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Escort Duty – Part 8

The next morning, Simon was enjoying a mug of wine and some bread when Erika and Soren came down the stairs from their room. Soren wore his normal drab tunic and breeches, but Erika had changed into a gown of blue satin with white fur collars and cuffs. A chain of pearls hung from her neck, and at her breast a brooch of silver and pearls glistened in the light.

Simon stood as she alighted from the stairs, bowing dramatically to her as she smiled at him.

“Good morning, my lady,” he said, “You are certainly the most beautiful woman in these parts.”

“Why thank you, good sir,” she replied, her voice light and sweet. A good meal and a night in a comfortable bed seemed to have done wonders for her mood. Soren looked at Simon suspiciously, but said nothing.

“Why, I’m sure your appearance today will be the talk of these folk for weeks to come,” Simon continued, leaning against the table, “and of everyone who passes through.”

Erika’s smile faded, her brow wrinkling to a scowl.

“You’re mocking me, aren’t you?” she said, her tone changing from the tinkle of a silver bell to a low growl.

“Of course, not, my lady,” Simon replied, “I look forward to the excitement of trying to dodge patrols and pursuers who seek the beautiful lady dressed in rich raiment.”

Erika fumed at that, and opened her mouth to retort, but Soren cut in.

“You think you’re funny, don’t you?” he demanded.

“Actually, I think I’m hilarious.”

“What makes you think you can poke fun at your betters?”

“Well, since my mother is a princess of the Chanani, and her line stretches back to before her people were driven into the Wispmark, and your grandmother was the daughter of a goat-herd, I think we really ought to evaluate the term ‘better,’ shouldn’t we?”

Soren tried to respond to that, but the words caught in his throat. Erika arched an eyebrow and suppressed a smile of her own.

“How did you know that?” he hissed after a few moments.

“Soren, do you really think I hired on with your master without learning everything I could about those he trusts?”

Soren said nothing, but stole a glance at the princess.

She arched an eyebrow and said “A goatherd?”

“She married well, my lady,” Soren explained, his pale face flushing in embarrassment under his beard.

“Scandalous,” Erika replied with a small smile.

“It was, my lady. The court never let her forget it, but my grandfather loved her.”

“I’m sure it doesn’t matter,” Erika said, “Any house that traces its lineage finds such things regularly.”

Soren nodded, then turned back to Simon.

“And what of the princess? Are you her better?”

“Oh, no, not at all. I am but her servant.”

“Then you should act like one,” Erika snapped, “Greta knows her place.” Greta looked up at the mention of her name, but seemed to be trying to shrink out of sight while the others argued.

“My place, lady, is to protect you. You are making that difficult by attempting this trip in such finery,” Simon replied.

“What would you have her do, travel in rags like a beggar?” Soren said, a touch of anger in his voice.

“No, that shouldn’t be necessary. But we must do something so that she does not shine like a diamond in the dust.”

Erika glowered at the half-elf. She again opened her mouth to retort, but stopped and turned when the door opened behind her. Branka came in, a basket of eggs hanging from the crook of her elbow. A younger woman, smaller than the innkeeper and carrying a basket of greens and vegetables from the garden, followed her.

Simon considered the younger woman for a moment. He smiled at Branka and said, “Is this little Annya? Say it isn’t so!”

The young woman blushed and looked at the floor as Branka replied, “Of course, who else would it be?”

“Why, it seems only yesterday she was tottering around and singing like a little angel!”

“Well, she’s all grown up now,” Branka said, setting her basket on the bar, “She’s to be married at the first full moon of summer.”

“Ah, a blushing bride,” Simon said, tipping his head down to level his eyes with Annya’s, “And which of the strapping young men hereabouts is the lucky groom?”

“He’s a groom at the palace in Pesht,” Branka said with a smile. She chuckled at the joke. “She’ll be leaving her dear mother here in the sticks and be a maid for the Count’s wife.”

Simon considered that for a moment, then tilted his head and smiled at the innkeeper’s daughter. She set her basket down on a table and joined her mother at holding the eggs up to the light from the window to find the ones which had been fertilized.

“We met when he came through here with his lord a few months ago,” she said in a soft, piping voice.

“A fine match, and I’m sure he’ll be as good a husband as you will be his wife,” Simon said thoughtfully, “Do you have a wedding gown yet?”

“I have a few things,” the young woman said, looking away from her work, “and Oleg says I can get something nice once I get to Pesht.”

Simon turned and winked to Soren and Erika. The Princess’ eyes bugged out as she understood where he was going.

“You’re in luck, little one,” he said after turning back to the two women candling their eggs, “My companions here deal in ladies finery, and I believe they’re of a mind to make a bargain today.

Both Branka and Annya turned to face their guests. Branka was the first to speak.

“Bargain? How so?”

“My lady Erika is in need of some traveling clothes. Hers seem to have been mislaid, and all she has are such as you see her wearing now.”

“And she’d be willing to part with it if we have something to offer?”

“Yes, she’d like to get something that doesn’t attract the eye so much, if you catch my meaning.”

Erika gave Simon a hard look, then smiled at Branka and her daughter.

“Yes, ladies,” she said sweetly, “This is a wonderful gown, but I’m afraid that it just won’t do for the road.”

Branka stood and walked over to Erika, wiping her hands on her apron. She reached out and pinched a bit of fabric between her calloused thumb and forefinger.

“Very nice,” she said, “but what do you want in trade?”

“Annya, how tall are you?” Erika said sweetly.

“I am seventeen hands at the top of my head, my lady,” Annya said, standing up.

“What a coincidence,” Erika said with a smile, “We’re almost the same height, and if I don’t miss my guess, we’re about the same at the shoulders and hips.”

Soren looked quizzically at the princess, but said nothing.

“Would you be willing to trade a dress or two for the ladies gown?” Simon said, looking more at Branka than at Annya.

The older woman considered it for a moment, then said, “She only got the one dress better than what she’s wearing now. You could have that.”

“What if you threw in a few odds and ends to seal the deal?” Simon replied.

“I can make sure you leave here with enough food to get you through Pesht, if that’s what you’re after.”

Annya blushed, saying, “It’s a beautiful dress, but I’m not sure I could wear it.”

Erika waved her hand at her dismissively. Smiling warmly, she said, “Pish, don’t worry about that. Come with me and we’ll see how it fits.”

The princess extended her hand to the innkeeper’s daughter and gently led her up the stairs to her room. Greta followed, her eyes shifting from her mistress to Simon and back.

“If she likes it, is it a deal?” Simon said.

Branka looked at him through slitted eyes, then spit on her hand and extended it to the half-elf. Simon returned the gesture, and they shook on it.

“Annya’s good dress and some provisions for one ladies gown,” the innkeeper said before picking up the eggs and walking into the kitchen.

“Call me when she’s done,” she called over her shoulder, “I want to see my baby girl in a fine dress.”

Soren waited until he heard her working in the kitchen before he turned to Simon and glared.

“Did you just trade away a fine gown for some bread and a set of plain clothes?” he demanded.

Simon sat back down to his breakfast and took up his cup. Gesturing to the stool across from him, he answered, “Here, have a seat and eat something.”

Soren’s lips tightened to a white line, but he took the offered seat. As he sat there, he crossed his arms and looked at Simon expectantly.

Simon took another bit of the bread, and after swallowing it, said, “Soren, this way we will be able to go through most villages or even a city or two without sticking out. If she’d gone about dressed like that, we’d have had to stick to the wild lands and this trip would take three times as long.”

Soren considered that, then nodded.

“All right,” he said, “But you’re just lucky she cooperated.”

“If I didn’t think she’d cooperate, I wouldn’t have tried to do it,” Simon replied, “She’s just like her father. Bit of a hothead, but practical when it’s needed.”

“I suppose you knew her father when he was that age?” Soren said, taking a piece of the bread.

Simon snorted. “What tales you all believe about the elves,” he said, “I’m younger than you are, and if I’m lucky to die in my sleep as an old man, I won’t be any older than you will be when you meet such an end.”

“But I thought you all lived forever.”

“Old wives tales. I’m as mortal as you are. I’m just better looking.”

Soren looked at him darkly, then saw the smile on Simon’s face. Shaking his head, he returned to chewing his bread.

“I spoke with someone last night,” Simon said after washing a mouthful down.

“About?”

“Pesht.  You heard what Branka said about a plague?”

“We heard that there’s some epidemic going through the capitol, but we’re not going that way, are we?”

“Not if we can help it,” Simon replied, “But my friend said it’s spreading along the main roads.”

“Should we go back?”

“Do you think we could convince her highness to go back to your master and admit defeat?”

Soren thought about that as he chewed a mouthful of bread, then shook his head.

“Not a chance,” he said, “Can we go around to the coast and get a ship?”

“That would double our journey, and I didn’t exactly bring along a treasury to hire a boat and crew.”

“What about the mountains in the north?”

“That’s twice as far as going straight through to Booda, and it would force us to go through their capitol.  All roads lead to Pesht in Pesht.”

“So what choice do we have?” Soren asked, putting his mug down.

“Hollo says that he knows ways through the hills which will keep us off the roads,” Simon replied, “That’ll only cost us a few days.  It’s either that or we turn back now and have Dveglammar hire a ship to take the princess home.”

Soren considered Simon’s words for a moment, then picked up his mug.  He drained the last of his wine before saying, “We’ll follow Hollo, but we won’t take any chances with the princess.  If we come upon a place the sickness has reached, we’ll turn back.”

Simon nodded and lifted his own drink in acknowledgement of the soldier’s decision.

Both men turned when they heard footsteps on the stairs behind them. Greta came down first, followed by Erika. The princess had changed into a simple long-sleeved shift of green wool, with a few embroidered accents at the throat and hems. The only hint of the finery she normally wore were the leather riding boots peeking out from under her skirt as she walked down the stairs.

But both men’s attention was drawn to Annya, who came last. Her tawny brown hair had been let down from the braid she normally kept it in, and now her tresses fell in curls down either side of her face. Her eyes sparkled as she carefully walked down the stairs in the blue satin and white fur gown. She had been pretty, if a little plain, before, but she seemed to almost glow in the sunshine from the windows now.

Simon and Soren gaped for a moment, then bowed to her as one when she alighted from the stairs. Behind them, Branka came out of the kitchen, stopping with one hand to her mouth.

“Oh, but that’s a beautiful lady there, that is!” was all she could squeak out before rushing forward to take her daughter’s hand and turning her around.

“Do you like it, mama?” Annya asked in a hushed tone, “Is it too much?”

“Darling, it’s wonderful,” Branka said with tears in her eyes.

“Your Oleg will be the envy of the court, Annya,” Simon said, “He’ll certainly be the luckiest man there.”

Branka turned and engulfed Erika in a tight hug. The princess gasped as she felt the older woman’s arms crushing in on her, but returned the embrace as best she could.

After setting Erika down again, Branka dabbed at her eyes with the corner of her apron, saying “I’ll make sure you eat well on your trip, my lady. Thank you for this.”

Erika smiled warmly at the woman’s happiness, saying “Think nothing of it. She looks better in it than I do.”

“Come,” Branka said, clearing the emotion from her throat, “Let me make you a proper breakfast.”


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

Escort Duty – Part 7

It was past dark when Hollo and Simon brought their horses to a halt. Erika, not paying attention after hours of keeping up at the hard pace the two men had set, almost walked her mare past Simon before Greta took the reins from her and stopped them both. Soren, exhaustion on his face, slumped in his saddle as his horse stopped without being told.

The windows of a building glowed dully in the gloom, and the sound of someone singing and other people talking loudly could be heard from inside. At the sound of their approach, a boy stepped out from the door and watched them expectantly.

Simon dismounted, then put his hand up to help Erika down. She took it without thinking, and almost fell into his arms as she swung down from her saddle. Simon helped her to her feet, then assisted Greta. Soren, who finally noticed their halt, got down and stumbled over.

“We’ll spend the night here,” Simon said, “I know the tavern’s owner. Hopefully there’s still room.” He motioned to the boy, who walked over and spoke to Hollo in hushed tones.

“How far did we go?” Erika asked.

“About ten leagues, my lady,” Simon replied, “A good day, and I believe that any pursuers from the hills gave up hours ago.”

“We’ll know by morning,” Soren said, “If there isn’t a fight tonight, then we’ve lost them.”

The boy and Hollo took the bundles and saddlebags from the horses, then the boy led their mounts around the building. Simon and Hollo picked up their baggage, and the group walked into the building.

They were met with the smell of wood smoke, beer, and cooking onions. The sound of conversation died off as they entered, but picked back up when the patrons turned back to their mugs and companions. In the corner, a man with grizzled hair sat on a three legged stool, plucking at a harp with the head of a dragon carved on it. A black dog, somewhere between a puppy and a full-grown beast, lay at his feet, watching the room for a dropped morsel. Simon and the man exchanged a nod, then the half-elf turned toward the bar.

“Branka, my darling!” he said with a wide grin when the barmaid saw him.

“Why, by the goddess’ blade, it’s Simon!” she replied merrily, coming around the bar and embracing him in her meaty arms. She was short, thick, and had deep black hair that she kept pulled back with a leather thong. Erika’s eyes widened as she lifted Simon, who was a head taller than she, off the ground and squeezed him.

Branka put Simon back down, allowing him to take a deep breath to replace the one she had squeezed out of him, and turned to one of the tables.

“Clear off, you lot!” she rumbled at the two men sitting at it, “That table’s taken.”

“But we’ve been here for three hours!” one protested as they got up and took their mugs to the bar.

“Quiet!” she snapped, taking a rag from her belt and wiping the table down before turning back to Simon.

“Here, have a seat,” she said with a wide smile of yellowed teeth, “I’ll bring mugs and a pitcher.” With that, she turned and hurried behind the bar.

Simon pulled the bench out on one side and offered it to Erika. The princess sat primly, then scooted over so that Greta could join her. Soren and Simon took the other, while Hollo pulled a stool up and sat at the head of the table.

Branka lay five mugs and a pitcher of thick, brown beer upon the table, then smiled at Erika.

“And who might this be, Simon?” she teased, “Did you finally settle down and marry a fine lady?”

Greta, who had been pouring a mug of beer for Erika, started at that, almost spilling the entire pitcher on her mistress, but Erika smiled broadly.

“No, good woman, Simon is only escorting me and my….” she started to say.

“Husband,” Simon said, motioning to Soren, “I’m showing them and their servant to Booda.”

“Booda?” Branka said, “Oh, I wouldn’t try to get through Pesht right now.”

“Why is that?” Soren asked, taking the mug Greta offered him.

“Why, haven’t you heard? There’s a plague going through there,” she replied, “Oh, it’s awful, the stories we hear.”

“Plague?”

“Oh, yes, horrible. It’s gotten so bad that we’ve had to have the boy out front tell people to go away if they come from that direction. Can’t have plague here, now can we?”

“I’m sure we’ll be fine,” Erika said, “We’ll be careful.”

Branka chatted with them for a few more minutes, then left to fetch them some dinner. She returned with five bowls brimming with stew and a loaf of dense, brown bread. Soren thanked her and passed her a silver coin.

“You’ll want a room then?” she asked, slipping it into her pouch.

“Yes, please,” Erika said, “One for us and one for the rest.”

“There’s only one left upstairs, but it’ll keep you cozy,” Branka said with a wink. She turned back to the bar and several other waiting customers. Her voice boomed to someone in the back to fetch more wood for the fire, then hectored a customer who was attempting to refill his mug without paying.

Erika’s eyes stabbed at Simon. “Husband?”

“It was the best I could think of, my lady. We need to keep a low profile, and I couldn’t say ‘Oh, she’s a princess and we are escorting her back to her kingdom!’, now could I?”

Erika harrumphed again, then picked up the bread Greta had laid next to her bowl. Tearing off a piece, she dipped it in the stew and took a tentative bite. Her eyes widened, and she grabbed at her wooden spoon and began to drain her bowl quickly.

Once it was gone and the last of the gravy had been sopped up with her bread, she took a sip of her beer and daintily blotted at her mouth with a cloth.

“That was delicious,” she said, “I don’t think I’ve ever had better chicken stew before.”

Simon and Hollo exchanged a glance, and Soren closed his mouth without speaking when he saw Simon give his companion a subtle shake of the head.

“Yes, it is good,” he said instead.

The group finished their meal and the beer, all them too tired for conversation. After a while, Erika rose from the table. The legs of Simon and Soren’s bench scraped as they rose as well. Hollo looked up at the sound, but continued sipping his beer.

“I believe I shall retire, gentlemen,” she said, suppressing a yawn. Branka saw her stand, and walked over.

“Here, lady, I’ll take you up to your chamber,” she said, smiling. Erika looked around, spotted the stairs at the corner of the room, and walked toward them. When Soren did not move to join her, Branka motioned for him to follow, then set off after Erika and Greta.

Soren’s smile faded quickly, and he looked at Simon with a scowl. He leaned in close to the half-elf, his eyes ablaze.

“If word of me having to share a room with the princess gets back to Tor, it’ll be you he strings up by his guts!” he hissed before turning and following the women upstairs.

Simon sat down and grinned at Hollo.

“Well, that went well,” he said, “Guess we’re down here in the common room for the night.”

“You can have it,” Hollo said, standing up from his stool, “I’m going to go sleep in the stable. Too many people in here.” With that, he walked back out into the night.

Simon took the last gulp of beer from his mug, refilled it, and walked to sit next to the fire.

“Hello, old friend,” he said to the old man playing the harp, “What news do you have of the lands to the west?” At his feet, the black dog thumped his tail on the rushes and leaned over for a scratch behind the ears.


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

Escort Duty – Part 6

It seemed to be only a moment before Erika awoke with Greta tapping her arm, but her maid’s face was lit with the gray light of a pre-dawn sky. Erika sat up with a groan, then arched her back.

“Good morning, my lady,” Soren said as he rolled up his bed and tied it closed.

“It’s still dark out,” she replied, “Tell me good morning once the sun is up and I’ve had breakfast.” Her stomach chose that moment to grumble loudly.

Erika stood and walked to the stream, dipping her hand into the frigid water. She almost squealed at its touch, but splashed a bit over her face and into her hair before standing and walking back to Greta. Her maid motioned her to sit on the bracken next to her, then pulled her braids apart and ran a silver brush through her blonde hair.  The curls from her braids caused it to catch occasionally, but Greta was gentle as she unwound the knots and replaited her mistress’ hair.  Erika endured the morning ritual while glaring at the men as they packed and loaded their sleeping rolls.

“Breakfast shall be what is left of our apples and cheese, my lady,” Simon said, “And there’s some meat left if anyone wants it.”

Erika made a face, but took the food Simon offered and bit into an apple. She did not notice that he had not cored or sectioned it for her, chewing mechanically as Greta finished setting her hair for the day. Once all that remained of the apple was a core, she held it out to Simon.

“Oh, feel free to toss it in the grass, princess,” he said as he continued his task of loading bundles on the mule, “The field mice will bless you for the treat.”

Erika looked at him with a hard expression, then threw the core in his direction. He let it sail over his head, then turned as it disappeared in the undergrowth. He did not look at Erika as he said, “Next time, aim for my middle, princess. You’re throwing about a foot and a half high.”

Soren, who was saddling the horses, froze at this, but Erika only sniffed and took up a piece of the meat. It was cold, and a little greasy, but her stomach gurgled again when she smelled it. She took a dainty bite of it without saying anything. Soon, the rest of the squonk’s leg had joined the apple in filling her belly.

Soren looked up when he saw Hollo coming down the hill, his hand pointing to the west.

“That group from the north is on the move,” he said, “They’ll be here in less than an hour.”

“So much for a leisurely breakfast,” Simon said, lashing the last of the bundles to the mule and walking to his horse, “I suggest we make haste and try to be over that ridge before they find our camp.”

Hollo emptied his water bottle into the fire, causing a sizzling cloud of steam to rise a few feet before dissipating like the smoke had the night before. Soren offered the princess his hand as she climbed into her saddle, then helped Greta onto hers. He tied the mule’s lead to his own saddle, then mounted his horse.

Erika looked down and said “Stop!”

All three men turned to her. Simon waited a few moments, then said, “Is there a problem, my lady?”

“I’m wearing the same gown as I did yesterday,” she said indignantly, “Why, I slept in it! I can’t go about looking like this.”

Simon and Hollo exchanged a glance. Simon shrugged and said, “My lady, there is no time to unpack another dress, nor is there anywhere for you to change in privacy. Tonight, you will be able to change, but for now, we must get moving.” With that, he nudged his horse in the flank and set off uphill.

Erika glared at his back, then looked questioningly at Soren. He just shrugged and motioned her to go before him. Erika’s lips tightened into a colorless line, but she set off with Greta in tow. Soren and the mule took up the rear as the group left their campsite and headed higher into the hills.


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

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.

The War – Episode 34

December 19, 4:36 AM
Louisville, Kentucky

Jim leaned down and kissed Jordan on the forehead. The boy was snuggled up on the couch with both dogs and the cat, and would be asleep for another hour or so before Jeanine woke him to get ready for school. Jim turned to his wife and held her close. She hugged him tightly, turning her face up to his and kissing him goodbye.

“Be careful,” she said quietly. Jim could feel her tremble slightly beneath her fluffy bathrobe.

“Always careful,” he replied, squeezing her once more, “Just another day riding the bus and pushing electrons.”

Letting her go, he opened the door and walked to his already-running truck. Getting in, he turned up the radio to catch the news.

“…ville schools are open today for their final day before the winter holidays. Officials say that all employees and volunteers are on high alert this morning. Louisville Metro Police has every available officer either on the street or on alert to respond to any incidents. Officials in Frankfort say that all available Bluegrass Guard volunteers have been assigned to critical infrastructure and gathering points.”

Jim put on his seatbelt and put the truck in reverse. The light dusting of snow on the driveway crunched under his tires as he pulled out.

“In national news, the President has called for calm as the anniversary of the December 19th attacks rolls around. During his weekly radio address, he asked for the American people to be vigilant and patient in the coming days, and that they pray for peace.

Jim put the truck into gear and started down the street. Jeanine stood on the porch, her breath visible in the air, and waved goodbye.

“The Joint Select Committee on the December 19th Attacks announced yesterday that the final draft of their report has been submitted to the administration and Congressional leadership. Public release is scheduled for some time in January.”

“Sweet,” Jim said sarcastically, “That ought to make for interesting reading.”

“In financial news, the markets held a rally yesterday. The Dow closed at 12,620, with the S&P rising to 1512.  These are the highest closings seen since February. All markets are closed today.”

“Negotiators in Geneva have concluded the latest round of talks with Iran and are heading home for the holidays. They report some success in getting the Islamic Republic to halt nuclear testing, but caution that there are no guarantees that another test like the one in September will not occur before the New Year. That test, conducted in the mountains outside Tehran, is estimated to have been just under a half a megaton in strength. Sources in the IAEA and intelligence agencies report that Tehran is readying a similar site in the west of the country, and may be preparing for another test.”

Wonderful, Jim thought as he turned out of his neighborhood, Won’t that just put the cherry on this shit sundae of a year?

The news broadcast switched over to local sports and weather, followed by people arguing about college football, as Jim drove to the bus depot. Parking in his usual spot near the exit, he walked to the back of the truck and pulled out his gear. The light blue windbreaker with “BLUEGRASS GUARD” emblazoned across its back in white letters went on over his hooded sweatshirt. He had taken Jeanine’s advice and gotten one two sizes too large so that he could put on layers as the weather cooled, although that had only been after another round of their favorite semi-serious disagreement about whether or not he would freeze to death if he dressed the way he wanted to in the winter.

His Guard identification badge swung from a length of cord around his neck as he unlocked his gun case and removed his carbine. Loading a magazine into it and letting the bolt slide forward, he put on the safety and slung it over his shoulder. His pistol rested securely in a holster on his belt. He dropped extra magazines for both into the oversized pockets of the windbreaker, then closed the door to the truck’s cargo area.

Jim grabbed his coffee from the front seat and locked the truck before hurrying into the building at the gate to the bus yard. Already, he could hear drivers for the first wave of morning pickups cranking over their engines to warm them up before they left. Inside the guard shack, other members of the Guard were getting their assignments and heading out to find their buses.

Jim peered at the assignment roster on the bulletin board and swore under his breath. Pulling out his cell phone, he dialed a number and brought it up to his ear.

“David?” he said when the call connected, “It’s Jim. Listen, they’ve got me on the cross-town this morning.”

“Yeah,” he said after pausing to listen to his supervisor speak, “I should be back here about nine or so, then I’ll drive in.

He paused again, then said, “Thanks, boss. I’ll grab lunch on the way in and work through. Right. Bye.”

Putting his phone away, Jim grabbed a radio from the bank of chargers and walked out into the morning chill, looking for his bus. As he approached number 4077, he saw a mechanic closing the ancient bus’s hood.

“Everything OK?” he asked as he the mechanic passed him going the other way.

“Didn’t want to start, but we got her going,” the older man said as he walked away, wiping oil and dirt from his hands onto a red shop rag.

Jim heard the chugging of the diesel as it awoke from its cold slumber, and waved to the driver to open the door. When the door folded open, Jim smiled at the wizened face which greeted him.

“Morning, Maggie!” he exclaimed, glad to see a familiar face. She had driven Jordan’s bus the year before, and Jim had ridden along with her on a few occasions during the fall.

Maggie’s face opened up into a broad smile as she stood and gave him a quick hug.

“Merry Christmas!” she said as she sat back down.

“Merry Christmas!” he replied, “We gonna make it in this heap?”

“Lord, I hope so,” she said, “Nothing worse than breaking down with a load of kids on a cold day.” Her voice betrayed a lifetime of smoking, although Jim had heard she had gone cold turkey over Thanksgiving.

Jim smiled at her as he sat down behind her. While she put the bus into gear and pulled out of her parking spot, he took out his radio and called into the guard shack. Maggie called her dispatcher as she navigated out the gate and they began their route.

Jim and Maggie chatted as she wound her way through the back roads and subdivisions of northeastern Louisville. At each stop, Jim scanned to make sure that the parents escorting the youngsters stayed a few yards back from the bus and the students before Maggie opened the newly-reinforced doors to let them on. Several of the students greeted him as they made their way to their seats, with only a couple stopping to gape at the carbine he kept next to him on the seat.  He and the rest of the Guardsmen usually carried pistols beneath their windbreakers, but they had decided as a group to bring along something extra while they rode their routes today.

For the most part, the kids getting on this early were younger and went back to sleep or quietly sang along to the Christmas tunes which Maggie had found on the radio. When they made their final pickup of seven kids bundled up in parkas and scarves, Maggie turned out onto a feeder road, then onto the freeway.

As she slowly brought the bus up to speed, she glanced up into the mirror and called out, “Think someone’ll do anything stupid today?”

Jim shrugged. Pitching his voice to be heard above the noise from the bus and the radio, he said, “I hope not. I’d really like for this to be a quiet morning.”

“I hope you’re right,” the driver said, looking at the sparse traffic around them, “I really don’t want to be on the news because you greased some asshole on my bus.”

Both laughed at that, then settled in for the trip to Jackson Elementary on the west end of town. Maggie commented on the traffic a couple of times as they glided past several spots where it normally backed up.

Jim yawned as they approached the off-ramp and started to slow. He half stood and scanned through the slightly-fogged windows for anything out of the ordinary as they came to a halt at the cross street. He rarely rode along on this route, so ‘normal’ was pretty subjective. He did not see any broken down cars or anyone standing on the corner, so he started to sink back down into his seat.

Just then, a large sedan came barreling down the off-ramp behind them, its tires squealing as it pulled onto the shoulder and slid to a halt next to the bus.

“Down!” Jim yelled, pulling up his carbine and snicking off the safety, “Right side, move!” He punched the panic button on his radio and dove to the other side of the bus.  At the front of the bus, Maggie slammed down on the accelerator, causing the bus to surge forward.

The kids on the left side of the bus dropped down onto the floor and pulled their knees up to their chest, their reaction coming from both instinct and from the monthly drills the school required. The children on the right side dropped to the floor too, but they quickly scooted or crawled to the left side.

One child, a kindergartener about halfway down the bus on the right side, lay down on the floor under her seat and began to cry.  Jim swore as he leapt into the aisle to get to her, then dropped to his knees as he heard gunfire roar and glass break. The children screamed as the shooter in the sedan stitched a line of bullets down the side of the bus, breaking half the windows on the left side and punching holes in its roof.

Jim crouched down next to the little girl, grabbing her by the hood of her jacket and yanking her roughly across the aisle and between the seats behind him. In the front, he heard Maggie curse as one of the shooters lowered his aim and fired off a string of shots through the reinforced doors. An explosion erupted from the front of the bus, drawing more screams from the children.  Acrid smoke poured out of the engine compartment, and the big vehicle shuddered to a halt with a screech of metal against asphalt.

Jim popped up and fired several shots through the broken windows before crouching back down and scooting toward the front of the bus. His ears rang from the carbine’s report, but he could still hear the attackers shooting. He felt several bullets strike the seats around him, and he dropped to the floor. Maggie lay in front of him.

“You OK?” she screamed.

“Yeah, you?” he hollered back.

“Sumbitches missed me!” she yelled back.

“Here!” he shouted, pulling his pistol from its holster and sliding it to her.

“Watch the back door! Anyone comes through there, shoot their ass!” he yelled as he climbed past her. When he reached the front of the bus, he leaned out and fired repeatedly through the door’s starred windows. He heard glass break on the other side and a voice bellowing.

“I hope it fucking hurts, asshole!” he roared as he pulled back between the seats and dropped his first magazine.

Another round of shooting answered him as he groped in his pocket for a spare. As he pushed it up into the magazine well, he heard Maggie screaming behind him, then the pop of his pistol firing. He started to turn, but he saw movement on the other side of the door and shot through it again. Another howl of pain came through the shattered plexiglass.

Jim turned toward the back of the bus, and saw Maggie pointing his pistol at the emergency exit and taking another shot. She cursed loudly as the slide locked to the rear after she fired the last cartridge, but then screamed as Jim shot over her at the two men who were trying to climb up through the back door. One clutched his chest and fell back, while the other ducked down.

The guardsman saw the barrel of the shooter’s rifle come up over the lip of the emergency exit, and emptied his own gun in panic, trying to keep him from blindly firing into the children huddled on the floor. He screamed in frustration as the slide on his carbine locked back on an empty chamber.

Jim was fumbling for his last reload when he heard the boom of a shotgun from the side of the bus, then saw the attacker’s rifle clatter back out the door to the ground below. The shotgun fired twice more, its report strangely muffled after the sound of Jim’s carbine firing inside the bus, then everything was quiet except for the cries of the children.

Only then, when the shooting had stopped, did Jim hear sirens in the distance. He finally got the magazine out of his jacket and reloaded his carbine, then looked over to Maggie. She was sitting with her back against one of the seats, her hands out to either side to soothe the children.  The empty pistol lay in her lap.

Jim got up in a crouch, trying to look in all directions at once.  He pulled a magazine for his pistol from his pocket and tossed it to Maggie.

“Y’all OK in there?” a man’s voice came from the rear of the bus.

“Who the fuck is that?” Jim shouted, his nerves making his hands shake as he aimed his gun at the sound.

“Name’s Bill Watkins,” the voice called back, “I saw those assholes shooting up the bus and got two of them.”

“Thanks!” Jim replied, “Watch the front, I think there’s a couple up there, too!”

“There’s one lying on the ground bleeding, but I don’t think he’ll be bothering anybody,” Watkins said, “You put a couple through his chest. One’s in the car, I think, but he ain’t moving.”

Jim looked around. Miraculously, other than a couple who looked like they’d been cut by flying glass, none of the children appeared to be hurt. Maggie looked up at him, tears streaming down her face and nodded.

“I’m OK,” she said shakily, her voice seeming far away to Jim.

“Bill, tell the police we’re OK in here, but don’t poke your head up just yet, OK?” Jim said, sitting down on the floor to spare himself falling when his trembling legs gave out, “We’ll come out when they get here.”

“You got it, just take care of the kids,” Watkins replied as Jim saw the lights from police cars start to come through the bus’s broken windows, “You done good, man, you done good.”

Jim slid down between the two seats behind the driver’s chair.  His hands shook as he fumbled while trying to move the selector switch on his carbine to “SAFE”, but he got it after a couple of attempts.  He felt a small hand touch his shoulder, and he reached up to hold the child’s hand.

“We’re OK,” he said, almost in a whisper, his voice catching, “We’re OK.”

Above him, he saw the red and blue lights of police cars splash across the windows as the wail of their sirens drowned out the sobs of the children around him.


Other episodes can be found here.  The rest of the story can be found in Escort Duty, available now at Amazon.

I hope you’ve enjoyed “The War.” It’s amazing what a little thought experiment can bring out.  Please, use the links on the side bars to check out my other works, and thanks for reading.

Story Idea

These are the first few paragraphs of the next Boogeyman story.  It’s just a rough stub, and I haven’t plotted out what’s going to happen in the rest of it, but I think it’s a good introduction.


 

My new client rose and shook my hand. He gripped the business card I’d given him in his other hand. For once, I was sending business Sid’s way.
 
“Thanks so much, Mister Shelby.”
 
“No worries, Mister Matthews. We’ll figure this out.”
 
He nodded, then moved toward the door. Just before his hand reached the knob, it turned and the door swung open.
 
There, framed in the doorway, stood a woman. Blonde curls flowed down to her shoulders, framing a face that could launch a thousand paternity suits. She wore a crimson silk dress that would have been appropriate in a board room or a bordello. Her red lips parted in an easy smile as Matthews ducked his head and walked past her. I could tell he was trying to look like he wasn’t examining every inch of her, but the woman didn’t pay him any mind.
 
She turned her gaze to me, fixing me with eyes the color of milky jade. Long eyelashes fluttered as she sized me up, then she took a step forward and closed the door behind her.
 
Immediately, the room filled with her scent. It was delicate, jasmine and cinnamon with something subtly sweet underneath that would drive a lesser man mad. Not being a lesser man, all it did was send a shiver up my spine. Well, maybe two shivers.
 
“Mister Shelby?” she purred, her voice low and sultry, with a soft drawl that made me hang on every word. “I’m Laura Fallworthy. I left you a voicemail the other day, but you didn’t answer me.”
 
I stared at her with my mouth half-open, then answered. “Sorry, but I’ve been on a case. No cell coverage out where I was.”
 
“Well, I need your help, and I was hoping that you’d make me a priority.” Without asking, she took a seat across the desk from me and crossed her muscular, tanned legs. She caught me looking and smiled knowingly.
 
“I’m sure I could make it worth your while.” Time seemed to slow as she talked. I could make out every movement, every wrinkle of her bright red lips. Her teeth were sharp and white, and I caught a glint of mirth in her eye as she took a deep breath, bringing both of her best features into sharp focus.
 
In my mind’s eye, I envisioned scenes, all with this woman at their center, that would have made the most jaded madam blush. For a long moment, there was nothing else in the world, only this ravishing beauty sitting in my creaky old office chair. Of course, I would do anything for her.
 
I raised my hand, trying to gesture as I stammered out a reply, and the setting sun shining through the window glinted off the gold band on my finger. Immediately, I felt the fog lift a little. Her scent became heavy and cloying in my nostrils, and I felt a pressure against my mind.
 
The shit? I thought. Somebody’s playing games.
 
I blinked slowly, and thought of the worst, most bloody memory I could dredge up. When my eyes opened, I fixed my gaze on the woman sitting opposite me while I replayed that day in my head.
 
“Jesus Christ!” she yelped, and I felt the push in my head let go. “What is wrong with you, mister?”
 
As if by magic, the hazy glow of sex around her collapsed. Her hair lost some of its luster, and her eyes no longer burned at me with desire. Her sultry tone was now brassy, and her soft drawl had become a harsh twang.
 
“Ugh, I mean, who thinks about things like that?”
 
I shook my head, feeling the last of the succubus’ magic let go of my mind.
 
“Lady, if you’re going to try to enchant me into taking your case, you’ll have to speak to my wife first.”
 
She shuddered again, then shrugged. “Can’t blame a girl for trying.”
 
“Maybe, but she will.”
 
Laura Fallworthy pouted, which probably would have been enticing a moment earlier, but now just made her look petulant. For a moment, I considered throwing her, and I don’t mean figuratively, out of my office. But curiosity got the better of me.
 
“Listen, just tell me what you need, and leave out the Helen of Troy routine, all right?”
 
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