Donna was having a great time, outside with her friends, enjoying the fresh air for once and going for a walk. It had been a long time since she’d been able to stretch her legs.
She knew it was wrong. Her parents would be furious if they found out she’d gone for a walk, but what they never knew wouldn’t hurt them.
Besides, how can she be expected to stay cooped up forever? She was a growing woman and she had plans. She wanted to learn things and go places. Heck, Skystead was too small a town for her. Bigger cities were calling, excitement and adventure.
Of course her dad wanted her to stay and work in the tavern. But wasn’t a girl’s life her own? Why do fathers everywhere think they should decide what girls should do? Not that she cared why.
She looked down the cobble-stoned road. She wondered if perhaps she was starting to like, really like, one of the boys in the town.
She shook her head. Perhaps too early to say.
“What are you doing out at night?” a voice growled out of the darkness. Three armed guards appeared in the middle of the street, the moonlight glancing off their chain mail and helmets.
The guard who’d spoken peered closely at the six young children standing in the middle of the road. “It’s a bit late to be out and about, isn’t?”
“We’re just going for a midnight stroll,” Donna quavered.
The corporal leered at her. “I think you’re more likely hiding from us.” He turned to his other troopers. All three drew their swords.
“You’d best come with us, all of you. And be quiet.”
Donna was too terrified to speak or to run. She stood rooted to the ground, her mouth open. With the prod of a sword she walked where the guards wanted.
And now she wouldn’t get to do any of her dreams. She would just disappear. It dawned on her that perhaps her parents had been right.
Raniss kicked Tildy. She jerked her head up, saying she didn’t really want to go faster. She was happy to walk along at a stately pace, never in a hurry to get anywhere.
“You need a new horse,” Elmtoni said, plodding along on a sprightly two year old stallion, its head held up high sniffing the wind, its hooves beating out a military tattoo on the road.
“Why? She’s been good to me,” Raniss said, leaning forward and patting the old mare’s neck. “She’s taken me just about everywhere. Some places I shouldn’t have gone too. I’m in no hurry to get rid of her, though I do wish at times she would hurry up a bit.”
“Well, one day you’ll have to get a new horse.”
“Perhaps that day is today,” a huge man said as he stepped out from the bushes carrying a large club. Three other men came out of the bushes and stood next to the first man. They wore filthy coats made out of raw sheep fleece and caps that were falling apart. Their boots had holes in them, if they could be called boots. One carried a very old rusty sword, another a rickety bow and arrow. The last carried a large piece of wood he must have picked up from the forest floor.
Raniss immediately kicked Tildy to get in front of Elmtoni then hauled on his reins. Tildy immediately stopped. She craned her head down to rip at some grass. Raniss yanked it back up.
“There’s one more behind us,” Elmtoni said, looking back down the road.
“That’s right, my pretty,” said the first bandit. “There’s nowhere to run. So you might as well give us all you have, nice and peaceful like. That way you at least get to keep your life.”
Raniss casually turned his head left and right as if he didn’t have a care in the world. “Good place this, for an ambush.”
To the right was a steep hill covered in rocks, which horses couldn’t move through. To the left was a thick forest. Horses would be just as likely to break their legs galloping through there.
“Trouble is,” Raniss continued slowly, “what if you’ve got the wrong people. I mean, what if you’re about to get far more than you bargained for.”
The leader laughed, slapping his belly with his free hand. “You hear that, lads. This guy is threatening us.” They all started to laugh.
Raniss looked at Elmtoni and winked. He had still not drawn his sword, and his chain mail was covered by his travelling cloak. He said not covering them always invited far too many questions, especially from guards in the towns they’d passed through. Better to cover them.
She found herself surprisingly relaxed. When bandits had first ambushed them she had been terrified. Until there were three dead men on the road, wishing they hadn’t tangled with Raniss. So now she sat on her horse, relaxed, and watched as if it was a sporting event.
“You know,” she said to Raniss, ignoring the bandits, “this time you might want to let one of them live. Last time you killed them all.”
Raniss turned to her. “Why? I don’t see any point in that. If you leave one of them they’ll just mug someone else.”
“Sure. But if you leave one alive they’ll be able to tell the other bandits in the area they should leave us alone.”
“You know we can hear you,” the bandit leader said.
“How ‘bout we gut them now, Kev? I don’t like this talk.”
“So, Kev,” Raniss said, spitting the name, “I’m feeling generous today. If you leave right now, I’ll let you go. How about that?”
Kev’s face changed to a snarl. “Fuck you, big man. How about this? We take your horses and everything you own. We all bang your woman. And then we let you walk.” He leered at Elmtoni. “Though only you, mind. I think since you’re getting lippy with us we might just have to keep her.”
He turned to Elmtoni. “You hear that. They seem to like you.”
“Well, so they should. I’m worth it, you know?” She grabbed the top of her blouse and pulled it down, and then with both hands she grabbed her breasts and pushed them up showing the biggest, ripest cleavage the bandits had obviously seen for many many months. For just a moment they were stunned.
In a flash Raniss hauled out his sword, bucked Tildy forward and smashed the bandit with the stick over the head, splitting it in two like a ripe melon. The others woke up but were too slow. The thick blade kept moving right through the neck of the man with the rusty sword. His body collapsed with a spray of blood, his head bouncing on the ground like a basketball. Raniss kept the momentum on his blade, swinging it around, holding it in front of him, ready to strike again.
Elmtoni turned her horse around and stared at the bandit at the rear.
“If you stand very still and don’t move you might be lucky enough to the be the one that lives.”
The young boy looked at Elmtoni his eyes wide with fear, then flickered back to the massacre happening behind Elmtoni as Raniss’ blade flicked back and forth. The third bandit managed to get an arrow off, hitting Raniss squarely in the chest. But it was a broad head arrow, precisely what chain mail was invented to stop. The arrow hung on Raniss like a pin in a cushion as the archer had his throat slashed out. Kev, the leader, struck out at Raniss only to have his club knocked aside and fly off into the woods. He looked up at Raniss sitting on Tildy, towering over him with his huge blade.
“You should have listened to me.” His sword came down and ended Kev’s reign of terror on the road.
The boy turned to run.
“I wouldn’t do that if I was you,” Raniss said, galloping up on Tildy.
“So she can move quickly,” Elmtoni said with a cheeky grin.
“When it’s needed. Now,” he pointed his sword at the young boy, “answer me this. What were you thinking, joining up with these robbers? You do realise it was only a matter of time before you met someone like me who would do this,” he waved his sword at the four dead men on the road, “to you?”
The bandit apprentice dropped his club and stood as if turned to stone, his eyes and mouth wide open.
Raniss tapped him lightly on the head with the flat of his blade. “Come on. Answer me. You lost your tongue?”
“No, sir,” he managed to stammer.
“Then what’s the answer?”
“I don’t know, sir. I was just trying to make a living, sir.”
Raniss got off his horse, still holding his sword. “By robbing innocent travellers. Not really a fair way to get ahead in this world, now is it?”
The boy’s eyes looked at Raniss’ face, and then at the three feet of hardened polished steel, as if the Grim Reaper was holding it. Where Raniss moved the sword the boy’s eyes followed.
He realised then and there that his dreams of being a fighter were fantasy and he would never make it, because in front of him was a real fighter. And he could never become that.
The man was dressed like a casual traveller, with a thick wool cloak hanging over his back, a simple linen shirt, leather pants and boots. But the boy now realised these were designed to hide what the big man really was.