Towering Darkness (pt 5)
If you haven’t already, you may wish to start at the beginning or read the last part of this story before reading on.
"Who are you?" asked Rael.
"We're simple travellers, my lord."
"I'm not your lord and if you're travellers, why were you hiding in the trees?"
"We heard your horses and didn't know if you were bandits, we hid in fear of our lives."
"If you don't stop lying we'll see how you fair with an arrow in your heart, speak quickly." Rael drew his bow, aiming at the smaller man, who looked at his companion and shrugged.
"Very well, we're bandits. We were planning to rob you. Satisfied?"
Rael lowered his bow.
"How would you like to earn some honest money?"
This got their attention.
"We're travelling to Edlenser and we need some protection from bandits and such. I offer you each one dicosta now, and a second when we reach our destination, plus you get a horse which you can keep," he indicated the two spare mounts behind him.
The skinny man looked at Jared, they locked eyes for a second before nodding.
"Very well, we accept."
Rael dug deep inside his cloak and pulled out two gold dicosta coins. He threw one to each man. Both men immediately checked the coins - Jared even biting his - the second they were in their hands.
"Now mount up and move ahead, I don't want you too far ahead at any time, remember, if you decide to make a break for it I'm a good shot, even at a hundred paces."
The two men dutifully moved to the horses.
"What are your names?"
"I'm Darial," said the skinny man, "that's Jared."
"My name is Rael."
"You're not from Maddram are you?"
"Why do you ask?"
"I saw a sword fighter named Rael in a tournament there once, best swordsman I've ever seen, won money on him. I remember him dropping his sword and running to aid one opponent he faced after catching him by mistake."
"Not the same man I'm afraid, I've never been to Maddram."
"Pity, I could have been friends with a man like that. Come on then, Jared, out on point for us."
The two horses nudged ahead as Rael and the princess urged their mounts on.
They let their new companions get a few horse-lengths ahead.
"What do you think you're doing hiring bandits to help us? They'll just rob us the first chance they get. If we're lucky it'll only be our valuables they take."
The princess had said and done nothing during Rael's interplay with the men except raise her hood. Rael had been expecting some kind of response.
"My lady, you do seem to judge people very quickly. They were waiting to hold us up, I don't deny it, if you had looked closer though, you would have noticed that both of them are wearing standard issue army swords and scabbards."
"They could have stolen those."
"True, but I think they're ex-soldiers who have hit hard times. Lots of these men come home from battle to find little or no work, most don't posses any marketable skills, which means they either become mercenaries or bandits."
"That's purely an assumption, you don't know what they are, they could be plotting to murder us right now."
"It wouldn't be any worse than your supposed royal guard and at least we're aware they may pose a threat."
The princess responded by raising here hood, signalling the end of the conversation.
They were a strange group, two pairs who were completely different; Darial and Jared were animated, laughing and joking, completely at ease while Rael and the princess barely said a word to each other. Rael was glad of the other two riders, they did nothing to help the group’s stealth, anyone lying in wait would hear them half a mile away, but their laughter and jokes took his mind off the situation and raised his spirits. He was no longer concerned for the princess, even though she had receded back into her hood again. Their discussion on who might want to kidnap her had shown she was not traumatised and was thinking logically. He wondered why he even thought it would faze her, she was royalty, of course she could handle this, it was probably a common occurrence he reasoned. It didn’t make any difference how much he told himself that, he was still worried for her. He must remember she was just his charge, he was here as a favour to his friend, no more. Once they reached Edlenser, she was on her own and he was free to go back home, where he belonged.
His thoughts slowly returned to their situation. He had given up trying to figure out who, or why, someone was trying to take the princess, all he could do was guess, and that wasn’t any use. Instead he set his mind on how to reach Edlenser safely, and as fast as possible. Once inside the city they should be able to find friends. He was on pleasant terms with a few merchants, so they should be able to find shelter and somewhere to hide until he could reach King Willem, the princess' father, if the worst happened. Rael wasn't finding any of this reassuring.