She could feel them, the gathering whispers at the back of her mind that urged her forward, fixed on something in the distance. She could say with near certainty that they were still on the road.
She could also say with near certainty that she understood Mathias’ plan. It wouldn’t be a complete plan. Mathias rarely planned anything out from beginning to end if he didn’t know all of the variables. “That’s a good way to get yourself cornered,” he would say. She waited, letting him lead, and when they overtook the carriage and passed it, she knew that she had been right. Mathias didn’t spare a look toward the carriage and he must have said something to Captain Royce, because Royce didn’t spare a look toward it either. She could see another bend in the road ahead, and then the meager beginnings of a forest, and knew that would be the spot.
They reached it well ahead of the carriage. Mathias said, “Hide as best you can. I’m going to circle around and get behind the carriage.”
Bennett looked around, frowning thoughtfully. A ways ahead, she could see a conveniently placed rock outcropping and she dismounted, tossed Royce the reins, and pointed to it. “Go there,” she said. “And be ready to follow.” She didn’t say much more before she bolted to a tree with huge, heavy branches hanging directly over the road.
Royce understood her plan quick enough and set off as she ordered. She climbed out on one of the branches and flattened herself to it, waiting.
Don’t turn off the road. Keep coming this way. Or this won’t work. And that would annoy me.
She waited for what seemed like hours. Bennett hated nothing quite so much as waiting. She counted pits and lines on the branch beneath her fingertips and the stones she could barely make out on the road below. She tried to ignore the pressure a knot in the branch put on her bruised side. She tried to ignore the growing press of whispers in the back of her mind that threatened to turn into a headache.
And then finally, she heard the horses. She drew her knife, took a deep breath, waited, judged her moment, and dropped from the branch.
The top of the carriage was slick with rain and she almost slid right off the back, but a well placed strike of her knife kept her on.
But it took the knife out of play. The driver whirled, one hand still on the reins but another held a loaded crossbow. He fired and somehow she managed to choose the right direction to swing herself to avoid it, and she swung herself right off the side, still clinging with one hand to the knife buried deep in the top of the carriage. She grabbed the door and lowered herself onto the side and saw through the window a young man asleep-
“Wait.” Henri held up a finger and Bennett stopped her story, peering at him questioningly. “So you’re saying that they stabbed the driver and dumped his body in a ditch and made off with the carriage and you fell onto it--”
“Fell strategically onto it, stabbed a knife through the top, and Alain never woke up? Not through all of that ridiculousness?”
Bennett shrugged. “Ask him yourself. Though he may lie about it. Alain always does tell tall tales.”
Henri didn’t tell her that he had asked Alain Dalton about it, and the man had always insisted that he was awake and tied up in the back and had nearly escaped when the young hero had rescued him. He only grinned. “The tallest.” She didn’t tell tall tales. He didn’t think she knew how.
“May I continue?”
Bennett clung to the top of the carriage with one hand and got the door open with the other. As she swung herself inside, she heard the dull thud of a sword against the side of the carriage where her head had been just a moment before and winced. It was her enemy’s sword, but it was a sword and the carriage’s wood would surely dull its edge.
The boy came awake with a start. He was about her age, she realized, and tall but thin and lanky.
“We have to jump,” she told him.
“What?” He peered blearily at her. “Who are you?”
“You’ve been kidnapped and your father wants you back. Get up, and on the count of three, you’re going to jump out. I want you to roll when you hit the ground, alright?”
“No!” he very nearly shrieked. He was starting to panic; that much was clear. “I have no idea who you are!”
“I don’t have time for this.” She grabbed him by the front of his shirt, intending to toss him out and follow him with a leap of her own, but then the carriage lurched to a stop and threw them both back against the seat. “That would be your captain,” she said.
“If that’s Royce’s first name,” she said, pushing herself up and opening the door.
Someone grabbed her arm and hauled her out, too roughly to be the captain helping her, and she saw his sleeve was made of rough homespun, so it wasn’t her uncle either. Quick as lightning, she had her knife drawn and buried in his side and someone shouted, “Hold, or he dies!”
Another pair of arms caught her around the middle and pulled her back from the man. He stabbed and a jolt of pain went through her bruised side as he swung her around until she saw who would die if she did not hold.
Mathias was flat on the ground on his back, the tip of a sword at his throat, and the man who held it was better dressed than the man who held her. Still a bandit, she could tell that by his rough hands and features, but he wore fine leather armor and his sword was plain and ugly but clearly well-forged.
For the first time that she could remember, she felt it. She felt her stomach drop and her heart stop cold, and all she could think was, it’s such an easy thing to push the blade in, and then it’s done.
“Though, I think I’d best pay you back for that,” the highwayman said. He must have been a master swordsman, judging from the easy, sudden way he turned his wrist and drove the blade through her uncle’s right shoulder. A second later, it was back again at Mathias’s throat as though it had never moved, never plunged like a hot knife through butter into her uncle’s flesh.
Time stood still.
Somewhere, not far off, she could hear the ocean.
Mathias gasped in pain but kept as still as he could. Any upward move could be his last.
To the driver, the highwayman said, “Take the boy. Get him away from here.” To the man holding Bennett, he said, “Kill the girl.”
Kill the girl.
Bennett let herself go completely limp. That jolt of pain ran through her again but she didn’t have enough room to draw her sword fast enough. She wasn’t heavy, but her armor added weight, and dead weight was different from active, moving weight, and she prayed and she hoped against reason that Mathias would do something and dimly she thought, this one is smarter than most. They don’t usually go for the kill so quick.
Bennett shook her head. “No, not usually. Especially not with women. There are some hardened killers out there who don’t mind killing women but most men get a little squeamish about it. They dither. It’s useful because it usually gives me time to recover. And then there are the nasty ones. They get ideas. But that one…that one didn’t mind killing but he didn’t get ideas. He had a clear objective and he was willing to do what had to be done to achieve it.”
Henri frowned, watching her. “You admire him for it.”
“Not really for the willingness to kill. Though you have to be willing if you go into his line of work.” She leaned her head back against the wall, her gaze distant in thought. “It’s more about his focus. So few people are focused on what they want and work rationally to get it. I stabbed one of his men. My uncle is clearly a dangerous man. He would have had to use his remaining assets to keep us under control. He could have tried, certainly. But the safer, more rational option was to kill us.”
Henri took another drink. He felt pleasantly warm, now, and the pain in his leg had ebbed. What had been shaping up to be a singularly unpleasant trip was morphing into something else entirely for the young earl. “So what happened next?”
It took her captor by surprise. She felt his arms tighten around her, but she was close enough to the ground to brace her feet and kick herself backwards. He didn’t have enough time to brace himself and they were knocked backwards. She felt the air rush out of him and his arms go limp and she tore herself away in time to hear the highwayman cry out in pain. But she didn’t have time to think about it. She didn’t have to think about the agony of the bruise in her side. She couldn’t afford to get caught again. She draw her sword and gave her ex-captor a hard knock on the side of the head with the hilt, and from somewhere behind her, she heard Mathias yelling, “Get the boy!”
She heard Mathias yelling.
She heard her uncle’s voice.
The hard knot in her stomach loosened. Her heart lifted. Her mind cleared. The fear, a feeling so alien to her that she almost couldn’t have named it, dropped away.
She had heard her uncle’s voice.
Bennett took off after the driver. The driver dragged Alain Dalton onto the driver’s seat of the carriage and yanked at the brake, and as he flicked the reins, she leapt onto the side of the carriage and held.
But then something grabbed the back of her belt and she was yanked off hard. She helped and kicked, and the hold on her released and she whirled around to find herself confronted by the highwayman. There was an arrow in his shoulder and rage in his eyes, and the Mathias tackled him to the ground. The two men rolled, kicking and punching, and she could’ve sworn she saw her uncle biting him, and then Captain Royce was there with the earl’s horse, and she was up in the saddle and after the carriage with him.
She had her chance to stretch the horse’s legs. She had never ridden anything so fleet and fast and perfect. Oh yes, she thought. I want one.
She steered him out in front of the carriage and he went fearlessly. The driver didn’t stop but he slowed, and then he turned the carriage sharply off the road onto the rocky, uneven ground. Royce shouted a warning and the boy shouted, “You’ll tip us!”
The driver tried to reload his crossbow but he couldn’t hold the reins, Alain, and load the crossbow at once. Alain elbowed him in the side and the driver dropped the crossbow. Royce pulled up alongside and leapt from his horse onto the carriage, and grabbed the driver around the neck, hauling him back. Alain scrambled for the reins as Bennett wove back and forth in front of the carriage horses, herding them until they began to slow down. The boy finally caught hold of the reins and pulled them to a stop.
As she pulled up alongside, he stared at her in wonder. “I should’ve listened,” he said. “I should’ve jumped.”
“Yes,” she agreed, “But it wouldn’t have mattered.” She offered a hand and helped him climb into the saddle behind her.
The highwayman was dead. Her uncle sat beside him, pressing a hand tight against his shoulder. “Get the boy back to his father,” he said. “I’ll wait for Royce.”
“His father’s on his way,” she said, looking back to the road. She could see the dim outline of carriages and horses in the distance and Alain was off the horse and trying to help Mathias anyway.
“Thank you,” he said, looking between her and Mathias.
“I’m getting paid,” she said, going to her uncle’s side. “No thanks necessary.”
Mathias was gazing back at the approaching carriages, frowning. “I ought to have noticed.”
“You’re bleeding everywhere,” Bennett replied. She felt it again, faint but there, but she could tell the wound wouldn’t be serious if they could stitch it up properly.
He must have heard something in her voice because he looked back at her, his frown deepening.
She sighed. “How did he get you?”
“Cleverly,” Mathias replied, and she heard the anger in his voice. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be.” She leaned her forehead against his and half-closed her eyes. “It’s done.”
The earl was out of his carriage and at Alain’s side in an instant. “Thank God,” he said, hauling his son up into an embrace.
Bennett could hear the one she stabbed moaning softly, and she said, “A few of them are still alive.”
“Not for much longer,” the earl snarled.
“So what was the reward exactly?” Henri asked, though Alain had given him the answer long ago. He wanted to hear it from her lips, not Alain’s.
Back at the tavern, Bennett watched with some admiration as Alain cleaned Mathias’ shoulder and stitched up the wound. “I know who to come to if I get torn up,” she said.
Alain reddened. “I would do my best,” he said.
Bennett looked up to see the earl at her side with a pouch of gold, and an idea popped in her head. “My lord,” she said, smiling as sweet and courteous a smile as she could muster. “Would it be impertinent to ask for a different reward instead?”
The earl arched his brow but said nothing, and she took it as leave to continue. “I really like your horse.”
He blinked at her. Bennett felt Mathias’ hand on her shoulder but she held her ground, waiting.
The earl glanced at her, and then at Mathias, and then at his son. Then something in his expression softened, and he looped the cords of the pouch on his belt and said, “He’s yours.”
She felt her careful, courteous smile turn into a real one. “Thank you, my lord.”
“No, thank you,” the earl replied gruffly. “The ransom probably would’ve rivaled his cost anyway. Alain, when you’re finished there, we must be off.”
Before he left the room, he said, “Miss Quint, if you ever need work again, you and your uncle are welcome to come look for it.”
“Thank you, my lord,” Mathias said before Bennett could make any more unexpected requests.
When the earl was gone, Bennett smiled up at her uncle. “Don’t need to go south now,” she said.
He stared back at her for a long moment, and then he kissed her forehead and said with great affection, “You little idiot.”
“So you stayed?”
“No, but he didn’t either. We both went south that winter. Good thing, too. By all accounts it was a horrible winter.”
“I remember,” Henri said. He thought of Bennett, and of her courage in the face of danger. Of her deep-rooted protective instinct. It was said she was fearless. Her own uncle had said it, but Henri knew better. She wasn’t fearless; she was focused, like that highwayman. She saw her objective and worked toward it, and when she was the only one to face danger, she was fearless. When someone she loved faced danger...
She had brought him with her. They were hiding in a smuggler’s compartment in a ship, traveling a great distance into unknowably dangerous situations. She had allowed him to accompany her--he had no illusions; if she hadn’t wanted him along, she would have found a way to go without him, defying a prince or no. She wasn’t the only one facing danger. That was either very good for him or very bad.
“So your bad-tempered brute of a horse was the earl’s horse then?”
“You take that back. Badger isn’t a brute,” she said, affronted. “He’s wonderful.”
“He tried to bite me. Twice.” Henri couldn’t hide his smile. “And that was just yesterday.”
“That’s because you’re very annoying.”
Henri wrinkled his nose. “You keep saying that but I respectfully disagree.”
“You’re the only one he ever tries to bite.”
“That is a complete lie.”
“I never lie.”
He had to admit, she didn’t. It was why he believed her story entirely over Alain’s, and over all the songs that immortalized it and had her fighting a dozen highwaymen over a three day chase. It wasn’t that he doubted she could fight a dozen highwaymen over a three day chase, but young Bennett Quint had started with small adventures, even counting that dragon, and she remembered them truthfully as small adventures. He loved every one of them.
And then he remembered that she had set out to impress him. He realized that his leg hadn’t bothered him as much during her tale, and he remembered that she had started when his pain had become noticeable--probably to more than just him, he reflected grimly.
Perhaps someday she’d weave these tales for something other than distraction or to earn a mug of mead.
He thought of one of the hundred other tavern songs, the ones he half knew by heart, and asked, “What about the time you tracked the assassin Byron Merrick and single-handedly killed his entire company after dueling him to the death?”
She snorted. “That isn’t how it happened at all. Here’s what really happened…”