Evander had to choke back a whoop of excitement as he spied the carriage rumbling down the road. He and his men hadn’t had such fruitful pickings in a long while, and though summer it might be, fall and winter would come soon enough. This ambush might yield considerable provisions for those in need to get through the hard seasons ahead. He swung down from the thick branches of his favorite perch and landed with a thud on the forest floor. Every bone in his body protested. I’m getting too old for this. It was no more than a passing thought. He couldn’t stop, because the misery of those unable to protect themselves hadn’t—and likely never would.
Nemo, his second in command, appeared out of thin air. They had a way of blending in with their surroundings. Despite their years together, Evander could still be startled by them…and that was good thing. If one wanted to lead a band of brigands, it helped to have someone for whom stealth was second nature. Nemo’s short and thin stature was an asset, as well. It made it easier for them to hide behind trees and rocks, unlike Evander’s tall, broad frame. Even a mountain would have trouble providing him cover. It hardly mattered. Here was where people in need depended on him, so this was where he’d stay. And probably die. But he never dwelled on such matters. His life meant nothing compared to the hundreds of others he served.
Nemo stood with their legs braced and arms crossed. “Someone is looking pleased with himself.”
“Ha!” Evander clapped them on the shoulder. “Some rich person rides this way and without any outriders. I saw only one coachman and a footman on top.”
“Soldiers could be hiding inside, ready to spring a counter ambush when we stop them.” That was one of the better things about Nemo. They always assumed the worst.
“Unlikely, as the coach is too small. The most it could carry is four people. Hardly a challenge for us.”
“I’ll line up extra men, just in case.”
As soon as Nemo disappeared back into the woods, Evander climbed the tree again to keep track of the coach’s approach. Whoever was inside, and whatever the reason for them to travel this stretch of road that had gained a reputation of being populated by highwaymen, their pace indicated they were in no hurry. That was all to the good. It would allow Nemo to get everyone into position with time to spare. Evander was confident he’d arrive as usual to do the greeting, even if he stayed a bit longer to watch the carriage’s progress. There was something about it… “Well, fuck me.”
This was a chance he’d been hoping for since the last harsh winter. Simple robbery was no longer lucrative enough to satisfy the needs of those he helped. The dire situation required a bolder move, one that would produce far more coin in one fell swoop. It would be a tremendous escalation of their work, but one he wasn’t completely comfortable with—nor had most of those who followed him been when he’d first broached the topic. Thieves, robbers, runaways and conmen they may be, but none of them had experience in what he now planned. The memory of all those starving faces from around the surrounding villages and farms helped him to harden his heart, however.
He scrambled down the tree and raced to the spot where they would deploy their ambush as shadowy figures—members of his band and loyal to him, one and all—arrived to take their positions. This time, he was going to ask much of them, and he wanted to have time to set them on the right path. It was going to be difficult, he knew. Nemo and the others turned to look at him with surprise as he hurried to join them. It wasn’t in his nature to be rushed, but this situation wasn’t normal. And he wanted to deliver the news as good fortune.
“The carriage belongs to the baron.” He stood grinning with encouragement while his men absorbed the information and understood its importance.
Maurice was the first to get it. That was no surprise, given the man was high-born, even if it had been on the wrong side of the blanket. He had a sharp mind that was as good at tactics as Nemo was with logistics. “Our first chance for abduction has arrived, then. I wonder who’s inside.” The man had a face not unlike the proverbial hedge fence, but when he smiled, his blue eyes crinkled in an appealing way.
Evander shrugged. “Who, indeed? Someone worthy of a carriage instead of a wagon or a saddle-sore ride through the woods.”
The information finally clicked for Nemo. “It could be no one of great importance. Maybe the tax collector has broken his leg and needs a carriage to get around for his dirty work. For his own purposes, the baron would certainly want his man to do his duty quickly.”
“Possibly,” Evander allowed. He didn’t think so, however. That particular man was smart enough to know this road was a danger to him. They’d robbed him often in the early years. There were others that, while inconvenient, provided a safer route, and the tax collector had taken to using those. “We can only know by doing what we do best, and once we do, I’ll make a decision of how to proceed.”
“You mean to take the occupant hostage and ransom them?” This from Brother Manfred. The man was dressed for battle as usual, with his short sword tucked into his belt looped around his robe that served as a tunic. But his role was only ever to soothe frayed nerves as their victims were liberated of their wealth. His kindly face, lined with age and accented with a meticulous goatee, helped travelers believe it when they were told they wouldn’t be harmed. His obvious tie to the nearby monastery helped, as well, although if they only knew what went on in that dark place, they wouldn’t feel so calm around him. Fortunately for all of them, Manfred had fled the naked cruelty and avarice of the monastery. He was the most decent man Evander had ever known and the keeper of his band’s collective conscience. That was the problem now, regrettably.
“I do,” Evander confirmed. “The person in that carriage may be our first and only chance at extorting a sufficiently large amount of money to see our people through the coming winter. It’s a happy circumstance if the funds come from the baron, himself and not one of the fawning nobles he rules over.”
Manfred shook his head. “I’ve been against this scheme since you first contemplated it, as you know. Robbery is one thing, but kidnapping crosses the line. How do we look ourselves in our own reflections, never mind explaining it to those whom we help?”
Nemo spoke up. “When it means their children are not starving, they won’t care. It’s not like we’re going to kill anyone.”
Manfred frowned. “What if the occupant is a woman? How will she fare, living rough in the forest with us for the many days it will take for a ransom to arrive?”
Evander tried not to sigh. They’d had this discussion, or variations of it, before. Every issue Manfred raised was a valid one. They simply paled in comparison to the suffering of so many others. “Mabel and Cath manage, as well as the rest of us.” He gestured toward the women, who stood ready with their bows. “And Susannah will know how to make a female guest comfortable.” The keeper of their camp was a strong woman for all her tender years and soft demeanor.
“You’ll get no argument from me about the strength and skill of our female comrades, Evan. They are not, however, noblewomen, as any woman in that carriage is likely to be. She will be used to finery and pampering and not, frankly…shitting in the woods.”
“She’ll get used to it,” Mabel interjected. “It’s not that hard—not as much as being beaten and raped.” Like many of his ‘men’, Mabel had fled from an untenable life, where living rough in the forest and robbing passersby was a glorious life in comparison.
Putting his hands on his hips, Manfred shot her a sympathetic look. “I should hope we can do far better than that in our treatment of others.” He turned his attention back to Evander. “I have a bad feeling about this.”
Evander put a hand on the man’s shoulder. “I understand your concern, and I can’t say I am entirely happy about the idea myself. I don’t want any of you to do that which your conscience cannot abide. Let us make a compromise and agree that if the occupant of the carriage is a woman, we take her money and nothing else. If it’s a man”—he closed his eyes a moment—“we have to do more to help our people.”
Maurice clapped his hands and rubbed them together. “A fine plan, Evan.” He glanced around at the others. “Well, what are you waiting for? Get into position, everyone.” There was only a moment’s hesitation before the rest did as Maurice said.
Evander squeezed Manfred’s shoulder. “Are we good, Brother?”
The man nodded once. “Aye, I suppose so, but I still think this is a mistake. Bringing a stranger to our camp will be dangerous, and he’ll require constant guarding.”
“Agreed.” Evander let go. “And as this is my idea and my responsibility, I will look after our guest in all ways. If it fails, it will be my fault and no one else’s.”
“I can only pray to the gods we will succeed.”
Relieved that there was no more disagreement on the matter, Evander said, “I thought you no longer believed in the gods.” And who would, after what you witnessed in the monastery?
“I don’t, but it doesn’t hurt to ask for help, just in case.”
With a laugh, Evander headed to his usual place in an ambush, pushing away the doubt he felt in his heart.
* * * *
Rory stared out at the endless monotony of the forest. He’d never been so far from home, yet he found nothing exciting about his trip. It was boring and uncomfortable. His father had only spared the oldest carriage he had, with weak springs and lumpy seats. And what he expected to find at the end of the journey didn’t give him any hope of something better. He expected University City to be more frightening than anything else. Still, tedium was the immediate problem. “Will we never get there?” He didn’t bother to hide his peevishness. He was still within his father’s reach, and everyone expected such an attitude of him, anyway.
His valet, Maxwell, gave him the sort of stern look that he employed with impunity. “We’ve been gone less than two days, sir. It takes at least five to get to our destination.”
Rory rolled his eyes. The old man was tiresomely right—always—and never shied away from delivering hard truths. There was some comfort in the routine, and it would be much harder to make the journey without him—not that Rory would ever admit such a thing. As far as he was concerned, Maxwell was just as guilty about the misery that his life had become as his parents were. It might not be fair to blame a servant, but the man was the safest place to concentrate his anger. “You might have devised a way to amuse me while we plod along.”
“Would you like me to sing some bawdy tavern songs? I know quite a few.” The old man’s face remained as placid as ever.
Rory dismissed his ridiculous question with the scoff it deserved and went back to staring out of the window. This forest sitting on the outskirts of his father’s holding was vast, dark and foreboding. No human with an ounce of sanity would make their home here, given that it was populated with all manner of large and dangerous creatures—or so he’d heard. Still, it held a certain fascination. A person could leave the known world behind and lose themselves within its thickness. What would happen if I jumped out of the carriage right now and ran into these woods? Would his father’s men even bother to stop and chase after him? Probably not. Good riddance to him. That’s what they would think. Well, perhaps Maxwell might do so, out of loyalty to Rory’s dead mother, if nothing else.
Shaking his head, Rory dismissed the impulse. It never helped to imagine a life other than the one he was leading. “Do you think there are monsters living in the forest?” It was a silly question, but he was bored.
Maxwell drew in a breath, a clear sign that his patience was being tested. “There are no monsters, sir.”
Rory was considering a retort about how wrong that was, as he’d lived with a few his entire life, when the carriage lurched to a halt. Shouts penetrated the glass window of the door. He grabbed the edge of his seat. “What’s that? What’s happening?”
Grim-faced, Maxwell peered outside. “Brigands, sir.”
“We’re being robbed.” It wasn’t a question, but others bounced around his mind, mostly concerning whether this outcome had been the plan all along when he’d been sent on the journey.
The door opened abruptly, revealing a sharp arrow notched and pointing generally in his direction. “Everybody out, if you please.” The voice issuing the order was surprisingly cultured, not the rough speech of a workman. A large hand with long fingers that didn’t belong to the archer beckoned them. “Now, if you please. Otherwise, I’ll have to come in and drag you out.” The tone of the man implied that he would find such a move bothersome.
Before Rory could make himself move, Maxwell leaned forward and climbed out of the carriage. “If it’s money you’re after—and I can only assume it is—I have access to it.” The man uttered a muffled grunt of outrage and disappeared from Rory’s line of sight.
That hand reappeared and beckoned again. “Your servant is not enough. Come now. My patience is wearing thin.”
Rory had long ago mastered the art of hiding his fears and using contempt to deal with bullies. He forced himself to step out of the carriage with his head held high. His fast-beating heart made it hard to maintain his expression of disdain, but he could do it. A façade of indifference was his only defense. His well-honed control stuttered to a halt when he saw his attacker for the first time. A man much older than he, yet still significantly younger than Maxwell, stood with his hand on the hilt of a sheathed knife. Tall and broad, the brigand was an impressive man, even though he wore a tunic and trousers that had seen better days. Dark brown hair hung in shaggy layers nearly down to his shoulders. His unkempt look showed no signs of him having lived a life of luxury. Although his clean-shaven face didn’t have the florid and soft look of Rory’s father, his weathered skin was nevertheless smooth-looking, and his brown eyes were clear. When he smiled at Rory, he showed straight, white teeth. This was no ordinary highwayman.
“Thank you for joining us, my lord. It’s such a lovely day, much better to talk outside than in that stuffy carriage.”
“I’m not a lord.” Rory bit out the truth from habit. Folding his arms, he tried to give the man a look of disdain. It was hard to do so. There was something compelling about the brigand that disturbed and cowed him. Rory didn’t want to stare into his eyes.
“I beg your pardon.” The man gave him a baiting smile, then tapped the outside of the door. “This is the baron’s crest, is it not?” When Rory said nothing, he continued with a narrow-eyed gaze. “The baron has three sons, I believe.”
Rory tugged at his frizzy braid, not sure how to respond. But anyone who had ever seen the baron knew that Rory’s curly, red hair was not usual. His pale skin, dotted as it was with freckles along the bridge of his nose, made him an outlier among his family, as well. “Do I look like a son of the baron?”
“Yes, actually.” The brigand startled him by flicking a finger at Rory’s sleeve. “Such fine dress speaks of nobility.” He used that same finger to catch Rory’s necklace and give it a gentle tug. “And this jewelry is worth a pretty price.”
Rory wrenched away. “Don’t touch that!” His abrupt movement would have sent him tumbling to his ass on the carriage step if the brigand hadn’t caught him by the elbow. Rory pulled free. “And don’t touch me!”
“My apologies, sir. I didn’t mean to alarm you. We don’t steal that which has obvious sentimental value. We seek money, first and foremost.”
Rory clasped his palm against the necklace. How does he know what it means to me? “My valet has already told you he keeps the coin. It’s in the strongbox up with the coachman. Take what you want and let us go on our way.”
“Why, thank you very much, kind sir.” The man’s tone mocked, but his eyes twinkled as if Rory were in on the joke and not the butt of it. “We’ve already liberated that. There is something else, however, that will fill our coffers even more.”
“Wh-what are you talking about?” He didn’t like the look in the man’s eye.
“Me?” Rory’s voice squeaked, which was embarrassing but he was too shocked to care. “You can’t be serious.”
“Oh, but I am. You are the baron’s son, of that I’m sure. He’ll pay a pretty price to get you back, I’ll wager.”
Rory nearly laughed at the absurd notion. The baron wouldn’t pay anything. The old goat probably wouldn’t piss on him if he were on fire. Saying as much, however, wasn’t going to help. No one, other than Maxwell, would believe him. He was going to be taken hostage, no matter what he said. Then I’ll die in this horrid forest for certain. Fearful and unable to explain the futility of his abduction, he lashed out as he’d learned to do when frightened and cornered. “You can’t have me, you brute!” He kicked at the man’s crotch and clawed at his face, even knowing it could lead to his quick death.
Instead of stopping him with the point of his knife, the brigand merely avoided his assault, captured his arms in a strong grip, spun him around and wrestled him into a tight hug. The despicable robber had the temerity to laugh as he did so. Rory thrashed and pounded at the man’s arms, but to no avail. It didn’t take long for him to become exhausted at the effort, and in the end, he lay limp and panting in his grasp.
“If you are done trying to escape the inevitable, we shall take our leave now.” The words were said not unkindly.
Resigned temporarily to his fate, Rory didn’t struggle as the brigand hauled him away from the carriage. Another man, surprisingly dressed as a monk, approached. “Evan, let me tend to the boy. He’s little more than a child.”
“I am not a child.” He’d always had trouble guarding his tongue, but this was a sore topic for him. He knew his short stature and lack of facial hair made him look young and helpless. Those assumptions by others made him vulnerable. To prove his point, he started to struggle again.
The man called ‘Evan’ tightened his grip. “Thank you but no. This is my burden to bear—and it’s not as bad as it looks.” The man’s laughing tone was clear.
Rory tried to kick backward, pressing himself against the man’s body. That’s when he felt a frightening hardness. A shiver streaked down his spine, and he went limp again. This was a danger he hadn’t contemplated. Now that it was obvious, he didn’t want to do anything to encourage the man’s interest.
“Wise boy.” The words were nearly a whisper against his ear.
The sound of them, coupled with the tickling warm breath against his skin, made Rory shiver again. His breathing came in quick pants that he labored to get under control. Show no fear. That was a lesson hard learned, and it would serve him well in this situation.
“You, valet, take my words back to the baron. He’s to have a half-year’s-worth of taxes to be delivered to this spot in a fortnight if he wishes to see his son again.”
Maxwell drew himself up straight and looked down at the brigand as only the man could, despite his shorter stature. “I will do no such thing. The coachman will take back the message. I go where my young master does.”
That caused the ruffians around them to laugh. “The boy won’t have need of your pampering service,” the leader said. “We live rough in the forest. The experience might do him some good, actually.”
Rory didn’t know what to say or what to do. He’d never been without Maxwell, and as hard as he could be on the devoted servant, the thought of being without his company was terrifying. Only pride kept him from sending the man a pleading look or speaking up to keep him.
It didn’t matter, in any event. Maxwell wasn’t to be deterred. “Take me with you, or I shall find a way to follow.” His gaze slanted sideways toward the archers still pointing arrows at them. “Regardless of the potential consequences.”
“Will the baron pay more for us to release you, as well?”
“No.” Maxwell’s expression and tone never changed from his determined haughtiness. The man had courage. There was no denying that.
Rory knew a measure of gratitude and tried to show it in his eyes before saying, “He means it. The stubborn old man has always been a thorn in my side, but he does have his uses.”
There was silence while everyone waited for the leader of the brigands to decide. His chest rose and fell against Rory’s back on a big sigh. “Very well. It might make my job easier, I suppose.” He stepped away from the carriage, dragging Rory with him. “Turn around and go back to the baron with my demands,” he shouted to the coachman and footman.
They were two of the laziest servants in the baron’s household, but they would high-tail it back to the safety of the castle, that was for certain. Their message would fall on deaf ears, however. Rory knew that for sure and so did Maxwell, no doubt. Perhaps the man wanted to join the brigands rather than continue to serve the baron or Rory. No one could blame him if that were the case.
They waited until the carriage was back on its way before the brigands lowered their weapons and celebrated their success with muted grins and back-slapping. A large, homely man tossed the coin purse in his large hand. “A decent haul, Evan, even without the ransom.”
“Good. We shall wait for the baron to send us more. Come, young sir. I will show you to your temporary home.” He loosened his grip enough for Rory to walk by his side, although he still held him close.
As he stepped off the road and into the dark shadows of the forest, Rory hid his fear with bravado. “You will rue this decision to kidnap me.”
The brigand squeezed Rory’s waist. “Oh, I doubt it. I’m already enjoying my time with you.”
Rory managed to jab his elbow into the oaf’s stomach. “You will keep your hands to yourself.”
The brigand merely chuckled, even as he rubbed the spot where the elbow had landed. “I do love a challenge, but worry not, young sir. No one will harm you here. You have my word on it.”
“As if that means anything.”
The man didn’t respond right away. “It has to. I have little else left to give.” And on that odd declaration, they continued making their way deeper into the woods in silence.