Roland stood stiffly against the rough bark of one the great trees of Wormwood Forest. He was standing on a blanket of vibrant emerald moss that crawled over the forest floor. Spotted mushrooms poked out seemingly at random, giving the illusion that he stood above the world of fairies. Wormwood Forest was not the sort of place he usually frequented. While the beauty of it could entrance a unwary soul, the darkness of men had long since taken it over.
The road nearby was relatively safe in the light of day, particularly if those that travelled it showed a display of present guards, as travellers generally did. Neither he nor the friend that accompanied him for his journey had such a guard, yet they wore their swords on their hips with a comfort of those competent in the art of the blade. For while he was a farmer by trade, he had learned the sword under a now retired sword master. Besides, tonight he wasn't of the honest citizenry that needed protection; instead, he had been forced to don the mask of the theives and outcasts that called this place home.
Roland was tired of waiting, he wanted this blasted night over with so that he could return to the comfort of his home. He cursed his brother Lauren, whose loose morals had landed him in this position. He took a deep breath, remembered the Lauren of old, the boy with the quick smile and the fast wit. His brother was too smart for his own good, certainly too smart for a farming family, yet not smart enough for the city life he had claimed. He had gotten involved with the fancy folk that enjoying playing puppeteer to the lives of the common folk. And where did it land the fool? In a bloody cellar with a lord that enjoy making the suffering of others into games for his own amusement. And it wasn't only Lauren that suffered, for Roland had been dragged into it, and even poor Anders.
Anders was barely visible across the road; his tattered and dirty sleeve of his tunic poked out behind the bend of a tree. Anders was guilty only of wanting to marry Roland's sister, yet his father used that to extort a promise of his aid on this ridiculous task in exchange for approved to wed the girl. Roland wasn't sure his sister could be worth this, but was glad for the company.
Daylight was fading on this mid-summer evening. The dark heart of the forest was reaching further out, claiming the land for the night inch by inch. Soon, the false safety of the day would disappear and the forests nightmares would come to play. Roland wanted desperately to be gone by then.
He had been certain the carriage they sought would be coming this way before dark set in. The Inn they stopped for supper was the closest Inn to the Wormwood forest, and it catered to all sorts, from the poor that were spending their only penny on ale, all the way upwards to the rich with more money than any good man could spend. It was here that Roland and Anders had found a pair of drunken fools that fit with the quest they were embarked on. Fancy lads with their clean clothes dyed brightly to announce their parentage and swords worn that were more decorative than useful.
A group of lordlings they found at the Inn, but it was the pair that were dared to cross from from Lymestone Villa to the Wanderers Way with naught for protection but their own swords that caught the attention of Roland and Anders on this day. What providence it had to be that he should come upon such foolery exactly on this night.
The peacock men had been deep in their cups, could have passed out by now, but Anders had been sure that the challenge accepted should have fired their blood and blinded any sensibility. So certain had he been that their liquid courage would see them through, that he and Anders had stolen horses to get here first. Now it was getting close to dark, and he now doubted whether they would risk the Wormwood forest at night. Who could speak for what a bloody noble would do, fortune seemed to replace brains among any that he’d met. And who was he to ridicule them, sitting in the cursed woods as he was.
Anders' hand shot out in warning. The guy could hear an arrow shot from a barley field away, little wonder he’d hear the carriage first. Roland eased his sword from his sheath silently, locked away the conscience that threatened to seize his hand, and waited for the carriage to come. He could hear it now, as it wound its way around the corner towards them. Voices of the drunken idiots bled out louder even than the crunch of the gravel under the tires. He could see it now, distant but coming at a faster than wise speed. He wanted to curse them for the distress to the poor horses, but he imagined they wanted to get out of the woods as fast as they could.
Roland crouched down and peered through his looking glass at the carriage that was approaching much too fast for their plan. He saw it. He saw the crest, it was them. Roland yelled out to Anders and they both started tossing branches in the road, desperately trying to build a block that would stop the horses from trying to get through.
Above the thuds of the branches, the screams of the horses as the driver tried to stop in time, and the shouts of the drunken pufferies that were their targets, he heard something that stopped his heart. A scream much to high even for the effeminate swabs of men they were after. They weren’t alone. Not only were the idiots rushing much to fast down the road without the presence of a proper guard, but they were doing it in the company of a woman.
“Move your arse”, Anders shouted at him.
The carriage stopped and Anders rushed towards it as planned. Roland moved woodenly, but still he pressed on. He couldn’t leave Anders on his own. He forced himself forward, the adrenaline high warring with worry for this unexpected element. Not for anything could he force himself to harm a woman, not even for the life of his brother that he was trying to save.
The door opened and skinny man wearing of vest of greens and oranges that matched the colour of the coat of arms on the carriage jumped down. Roland was thankful that the puffery was only from a minor house; he hoped the family had not the resources to track him through the pits of hell for what was about to be done to him. The peacock of a man quickly swung his unsteady sword at Anders who easily brushed it aside.
The other drunken idiot followed quickly, discernible from his friend mostly by the yellow scarf wound round his person. With a wary glance towards the carriage window and the drivers seat which was suspiciously empty, Roland quickly made to take out his opponent. An easy block, a pivot and a rush had him inside the guard of scarf-man. Roland flipped his blade away and smashed the hilt into the side of scarf-man’s head. It stunned him a moment, but didn’t stop him. He was slower now, his actions easy to read. Twice more Roland slammed his hilt into the man’s head before the bastard finally stumbled to the ground. Roland quickly disarmed him, grabbed the man’s own scarf and got to work tying him up.
Finished, he looked back where Anders had his foot planted on the peacock’s chest, the tip of his sword pressed tight against the man’s neck. The trickle of crimson showed that Anders was not being gentle.
“Grab the rope already”, Anders ordered. “We need to get moving.”
“They aren’t alone”, Roland shot back. “There’s a woman in there.”
“Tie this one up first, then we’ll deal with her.”
Then we’ll deal with her. Anders’ words bounced around his thoughts, dislodging the conscience he had loosely secured. Anders wouldn’t hurt her, Roland was sure. Mostly sure. Still, he moved quickly to forestall any hasty actions before they could be regretted.
Roland secured Scarf-man better while the other dandy alternated between feeble threats and promises of money to let him go.
“If ya shut yer trap, we’ll let ya live. You whine worse than a child just off the teat.” Roland’s patience was wearing thin under the unending nasally voice.
They stripped the young men of all their fancy wear, purses and jewellery, with Roland donning what clothes fit. “By all the Gods in the heavens, I look ridiculous.”
Anders moved quickly towards the carriage door. Roland stepped faster, beating him to it. He pulled open the door, expecting the hysterics of a frightened woman. Instead, a tiny arm wielding a dagger jabbed quickly through the doorway. Roland instinctively grabbed the wrist, even as he jumped back in surprise. The result was that a wide-eyed young woman yelped as she fell forward and landed on top of him.
A moment passed as they both laid in shock. Then the brief quiet was rent with a scream that pierced the air as the woman came to her senses. Roland pulled her closer, turning her so it was her back to his front, and covered her mouth with his hand. “I’m not gonna hurt ya, I swear it by the Gods. Stop yer scream’n woman.”
She stopped yelling and squirming.
“We’re leaving these fella’s here in the forest to make their own way out. Ya wanna be left here with them?”
She shook her head.
“You can’t leave us here!” The nasal-voice man objected, sounding more panicked than drunk now.
“It’s one night only, some wagoner will find ya tomorrow. It’s a fine warm night, no frost to tickle yer toes. I don’t see yer driver around, I’m sure he’s hiding in the trees over yonder waiting to untie ya when we’re gone. Enough of yer moaning, ya ain’t got it that bad.” With that Anders climbed into the driver’s bench and Roland ushered the girl into the carriage. They set off and had only just left the forest when the last of the day’s light was swallowed up by the night.
Roland fished a couple coins out of a stolen purse and pressed it into the sun-darkened hand of the lady beside him on the bench. “For your silence, ma’am.”
The coin disappeared quickly. She looked him over, then leaned against him, “You don't look half bad in a lordling's outfit. For a couple more of those coins, I could show you a good time.”
Roland grinned as he looked her up and down in turn. She was far prettier than any tavern wench he had ever been able to afford, but he didn’t trust her not to try to stick him again with some other knife she no doubt had secured about her person. “Not tonight, m'dear. I ain't doin this for the fun of it, ya know.”
She raised her eyebrows. "So you are not a common thief. You play the part well, what with stopping the carriage, robbing the riches and carrying off the woman. What’s your story, luv?”
Roland scrunched his nose in thought. It would be safer for her not to know, but on the other hand, if everything went wrong over the next few days, it might be good to have someone know the truth. A witness. He wasn’t sure if anyone that mattered would trust the word of one such as her, but it might help to start planting the seeds of truth with a few people along their travels.
“It's as I say, its not for the fun of it, though it is a game. I'm stuck, right and good. My brother, he's gotten in with the wrong kinds of people in the city. He crossed the House of Vanrocken, if ya can believe it. Him and his no good friends.”
“The Vanrockens…and he lives yet?”
“For now, but that could change. Lord Vanrockens has arrested my brother and three of his friends. But instead of hanging them all, as is his right he says, and who can argue with a bloody lord, he has declared that he will show mercy. That's what he calls it, but its a messed up game is what it is. He is willing to spare two of their lives, provided they have someone to compete in a challenge on their behalf. The first two champions to complete their quests get to choose the life of one to be spared. Only, these quests are as like to get us killed than to save their lives, I reckon, but I can’t see him to the gallows without trying. Vanrocken’s just playing with his prey, fro what I can see, but what choice do I have?"
His companion bit her lip as she considered his story. “So your quest is to rob a couple noblemen?”
“Sort of, but I’m not sure if ya should know it all. I don’t want ya to get caught up in this.”
“That’s oddly sweet, luv. But I’m thinking you are not used to dealing with the highborn, are you? You might want some help." She grinned wider. "For some more of those nice coins you got stuffed away, I could help.”
He stared at her, trying to take her measure. He knew a pretty face didn’t make her trustworthy. How much loyalty would stolen coin buy him?
He took a chance. “I gotta steal a carriage of a minor house allied with the King. This carriage and one of the nitwits back there belong to the House of Makil, they’re loosely allied with the King from what I know. I hope I got that right. I then gotta take it and dump it near the Gator Swamp, bloody two days north of here. I gotta steal livery of same house and I need to gather a flower or plant that is local to where the house be and hand it off to a contact. Then I gotta be seen from a distance passing through Sprucestone, right close to the swamp, dressed as someone from the house. Makes no sense to me, but if it’ll win my brother’s life, I gotta do it. The House of Makil is not too far out of the way, so I’m a going to head up there and get some livery and something like a flower.”
Again she bit that lush bottom lip of hers as she thought. For a moment long enough to be awkward, she stared hard into his eyes, as if trying to see inside him. “You see what he's doing, right? You’re framing the Makils for some crime that Vanrocken’s going to do. That guy you left back there to find his way out of the forest, either he or a family member will be accused of this crime. Maybe he'll be blackmailed, or could even be executed by the next moon. You thought you were sparing him back there, but you're putting him into something far worse.”
“What? You can't know that, yer mad.”
“Think about it", she hissed at him intently. "Why so much effort to make it seem like the Makil’s were out by the swamp. Vanrocken’s crazy, but not stupid crazy. He’s got you running around doing his bidding in the guise of this competition."
Roland sat quietly, running it through his head. She was right. It wasn’t just a set of pointless quests to compete for the boys’ lives, there was something else about it.
“I bet he even set up whatever it was that your brother was accused of. Sounds exactly like him, playing everyone against each other.”
"But the Makil kid back there will be able to say his carriage will be stolen, he can't take the blame for it."
"Of course he'd say that, but is he going to be believed? You can bet neither you nor your brother will be left alive to come forward."
Roland’s belly burned in anger. It clawed its way up as Roland imagined getting his hands around the throat of a certain Lord. Worse was that even knowing it, he didn't know how to fix it. He couldn’t abandon the quest; it still could cost his brother’s life not to complete it. But he now needed a plan to save the man he just robbed and abandoned, and he wanted to be able to take his pound of flesh from the House of Vanrocken, as impossible as that sounded.
“I'm out my league in this, you ain't wrong about that. I'm happy to share this coin with ya, but I think yer mad if ya wanna come along. Do ya want us to drop ya somewhere safe?"
She shrugged, “I'm in it now."
"How can you be so cavalier?"
"Vanrocken will hear that I was in the carriage, there is no where I can run to be safe. Better that I stick with you and help you out of this so I won't need to be looking over my shoulder." She battered those beautiful eyes at him. "Besides, you sound like a fun crew. I’m all in, luv. We'll keep going until we get a better plan, in the mean time, I bet a bit of that coin you have and my lovely company at the House of Makil can get you the livery easy enough.”
Roland smiled widely; a sliver of hope slid through the ocean of fear he was swimming in. “I bet ya can get it easy, all right. I’m Roland, the guy driving is Anders. He’s com’n along cause he wants to marry my sister. What are we to call ya, darling?”
“Joy, call me Joy.”
“Nice to meet ya, Joy.”
“Nice to meet you.” She gave him a friendly pat on the knee that become more friendly as her hand travelled up his leg. The waves of fear abated, and the burning anger changed to a different kind of burning. He turned his body to face her, reached his hand over to slide slowly down the length of her arm. Suddenly he felt that he could risk letting his guard down, just a little, with her.
The carriage jostled around more than could be accounted for by the bumpy road as Anders led them slowly through the night.
*End of chapter - to be continued*