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.
“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.