22. On the Road to Stonebridge
Three days northwest of Hyacintho Flumen the road leapt across a narrow canyon by means of wooden bridge. Milo and Eádulf reined up in the middle of the bridge. At this point the unnamed river or creek that created the canyon broke through a gap in the hills on its way to West Lake. Looking to the northeast, through pine forests on both sides of the stream, they could see blue water stretching into the distance. “That is West Lake,” said Milo. “Blue River starts there on its journey to Hyacintho Flumen and the sea.”
Eádulf’s Adam’s apple moved up and down. He had never been more than two dozen miles from Hyacintho Flumen. “Will we see Down’s End, sir? Meccus told me Down’s End is a great city on West Lake.”
“No. We journey for Stonebridge, a city every bit as large as Down’s End. The road ahead will bear more and more westward, and Down’s End lies further north on the shore of the lake. But who knows? Perhaps we will visit Down’s End one day.”
Proceeding from the bridge, the road passed through a sparse pine forest with dry grasses and tough low bushes between the trees. In spring, the ground would have been soft from snowmelt, but full summer had now arrived. The forest smelled of pine and wild flowers. Bumblebees attended to wild roses and flowering shrubs: sidebells, wax currants, and huckleberries. The road consisted of two parallel lines where horses and wagon wheels had worn tracks through the scrub. Here and there, large rocks or ill-placed trees forced the road to rise or fall to get around barriers.
The riders rounded a bend in the road and found a pedestrian ahead of them. The man turned at the sound of their approach and held up a hand. “Fair morning!”
“Fair morning. Aye,” said Milo.
The man stood in the middle of the road, between the ruts made by occasional wagon wheels. He carried a tall staff, which he held sideways, as if to block the road. “Sirs,” he said, “You can see that I am an unarmed man. But I am not alone.” The stranger pointed with a nod of his head; two men with bows, arrows notched, aimed at them from twenty yards up hill. “We beg that you stop a while.”
Milo’s father, Hereward Mortane, had trained Milo in horsemanship and the use of a knight’s weapons. Milo had not yet fought a real battle, but he remembered Hereward’s opinion that in dealing with highwaymen taking initiative was crucial. The longer the robber controls the encounter, the greater the danger. Without a word in response to the pedestrian, Milo spurred his palfrey while bending low over her neck. The horse leapt forward, driving straight at the stranger. An arrow flew close over Milo’s back, felt rather than seen.
The highwayman jumped out of the way, scrambling up the road bank. Milo had his sword out only in time to touch the man’s leg as his mount rushed by. The speed of the horse and the extended sword, rather than any thrust on Milo’s part, sliced into the man’s leg. Milo looked over his shoulder; Eádulf was on his hands and knees next to his horse. The gray had fallen with an arrow in his neck.
Milo reined in his horse and jerked her around. Arrows flew by Eádulf as he scrambled off the road. The robbers’ spokesman was trying to stand, but his leg collapsed under him and he slid down the bank to the road. Milo spurred his horse into motion, passed the fallen highwayman, and charged off the road, angling across the slope at the archers. One of them shot hurriedly and wildly; the other failed to notch his arrow. Milo’s sword slashed as he came on them, and the tip cut into one robber’s neck. Milo brought his mount around, carefully now on the uneven hillside.
The battle was over. The archer whose neck Milo had slashed had a hand clasped to the wound, blood spurting between his fingers. In a matter of moments, he staggered and fell. The other archer sat on the ground dazed. Milo’s horse had struck him as she rushed by, knocking him mostly senseless.
Eádulf ran out from his hiding place. “Sir Milo! You’ve killed them!”
“Only one so far.” Milo dismounted and handed the palfrey’s reins to Eádulf. He walked to the stunned man, pointing his sword at him. “What’s your name, thief?”
He was a swarthy man, with long black hair gathered into two braids. His black eyes stared at the blood-tipped end of the blade. “Cola,” he muttered.
“All right, Cola. Now you get up and pull your friend there down to the road. Unless you desire to join him in the afterworld, you will move slowly and do exactly what I say.”
Milo kept his sword ready while Cola dragged the dead archer by his legs. “Sit him up there on the side of the road. He’ll be a warning to travelers of the dangers in these hills. Now lay down on your belly.”
Cola’s black eyes looked up at Milo, terrified. He had regained his senses. “O lord, please. No.”
“On your belly!” The man lay prone.
“Eádulf, fetch rope and a knife.”
“Aye, sir.” Eádulf had tethered Milo’s steed to a pine branch while Milo dealt with Cola. He found a knife and a coil of rope from the saddlebags on the fallen gray. The wounded horse had not tried to rise, its lifeblood slowly draining into the tufty brown grass between the road ruts.
“Give me the rope.”
“Now, Eádulf, one of these men put an arrow in your good gray. All we can do for the poor beast is end its suffering. Be a good man and use your knife.”
Eádulf had experience of life and death among farm animals; he was not surprised at Milo’s command. He knew how to cut the big artery in an animal’s neck.
“Don’t wipe the blade. Come over here. You see, Cola, how Eádulf can handle his knife. Put your hands behind your back and lie still. If you don’t, Eádulf will cut your throat as cleanly as the horse’s. Not that you deserve a quick end; it might be better if you bled slowly. Give me your hands!”
Milo laid aside his sword and tied Cola’s hands securely. “Rise, thief!
“We’ve lost a horse, Eádulf. For the time being you’ll have to carry some of the gray’s load. The rest we put on the thief. I leave it to you to decide what part he carries. Tie it on well. We don’t want him dropping things. If he doesn’t cooperate, cut him some place where it will hurt without incapacitating him. For example, he only needs one eye.”
Cola’s face was full of terror. Milo felt a thrill of pleasure; the man’s fear was intoxicating. The prisoner stood meekly as Eádulf tied Milo’s bundle of armor onto him. Eádulf then selected the most important items remaining from the gray’s load and packed them onto his own back. Finally, they were ready to go. Milo loosed the palfrey and walked her along the road. Presently they came to the place where the first highwayman, the spokesman for the trio, had fallen. The man had dragged himself up the hillside perhaps thirty yards, leaving a trail of crushed grasses and blood.
Milo handed the reins to Eádulf. “This won’t take long.” He pulled his sword from its sheath next to the pommel.
The highwayman cowered when Milo approached. “Oh Sir, my leg’s cut. I can’t walk or make trouble. Please, just leave me. I promise I’ll never thieve again. Don’t kill me, please just leave me.”
Milo smiled; again he felt delight. “Let’s see. You don’t want me to kill you. You promise you won’t steal again. And you want me to leave you here. Very well. Hold out your arm.”
The man had a puzzled look for a moment, but stretched out his arm. Milo’s steel blade flashed, taking off the man’s hand.
“If you tourniquet that, you won’t bleed to death. So you can’t say that I’ve killed you. And I dare say that you won’t be stealing again. Fair day to you.”
Milo watched the highwayman try one handed to wrap a bit of cloth around his stump, but the man couldn’t stop the bleeding. After struggling with it for many seconds, the robber gave out a sigh and slumped back. His eyes closed, blood still spurting from the stump. Milo turned away.
Copyright © 2012 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved. International copyright secured.