I was beginning to lose as much patience with my own men as I was with my lack of progress in finding the Night Hawks. Whispers were giving way to speculation, doubt, and worst of all, fear. Raids on the supplies were becoming more frequent, and each time the returning soldiers came to bring me the news, it only took a glance to deduce that they had failed.
And every time the excuses were the same.
"They are fae!"
"No not fae, spirits! They cannot be hit much less killed!"
"They have a demon in the form of bird!"
"They have women!"
Somehow, that last seemed the most impossible, and I laughed each time I heard it uttered.
"Women? These are some women indeed! Not only have they turned hardened soldiers into old wives, but they have somehow impressed a demon into their service, and possess combat abilities greater than the kings own soldiers? No I think not!"
Yet for all my mocks and threats, there was always at least one who would claim to have heard distinctly feminine voices.
My search for the mysterious woman and her deaf brother had been about as successful as my soldiers’ efforts to protect the convoys. The only pieces of information I learned were things that I would have found out for myself eventually. The woman only came once, maybe twice a week, she was a favorite among the people as she always came with her cart full of goods and left empty handed, and nobody knew where she bought the items she sold.
My plans to visit her weren’t so much plans as they were hopeful routines of checking the market every few hours or so. The past few days had seen my routine interrupted by the Sheriff, who had repeatedly invited me to the castle to eat, drink, and talk about meaningless things. His desire to catch the miscreants in the forest was great, but his personal involvement went only as far as giving orders and cursing over the lack of progress. Yet for all his lack of productivity he still held rank and power over the rest of us, which meant he ate like a king, acted like a king in that he did nothing, and had absolute control over the soldiers.
The loyalty of the soldiers was something of a peculiarity at first. I didn’t understand why they followed him while he hoarded the rich spoils of his office. It didn’t take long to discover that it was his lack of attention, care, and action towards the soldiers’ actions. As long as they followed him, they could have their way.
The system disgusted me.
My father, drunk though he was, raised me under the principle of no work, no food. If I didn’t work, then there was no food. For either of us. Because he sure wasn’t going to lift a finger to do anything. If I worked half-heartedly then there was no food for me, because there would only be enough for one person, him. Though the system had been perverted by my father, the true lesson behind the principle was one that struck me as right and fair.
A man earned what he was given, and hunger was an excellent motivator to increase one’s performance.
The latter part proved true to a degree when I was visited unexpectedly by the Sheriff.
“Marshall! This is intolerable!”
Looking up from the reports on my desk, I responded with confusion, “What is sir?”
“The food stores are empty!”
“I wasn’t aware that managing food was part of my post Sheriff.”
His eyebrows narrowed, “It is when the supply of food is being robbed by the bandits you’re supposed to be catching!”
I felt the anger inside me stirring. Being blamed for the incompetency of others was not something I handled well. Despite the ire, I kept my face calm and took a deep breath. Perhaps if I played my cards right, I could use the Sheriff’s desperation to secure some kind of aid.
“Then I apologize sir. However there are problems that are beyond my authority to deal with.”
“What might those be Marshall?”
“The soldiers sir. Inactivity and lack of discipline have rendered them all but useless. I would-“
The sheriff began to shout, “Are you accusing me of-“
“No sir, I’m not accusing you” I cut in before things could escalate. “It should not be the duty of the Sheriff to train and enforce discipline among his soldiers. You have many other responsibilities to care for I’m sure.”
The Sheriff calmed somewhat and appeared thoughtful. His face slowly assumed the mischievous look of one who has found a way to perpetuate a bad habit.
“Perhaps I was hasty in my anger Marshall. I have been rather busy lately and did not realize the state of neglect among the troops. You shall be placed in charge of the garrison here Marshall. Effective immediately. Do you have something I could write on?”
I kept all necessary writing implements in my bottom left desk drawer, and wasted no time in procuring them. The Sheriff sat at the desk and began to scribble on the provided slip of parchment. He signed with a flourish then stood and handed me the slip.
“Here is the order. Any who have problems with it can be sent to me.”
No sooner had he said that, the door burst open a second time. “Sir! I need to find the- Ah Sheriff! There’s been another raid, our men have been sent out to do what they can. Do you have any orders?”
“I do not. The Marshall is in command now. I take my leave.”
After the Sheriff left, the man turned to me and saluted. “Sir! Your orders?”
I went for the door, the soldier in tow. “My only order is that you take me to the raid site. I want to know my enemy.”
“You’re… you’re going to fight sir?”
“I intend to. I can hardly give orders from here. What is your name soldier?”
“Captain Hereford sir.”
“Well met Captain. Now lead on.”
I was reminded of my first day in Hamish. Bodies and weapons lay everywhere, and there was no sign of the people responsible. The Captain was never far behind me as I dismounted and inspected the ambush site. So focused was I on finding something to follow, that it took a few minutes for the cries and moans of the dying and wounded to register to me.
"Captain" I called, "I am placing you in charge of gathering and transporting the wounded."
"Yes sir. What of you?"
"I'm going to look around."
The Captain gave me a glance that was half doubtful and half worried. I decided to ignore it, and went straight for the woods.
My hand never left my sword as I waded through the growth of the forest. I did not fool myself, I knew nothing of this forest, and getting lost was a very real possibility. So every few feet I made sure to put a distinguishing mark on a tree or bush. I listened carefully as I tried to creep through the brush. At one point I almost could have sworn that I heard a scream, but it was faint and far away and I thought little of it.
After an hour of searching I was close to turning back. I had seen nothing. Every spot looked identical to the previous spot, and for a moment I began to wonder if the thieves had indeed vanished into thin air like spirits. That was when a cloaked figure sprung up about ten yards ahead of me, bow strung and arrow nocked. I tried not to let my surprise show, but I was largely unsuccessful. The bushes weren't very thick in this part of the forest but I had still failed to see the crouching figure. Even now I almost lost sight of him though he hadn't moved. How many such others had I passed?
"Stay where you are Twynam!" the figure called, as he raised the arrow to point at my chest.
I didn't take insults well, especially from criminals, and I bristled. "I don't take orders from thieves!"
I grabbed at something on the ground, it could have been a rock or pinecone I didn't care which, and I flung it. The near silent twang was the only sign I had that the arrow had been launched, but I didn't care, I was already rushing toward the figure with my sword drawn.
"We thieves and scoundrels don't take too kindly to being followed" replied the figure, matching my tone and drawing his own weapon.
I swung with all the force I could muster, hoping to overpower the smaller, thinner figure. With a well angled parry, the rogue turned my swing aside and returned with a quick thrust.
Narrowly side-stepping the swipe, I jabbed back both physically and verbally. "You might consider ceasing your activities and surrendering then, or I'll do more than simply follow you!"
I could almost hear the snort of derision that I received in return. With a vertical block, my attacker caught my jab with the hilt of his sword and we were face to face, or we would have been save for the mask that he wore.
I lashed out with my foot, and caught my opponent's knee. There wasn't enough power to dislocate it, but the leg did buckle and I was able to easily push the raider to the ground. I fell on top of him, pinning his arms with my knees, and ripped off his mask.
While the glare that I was met with was laden with contempt and disdain, the face that the glare belonged to was unmistakably feminine.
"A...A woman? Impossible!"
The woman sneered, and with astonishing speed and flexibility, pulled her legs out, curled them up, and kicked me in the stomach.
"Not quite" she replied, rolling to her feet and retrieving the mask.
I gasped for breath and reached for my weapon, but the girl kicked it out of reach.
"I look forward to the next cart you try to sneak in Marshall." And with that she donned the mask and disappeared into the forest, but not before blowing a kiss over her shoulder.
The shock of finding a woman had floored me more than the kick. And what was more, there had been something familiar about her, but I couldn't place whatever it might have been. Pulling myself to my feet, I looked for the marks I had made, and eventually came back to the raid site. The captain was there waiting for me, holding the reigns to both our horses.
"Sir! I was starting to worry. Did you find anything?"
I didn't answer right away, too many things were jostling for attention in my mind.
"Marshall, what did you find?"
I turned in my saddle and looked at him.
"Our Night Hawks might be doves after all Captain."