Blood and Iron Ch. 13byWarLordwrites©
This is a work of fiction any similarities between the characters, events, or locations in this story and actual locations, events, or people are purely coincidental.
© 2007 Warlord
Ronnie smirked at me. "Suddenly, hunter, so little confidence in your persuasive abilities?"
She laughed, and Hjordis and Donna joined her. As the laughter tapered, the princess watched me carefully, her eyes again doing that shift thing from amused to appraising, as she said, "I wish to see the bandit's treasure."
Her impassive blue eyes focused on mine, she repeated, "Their cache, my hunter. Where is it?"
I stared into those mesmerizing blue eyes, answering simply, "Under the barn, your grace."
One eyebrow came up a smidgen as her eyes probed mine. "Show me."
In a lithe motion, the Princess bounced to her feet. She reached down, proffering her hand, then grinning widely when I ignored her offer, getting myself up far less gracefully. She smiled at Hjordis and Donna, reaching out and saying pleasantly, "Please come along."
The princess turned to the ever attentive Blade, saying briskly, "You as well, with Jeremy, and bring light crystals please."
We entered the barn as Hjordis again reached down, flipping her buckle's catch and revealing her light crystal. Ronnie did the same as Donna dropped a crystal into her palm from a pocket behind her dagger. This was getting ridiculous; was I the only one unprepared?
I'd show them some 'real' supremacy over the forces of darkness; my Zippo lighter was juiced with gasoline…
Before I could pursue my musings, Blade and Jeremy showed up with more light crystals in candle boxes. With the barn illuminated, I flipped back the trap door Blade handed me a reflecting box that I placed at the bottom of the ladder, brightly lighting the bandits' hiding place.
I came back up the ladder to find an impatient princess. Ronnie started for the ladder as soon as I vacated it. Blade and I reached for her and the ladder, only to receive a withering look in return. We both paused as she asked in a voice heavy with disdain, "Shall I also expect your help when next I sit a horse?"
With a peremptory gesture, Ronnie backed us away from the ladder as she nimbly started down. She paused only to stick out her tongue at me. Blade made grinning eye contact as Hjordis giggled.
I looked around to see Donna holding the Princess's sword belt while Hjordis was now peering down into underground hoard. She began stacking jewelry boxes next to her as the Princess handed them up. Ronnie's head popped up out of the hole. She pulled herself up in one smooth motion, to sit with her legs swinging in the opening, facing me.
She stared at me in silence, finally saying, "Much gold, my hunter; why did you not bargain with me?"
Shrugging, I replied, "I did not think to, your Grace."
She shook her head slightly as she answered sardonically, "No, another of your artful traps."
I asked softly, "A trap, Ronnie?"
She nodded slowly and carefully, as her cool voice answered, "Of course. You freely lead me to this vast treasure, leaving me to choose your prize. Can there be any worse snare?"
Her eyes flicked around the barn then settled on mine as she smirked, "Though I'm sure, my hunter, you'd have suggestions for possible rewards."
Jeremy and Donna now delivered flagons of ale to all of us. We sat on various wooden boxes and farm implements in a long empty box stall, drinking our ale, as we contemplated the open trap door with the light spilling out, illuminating the jewel boxes stacked next to it. My quizzical perusal of the boxes was matched by Ronnie's study of me.
After her thirst was slaked, Ronnie said, "Another task for you, my hunter. Having to do with those jewel cases you find so fascinating."
She continued, "Because of my time spent with the stable hands, I know the talk of the royals, hear the gossip of the backstairs, and sometimes learn of scandals unknown to almost everyone."
Ronnie gestured at the cases as she went on. "For instance, I am one of very few aware that highborn women captured by the highwaymen were ransomed back to their families. The nearest kin even now sequester those liberated, in terror of the death threats that accompanied their release. You, my hunter, will find the owners of those cases, return their precious heirlooms and by that boon learn what they know of the vipers among us."
With a beaming smile Ronnie took a sip of her ale, ignoring the effect of her words.
As the tumult died down, Ronnie again smiled at me. I was, not for the first time, wondering if a princess's amused smile would always presage trouble for me.
Ronnie asked almost gaily, "My hunter, what is this bold plan of yours for my travel?"
I set down my ale as I stood to reply, saying ruefully, "I have the beginning of a plan only, your grace."
Ronnie made an encouraging gesture and the others offered shrugs and appreciative looks of support as I slowly forged ahead, looking only at the princess. "We do not know if there are more ambushes planned. I think I have broken the back of the attackers here in the forest, but I have no idea of the real numbers involved in the broader conspiracy."
I took a deep breath as I offered, "You should continue in a small party on horseback, while a wagon carries the bodies and treasure back to the King."
Ronnie nodded calmly. "And the coach?"
Chuckling and shaking my head I answered, "That is the part not so well planned."
A ruminative silence fell as we pondered my suggestion. Hjordis spoke without preamble. "It could work, your Grace. A small party on fast horses, perhaps one or two pack horses, with any ambusher expecting a great coach."
Jeremy continued the thought, saying, "The bodies, weapons and gold being displayed in the back of a wagon on the way to King Holm would sow great confusion; maybe even split their remaining forces as they tried to react."
I commented, "That wagon filled with gold would very likely be attacked, your Grace."
Jeremy showed his mettle, saying, "I would be pleased to lead the wagon party, Princess Veronica, if it meant your greater safety."
Blade spoke up, saying, "What of the 'thistles' hidden in our troops, your grace? They are here to aid any ambusher. How would they react to your getting away?"
Donna asked quietly, "What if they didn't suspect that she was getting away?"
In a sudden buzz of questions, Ronnie gestured, and Donna went on more loudly. "They would naturally assume that the Princess would follow the gold back to King Holm. Let them think your preparations for travel are back to where you came and they will likely not attempt to prevent your leaving. Especially if we leave that full ale keg!"
Blade grinned wolfishly. "It's not like any of them are spoiling for a fight. Any excuse to lay under the big oak tree drinking ale while waiting for your return would be attractive to these so-called warriors."
Ronnie smiled as she nodded in sudden decision. "We leave the worst of them to guard the coach. Jeremy leads the wagon party. Blade is with us on horseback. We go our separate ways when we reach the forest road."
Ronnie looked at me as one eyebrow came up fractionally. " What of you, hunter?"
In the sudden silence, I replied, "I must return to the woods my lady. I am still in search of that "something" that threatens you, Nadia, and the kingdoms."
I received only understanding nods in reply.
Jeremy and Blade were loudly putting the plan in motion among the troopers. Hjordis and I were in the barn, quietly loading a pack mule with gold and jewels taken from the smaller of the chests. Ronnie was going to have a bit of Oswald's gold when she reached Port City. Mindful of the tasks that had been put before me by the Princess, I carefully placed the jewel boxes in my pack
Jeremy made a great show of backing the wagon into the barn, loading gold and weapons then moving to the grove to stack the bodies aboard. After the effort, many of the troops lost further interest in the preparations, especially when they realized they were being left to guard the coach. Well, coach, ale, wine and the rest of a side of beef.
Jeremy quietly moved among his men, selecting solid troopers for his wagon party, while Blade was choosing a trusted partner who would be riding with the Princess.
The wagon would be leaving at dawn, and as part of the preparations Jeremy ceased to discourage the trips to the ale keg by those troops that would not be joining the travelers in the morning.
Ronnie went through the stable, carefully selecting a mount for each of the riders to the port, while Donna put together provisions for both parties. It was not long and preparations were complete with most of the remaining troops becoming less and less interested as the night wore on.
Small tents were pitched next to the fires as Jeremy posted the first of the night guards. Blade took up a position sitting in a straight-backed chair in front of the door to the farmhouse
The Princess took my hand, leading me into the farmhouse followed by Donna and Hjordis. Hjordis carefully set her dagger on the kitchen table, as she sat facing the door. Donna led the Princess into the bedroom. Choosing discretion I curled up on the floor against the wall under the front window. Surprisingly, I was asleep almost immediately.
My eyes opened in the faint predawn, my face pressed into a blonde mane. Not a bad way to wake up, spooned against the lovely Donna. Lifting my head, I saw Hjordis dozing in her kitchen chair. Donna stirred as she realized I was awake. Turning her head slightly, she stole a kiss, then, giggling, rolled out of reach.
Hjordis, eyeing us with a smirk, got up, stretching like a cat, and walked over to rap lightly on the bedroom door. The Princess opened it immediately and stepped out, fully clothed. Ronnie grinned into my surprised look, saying, "Even a Princess has to get up early around the stables."
Donna was brewing tea while placing cold cuts and bread on the table. I glanced out the window to see Jeremy, and Blade quietly circulating through the camp, waking the members of the traveling party without rousing the rest of the troops.
We were eating sandwiches and sipping our tea, while quietly discussing our plans, including what to do if the traitors among us decided to prevent the Princess from leaving. As we ate, we pulled on our armor and strapped on sword belts.
Ronnie led the way out of the farmhouse. By now, Jeremy had horses saddled and the team harnessed to the wagon. It was time to move quickly, before the fog of hangover lifted for the sleepers.
I was carrying my crossbow and pack as I climbed up into the wagon seat next to Jeremy. Part of the charade required me riding with Jeremy and the bodies, eagerly on my way to claim my reward. At least until we were out of sight of the farmstead
Ronnie and her big red horse moved out at a trot, with Hjordis and Donna right behind, before most of the troopers even realized she was moving. The wagon was following her down the muddy trail with the escort right behind. Blade, axe in hand, last man to leave the farmyard.
We reached the end of the lane and the forest road where our party would split. The Princess maneuvered big red next to the wagon seat, while I threw my pack on my back. I clambered from wagon seat to the saddle right behind her Ronnie giggled merrily as she ordered me to hold on. Then taking my hands, as I juggled my crossbow, showed me exactly where I was supposed to be holding!
Jeremy stood up, saluted his Princess and slapped his team as he and his modest escort turned towards Castle Town.
With Blade leading, Ronnie's mounted party headed into the forest at a fast clip. Perched as I was on the cantle of Big Red's saddle, I was not enjoying the posting up and down as we trotted.
Blade, then Ronnie, with Donna and Hjordis each leading a packhorse, and one pipe smoking crossbowman following behind, was Ronnie's whole party. She was taking a grave risk; if the bad guys realized that she was not still in her great white coach…
There's always something to be said for swift and unexpected movement -- by dawn we were past the ambush site (where I met the giant) and beyond the marsh with its water across the road.
Ronnie called a halt. We all swung down. As we walked along, giving the horses a breather, Donna asked, "When will you be leaving us, Brock?"
Looking around, I answered: "When I see a game trail crossing the road, I'd like to head into the forest."
I observed a collective shudder as they contemplated the forest surrounding us; then they looked at me, as if I was crazy to enter those woods. Even Blade seemed discomforted by the prospect.
Turning to Ronnie, I asked, "With your permission, Princess? I will not leave you to fight highwaymen alone."
Ronnie smilingly shook her head, "You have my permission, hunter, and my sincere thanks. I believe your bold plan will work; at least, I like my odds. With Donna's help, I like my chances once we reach our destination."
We continued to walk as the day brightened, making good time even on foot. I saw a break in the trees ahead, and it seemed a good time to leave the road. I received hugs and kisses from the three ladies and handclasps from Blade and Jovan the crossbowman. Ronnie looked at me carefully with those deep blue eyes as she asked, "Will we be seeing you in Port City, my hunter?"
I shrugged. "I wish I knew. So much depends on what I find in these big woods and elsewhere."
The princess nodded, smiling, "You have much to do. I would be even more impatient but some of those tasks were put before you by a princess." She smirked. "Two, actually!"
With a merry laugh she climbed aboard her big red horse, who bowed to me as the Princess saluted with her sword. She was off at a gallop, rapier in hand, leaving a loudly swearing Blade to clamber aboard his horse and give chase. Hjordis and Donna, with packhorses behind, were following at a brisk trot. Jovan carefully rapped his pipe on a stirrup, emptying the ashes in the road, and then climbed aboard his horse and settled calmly, crossbow on his thigh. He grinned down at me, saluting before tapping his own horse into a trot.
I stood in the road, watching until they were completely out of sight. Despite my confident assurances, I wondered if the gamble would work, then wondered if I should have just gone along with them to the port.
Finally shaking my head, I decided that it was past time to quit staring after them and get my ass off the road.
To be continued...