He was jolted out of his reverie by a sudden yell from up ahead – Alak, scouting further than his sister, had encountered a fallen tree on the road, just around the next bend.
Which was odd, given they were still in the King’s forest, and the roads were normally clear this time of year.
“Damn.” Rethan reached down, tapping Kitten on the top of the head to get her attention. “Inside, little one. Stay quiet.”
For once, Kitten did as she was told with no complaint, scrambling up from her seat on the footboard and diving back through the open door of the wagon.
Tam followed her in, emerging a moment later with a long, heavy-looking bundle of cloth and leather in her arms. “How bad?”
Rethan’s hands twitched slightly on the reins, slowing the horses in response to another call from Alak. “Don’t know yet. Worth getting prepared, though.”
She nodded, dumping the bundle down on the bench and unrolling a thin padded jerkin from around the middle of it. “Aye. This is King Alden’s land, isn’t it?”
Now that, Caleb could answer. “It is, but it’s far enough away from the city that he doesn’t pay it much heed. Least, that’s what everyone around here says.” As a matter of fact, he wasn’t entirely sure where ‘here’ was – they’d already passed beyond the roads he knew – but they were probably still close enough to places he did know for the gossip to be much the same.
Tam shrugged her way into the jerkin, buckling it closed and adjusting the high leather collar around her throat. “You can say that again. Fallen trees in this season?” She reached into the bundle again, pulling out a pair of leather vambraces. “Out of interest, you happen to have a weapon with you?”
Caleb winced. He’d meant to bring a walking staff, but he’d been so excited to get underway that he’d clean forgot – the stout length of wood he’d cut and shaped for the purpose was still leaning against the wall of the farmhouse back home. “No, I don’t. Sorry.”
“No apology needed, farmboy.” She finished buckling on the vambraces and flipped the rest of the bundle all the way open, revealing several long flat objects.
Caleb’s heart sank.
“Can’t promise they’re any good for you – they’re what we could scavenge after…” She trailed off, face suddenly darkening. “Anyway. The weighting’s probably all wrong, but it’s what we’ve got.”
Swords. And he’d said he could use one, hadn’t he, when he’d been trying to make his case for being part of the company and hadn’t really been thinking through the implications of what he was saying. Oh this was not going to end well.
“Do you have any staves?” he asked, hating himself for the obvious quaver in his voice.
Tam started to shake her head, then stopped. “Might be something in the back of the wagon – give me a moment.” She ducked back inside, leaving Caleb sitting there trying very hard not to think about the implications of the sudden change in his new friend’s demeanour.
Rethan must have realised some of what he was thinking, because he reached over and placed a hand carefully on Caleb’s shoulder. “Don’t worry. It’s likely just bandits.”
Caleb gulped. “Just bandits?” Back home, bandit attacks were the kind of thing you prayed would never happen to you – like barn fires or cowpox or any number of disasters that might destroy your farm. Back home, saying ‘just bandits’ would be the equivalent of saying ‘just a lightning strike’ or ‘just a hurricane’.
But then, as was becoming rapidly apparent, he wasn’t back home any more.
“Just bandits.” If Rethan was amused by his reaction, he wasn’t letting it show in his voice. “Tree across the road to stop travellers, then hit them when they’re distracted.”
Caleb nodded, trying hard to look as though this was the kind of conversation he had every day of the week, and looked around in a desperate attempt to find something else to occupy his mind with.
Around the wagon, the other members of the company were also making ready for a fight. Alak and Kala had dismounted, bringing their horses back to the wagons before heading out ahead on foot, slipping shadowlike into the undergrowth around the road. Dana and Ariane had stayed ahorse, though Dana’d unhooked her heavy hammer from her belt and was holding it ready by her leg. And Talan? Talan had stayed right where they were, sitting on the bench at the front of their wagon with their heavy walking staff ready to hand.
For the first time since he’d joined the company, he was beginning to feel truly out of his depth.
“You’re in luck.” Tam had returned from the interior of the wagon, brandishing a stave and a folded bundle of leather. “Staff, and-” she threw the leather towards him, and he caught it almost automatically “-armour. Of a sort.”
The ‘armour of a sort’ proved to be a thick sleeveless leather jerkin, battle-scarred and stained with something dark that Caleb tried very hard not to think about the origins of. It was large on him, which he’d been expecting, but not overly so, and it’d do a whole lot more to protect him against blows than his shirt alone would have.
Once he’d adjusted the jerkin, belted it closed, and got a good grip on the staff, he began to feel more in control of the situation. So, he’d never been in a real fight before. So what? Every adventurer had to start somewhere, didn’t they? And fighting off bandits couldn’t be that tricky, not if the others weren’t breaking a sweat about it.
This was all going to be fine.
Copyright © 2018 by Finn McLellan. All rights reserved.
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