The Bandits of Pratt’s Refuge, Chapter Two

Here is the second chapter for my short story. It is still a work in progress, being written alongside book two of ‘The Scepter of Maris’ series. It has not been edited, so please keep that in mind. Chapter one can be found here: The Bandit’s of Pratt’s Refuge.

 

The Bandits of Pratt’s Refuge

Chapter Two: First Impressions

 

Meric watched the reactions of the two men closely. Only the barely perceptible flinch of the Captain gave away that his presence was not completely expected. Even their separation looked rehearsed, or at least like nothing out of the ordinary. They were merely moving to greet the newcomer, and that just happened to allow them room to swing their weapons. Of course, he had chosen his own position with care. Six good paces gave him more than enough room to put arrow to bow, loose, and move away from the one left standing before he could be reached. Having watched the soldiers for a bit before moving in, he knew that would leave him plenty of time to get away. Even their tracker would not be able to keep up with him in the forest. He would take the Sergeant out, since he was on the left, easier to sight. Usually he tried to chose the most dangerous man to take out first, but he had a feeling a mouse would starve on the difference when it came to these two. Both men moved like they were well acquainted with a fight.

Not that any of that would come to pass. He would never attack these soldiers and was certain that they would not attack him either, unless he provoked them. The situation was just an exercise to keep his skills sharp. He knew that he should not have done it, but could not help himself. Other than hunting, it was hard to find ways to push himself enough to keep the old skills honed. Brody had his hands full with the new inn, so he never had much time. Silas was more interested in hunting than training. Then there was Malina, and that was just a waste of time. He could never track her well enough to get the drop on her, and she always managed to sneak up on him. She was just too good. His father always talked about becoming part of the surrounding to the extent that even if someone’s eyes passed over you they did not register it because they did not see anything that was out of place. Malina was quite adept at doing this. It was not something he had entirely mastered, but judging by the ease with which he had been able to slip by these soldiers he was getting better.

He took a casual look about to ensure he still had space to work with. The brush was moderate, and the pine and oak trees were spread out enough that he could see most of the men in the party. Someone had drawn their attention to the three of them, and now all of the men were headed their way. They formed a half-circle behind him to keep him from running, but he really had no desire to do that. The only reason any of them had even seen him was because he wanted them to. From the look of things, they were going to take days to find the men who were responsible for the horror back at the road. He and Malina could lead them to the men by tomorrow. He was here to help, so he might as well get started convincing them.

“My name is Meric Vettor,” he began. “My friend and I were out hunting south of here, and on our way back we came across the family that had been murdered back at the road.”

The crackle of leaves and pine needles alerted him to one of the soldiers behind him moving in his direction, causing him to tense up. He immediately forced himself to relax again. He was not here to fight, at least not the good guys, and he would not resist if they decided to take him into custody. As long as they listened to what he had to say, he would cooperate with them.

“Hold up, Daniels.” The stocky Sergeant spoke to someone behind Meric without ever taking his eyes off of him. “I think I’ve seen him before. You’re friends with that fella that bought the Soldier’s Rest from Pete, right?”

“I am, though the man he purchased it from was named Bertrand.”

Meric was not sure if that was a test, or the man did not really know. Either way, he saw no reason not to be truthful. When the soldier grinned at him he assumed it was in fact a test, though what it proved he had no idea.

“Right, Bertrand. Anyway… I’ve seen you in there a few times. Your friend Brody seems like a good enough sort.”

That did not really feel like it required a response, so Meric kept quiet.

“Why don’t you fill us in on how you got involved in this.”

“As I mentioned before, we came across the mess back at the road and decided to investigate. We-”

“Why?” This came from the Captain.

“Why? Why did we come across them, or why investigate?”

“Investigate,” the man replied tersely, and the unspoken ‘you idiot’ was clear to everyone present.

“Right.” He tried to hide the slight embarrassment that struck. “The men that did that deserve to be punished, and since there was no one else around… we thought we would track them, find their hideout and then notify the garrison in Yost.” He felt no need to tell them that there might have been a little bit of justice meted out when they found them, so he just shrugged and went on. “It’s best not to let a trail get too cold if you can help it; better to follow and then go get reinfor… uh, authorities.”

“Of course,” the Captain said with no small amount of sarcasm. “Did you find them?”

The man looked a little unsure, and judging by his tracker’s skill Meric could understand his concern. Malina was unknown to these men, as was he, so they could not know the skill level they possessed. He did not want to come across as conceited, so he kept the fact that his friend was probably the best scout they would ever meet and he was better than most. It was unimportant and they needed to get moving.

“There are seven of them… well, six now.”

His eyes rested on the prisoner as he finished speaking. The man was trying very hard not to meet his eye, and attempted to scoot backwards when Meric’s attention hit him.

“This one was a couple hours behind the others, drunk and singing some lewd song as he staggered through the woods. We caught him on his way deeper into the forest. I got ahead of him and made some noise while coming toward him. Sure enough, he was so wasted that he thought it was his friends returning. Said ‘Hope you boys ain’t comin’ back for seconds’. Then he laughed so hard he almost fell down.” Meric could feel the anger resurfacing as he recalled the words. “When he had calmed down he said ‘cause I done finished her off’.”

The prisoner got a panicked look and tried to shift back again as the Sergeant stepped up to him.

“He’s lyin’! I ain’t done nothin’!” He was drawing another breath to continue when his gag was replaced.

Now all eyes but the Captain and the Lieutenant were on the trussed up killer. After a quick look was exchanged between the officers, the Lieutenant started to give out orders.

“Tate, get your horse, you are taking this man back to town. Sergeant Woodard, get them ready to move out. Mister Vettor, it sounds as if you have some skill in tracking. Would you be so kind as to lead the way? Private Weber will join you.”

Meric just nodded and walked east once more. He understood that they had no reason to trust him, so he did not blame them for the caution. The pace he set was a good bit faster than the men had previously been traveling, but he made certain to point out all of the signs he was following to the Private. Hopefully this would set their minds at ease, and they would realize he was not leading them into a trap. They would not completely drop their guard, not if they were competent, but they might be more open to his help if he earned their trust.

For the next three hours he led them unerringly along the path that the bandits had taken, only pausing once for a water break. He had retrieved Ferron about a hundred yards beyond where he met the soldiers, and handed the reins off to one of them so he and Weber could continue on foot. The destrier would follow along with the other horses unless there was trouble, in which case, a whistle from Meric would bring him running.

He and Weber continued to chat quietly as they walked, only pausing in the conversation when Meric wanted to show him something. If not for the heat, and their mission, the walk would have been enjoyable. Several blue jays having an animated discussion, the rustle of foliage, and the quiet murmurs of the men behind them, blended into the background as he and Weber chatted.  The Private had mentioned that his only tracking ability came from teaching himself, since he loved to hunt. This led them to discussing the best areas around Yost to find game, and Meric had just begun telling him about a spot he found a week ago when a familiar bird call stopped him in his tracks.

“That was…” The man next to him had a confused look on his face as he tried to figure out what to say.

“Out of place?” Meric finished for him. When Weber nodded, still perplexed, Meric grinned at him. “It’s from the grassy plains region in southern Rennick. I did tell you I was with a friend.”

Meric gave a return call of another bird native to his homeland and then turned back in the direction of the rest of the soldiers to wait for them all to catch up.

“My friend will be joining us momentarily,” he told Bridgewater and Keller as they arrived.

The Captain just nodded and scanned the area ahead of them, waiting patiently as far as Meric could tell. He heard the rustle of some bushes about fifteen feet behind him, and just before he turned he saw Bridgewater’s eyes pass over that direction and then jerk back. Knowing Malina had only made the noise so she would not startle anyone, he tried not to laugh when it looked like the good Captain had indeed been surprised. He had to rethink that impression when the man spoke.

“Your friend is a woman.” Disbelief filled his statement.

Before Meric could answer, Malina threw a hand on her hip, cocked her head and responded in a voice dripping with sarcasm.

“Wow. I can see why they made you a Captain, with such keen observational skills. Don’t they have women in the Glendon military?”

Fighting his grin was becoming increasingly difficult, and he could see the Sergeant struggling as well. The Captain was obviously flustered, but recovered well enough to answer very quickly.

“Of course. They just… uh… usually-”

Meric raised a hand to cut the man off.

“If you plan to finish that sentence with anything about doing laundry, dishes, or cooking, I should warn you… from this distance, she could put an arrow through your eye before you could even think to duck.” He knew his grin was no longer hidden.

“Meric,” Malina chided. “I’m sure that Captain Bridgewater was going to say nothing of the sort.” Her voice was so sweet then that it even made him nervous.

“Right.”

“Besides, he’s much too handsome to go ruining his face… I would aim much lower.” Her eyes flicked down and back up.

Bridgewater had actually started to blush until that last sentence, then his eyes went round, he swallowed hard and then looked a little ill. He was not the only man that looked uncomfortable either. He had seen her do this kind of thing before, and it was always effective. In one short statement she had reinforced the fact that she was a woman, but also let them all know she was not to trifled with. Meric loved her like a sister, had for several years, and knew her to be a sweet, incredibly caring woman that most people adored once they got to know her. Sometimes it was easy to forget that she was a battle-hardened, decorated veteran of a bloody war, and could indeed hold her own against most opponents. The slender, pretty brunette just came up to his shoulder and her size could give these soldiers the wrong impression. They did not know her, and might think because she was a woman she was less capable. She would not hold it against them as long as they were respectful. If they were to work together, the soldiers would learn just how badly they were mistaken.

The two of them had been through much together in the years-long war Rennick had fought with the Orcs not too long ago, not to mention all that they had been through since. Betrayal by their King had sent them on the run together alongside a few others. With Brody and their other friend Silas, the four of them had made a new home here, and it would not hurt to make friends with the local authorities. If they could help them, they would.

“We should get moving. I found a good spot to camp ahead, and we can make it before dark if we move now.” Malina looked at the Captain with one eyebrow raised, waiting.

Bridgewater appeared to have recovered while Meric’s thoughts had wandered, because he nodded to her respectfully and signaled his men to carry on.

Meric found Ferron and patted the palomino’s neck before he swung into the saddle. There was no longer any need to follow a trail, they could just follow his friend. She would lead them to the campsite, and tomorrow they would catch up to the band of murderers they were hunting. He was very much looking forward to that.

Chapter Three ->

 

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Now Available!

Well, I finally did it. I am officially a published author (ok, so it’s self-published, but I think that counts). The book cover is temporary, and I am working on making a map, but for now the book has been published on Amazon for Kindle. I am pretty nervous, and it took a while to talk myself into finally pushing that “save and publish” button. However, it is now a done deal; A Soldier’s Honor is out there in the world.  Please take a moment to check it out, and help spread the word.

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Thanks, and wish me luck. Now… back to book two.

The Bandits of Pratt’s Refuge, Chapter One

I have been working on this alongside book 2 and decided that I wanted to start posting it here. It is a short story about some of the characters in my books. So far, I am only on the third chapter, but I pretty much have the whole story outlined. I will post it a chapter at a time, when I have them ready (in my opinion). This is not edited, so please keep that in mind. I will eventually try to get that done, but in the mean time, this is just for fun. The story is set about two years before ‘A Soldier’s Honor’, and involves some of the main characters from that book, as well as a few new ones. Any thoughts or comments would be appreciated. I hope you enjoy.

 

The Bandits of Pratt’s Refuge

Chapter One: On the Hunt

The loud, rattling hiss of the wind tearing through the trees was the only sound present as Captain James Bridgewater squatted down to examine the body. When the hot breeze finally died off, the silence left behind seemed to ring deafeningly in his ears. While this victim was less brutalized than the other two, it was by far the hardest to look at. Several yards to his left, a man had been severely beaten and his throat had been slit. The woman laying in the trampled down grass on the other side of the road had endured worse; bruised and bloody with only shreds of clothing left, it looked as though they had taken their time with her before ending her life in the same way. Reaching out to close the lifeless eyes in front of him, he shut his own to try and block out the image of the child’s accusing stare. The boy could not have been more than ten or eleven years old. There had only been a jagged hole under his chin where it looked like a dagger had been thrust, mocking the innocence of the young life. Otherwise, it looked as if he were resting peacefully in the shaded rye grass alongside the road to Haley.

Tomas’ throat clearing snapped James into action again. He turned to his First Lieutenant, noticing the simmering anger just under the surface. He was sure that there was not a man on the detail he had mustered for this hunt that did not share the sentiment. They were already planning to hang the bandits responsible for this, as it was not the first murders that they had committed, but this was the first time a child had been killed. That was most likely due to luck, since none of the other groups of victims had a child accompanying them. Between what had been done to the woman and the murder of the child, he found himself almost hoping that the men responsible would resist being taken in.

“Have the men scour the area, see if there was anything left behind by the perpetrators,” James told his second.

“Yes, Sir.”

The man turned sharply and walked over to the back of the ransacked wagon that the family had been using. James spent a moment watching, and when the Lieutenant did not move off to speak to anyone, he looked around to find the men already busy doing what he wanted. James merely grunted, and stepped over to the man’s body to do a quick inspection. It was not the first time Tomas had anticipated his orders (or even the tenth) and got things moving. Tomas Keller was the kind of second that any superior officer would love to have in his command; smart, efficient, and dedicated.

There had been two other cases of bandits attacking people on the road between Haley and Yost. Since Haley was just a small town, barely more than a community of fishermen and farmers with only a four man guard detachment, the task of investigating had fallen to the Yost garrison commander. While he could have delegated this to Tomas, and knew the man was perfectly capable, things were quiet in the city and he felt responsible for the violence done to people he was sworn to protect.

He had just started an investigation into the first attack, and already had Tomas organizing a detail to hunt these bandits down when he heard about the second. It turned out that the second crime had actually happened first, but it had taken over a week for the information to reach him. The victims had been from Haley, but were on the road returning south from Yost when they were attacked. It had taken the intervening days for someone to miss them, then call for a search to be undertaken. By the time they had been found and reported, a similar scenario had taken place for the second attack, only this time in Yost. Now James and his men had come upon this scene as they headed out to hunt down the criminals, and he feared there could be more that they did not know about.

He sighed heavily and stood. There would be time later to account for his failures, right now he had a job to do. Even though it was only mid-morning he was already starting to sweat and now that the summer sun was well above the tree tops in the cloudless sky, he knew it was only going to get worse. The breeze could not even be counted on for much relief, because all it did was push the already hot air around. This summer was shaping up to be a brutal one. Swiping his forearm across his brow to catch a trickle heading for his left eye, he walked in the Lieutenant’s direction. They needed to get moving, and see if they could track these criminals down.

He cursed the lack of foresight about needing someone with scout training, but when he had taken command of the garrison there had not been anyone on the roster with those skills, and so he had not thought twice about it. Why would you need a scout in the city. Yost was a sizable port on Lake Fomar, trading with all of the nearby towns, as well as other towns around the body of water. They even dealt with cities from the neighboring kingdom on the far side of the lake, maintaining good trade relations between Glendon and Rennick. The people from Rennick that he had met were not much different than his own countrymen, and there were even some of them that lived in Yost. An innkeeper and a cooper were two that came directly to mind. All of this combined to make Yost a thriving city with plenty to keep his guards busy within the walls of the town. In the seven months since he had taken command, he had never needed to venture into the countryside surrounding Yost.

Now that lack of preparedness could only hinder their search for justice. He moved to stand next to Tomas when he saw First Sergeant Steven Woodard approaching.

“Sir,” the man addressed Tomas. “Private Weber believes he has found a trail he should be able to follow. I have ordered him on ahead with Private Benson following to mark the trail for the rest of us. The men will be ready to go shortly.”

James scanned the area and confirmed that all eight men left were headed to, or already mounting their horses. There was no denying the small bit of satisfaction he felt as he watched, and it was a much needed confidence boost at the moment. He may have been negligent where the areas outside his city were concerned, but his focus on training and discipline were shining through. In less than a minute, he and Tomas were the only ones not yet in the saddle and formed up. Woodard gave the order to send the others forward, letting his superiors move at their own pace.

They had been moving east at a slow pace as the Private ahead worked at following the trail, becoming frustrated when he had to backtrack more than once. The breeze rustling the treetops seemed to taunt them, as it disturbed the foliage above while not even so much a single leaf shifted at their level. The heat and slow advancement were starting to get to him as they waited, yet again, for Weber to relocate the trail. Mopping the sweat out of his eyes once more, he turned his head in Tomas’ direction,  deciding to talk to him concerning personnel and the need for someone with scout training, when he heard Weber shout out. Woodard called for the unit to halt and started forward at the same time as James and Tomas.

As they pushed through the brush to get to the man’s side, they could hear a muffled grunt. James started to scan the area for Benson when he noticed him just on the other side of Weber. Both men were looking down near their feet, and when he and the others cleared the last of the bushes separating them, they found what held their attention.

A man lay there, trussed up at the wrists and ankles, which were then tied to each other. He grunted again and then let out a moan that was nearly inaudible due to the gag stuck in his mouth. They all stood looking down at the man for several minutes, none moving except for Woodard. He had moved off almost immediately, calling to the men and ordered them to fan out and search the near by woods for anyone else. James turned back from his quick glance at the Sergeant just as the man spun back to join them.

“Well… anyone want to make a guess?” James did not really expect an answer, because he was sure all of them were as shocked as he.

The man finally came to his senses enough to notice he was surrounded. He started to say something through the gag, but cut off when his eyes fell to their uniform tabards. His eyes widened in panic at the dark blue trimmed in silver with the falcon crest (well… one of them did, the other was swollen shut) and he immediately started trying to get away. Which, given the way he was tied up, only resulted in him flopping around a lot and gaining very little ground. He eventually stopped, good eye squeezing shut for a moment, before he slumped in defeat. Woodard had rejoined them at about this time and knelt on the matting of dead leaves and pine straw at the man’s head. James watched the man’s eyes widen again as he caught sight of the dagger Woodard now had in his hand. The Sergeant put the blade to a pale cheek and spoke firmly.

“If you shout when I remove this gag, I promise you it will be very short lived. Understand?” he asked the quivering man. James knew that Woodard would not actually kill him for shouting, but he could understand the bound man’s belief when he heard the cold emotionless words. The Sergeant could be damn scary when the need arose.

At a vigorous head nod, Woodard began peeling the suppressing cloth out of his mouth. James appreciated Woodard’s caution, and tried to tell himself that he was not being prejudiced at agreeing with his soldier that this man looked more criminal than victim. His mismatched and dirty clothes, ragged hair, and bad teeth combined with the way he had reacted to their uniforms were all painting a clear picture for him. He would work harder not to be so judgmental in the future, and he could be wrong now, but he did not think that was the case.

“Name?” Woodard still held the dagger where the man could see it as he questioned him.

“Mark.” The man’s wary eyes shifted around the group.

Woodard tapped the blade to the prisoner’s forehead a few times.

“When I ask you a question, Mark, I expect you to give me full answers. Name.”

“Willis, Mark Willis. I didn’t do nothin’ wrong. I was just mindin’ my own when these two… two… highwaymen came along, roughed me up, an’ robbed me. I didn’t do nothin’. I’m straight as an arrow, me. I swear,” he was still shaking when he finished.

“Do you know anything about that family that was killed back at the road?”

Even the black eye that had formed paled considerably when he was asked this, and he started trying to shift away from the dagger.

“No! It weren’t me! It was those highwaymen. Vicious, they were. Look what they did to me.” The man turned his head this way and that, showing off the split lip and bruised eye that could be seen even through the dirt smudging his face.

“Why didn’t they just kill you like the others?”

“Eh… eh… I don’t…”

“I don’t think we will get much out of him, sir. Maybe after he stews a few days in a cell. I suggest we carry on.” He addressed James this time since Tomas had moved off.

“Very well. Leave someone to watch him and we can continue.” James’ instincts told him the same thing.

Woodard nodded and then snapped out some commands.

“Carver, come check him out before we leave. Tate, once he’s done, you will keep an eye on the prisoner.”

James saw the junior Private’s shoulders just barely drop before he caught himself and answered in the affirmative. James turned away while he tried to fight the grin that was threating only to face Woodard, who was not even attempting to cover his mirth. Several of the men were just visible as they moved through the trees in their search and he guessed that Tomas would be rounding them up soon, since they obviously were not finding anything. While he waited, he turned back to Woodard.

“How do you think he really ended up here, like this?”

Before the Sergeant could answer, a voice he did not recognize did it for him.

“I can probably help with that.”

James started slightly and dropped a hand to his sword. Woodard did not even flinch as he casually turned to the newcomer. Both of them had also stepped away from each other immediately, gaining room to move if needed. Holding his free hand up to show that it was empty, the stranger nodded to them.

He was standing about six paces away, leaning on a longbow and now looking down at the prisoner. It did not go unnoticed that the free hand he was holding out in an attempt to look non-threatening just happened to now be much closer to the quiver full of arrows at his shoulder. The stranger was wearing light-weight hunting leathers in various shades of green and brown, and was well within the perimeter his men were now searching.

Chapter Two ->

 

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