The next chapter of my prequel short story (in progress and unedited). If you have not read any of it yet, here is Chapter One.
The Bandits of Pratt’s Refuge
Chapter Four: Getting Acquainted
It was slightly awkward for the first hour after setting up camp, but things slowly began to settle and the tension ebbed. After Malina reassured the man for a third time that she was not offended, Captain Bridgewater seemed to take it to heart and began asking the two Rennick natives some pointed questions. Since they had been hiding who they truly were for some time now, it was almost second nature to tell the story about their past to the soldier’s. Lying had never really come easy to Meric, but he had learned out of necessity.
The harsh reality of betrayal was a lesson that only needed to be taught once before it was taken to heart. If his own countrymen could turn on them in a heartbeat, then he would not chance the truth with strangers. There was enough of the story that was true, so he could at least assuage some guilt, and it helped to keep the tale from being too complex. The more details you had to make up, the bigger chance to slip up.
“Horses, you say? From that palomino’s line?” The Captain eased back and let his second take over.
“Mmhhmm… and Malina’s appaloosa, a few others,” Meric said, answer both of the Lieutenant’s questions.
“I had heard that someone bought the old Haskins place, but not who. So what made you decide to leave Rennick? By all accounts, there are a lot of people near the capital that appreciate good horses. They have that big race every year, right?” This came from Woodard.
Meric answered easily enough, but reminded himself to keep an eye on the stocky Sergeant. The man’s tenacity was readily apparent.
“Things changed in Parna… hell, the capital city was not the only place that felt the difference when King Titus was murdered. The new King was not exactly subtle. He is a tyrant, and any-”
“Meric,” Malina chided. “I doubt these good men want to get into a political debate tonight. Why don’t we skip over that part?.”
Meric quickly forced down his embarrassment at getting carried away. He had just been reminding himself about watching what he said, and here he was about to slip up moments later.
“Right… sorry. I guess we just needed a change. I have only ever heard good things about the King of Glendon, and had even visited Yost once, when I was younger, and remembered it fondly. It seemed like as good a choice as any. Malina and I, along with Brody and one other friend, got together, pooled our resources. Now, she and I own the farm and breed horses, Brody owns the inn, and our friend Silas helps out as needed.”
“So, you two are…” Captain Bridgewater looked back and forth between Meric and Malina.
Meric laughed as he shook his head vigorously.
“Gods, no!” That earned him a sharp elbow in the ribs and a glare from Malina, but he just laughed some more and continued. “She may as well be my sister. We have known each other for years and consider ourselves family.”
Meric was pretty sure that the Captain was glad to hear that, since the man seemed to be having a hard time keeping his eyes off of her. He was careful, but Meric caught him once or twice.
“You both appear to be very skilled trackers. Where did you acquire those skills?” While the Sergeant asked in a polite tone, the question could be considered invasive. A quick glance around showed that the Captain and Lieutenant knew this, but were still going to let it go. It seemed that Woodard was going to be their interrogator, how ever friendly he made the questions sound.
“I grew up in northern Rennick, hunting and tracking was an everyday part of my life. I grew to love it.” Meric shrugged and left it at that. That was the truth, just not all of it.
“My father was a Royal Scout,” Malina answered for herself. “Instead of a son to pass along his skills, he got me…”
“And since she can out track, out hunt, and out shoot any of the sons of his peers, he was one proud papa, and would let everyone know it.” Meric finished for her, causing her to blush, but she also smiled fondly.
Before the good Sergeant could resume his questioning, Meric decided to ask one of his own.
“Since it sounds like the crime back on the road was not the reason you are out here, I assume that these bandits have done this before?”
Bridgewater sighed heavily and nodded.
“Two other times that we know of. We need to question them to see if there is more, but the three we know of are enough to see them all hanged.”
Woodard mumbled under his breath, “if they live long enough to get questioned.”
Meric was pretty sure that the Lieutenant heard him, but the man ignored it and gave a brief overview of the other two crimes. When he was done, Meric could see the resolve in Malina’s eyes, and he imagined it matched his own. These men needed to be stopped.
“I am going to bed, gentlemen. I’ll get an early start, follow their trail until I find them or we need to camp again. Hopefully they aren’t too much farther.” Malina stood as she was speaking and moved over to her bed roll.
“Night.” Meric’s voice mixed with a few of the other men as she moved off and then he found his own bed, falling asleep not long after.
The subdued noises of the men packing up camp around him made Meric smile. There was no way that they were anywhere close enough to their prey to be overheard, but the soldiers were speaking in whispers and being careful not to make too much noise as they got ready to depart. Most of their caution was probably due to the steely gaze of their Sergeant as he he sat by the fire, already packed, and surveyed the men working. Having finished his own packing long ago, Meric watched them move about the campsite as well. The men joked or chatted quietly, but wasted no time getting their tasks done. They worked efficiently, and quickly.
“So… how far do you think we will need to go to find these criminals?”
The Sergeants quiet question brought Meric out of his musings.
“No telling, but that valley on the map you showed us last night seems a likely place. We are headed in the right direction, and it would be close enough for these men to use it as a base.” He shrugged and then continued. “It does not bode well for the families you believe have made a home there, but that makes me even more sure that they would settle there. Ready made place to sleep, fresh water, and it is secluded enough that no one is likely to find it without some luck or knowing it is there.”
“Today, then.” The man ran a hand through his short brown hair, and then nodded. “A few hours before the sun sets. Sunset might be a good time… catch them off guard. I doubt they have the kind of discipline necessary to keep a proper watch. We hit them at dusk.”
Meric just nodded.
“You any good with that bow? Could you take out a sentry from a reasonable distance?” the Sergeant asked.
Meric had to fight a smile before he responded.
“I am fair to middling.” Then the grin broke loose. Before he could say anything in regard to the smirk that came over the Sergeants face at his response, Malina’s soft, barked laugh came from just behind him.
“Don’t let the modesty fool you Woodard; he’s better with that bow than anyone you’ll likely ever come across… and I know that’s a pretty bold statement, but I stand by it.”
Woodard just pursed his lips and gave her a serious nod. The Captain had walked up to stand next to her as she finished speaking and he was the one to respond.
“I guess we will find out soon enough, providing that we are right about our destination. Sergeant, I want to get moving in the next few minutes.” With that, Bridgewater turned and walked in the direction of his Lieutenant.
Malina squeezed Meric’s shoulder, gave Woodard a head bob, and let them know she would go ahead and start out. She would follow the trail, leaving markers for the rest of them as she went. A minute later both men stood and left in separate directions; Woodard to get the men moving, and Meric in the direction Malina had taken, by way of the horses.
The pink and orange sky to the east blended into a purple and black as his gaze moved west, and was steadily getting brighter. The area they had camped was not as heavily wooded, so plenty of the morning light reached them as they broke camp. Allowing the soldier’s to make quick work of breaking camp. The night had only cooled minimally, so Meric checked the extra water skins hanging from Ferron and Losa, Malina’s appaloosa, to make sure they were full. It was going to be another hot day. That done, he moved his attention back to the campsite. Weber was headed his way and beyond the approaching soldier, he could see that Woodard had everyone ready to depart. After settling into his saddle and resting his longbow against his left thigh, Meric began to guide his horse out of the clearing, leaving Losa to be lead by Daniels once more.
They had been following Malina’s markers for an hour after taking a short break for lunch, when Meric mentally came to a more focused attention. To any observer, it would have looked like he had just kept on his casual scan of the woods around them. Even Weber, who was looking right at him as he relayed a story from his youth, kept on talking and gesturing with his tale. Apparently his companion did not notice the single unfamiliar bird call that came just a second ago. Meric continued to watch the area in front of them, but instead of a lazily scanning for markers, he was now intently searching for something else that did not belong. Something out of place.
A few minutes later he saw it; about fifty yards ahead and just off to the left. It was not much and he might not have noticed it without Malina’s warning, but now that he caught sight, it was obvious. Continuing his calm perusal of the area ahead, he shifted his grip on his bow and set his reins on his lap. Once his right hand was free; he whispered a command to Ferron. As his mount came to an abrupt stop and stood stock still, he straightened in his stirrups, pulled, knocked, and loosed an arrow as fast as he could. Apparently it was more than fast enough, because the shaft was sticking out of the tree trunk six inches from a sparsely bearded face, the red fletching still quivering wildly, when the man in hiding let out a shout and fell backwards.
As soon as he had let fly, Meric urged Ferron into motion, and arrived at the man even as he started scrambling backwards. By the time Meric’s feet hit the ground, he heard another rider coming to a halt right behind him. A quick glance told him it was Woodard, and he stopped and drew another shaft to cover the man that was still awkwardly crawling backwards. After taking a second to be impressed at the quickness of the Sergeant’s reaction, he stepped sideways to let Woodard handle the potential prisoner.
“Stop,” said Meric.
When he noticed the sharp head of the arrow so close and aimed at his head, the man quit moving. Woodard squatted down in front of him and looked him over. He was not in much better shape than the man they had captured the day before. More sober perhaps, but tattered and dirty. His eyes also got very round when he saw the uniform worn by the stocky man in front of him. Woodard wiped the sweat from his brow and spoke to the quaking man.
“You out here alone?”
“No! No, I got lads meetin’ me up any minute. You best be on your way. We ain’t lookin’ for no trouble…”
“He’s alone. At least, there is no one close by.”
At Woodard’s questioning look Meric explained.
“Malina gave a warning call. One call, one unknown individual. She would also have checked the area thoroughly to make sure.”
“I have… and he is alone, though the valley is only an hour farther on.” Malina materialized out of the trees ahead of them and walked back their way.
Woodard looked at her for a moment, and then focused back on the stranger. The grin he turned on the man was not friendly. Meric watched the man’s face go pale and start jabbering as Woodard stood and stepped toward him.
“You and I are going to have a nice chat about your friends,” the Sergeant said in a deceptively calm voice.