Gentle Justice

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Gentle Justice

Samuel Marshall
Part 2

‘Sir?’ Talaerin queried. It had been tough even to meet Gen Shea, the caravan master. His usual brash personality might not have made it, but the obedient, lovestruck young soldier he’d decided to become had obtained a little sympathy from the guards outside.

The small older man turned a wrinkled face towards him. ‘Yes? What do you want?’

‘I’m looking for a place with your caravan on the way down to Krynneth, sir. As a guard.’

‘Didn’t they tell you?’ the caravan master asked, clearly irritated. He smoothed a blue velvet sleeve, stood straight. ‘I’ve got all the guards I need, and I don’t employ foreigners.’

‘They did tell me, sir,’ Talaerin said earnestly, ‘but you see, I’m willing to work for nothing, just our meals. I need to get back to Krynneth with my betrothed, and her uncle–’ he’d almost said ‘father’, but caught himself in time, remembering the agreed story – ‘won’t let her go with me alone.’

‘Oh?’ Gen Shea said, expressing a brief spark of interest for the first time. He jerked a thumb at Talaerin’s previously-ignored companion. ‘This girl? What’s her name? And why’s she hiding her face?’

‘Helena, sir,’ Talaerin said. At mention of her ‘name’, she curtsied appropriately. ‘The veil is a Runite tradition, from betrothal until marriage. It’s most significant. “When thine daughter be promised to a man, until such time as–”’

‘Yes, yes,’ the master interrupted, which Talaerin had been counting on; the quote was entirely fictional. ‘Even so, I have enough guards…’

‘Perhaps for defence, you do, sir,’ Talaerin agreed amiably. Provided nobody within the caravan sabotages your efforts, he thought sardonically. ‘But it might help to have a local face in your retinue when you arrive in Krynneth, or when you deal with border guards.’

Gen Shea took a moment to brush a speck of dirt from his shoulder; evidently he was fond of this particular jacket. ‘I doubt it,’ he said shortly. ‘There’s always a chance, though… Have you any references?’

Talaerin relaxed internally. The decision was made, now, assuming his forgery passed muster. He pulled a folded piece of paper out of his breast pocket. ‘From Master Tavers, sir. I came up from Krynneth with him two weeks ago.’ He’d checked the schedules carefully; there’d been no chance for the two men to meet since that trip. The reference itself was copied carefully from a genuine one, obtained from a drunk guard some months ago.

Gen Shea scrutinised it briefly then nodded, returning it to him. ‘Good enough. You’re in. Just remember that I’m doing you a favour here.’

Talaerin bowed profusely. ‘Thank you, sir.’

‘Thank you,’ Mica echoed from behind her veil in a very soft voice, curtseying once more.

They climbed down the few cramped steps out of Gen Shea’s office and wagon, closing the door behind them. Talaerin jumped the remaining foot to the sand, then turned ostentatiously to offer Mica a hand down.

‘The master’s let me join you,’ Talaerin announced to the two guards who stood on either side of the elaborately-painted entryway. ‘I should check in with whoever’s in charge…?’

‘Captain Kellos,’ one of the pair said in a neutral tone. ‘He’ll be running a little exercise for the new recruits.’ He pointed at what by local standards was a tall man, only a little shorter than Talaerin, tanned and muscled from physical work outside.

‘I’ll get over there right away!’ Talaerin said enthusiastically. Gods, his current personality was tedious. ‘But do you happen to know where my betrothed should be travelling?’

The man shrugged. ‘The master’s wife has a wagon that women use… She can try there.’ He gestured again, at another wooden wagon, similar to the master’s but less flamboyantly decorated.

‘You’ll be all right doing that, love?’ Talaerin asked sincerely. He touched her shoulder lightly, to make the performance more convincing. ‘If you need me…’

‘I’ll be fine, Talaerin.’ Mica said in her soft Helena-voice. ‘You’d better get to your training… I’ll see you later.’

She set off, taking small demure paces, for the indicated wagon. Talaerin walked quickly toward the guard captain, wondering internally just which brand of sadism this one preferred in the name of ‘practice’. And, of course, how he might make himself look good by its endurance.

It hadn’t been too bad, just a few practice matches with wooden swords. Of course, he was sore with bruises, having lost, lost, lost, won (against a rather poor opponent), and lost (intentionally on the rematch, to assuage the man’s pride). But the cheery character he had assumed, willing to take the falls and get up again without bitterness, had already removed some of the ‘damn foreigner’ resentment towards him.

Afterward, they’d asked about Helena; he’d gushed appropriately, being careful to give no more details than they’d already agreed. Maybe he hadn’t yet made any friends, but at least the initial hostility had been replaced by a degree of tolerance for his ‘lovesick puppy’ personality. Having the girl along really helped; her presence had shaped his act into something both more convincing and more likeable.

Hell, he should thank the elves who’d blackmailed him… although that was premature. If she was captured, with whatever she was smuggling, he’d go down too. He made a note to ask her about it as soon as there was a safe moment, check she had everything in hand. She was surely a professional like himself, though; a thief, most likely, carrying some kind of hot property. She’d do okay.

He turned his attention to the scene around. The caravan was almost ready to depart. Two robed clerks bustled about, packing last-minute items and marking them down on hastily-modified lists. A local merchant shouted and gesticulated in their direction, trying to distract their attention. He wore fine brightly-coloured silks, which meant he was important despite his – to Talaerin’s eyes – gruesomely short hair, and presumably he still even at this hour had something that must be carried. Children, out to watch the bustle, played games and screamed abuse at each other. A chicken, unrelated to this mess and presumably escaped from somewhere in the city, clucked self-importantly as it dodged everyone’s feet.

Heavy horses, two to each of the six wagons, pawed the ground and snorted impatiently, themselves ready to depart. Captain Kellos, though, had his own mount; a black, rather a fine creature, if Talaerin was any judge. They paraded about, checking that each man was in place. Talaerin’s post was on the left side of the second-last wagon; the other eleven guardsmen were ranged around the wagons. Kellos would ride in front, and the rest of them would walk.

Master Shea leaned from the doorway of the first wagon, between the knotted vines and flowers of its paintwork, and surveyed the chaos.

‘We’re departing!’ he said peremptorily, with a scowl that spread more wrinkles across his aged face. ‘Go!’

His voice was firm and carried well, at least to the ears of staff who were trained to follow its command. Almost immediately, the great beasts that were to pull this convoy strained forward, and then settled into a steady plod as the wagons began to roll. Talaerin moved with his wagon, matching its slow pace. He looked behind as the clerks finally extracted a parcel from the one remaining merchant, and then hurried to catch up, passing beside him on the way to the master’s wagon.

They rumbled through the streets, from the broad market-place they’d used as a staging ground, towards the city gate. Children came to watch, or walked alongside, some of them mimicking his own measured tread. He smiled in a friendly manner, because that was in his current character, and occasionally made silly faces for them when none of the senior guards were looking his way.

The wide main streets they travelled led between stores and the workshops of the most successful craftsmen, between luxurious stone-built private houses, and finally between a scattering of inns and stables. Ahead, the city walls – crumbling in parts, but mostly solid, and a good ten feet tall – opened between two towers at the main gate.

They passed through slowly. Talaerin had a moment’s nervousness, when one of the city guards looked at him askance; but the man only gave a questioning glance in Captain Kellos’s direction and, receiving a slight nod, said nothing. There was a brief check inside each wagon, so brief that they didn’t even bother to stop; this also caused no upset. Gen Shea came originally from this area and was clearly a well-respected citizen here, if his caravans passed with so little fuss.

Now only the road lay ahead, a rutted line of mud that forged directly ahead, southwest. By the city, it passed between worked fields; further out, there were only the gentle, low hills and tall, grassy plains that were characteristic of the region. The sky was cloudy, but only a light breeze brushed his cheeks. It was a fine day for travelling, and they should make good time to the expected first camp.

The night after that, right on schedule, he would be sabotaging the caravan’s defences from within, so that his fellow outlaws could stream in and plunder its bounty.

He walked with a smile on his face and gave a friendly greeting whenever another guard passed, cheerful because – for the moment – that was his character.

The caravan rolled onward with a rumbling inevitability. It was yet another hill they climbed, a shallow one that still set the heavy workhorses panting for breath and snorting in complaint.

He scanned the countryside, remembering to be as conscientious as his borrowed personality. Nothing larger than a rabbit appeared to threaten the caravan. The muddy, rutted road had risen high enough that quite a view spread out behind: hills and plains, small streams, little woods and copses that never quite seemed to join into a larger forest. Warm light and long shadows patterned the landscape; the sun had dipped low in the sky and out of his sight, shaded by the wagon beside.

It had been a long half-day, pacing slowly beside the heavily-laden vehicle which rattled and bumped over the roads, without pause except for a switch of horses every so often. At times he had needed to pick his path carefully, scrambling around deep mud-puddles or an infestation of brambles that swallowed up the roadside. He was tired, and would have been more than ready to stop, except that his current, eager personality should not feel that way at all. Instead, he made sure to keep a pleasant smile on his face when his boot sank deep in mud, when an irritating fly bit into his arm, when they climbed yet one more hill with no sign of a halt.

But as they crested this one, each wagon in turn reaching the summit with a last creaking of wood and leather, finally it came into view: the great forest, Bengrui, which stretched almost from coast to coast in an unbroken band. Here it spread right across the horizon in a vast wave of flowing green, the road that crossed it trailing half-hidden into its depths.

Before that, a wide open area lay a short way below them, its muddy ground patched with green where hardy grasses had taken root. The wheel-ruts and churned earth made clear that caravans had stopped there before and, soon, would do so again.

He plodded down the road’s gentle zigzag with a more genuine smile, glancing around at his temporary companions spread out around the line of wagons. One man smiled back, a little cautiously. Good. This job was going well; some of the guards would soon consider him just another comrade.

They set up camp at the base of the hill, just as the sun finally dropped beneath the forested horizon. The trees of Bengrui lay a little distance away, held at bay only by a little stream that marked the forest border. Behind them, the hillside – steeper from this direction – sheltered this dip from most of the wind.

The wagons had been drawn up into a protective circle, horses kept within that makeshift pen after they had drunk their fill of water. He had helped set up small tents around the outer perimeter where the guards not on watch could sleep, doing more than his share of the work: the man who’d slackened off might see him as a soft touch, now, and that was all to the good.

Eventually there were fires built and cooking-pots set up, and then all the camp clustered around to have their share of the stew dished up in a battered wooden bowl. Talaerin took his gratefully, not forgetting a word of thanks to the cook, and begged a second for ‘Helena’.

She was among a small cluster of women, seamstresses perhaps, or maids and their like. When he approached, Mica extricated herself from the group, moving to join him. There was general giggling; he obligingly blushed, a skill of which he was quite proud.

They settled on a patch of grass a little distance from the camp, but still within the firelight and everyone’s sight.

‘No problems?’ Talaerin asked softly, taking a mouthful of thick stew. It tasted of rabbit and onion and good, honest vegetables. Not a bad caravan to travel with, this one. He’d been on some where they dished up gruel so thin the guards had called it ‘rat piss’.

‘None. You?’

‘All fine.’

‘Good…’ She turned away, keeping her face hidden while she lifted her veil to eat.

‘Nice touch,’ Talaerin said. ‘Very convincing… although I don’t think a real Runite would allow himself anywhere near this close to his betrothed, unaccompanied.’

She shrugged.

He remembered to smile vacantly, just in case anybody in the camp had sharp enough eyesight to notice. ‘By the by, what are you carrying? Is it well hidden?’

‘Carrying?’ He heard her slurp food, a little indelicately. ‘Nothing special.’

‘Then why are you doing this? I assumed you were a thief…’

‘There are some girls,’ she said archly, ‘who’d take that as an insult.’

‘Yeah, well.’ He hid his irritation, glanced toward the fire to see if anybody paid attention. Nobody did; they were laughing and joking amongst themselves, enjoying a small supply of ale that the master had measured out. ‘Why, then?’

There was a pause. A long pause, until he wondered what she was thinking, wished he could see her face. She still looked away, and then there was the veil.

Finally she said, ‘I’m running away from my father.’

‘That’s all?’ He was incredulous. This much effort for something half the world managed easily enough?

‘That is not “all”!’ She almost raised her voice.

‘Calm down, calm down…’

Don’t patronise me.’

He sighed. ‘Sorry. But it’s hard to look like you’re whispering sweet nothings when there’s a shouting match going on. I thought you were a professional, and…’

‘I was a thief, now I’m a professional liar?’ She was calm again, despite the words.

‘It’s hardly an insult coming from me.’

She snorted, unladylike. ‘Point.’

For some reason that hurt, her dismissive tone cutting into some unguarded edge of his self-respect. He concentrated on his smile, trying to hold it just right… maybe just a little lovesick quiver to the lip, just there…

‘He wanted me to marry,’ she said, unbidden. ‘Marry this vapid toad, a business connection… Everyone said it was a “good match”. Because the fool’s pretty when he’s not being vicious, and he’s only a little older, and of course he’s of the right class…’

‘So you said no,’ Talaerin prompted. He knew little of the trials and tribulations of young maidens; but such information, like everything else, might one day come in useful.

‘My father would hear none of it. He told me to forget my doubts, and beat me when I refused…’

‘Oh.’ He sympathised, having received all-too-frequent beatings in Southland cells from various bored local guards.

‘He often beat me,’ she said matter-of-factly. ‘Sometimes I could barely leave home, with the bruises… Anyway, on this, I spoke to a priest in confession. That one merely told me to behave and suggested that I punish myself.’

Talaerin shrugged incredulously. ‘Religion…’

‘There was another priest, though. When I tried once more, in desperation… And by luck, it is he whose cellar the elves borrow. He introduced me to Ella, and she offered to help. The rest you know.’

‘Ella – the elf girl? With the maniacal smile?’

Mica laughed quietly. ‘She’s very nice indeed. And pretty.’

‘Pretty strange.’ He made a poor joke of it, and the memory still haunted him. The large green eyes, almost swallowing him up…

He shivered in the warm evening, realised it and covered by shuffling just a little closer to Mica. They were almost touching. In the parallel version of this dialogue, the one other people were supposed to see, he’d complained of being cold as an excuse to move nearer. Something of that sort.

He smiled vacantly, for public consumption. ‘Why couldn’t you simply leave the city?’

‘We’re a well-known family. The gate-guards would have known me, and any I asked passage from… my father would have found out immediately.’

‘Hence the veil.’ He mulled it over. She seemed strong enough; perhaps through adversity, if her father were as bad as she claimed. Maybe that influence had honed her skills of deceit, too.

‘And your purpose?’ She sounded wary. ‘Ella said it was disreputable… from what I know of her standards, that’s got to be pretty bad.’

It felt strange to admit, smiling moon-faced in the flickering firelight with mister naïve young soldier in mind for every expression. But they were talking out of cover, co-conspirators.

‘There’ll be an attack on the caravan, tomorrow night. I’m to help, guide them close and distract the other guards.’

‘I see.’ Her voice was suddenly cold. ‘That’s “distract” as in “slit their throats”, I presume.’

‘No!’ He didn’t know why he protested, it was no business of hers. ‘I don’t like killing.’

‘So they fight, and somebody else kills them. Oh, then that’s fine.’ She turned and stared invisibly at him, behind the gauze. ‘What happens to the others on the caravan?’

‘Well, I don’t know!’ Talaerin had to pause, reinforce the blank expression. If only he could wear a veil, too. Damned convenient.

‘Slaughtered, ransomed, or sold as slaves,’ she guessed. Accurately. The thought did make him a little uncomfortable, but… life wasn’t fair. Everybody suffered bad luck from time to time. You had to get by.

‘Look… relax, and forget about it. You’ll be fine, I promise.’ He’d have to protect her, he knew, or the creature Ella’s huge eyes would haunt him to his death. One way or the other.

‘It isn’t just about me.’ Mica moved a little closer, looked directly at him through the gauze, and spoke intently. ‘I’m not going to let this happen. I’ll reveal it tomorrow, unless you back out.’

What?’ He stared, appalled.

‘Stop that, idiot.’ She stood quickly and turned, blocking him from view. ‘Take my hand and look happy.’

He shouldn’t need that kind of instruction. Damn. Automatically he took her outstretched hand, composing his face to a lovestruck daze. Her fingers lay smoothly against his, warm, alive; a feigned attachment that was quickly becoming an encumbrance.

They walked slowly toward the fire together.

‘I can’t believe they sent me with you,’ Mica hissed barely-audibly.

He couldn’t reply without it being obvious to the handful of guards who looked on knowingly, so he only turned toward her and smiled with cloying sweetness.

Tomorrow.’ A last whispered threat close in his ear, then fingernails dug sharply into his hand for a brief instant. He kept the pain from his face with an effort of professional will, making himself blush for good measure. ‘I love you,’ that whisper had been, for everyone else. If only.

She let go, hurrying through the shadows toward the wagon she would sleep in. A last, sweet wave, and she was gone.

He could almost see his one-time mentor and gang leader, Gwynardh Twyling, staring him in the face in some dingy barn hideout. ‘Don’t get involved with women, lad,’ the old man had said, scattering spittle through his broken teeth. ‘More trouble than they’re worth.’

Now he knew it for truth.

Crowded amongst the others, Talaerin set his hands onto the back of the wagon, sinking his feet firmly into the muddy ground.

‘One… two… three!’ Kellos shouted, and they all shoved together. The vehicle creaked in complaint and – thank the gods – lurched forward, lifting out of the deep rut and onto what passed for solid earth. Ahead of it, the horse neighed in triumph, heedless of the half-dozen men who’d been helping it along.

They turned to each other, flashing triumphant grins; even to him, the once-hated foreigner. He smiled back, gave a carefully-measured sigh (satisfied, not irritated), and wiped sweat from his brow with a dirty sleeve.

The still air was hot and humid, even on this forest road where he’d expected coolness and shadows. It had been cleared of trees for a significant width, both to allow the heavy wagons passage and to reduce the risk of bandit attack. The muddy, well-travelled central portion offered no shade at all against the harsh midday sun; and the edges of this woodland corridor were choked with small bushes and undergrowth, impassable.

Though his clothes itched unpleasantly with damp, he should have been well pleased. This little expedition was going perfectly to plan. The shrewd caravan-master Gen Shea had barely glanced in his direction. Nobody carried even a hint of suspicion.

But, thanks to one damned girl, the mission (along with his chance at riches) was in tatters.

Shouts passed among the drivers and, amid the snorting of horses, the whole caravan rattled into motion again. Talaerin dutifully resumed his place by the fifth wagon, smiling as always. If this charade went on much longer, his face was going to be sore with it.

He scanned the forest attentively, as befitted an eager young soldier on guard duty, but his eyes saw nothing. Instead he was going over it again in his head, as he had a thousand times before: last night on his watch duty, all this morning.

She threatened to warn of the attack. Which meant that the outlaw band (less than ten men of varying skill) could not prevail against well-trained, well-equipped, fully awake guards.

Or he could call it off, not signal to start the raid. Either way there would be no victory, no share of the proceeds. Heads she wins; tails I lose.

There was a third option, of course. An unfortunate accident as might befall somebody on the road. It was the only sensible route to take, he told himself. He didn’t like killing; he’d had nightmares for months the last and only time, and that had been in self-defence. But sometimes there was no alternative.

He stared glumly into the distance, sword by his side and a fake smile plastered over his face.

The day wound down gradually into twilight, a last chirping of birds subdued in anticipation of night. To either side the forest became threatening, full of dark shadows that twisted around each other and confused the eye. The other guards were on edge, watching tensely, which suited his mood; he let the smile drop, replaced by a nervous frown. The caravan ran behind schedule, held up earlier by the wagon that had become mired in dirt.

Half of him was glad, like the guards, to finally reach the forest edge. The other half sank into despair, dreading the harsh decision that drew closer by the moment.

The view opened out in front of them, moonlight and the last vestiges of deep-purple sunset revealing a wide vista. Their road switched back and forth, back and forth down a very steep hillside, almost a cliff. From its base spread a great level flood-plain; and there was the cause of it, the wide river Ritje meandering ponderously along its route. Moonlight glittered from rapids by the shallow part of the river, where the caravan would cross tomorrow.

Except that it wouldn’t.

Or maybe it would.

It was nearly full dark when they reached the base of the slope. Kellos ordered lanterns lit to help their way and the caravan trailed slowly, like a little string of light, into the cleared area set aside for a camp.

The drill was familiar from last night. Wagons in a circle, horses protected, tents for the guards. Someone else was building a fire and before long there was a meal ready for the eating.

He got a bowl for himself and another for Mica, looking around for the girl. She followed at his beckoning, looking only a little doubtful when he took them to the very edge of the firelight and sat down shielded behind a bush.

He would have to grab her, cover her mouth so that she was thoroughly silenced. Slit her throat. Wait until her blood drained hopelessly into the earth, then drag the lifeless corpse away into the darkness.

The idea filled him with revulsion. He began to take a mouthful of stew; thought better of it and put the bowl aside.

She sat beside him and fiddled with the veil, removing it now that they were hidden from view. Pulled back the hood of her grey cloak too, and turned her face to him, showing it for the first time in a couple of days. The dim, shadowed firelight glittered from her small eyes, on the short-trimmed hair that almost seemed to have its own glow in the darkness. On faintly-visible freckles.


Now was the time, while she expected nothing. He gripped the sword-hilt tightly in a damp hand, tensed the other one ready to clamp her mouth. Looked at her face, knew exactly how he would have to move to grab it. Then…


Now was the time. Now, not next week. He gathered his wits and…


He didn’t want to do this. He really didn’t want to do this. That damn elf’s threat swam around in his mind but it wasn’t uppermost; confused fragments joined it. Her face, the harshly-cropped hair. Freckles.

‘Will you call off the attack?’

She didn’t sound impatient; perfectly calm, in fact. There was something strange about that. Did she mean the raid on the caravan, or this attack now? This attack that must be now; now, or never. He tensed and…

…gave up, loosed strained muscles, let go of the sword-hilt, sank down further onto the ground.

Never. There was a good feeling to that: a relaxing of some twisted, bunched-tight grip within his mind.

‘I take it you won’t try to kill me, then.’

He glanced aside, drained. A flicker of light; the dagger she’d been holding to one side, sharp and ready. She put it back beneath her cloak, slotted it into some kind of hidden fastener.

‘I couldn’t… You knew?’ He stared confused.

‘I’m not stupid,’ she said acidly. ‘Take your bowl, eat…’

‘Mm.’ Talaerin took a mouthful, discovered himself ravenously hungry all of a sudden.

‘You’ll not trigger this attack, then.’

He sighed. ‘No. You win, curse you.’

‘What was to be the signal?’

‘An owl call. Owls aren’t found in these parts, so…’

‘While you are on guard tonight,’ she said, fixing him with a severe gaze, ‘I’ll be watching you. Don’t do anything foolish.’

He didn’t ask how she’d get away from the other women, how she’d hide; she seemed quite resourceful enough. He merely nodded and finished his stew.

Mica fastened her veil and they stood up, hand in hand once more, to return to the camp. It was easier to wear that lovesick face tonight, now that he was resigned to failure. She didn’t claw at him before parting, only squeezed his fingers a little more tightly than was comfortable.

I’ve lost, he thought. It didn’t seem so bad any more. He wouldn’t get the promised riches, but he’d never been rich before either. Excuses – that he hadn’t been fully trusted, that he couldn’t obtain the right guard duty – would placate the outlaw band enough to let him live, although after that presumed incompetence they certainly wouldn’t consider him for future work.

He’d merely have to begin from nothing. No change there, then.

A breeze had blown up during the night, cool enough to take the heat from the air and foretell the coming autumn. He shivered and walked a few paces one way and then back, keeping a careful eye over the moonlit plain. There were three other guards posted around the caravan, one at each compass point; they were just out of sight, but he wasn’t merely feigning diligence tonight. He stood directly facing a small spinney two hundred yards distant where, he strongly suspected, the outlaw band lay in wait for a signal that would not come.

It would have been perfect; give the call, then attract the other guards’ attention with some imagined sighting while the raiders hurry in silently, their faces and weapons daubed in concealing black. But he had given up all intent of that. Even if not, he felt a strange back-of-neck tingling; Mira was surely watching, true to her word. He hadn’t spotted her, but she must be hidden in, or under, or perhaps on top of, one of the wagons behind him.

A shame that he’d wasted good hours practicing his already-decent owl call. He’d been quite proud of that effort. Silently he laughed to himself.

And an owl called.

What? But there weren’t supposed to be any in this area! He whirled around, trying to spot the source – and there it was against the moon, a brief flutter of wings, some miscreant bird hunting away from its usual territory. Or the outlaw who’d insisted there were no owls in the area had simply been mistaken. Either way, the damage was done.

There was a gasp of breath somewhere behind him. Mira. Curse it, she thought he’d…

And he looked ahead to see, filtering quickly from the spinney, a cluster of dark shapes barely visible in the night.

He had to give the alarm. Otherwise she’d never believe that it had been a real owl in the first place.

Attack!’ he shouted. Men cursed and ran to his side, spotting the approaching threat. The call rang out redoubled from other mouths. Guards struggled from their tents, wiping sleep-dulled eyes and then holding their swords at the ready.

The attack came, as others in the caravan lit lanterns and set them aloft to bring light on the scene. Black-smeared outlaws charged into the flickering brightness with their weapons held high, slashing and cutting about them, but their blades clashed against a rigid and disciplined defence.

Talaerin hung back a little, but he couldn’t run. Not and keep to character, the brave young soldier he truly wasn’t. He stood his place in the line as one of the enemy came charging at him, howling and screaming –

– and he recognised the man, had chatted casually with him only a week ago. He froze to the spot, watching mesmerised as the outlaw’s face twisted in betrayed anger. As the man’s dark blade swept inexorably towards his unprotected chest…

A flash of silver and the attacker jerked back in surprised pain, a small dagger sprouting from his left shoulder. He cursed and ripped it loose, moving in once more.

This time Talaerin was ready, his sword held firmly in proper defensive stance. Their weapons clashed, a brief test of strength that neither could win. The outlaw pulled back and tried another angle; again, Talaerin managed a block, the jarring force of it shuddering through his body.

‘Traitor!’ the man hissed fiercely, and spat, lifting that sword yet one more time –

A rapid thump of hoofbeats, and suddenly Captain Kellos had arrived, charging along the line on his fierce black. It took only a practiced swing of the experienced warrior’s sword – and Talaerin’s opponent was down, knocked to the ground by the shock of the blow and bleeding to his imminent death.

‘Look sharp, there!’ Kellos bellowed – but he needn’t have bothered. What remained of the ill-fated attack was melting away, half the men dead and the other half running for their lives. Not a single guard was down, though a few had sustained injury.

Muttered words and the distant sigh of wind in trees took over from the sounds of battle. Talaerin felt the tension leave him; all of a sudden, he felt dizzy. He sat heavily on the ground, noticing Mica’s blooded dagger beside. Hurriedly he retrieved it, wiped it on a clump of grass, and stuck it hilt-first in one pocket.

‘First battle?’ Kellos asked suddenly from behind. The captain was on foot now, checking on his men. His voice sounded almost kind.

‘Second, sir.’ Talaerin turned and stood quickly, reaching for his assumed persona.

‘The man called you a traitor…’

Kellos had heard that? Damn, the man must have ears like a… like a… what did you have ears like? Not a hawk, that was eyes… He felt a sudden urge to giggle, stifled it promptly, reached for a good response instead.

‘Must have noticed my hair, sir.’

‘Your hair?’

‘Yes, sir. A southlander, fighting alongside yourselves…’ Talaerin ran his hand along his by-now rather disreputable braid to demonstrate.

‘I see.’ Kellos shrugged. ‘I’m told you called the alarm. Well spotted, lad. I’ll see about a little bonus for you when we get to the end of this.’

‘Thank you, sir!’

At least he hadn’t noticed the dagger. Now that was something to be thankful for.

The wounded had been bandaged up, corpses dragged away, and guards were gradually returning to their rest. Talaerin gave over his spot to the man taking third watch and found his own place within one of the tents. It was an uncomfortable bed, with little between himself and the lumpy ground. Even so, it came most welcome.

Dawn arrived, the cool night air gradually giving way to another day’s burning sun. Well that the weather stayed fine; they began the day with a river crossing, wading knee-deep across the shallow ford with orders to watch for any large stones that might impede the caravan’s passage.

There were none and the wagons moved one by one across the hissing, splashing Ritje, water spraying from their ironclad wheels in glittering showers. When all were safely across, their steady progress resumed at the workhorses’ plodding rate. The road kept to the level plain near the river, making easy walking as they left yesterday’s heights at their back.

A morning meal was doled out, dry trail rations to eat while they moved. Talaerin had no chance to see Mica and nothing to do except his ‘job’; he watched their surroundings intently. It had occurred to him that revenge attacks were a distinct likelihood.

The day passed uneventfully, mile after mile of countryside slipping gradually by. In late afternoon they began an ascent through gradual rolling hills that were, Talaerin guessed, on the border with his homeland. Finally they rolled into the next planned camp, a cleared area that had once been a field. A ruined village lay a short distance west, casualty of the war; little more remained than a cluster of charred and blackened timbers.

He met with Mica in the normal way over the meal. Now that there was no imminent killing in the air, it seemed a pleasant – amusing, even – charade. They sat together in the fading daylight beneath an old, spreading willow.

‘Your dagger.’ He passed it behind their backs, from his hand to hers out of sight.

She slipped it beneath her cloak. ‘Well?’

Reluctantly he adopted a humble expression and muttered, ‘Thanks.’

‘A good face. Very sincere. You might like to work on the voice.’

He ignored her sarcasm. ‘I wouldn’t have needed help, except for you.’

‘You think so?’ She didn’t seem to be answering back, merely thoughtful.

‘And whoever survived that mess will be after my blood.’

‘Is that all that worries you?’

‘That’s not just “all”, that’s…!’ He trailed off, feeling a strange sense of déjà vu. Wind rustled the willow above, gently. The stream beside them trickled, purple-lit by the sunset.

‘You’ll be on the run, then,’ she prompted after a moment.

‘I damn sure can’t stay in these parts.’

A brief pause. ‘How convenient. I’ve a yearning to see the world, and company is always pleasant.’

‘You want to go with me?’ He stared, incredulous.

‘Almost.’ Her confident smile seemed nearly visible behind the veil. ‘I want you to go with me.’

Talaerin rolled his eyes. ‘Whatever… Look, I’m a dangerous trickster, a compulsive liar, I’m up to no good. You don’t want near me.’

‘You’re amusing,’ she said. ‘And fun to argue with.’

He snorted. ‘You won’t always win.’

‘Oh yes?’ Mica stood suddenly, flipped the veil aside, and grinned fiercely down at him. ‘Try me.’

With that she hurried toward the camp, leaving him to follow in her wake like some idiot. Catching up, he took her hand ungently and allowed himself a quiet hiss of exasperation.

An image flitted into his mind, unbidden: huge, green elven eyes. A wink. And a brief, knowing giggle.