Slowly, carefully, the company made its way down the winding white road towards the fallen tree.
Caleb had given up on attempting to relax – he stood, feet planted a shoulder-width apart on the swaying boards of the wagon, hands tight around the worn middle section of the borrowed staff, scanning the trees around for any sign of the possible bandit attack, and trying not to think about the fact he had no idea what he was actually looking for.
This was going to be fine. There probably weren’t even going to be any bandits. It was probably just a tree that’d fallen over in the storm, and the King’s wardens hadn’t got around to clearing it yet.
Everything was going to be-
Something whistled past his head, biting into the wooden front of the wagon with a thunk that sounded to Caleb’s ears oddly like the sound his father’s axe made when he was chopping wood for the fire – he stood frozen for a moment, unable to quite work out what had happened, before something hit him hard in the back and drove him to the floor, knocking the breath from his lungs.
Arrows! The Captain’s voice, loud and ringing, cut through the sudden fog filling his head. Alak, Kala, get rid of those archers!
“What does she think they’re trying to do?” Tam muttered, carefully removing her hand from the back of Caleb’s head. “Sorry for trying to put your head through the floor, by the way.”
She didn’t need to apologise, given as far as he was concerned she’d just saved his life. “What-” He coughed, trying to get enough breath to form a complete sentence. “What do we do now?”
She frowned, looking out at the deceptively silent woodland. “Stay down until you’re told otherwise. If it’s just archers, the twins’ll deal with it. If not, we’re going to have a scrap.”
“Then we’re going to have a scrap, Tam.” Rethan, sounding oddly calm for the situation. “Four of them, coming out of the woods up ahead. Two on each side. They’re assuming their archers are keeping us pinned.”
“Yes. I’ll take the ground, you two hold the wagon.”
“I think their archers might have more to worry about than targeting you right now, but wait for the Captain’s word.”
She nodded. “Not much we can do from the floor, but we’ll do our best.”
“I know.” He dropped over the side of the wagon and out of sight, hand reaching up to pull down the paired swords from their place under the bench.
“Alright.” Tam shifted away from Caleb, reaching down to pull a wicked-looking long knife from its sheath on her belt. “I’ll take the right side, you take the left. Anyone tries to climb up, hit ’em.”
“How?” He wasn’t going to complain about the fact he’d ended up with a staff instead of a sword, but it wasn’t exactly the best weapon for the task at hand – and given the bandits were likely to be carrying blades, trying to punch them would probably not end overly well for him.
“Point.” She grimaced, closing her eyes for a second. “Captain?”
The archers have been dealt with.
“Then you’re fine. Get on your feet, smack ’em in the hands and heads if they try and climb up. Just like playing hold-the-keep, alright?”
If you were playing it against a pack of heavily armed people who wanted to kill you, that was.
He nodded, scrambling upright and wiping the sweat from his hands before picking up his staff again. He could do this. He could definitely do this. This was something he could do.
There was a shout from somewhere behind Talan’s wagon, and a thudding crack that put him horribly in mind of the sounds he’d heard from the shed when they’d been slaughtering for winter. “You come any closer, you’ll wind up like your friend there!”
“Dana.” Tam grinned, tightly. “Guess the balance on that hammer wasn’t too bad after all.”
He felt sick. “Tam, I don’t think I can-”
“Course you can.” She sheathed the knife, drew a long, heavy-bladed sword from the bundle on the bench. “It’s just like fighting off… whatever it is that attacks cattle round where you’re from. Wolves, probably”
Wolves. Fine. He’d fought a wolf before. Once. With his brothers. And it’d been old, and lame, and only come near the farm because it’d been too sick to hunt any more. But he’d fought a wolf.
Just like fighting wolves, then.
He’d taken his eyes off the side of the wagon, and the enemy’d taken advantage – as he turned back, he found himself face to face with a bandit in a rusted metal breastplate and a leather cap, teeth bared as she hauled herself one-handed up onto the footboard.
His hands moved before his mind had time to process the command, sending the stick smashing upwards into the bandit girl’s chin. She cried out, made a strange choking sound and fell backwards, disappearing out of sight with a rattle of gear and a heavy thud.
His heart was thudding in his chest, fingers tightening painfully on the staff. “I- I-” He couldn’t find the words, even if his mouth hadn’t been as dry as bone.
He’d hit someone. Possibly killed them. He didn’t- he wasn’t-
She’d got back up. Spitting blood, and with a jaw that looked like it was probably broken, but she’d got back up.
He almost sobbed with relief, and hated himself for it at the same time. She was the enemy, wasn’t she? She was trying to kill his friends – trying to kill him, almost certainly. So why was he so happy she was still alive?
“Hit her again, you idiot! She’s not dead!” Tam’s voice seemed to come from somewhere far away, echoing oddly in his ears, and for a moment, he couldn’t quite piece together what she was asking him to do.
Then the bandit’s sword was swinging for his head, and there was no time left for thinking. He pulled the staff up instinctively, managing to block the blow more by luck than skill, and lunged forward with the blurry idea of tackling the girl off the side of the wagon.
It shouldn’t have worked. And if he’d been thinking straight, he wouldn’t have tried it. But he was panicking, and desperate, and working almost completely on instinct, and it was the only way he could think of to get her away from the people he was supposed to be protecting.
Which meant that he was almost as surprised as she was when the two of them hit the dirt.
Copyright © 2018 by Finn McLellan. All rights reserved.
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