Towering Darkness (pt 4)
If you haven’t already, you may wish to start at the beginning or read the last part of this story before reading on.
He let the princess sleep late. With no idea what they faced there didn't seem much point in rushing headlong into it. After a leisurely breakfast, Rael packed everything back onto their spare horses and lead the way back to the road. Nothing moved and there was no sign of any fresh tracks. Slowly they edged onto the road and started back towards the road that led to Edlenser. Despite making their way back along the road after escaping the guards, Rael estimated they were still a couple of hours ride from the fork. They moved slowly. The princess had said nothing so far, which worried Rael, he was concerned she may be suffering some sort of trauma following her ordeal. He didn't know how to help her deal with it though and so decided staying quiet, giving her time and space and being ready should she need him was the best course of action. They were both silent as they rode and it was nearly midday when the princess pulled back her hood, the motion startled Rael so much he nearly fell off his horse.
"I've been thinking it through and I don't know why anyone would pay to have me kidnapped."
It took Rael a few seconds to gather his wits.
"Well, they may have wanted to hold you for ransom."
"True, but it must have taken a lot of money to convince royal guardsman to betray their king, the captors wouldn't stand to make anything."
"I would imagine your father would pay whatever it took to get you back safely."
"Yes, but surely it would have been cheaper to hire mercenaries or bandits and take me themselves? There were only five guards and yourself, twenty or so armed men would have been enough I should think, and much cheaper to hire for a few days than to pay off the guardsmen. The royal guards are well paid and well respected, they're hand picked to be the most skilled and loyal infantrymen, trained to defend the royal family above anything else, it makes them impossible to bribe."
"Obviously not impossible enough, but maybe they weren't going to pay the guards, maybe the were just going to kill them when they got you to Edlenser, saves putting their lives on the line, the guards bring you nice and quietly and when they try to collect their reward they get a knife in the back and a shallow grave."
"Or maybe it's someone who isn't interested in the money my ransom could bring, but something else."
"It's possible, but I have no wish to find out who or what was involved, we should reach Edlenser early the day after tomorrow if we increase our pace, you'll be safe there. I presume they were taking you to Engby, and they wouldn't have arrived until late tomorrow, which means you won't be missed for some time, by then we will be too far away for anyone to catch us before we reach safety."
Even he didn't really believe what he was saying. An outlaw gang trying to kidnap a princess could have chosen to meet the group anywhere along the route, more than likely the meeting place would be far away from prying eyes and that meant away from population centres like towns and cities. The problem was they didn't know what they were up against, they could walk right into them and not know until it was too late.
What scared him most was that even if they reached Edlenser they might not be safe. If he planned something like this he'd have someone watching all possible routes, in case the royal guard lost their nerve and changed their minds. It depended on how determined to snatch the princess they were and Rael hated depending on other people, there was always a chance they'd let you down.
As they approached the fork and started to make their turn onto the right road, Rael's instincts told him something was wrong.
"What?" asked the princess, turning to look at him.
"Bear with me, your majesty. Please stay still and be quiet for a moment."
Rael sniffed the air, then closed his eyes and tried to focus on the sounds around him. Slowly he reached for his bow and notched an arrow. He opened his eyes, focusing on the tree line on the opposite side of the road that led to Edlenser. Taking aim with his bow, he called out.
"I know you're there, come out."
Nothing happened, the princess looked at him as if he'd lost his senses. Rael loosed his arrow, which disappeared into the trees.
"Holy shit," cried a large, shabby looking man as he shot out onto the road, staring back at the arrow that had narrowly missed him. Realising he was now in full view he looked meekly towards Rael, who had notched another arrow, and swallowed. Rael urged his mount forward to give him a better view of the Edlenser road.
"Tell your friend to come out to."
"There's nobody else, I'm alone."
A slight pause. Rael raised his voice.
"Come out or I'll use another arrow, I'm shooting blind but your friend knows how close I can get, he was fortunate I didn't hit him, you might not be so lucky."
Several seconds passed and no one moved. Rael raised his bow and took aim at a spot across the road from his first target.
"Okay, okay, no need for that," said a small, skinny man as he emerged from the trees with his hands up.
Part 4 of this story has now been published.