The road was dark and empty. A layer of wispy fog floated across the dirt, glowing a ghostly pale yellow as it absorbed what little moonlight reached its shifting surface. A light mist of rain fell from the night sky, its droplets beginning to break up the patch of fog. The rain was not enough to drench Fox, just enough to annoy him and obscure his view of the road. He swiped a few drops of the cool mist from his forehead with his fingertips and looked further down the dirt road, peering out from his hiding place behind the leaves of a bush.
A form shifted at Fox’s right. “How long are we going to wait in this weather?” a large man with red hair and a beard asked.
“As long as it takes,” Fox replied. Fox glanced at the big man beside him. Fox couldn’t even remember his real name, nor did he recall anyone ever telling him what it was. Everyone just knew him as Pick — an obvious name for a master pickpocket and lock picker. But the name fit, so Pick he was and Pick he would always be. The odd thing about the big man was that no one outside Fox’s small band would ever believe that a man of such girth, with shoulders as wide as a horse and arms as thick as tree trunks, would have the subtlest touch Fox had ever seen. The man could steal toys from a child and somehow the child wouldn’t even notice.
“Maybe Frenchie heard the baker wrong,” Pick suggested.
“Pick, you know gossip is one thing Frenchie doesn’t get wrong,” the man to Fox’s left said, pushing his damp blond hair from his head. Beau had been known as Beauregard O’Connell, but Fox knew if he called him that to his face, he wouldn’t have much of a face left. Beau was a good-looking man, younger than Fox, with hair down to his shoulders. The man had hawk-like deep brown eyes that seemed to look right through people sometimes. But those keen eyes had saved Fox’s men more than a few times, because Beau had the archery skills to go with them. Good aim and a quick, sure release had provided many an avenue of escape for Fox’s band.
Pick chuckled low in his throat. “Not like his cookin’, eh?”
“I still have that burned rabbit stewing in my gut,” Beau complained. “My tongue wants to climb out of my mouth and hide in my ale mug every time he calls us for supper. The man wouldn’t know how to use a spice if his life depended on it”
“Maybe that’s why he’s with us,” Pick added, laughing. “An outcast cook for a bunch of outcasts.”
“I don’t think he was thrown out of Chandler Manor for his cooking, but he should have been,” Beau remarked.
Fox ignored Pick and Beau’s chatter. His eyes were focused ahead on the empty road, waiting. The darkness seemed thicker now than just a few moments before. The sliver of moon trying to poke out from behind the clouds had disappeared completely. What little light it had been throwing down on the road now was gone. Even the fog seemed to have vanished. He had to rely on his other senses now. His ears were tuned to any noise, any sign of activity. This road was the only route they could take to get to Ruvane village, and that was where Frenchie had heard they were headed.
Silence greeted him. Too much silence. Then the rain grew heavier, the drops getting larger and larger, and the mist became a steady stream of falling water. Above them, thunder rumbled in the night sky, threatening a bigger storm.
Nervousness churned in Fox’s stomach. They had to come this way. Damn them, they’d better come this way. There is too much at stake for them not to. He impatiently wiped more rain from his eyes.
Suddenly, the tweet of a bird sounded above the falling rain, but it was no real call. It was an alert from one his band. Their target was coming up the road. Pick and Beau moved into action immediately. They disappeared into the forest around Fox, moving in opposite directions to surround the approaching merchant.
Fox listened again. The first alert was a sound for them to get prepared. Now would come the call of how many men were in the group. He heard one tweet, then another. Fox listened intently, but no further call came. Thunder grumbled in the sky, loud and angry. Two men? Fox wondered with amazement. Only two men? This would be too easy. He breathed a sigh of relief. For once in his life, something would be easy.
He listened to the pattering hum of the rain as it hit the leaves around him, his gaze focused on the road before him. He couldn’t make out anything in the darkness. Then he heard the sound he was waiting for, the soft plod of horses in the thick mud of the road.
Fox’s body stiffened in anticipation. Far off down the road, he could barely make out two silhouetted riders coming over the hill.
He slowly, silently slid his sword from its scabbard. The handle was wet from the rain, but Fox’s palm gripped the leather hilt with confidence.
The two riders came closer.
Every muscle in Fox’s body tensed as he stepped out into the middle of the road. Above, the clouds drifted across the sky and a slight gap appeared between them. Moonlight shone down through the gap, illuminating the road before Fox, illuminating a cart being drawn behind the two riders, a cart filled with ten men at least. A chill raced up Fox’s spine. There were only supposed to be two men. That had been the signal he heard. Not two and ten! Fox’s gaze darted to the bushes on the side of the road, but there was no sense in trying to hide. The riders had obviously seen him, and he needed what they were carrying. Needed it desperately.
And then the riders were before him, slowing their horses. Fox reached out and grabbed one of the horse’s bridles. “Good evening, good sirs.” Fox glanced at the men in the cart and breathed a soft sigh of relief. They were farmers, from the looks of them. Very tired farmers. They were all asleep, except for one old man who looked at him curiously.
“What do you want knave?” one of the riders grumbled, keeping his head down out of the rain. “Out of the way. We are on our way to Ruvane village. The cart is full. We can carry no more.”
Fox stepped up to the riders, having to look up through the rain to see the man’s face. “The rain must have soured your temperament,” Fox responded.
“I’ll sour you, you oaf.” The man raised his fist.
Fox lifted his weapon in one fluid motion and rested the tip against the man’s throat. “I think not.”
Pick stepped out of the woods, moving to stand beside the second rider. He grinned up at the riders, his smile much more predatory than friendly.
The first rider slowly lowered his fist.
“What is it you want?” the second rider asked in a calmer voice. “We have no coin. Nothing worth taking.” As he spoke, his hand dipped down toward the handle of a dagger jutting out from his saddlebag.
Fox swiveled his gaze slightly to the second rider. He wore a hood, no doubt to keep out the rain, but it also kept his features hidden in darkness. ”I want what you carry to Ruvane village,” Fox told him.
“God’s blood, man!” the first rider cried. “Do you know what you ask?”
Fox nodded. “I do. Now please hand over the bag.” The first rider opened his mouth to object but Fox pressed the blade against his throat. “Quickly.”
“You can’t ask us to! There is –”
“I can more than ask. I am demanding it.” Suddenly, a whooshing sound filled the air and a tuft of Pick’s hair seemed to leap off his head. The second rider cried out in alarm as an arrow sunk into the dagger’s wooden handle, a mere inch from where his fingers were groping for the blade! His horse started from the brunt of the impact but the rider quickly brought him under control.
Beau stepped out of the woods, a second arrow nocked and ready to fire.
Pick bent down and picked up the chunk of his lopped-off hair. He touched his head, feeling the spot where the arrow had shaved his locks.
The first rider produced a pouch from his saddlebag and held it in his palm for a moment, as if weighing its value against the life of the other man. Finally, he held the bag out to Fox. Fox’s hand closed around the bag and relief coursed through his body. “Thank you, sirs.” He backed toward the cover of the forest.
“You’re an insufferable maggot!” the first man hollered, shaking a fist at Fox. “You don’t know what you’ve done!”
Fox ignored him and disappeared into the foliage. Pick and Beau quickly trailed him. He made his way through the woods, moving in and out of the trees, leaping fallen logs, looking over his shoulder to make sure they weren’t being followed. He paused at a tall tree and yanked the string on the bag open. He worked the neck of the bag wide so that he could peer into the pouch. He smiled in relief when he saw the contents.
“Is it there?” Pick asked.
“Yes,” Fox replied.
“Then we must hurry.” Beau passed him, racing on.
Fox pulled the string closed and tightened it quickly, then looped it around the leather strap of his belt, patting the precious bag before racing deeper into the woods after his companions.
“Hey, wait for me,” a voice called out.
Fox turned to see a young woman racing through the trees toward him. She was dressed in a leather tunic and leather breeches, her womanly figure clearly showing through the tight clothes. “Let’s go, Scout,” Fox called out to her.
Scout hurried to his side, moving nimbly through the trees, crashing through a small bush.
“Two men, eh?” Fox said.
“I saw them,” Scout countered. “I just didn’t want to panic you. They were all asleep anyway.”
“Next time, just give me the numbers.”
Scout scowled. “Yes, sir, Lord Mercer. As you command. Far be it from me to make a decision.” Scout moved angrily away from him, joining Pick and Beau.
Fox frowned, cursing silently, but hurried on. His hand unconsciously moved to encircle the bag of precious herbs he had just taken from the riders. He needed them far more than anyone in Ruvane village could ever possibly need them.
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