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.
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.