he rose with a dismissive gesture to his servant. The scribe bowed as she approached, then turned and left the hall, his scroll and stylus in hand.

The man stood and walked toward the princess. He was half a head taller than Erika, and wore a tunic of soft, heather-gray velvet across his broad shoulders and protruding belly. The silk slippers on his feet made no sound as he took a step closer to the women, and amethysts twinkled from his ears.

“Duke Kyrali, I presume,” Erika said, affecting her most imperious tone.

The duke bowed dramatically, “At your service, my lady.”

“If you are at my service, then why did your men kill my servant and drag me here against my will?”

“Ah, but that was just a misunderstanding. I’m sure they meant no harm.”

“No harm? Greta was a loyal maid whom I have known most of my life! And to bring me here as a prisoner, to force me to appear before you, that is outrageous!” Erika said as she raised her wrists up to show the bruises and marks from her bonds.

Kyrali acted as if he did not notice, instead taking Erika by the hand and leading her to a small table laid out with food and drink. A servant poured yellow wine into a silver cup for Erika, while the duke offered her a plate of cheese and grapes.

“Come, my lady, accept my hospitality,” he said in a silken tone, “It isn’t often that such a beautiful and noble woman graces us with her presence.”

Erika glared at him over the top of her wine, but took a piece of cheese from the plate. She nibbled on it for a moment, then looked at Kyrali with a shrewd expression.

“And what exactly do you want with me?” she demanded.

“Why, only to be of service to you and to offer you a rest from your long journey, fair lady,” he replied.

“If you wish to be of service to me, speed me to the borders of your lands so that I may return home!”

“Now, there’s no need to rush. I know of your father’s death, my lady. Such a pity, for such a beautiful woman to be without a protector and lord.”

This woman has no need of a protector or a lord, and how dare you speak of my father, you cur!”

“Ah, but I know that you are unwed, my lady,” he said, clucking his tongue, “How shameful that your father did not take care of that before his untimely demise.”

“What business is that of yours?” she retorted through clenched teeth.

“Why, since I plan on joining our kingdoms through marriage, it’s surely my business, Erika. May I call you Erika?”

“No, you may not, and if you think I’m going to….”

“Oh, I know of your betrothal, too. Really, your father was terrible about ensuring that his people stayed loyal to his house. But don’t worry your pretty little head about that, my dear. I’ll deal with Prince Jorgen as soon as I have united Booda and Pesht once again, and the resources of the Western Islands are mine.”

“My people will never…”

“Never let a gossamer hair on your head come to harm, my lady,” the duke interrupted with an oily smile, “even if that means providing me with ships and soldiers and whatever else your new husband requires. No, I think that we shall make a fine pair, and you shall give me good sons to rule both kingdoms.”

“You are no king, and I will not be your brood mare,” Erika said defiantly.

“Ah, but you see, I soon shall be. The little country of Pesht is being ravaged by a horrific plague, as I’m sure you saw on your way through that poor land.”

“I saw empty villages and farms turning to wasteland, if that’s what you mean,” she replied in an icy tone.

The duke shook his head sadly. “Yes, horrible, isn’t it? I’m sorry to say I’ve had to close my border with our neighbors to keep the contagion from spreading here. More wine?”

“I heard what you were saying when I came in. How can you kill all those people?”

“Ah, you are a sharp young lady, aren’t you? No matter. You see, a land depopulated by sickness can’t stop my army from crossing the border to… assist our neighbors. Of course, after we’ve garrisoned troops there to bring comfort to them, they’ll be happy to be ruled by such a benevolent master as me. And once I rule both lands, why, what else can I call myself but ‘King’?”  His smile widened as he took a sip from his cup.

“Benevolent?” Erika snorted, “You evil little snake, you’re murdering children so that you can steal from your neighbor!”

“Well, I guess it just depends on how one looks at it, doesn’t it, my dear?”

The duke took another drink from his wine, then smirked at Erika as he put his chalice down on the table.

“And since you had the bad manners to eavesdrop while I spoke to my advisor, I’ll just have to make sure you never have an opportunity to spread such things around. You’ll make a fine lady in the high tower, won’t you?”

His teeth showed white against his beard as he grinned at her and lifted his cup to drain it.


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

Escort Duty – Part 19

The sun had been up for an hour when Simon and Hollo approached the village.

“I don’t know about you,” Simon said, “but I need a bath, some food, and a few hours of sleep.”

Hollo merely grunted as he looked at the village on the horizon. He stiffened as he saw several men on horses milling around near the tavern. He put his hand up, and Simon reined his horse to a halt.

“What is it?”

“Not sure. Was there a troop of cavalry in the village last night?”

“Not that I saw,” Simon replied, rising in the stirrups to get a better view of the village.

“Well, they’re at the tavern now.”

They rode their horses off the road and into a copse of trees. After dismounting, they tethered the horses to a willow next to a small stream and crept as near as they could to the village without being seen.

Closer inspection did nothing to assuage their fears. Even from this distance, they could see soldiers, both mounted and on foot, searching the buildings. Villagers stood around, clutching children close and bowing their heads to officers when they issued gruff orders and demands.

“Well, that’s the end of this trip,” Hollo said, turning to go back to the horses, “No way they weren’t captured.”

“We need to find out where the princess is,” Simon said, putting his hand up to stop his friend.

Hollo regarded him for a moment, then sighed.

“You and your damned sense of honor. Seriously, it’s going to get you killed someday.”

“Have to die for something,” Simon replied, “Think you can get in there without raising suspicion?”

Hollo said nothing, but reached his hand up to his amulet without asking Simon to turn around. His features blurred for a moment, then were replaced with those of a large crow.

“Never seen how you do that before,” Simon said, “Try to find out if they’ve been captured, and where they’ve been taken.”

The crow blinked twice, then took off in a rustle of black wings. Simon watched as it landed on the roof of the tavern, turning this way and that from its perch. After a moment, it flew down into the village and out of his sight.

Simon stole back to the horses and waited for Hollo. He was getting anxious when he heard wings beating on the wind, and then Hollo walked out from behind a tree.

“I’m doing that too often,” the thin man said, “Going to have to rest a bit.”

“What did you learn?” Simon demanded.

“They took the lady last night. She’s in Booda by now, probably.”

“And Greta?”

“Dead. I heard the innkeeper’s wife complaining to someone about having to clean up the blood.”

Simon shook his head at that. “We should never have left them,” he said angrily, slapping his fist into his palm.

“They’re searching the village for us,” Hollo continued, “The innkeeper told the soldiers that the last he saw of us, we were leaving the tavern last night.”

“How far is it to Booda?”

“If we take the main road, we can be there tonight, but we can’t go that way.”

“And if we go the way that doesn’t end up with us locked in a crow’s cage?”

Hollo looked up at Simon’s choice of words, then said, “We can be there by dawn tomorrow.”

“Good,” Simon said, turning to the horses, “let’s get going.”

Hollo shook his head and muttered as he mounted his horse. “Going to get both of us killed.”


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

Escort Duty – Part 18

Erika sat on the windowsill, wrapped in a bed sheet, enjoying the cool evening breeze. She was clean for the first time in weeks, and while her dress was dirty, and to be honest, stunk, a night hanging out in the air would do it wonders.

Another bowl of stew and a good stiff drink will do me wonders, she thought as she listened for Greta to return. She heard the stairs creak, and turned to face the door. The sound of heavy boots on the landing brought her heart to her mouth. She froze for a moment as she heard a hand work the latch on the door, then she moved quickly to hide.

A black-clad soldier burst through the door, followed by his partner, who still gripped Greta by the arm. The room was empty except for the bed and small table in one corner.

“Where is she?” The first soldier roared, kicking the bed over.

Greta looked around anxiously, but no sign of her mistress was to be found. The soldier holding her wrenched her arm badly, spinning her around to face him.

“If you’ve lied to me, girl, it’ll go worse for you,” he growled.

“I swear, I don’t know!” she cried in fear and pain. Her shoulder screamed as the soldier twisted it. He bared his teeth, pulling the small woman’s face close to his.

“Where did she go?” he demanded, spittle flying from his lips he spoke.

The other soldier walked to the window, and looked down at the yard below. Seeing nothing, he looked to either side. A wide smile came to his face as he extended his arm through the window.

“My lady, please, take my hand,” he said with false gentleness, “It would be a shame for you to slip and fall so far.”

Erika, who held to the stone gutter by her fingers, glared at the man for a moment before she reached up and took the offered hand. The soldier gripped her wrist tightly, and lifted her back through the window.

Erika straightened and adjusted the bed sheet covering her body after the soldier set her down on the floor. She gave him her most petulant look, saying, “How dare you bother me in such a manner? And how dare you abuse my servant?”

The soldier bowed, saying “Princess, we expected to see you sooner. Duke Kyrali has sent orders to watch for you, and that you are to be brought to him so that he may show you hospitality worthy of your station.”

“You mean he means to hold me for ransom, or worse.”

“I am but his servant, my lady,” the soldier replied, “Now, if you’ll come with us, we’ll get you to the Duke tonight.”

Erika turned to walk through the door, but then lashed out with her foot, kicking the soldier in the knee. He bellowed in pain as his leg folded underneath him. Her bare feet pounded on the wooden floor as she rushed for the door.

The soldier holding Greta reached out with his free hand and snatched the princess by the hair as she ran past. Her head wrenched back, and she lost her footing, landing hard on the floor. Greta screeched as she clawed at the soldier’s face, leaving long, bloody marks on his cheek.

The soldier roared in pain, throwing Greta to the floor. Erika stood again, pulling out a few strands of hair as she shook herself loose. The other soldier regained his feet, lunging at her, and catching the edge of the sheet as she ran through the doorway. Erika screamed as she felt him hold her back, and she kicked at her attacker, trying to break loose.

Greta regained her feet and jumped on the soldier’s back, pounding at his head with her fists. The second soldier, one of his eyes blinded with blood dripping from his wounds, drew his dagger and drove it into the maid’s back.

Time seemed to stand still as Erika saw the blade plunge into Greta. The princess watched as her maid stopped her attack when the pain hit her. Greta opened her mouth as if to scream, but no sound came came from her, as she looked into her mistress’ eyes in shock.

The soldier pulled his dagger from the young woman’s back with a twist, and kicked her in the ribs. Greta fell into a heap on the floor, a pool of blood slowly spreading out from under her. The two soldiers grabbed Erika by the arms, pulling her kicking and screaming down the stairs.

“Greta!” she screamed, “Greta!”


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

Escort Duty – Part 17

Hollo and Simon left their stolen horses tied to a mile marker with a large “1” engraved into its stone face. Silently, the pair walked through the open field to the side of the road, guided by the watch fires the soldiers kept on the far side of the bridge.

As they drew nearer to the huts, they kneeled in a ditch to watch the garrison for a few minutes. The dark sky, which had made their approach so easy, now betrayed them, as they could make out no details.

Hollo looked to Simon and touched the amulet on his chest. Simon nodded, then turned his back. Simon looked off in the distance as he heard Hollo take in a sharp breath, then his ears heard a rustling sound, then nothing. The half-elf sat there for a few minutes, until he heard another rustle, then felt Hollo tap him on the shoulder.

“Twenty-five men, about a third of them up and on watch,” he whispered, “The rest are asleep in the two huts nearest to the road on the left there.”

“Are our horses still there?”

“That big building over there is a stable. I heard my pony nickering, so the rest should be there, too.”

“And the rest?”

“The hut next to it is painted and has bars on the windows.”

“That’ll be where the officer sleeps, and I’ll bet our things are in there with him.”

Hollo shrugged. “I wasn’t able to get a good look in there,” he replied, “Although there was something shiny in the lean-to on this side.”

The two men talked quietly for a few more minutes, then moved toward the cluster of huts. Simon slowly made his way through the shadows toward the stable, while Hollo crept toward the officer’s house.

Simon winced at the low creak the door made as he opened it, but his ears picked up no hint that the guards watching the bridge had noticed. Inside, he found their horses, as well as Hollo’s pony and a large warhorse, probably owned by the garrison’s commander. The mule was nowhere to be seen.

Simon scratched the pony between his eyes when the little horse nudged his hand, then began saddling the horses.

Hollo found the door to the officer’s hut latched shut, and a tug on the bars proved that they were solidly affixed to the house. Hollo sighed in frustration, and looked around for some way in. Finally, he hung his head, took a deep breath, and touched his amulet.

A few moments later, Hollo stood on the floor next to the officer’s bed. The man was fast asleep, his head tilted back as he snored loudly. A small candle burned on the small table next to his bed, and its light reflected from the treasures the commander had collected from the shipments to the capitol. Gold and silver plates, bags of coins, and several weapons, their hilts and scabbards inlaid with jewels, were heaped in piles around the small room.

Hollo stood transfixed by the wink of candlelight on jewels and polished metal, but regained his senses after a few moments. He spied Gnarlthing, along with Simon’s daggers and Erika’s sword in its scabbard, leaning against the wall. He picked them up, then recognized one of the bundles the mule had carried. He opened it an inch or two, and felt soft cloth when he put his hand inside.

Nodding to himself, he picked the sack up just as he heard the clop of hooves walking through the yard. Going to the window, he saw Simon leading the horses and the pony toward the hut. He put his hand out the window and waved through the bars. Simon saw it and walked the horses over.

Wordlessly, Hollo passed the weapons through the bars, along with a couple bags of coins he grabbed from the floor. He tried to push the bundle of clothes through as well, but it would not fit through the bars.

“Leave it,” Simon hissed quietly, “We’ve been here too long.” As if to punctuate this, both men froze when they heard the officer’s breath hitch in his sleep, followed by the rustle of bedclothes as he rolled over.

Hollo nodded, setting the bundle on the floor. He touched his amulet and disappeared from Simon’s view. A moment later, he stood up on the other side of the window.

“Let’s go,” Simon said as they mounted their horses. Greta’s horse was tied to Simon’s saddle, while the pony followed on a lead tied to Erika’s mare, which Hollo mounted. The two men crept out of the encampment, keeping their horses to the side of the road, until they regained the mile marker where the two horses they had ridden from the tavern were tied up.  They retrieved them, putting them on a lead behind their horses before remounting.

“I’d kill to see that bastard’s face when he wakes up tomorrow morning,” Simon said as they cantered down the road toward the village.

“It’ll be a mystery talked about for a long time,” Hollo replied with a chuckle.


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

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