The time came when all the bandits had regrouped and packed up, ready to start another journey to Sekerheim. Orlo nodded at me, grinning in approval that I had joined myself to his troupe. Being one of the Alfar, the whites of his eyes were a thinner band around his peridotic irises than one would see in a human, but this trait made his features no less expressive. His slightly wrinkled, dark face was at once inviting and hardened, a contradiction which kept me watchful in his presence. I could tell that his fatherly love for Keon was genuine, but how could an elf of such dishonorable occupation be worthy of my trust?
Keon had snuck up beside me as I had been lost in contemplation. “Alright dear, you can call that horse of yours and take the high road, now. Just follow the forest path.” Said path had finally appeared before us from the undergrowth after a short hike of a mile or two through the evergreens. It had been well-tread and traveled, as evidenced by worn, dry dirt. I whistled to Fia, distancing myself from the group so that I could mount; then something occurred to me. The legend about the Boobrie had stated that only a true hero or heroine could find the whistle. Could it also be the case that only a true hero could be a rider? Is that why she would only allow me and Dechar to touch her? I smiled at the thought. Dechar was so reluctant to his calling, humbled perhaps beyond recognition of his true self, but the explanation certainly made sense to me.
I had surprised myself at how quickly I’d grown used to riding my new mare. She was certainly the most magnificent horse I’d ever seen, let alone owned, but something about her flight made me feel more comforted rather than intimidated. I looked again at her glossy, peaceful expression before hoisting myself onto her back and clicking my heels lightly to her sides. A few flaps of her mighty wings and we were above the treeline. I tugged her wavy mane gently to slow down, careful to not overtake the bandits entirely. I could see that the path was clear for a good half a mile at least, though frequent bends through the the trees obstructed my visibility to a great extent.
The sky above was not so clear. A dark storm still loomed in the distance, grumbling with thunder on occasion, reminding me of its prevailing presence. I missed Dechar. I had hardly faced anything without him by my side. He had helped me overcome so much. But, as I reminded myself, time had decreed that I learn to be a woman independent from his support, and I had no choice but to rise to the challenges before me.
At least a couple of hours passed before I noticed anything of interest on the trail. I was thankful for Keon’s gift of a handkerchief, as I doubtless would have lost feeling in my face after so much time. The wintry winds had bothered me a great deal at first, but I felt myself growing somewhat used to the conditions as I fell into the thick of my task. What was that movement? A tiny traveler’s cart rolling down through the woods, pulled by a bay draft horse. I immediately swooped down and alerted my tail.
“Keon,” I spoke as my feet hit the ground. “There’s just a single cart headed toward us, less than half a mile away. It didn’t seem to be carrying much, though it was covered, probably for the impending rain--”
“Sounds like an easy enough target,” Keon grinned. “Could you make out the driver? Was there more than one person?”
“I think there was a man and a child, though it was hard to see. That’s all I could tell.”
“Fair enough,” he said, sounding satisfied and eager. He stood by his adoptive father’s side and took a moment to explain the situation to him in the Alfarian tongue. Orlo seemed less excited, his eyes resting on my concerned face. I didn’t want to steal from innocent, helpless folk, and I wasn’t about to pretend otherwise. Still, I didn’t want to upset the Alfar. Without their protection and guidance, I was defenseless against whatever Gillireth had planned for me.
Orlo responded, seemingly hesitantly, and Keon relayed the message so that I could understand. “You heard the elf,” he began with a joke. “We’re going to hide off on the sides of the path, hidden in the underbrush, until they come to this point. Then, on Orlo’s signal, we’ll jump out, surround them, and state our demands, as we spoke of. It’s as simple as that, dear. So find a bush and squat,” he sneered, and I sneered back.
The other bandits had already begun to take their places, and Fia had made herself disappear directly after landing, so I found a location quite close to the edge of the road near a tree trunk and a holly bush. It afforded a clear enough view of the situation while allowing me to crouch and hide.
It felt as though a year had passed before we could hear the hooves clopping and the rickety wheels of the cart crashing against rocks and roots. A moment later, and the unaware victims came into vision. I checked that my hood and kerchief were securely in place, hoping that my ruddy hair and the light mist of my chilled breath might go unnoticed.
I heard the cart clank right by me at a steady pace. They were entirely unsuspecting. My stomach churned. I didn’t want to do this. I started at the sound of Orlo’s gruff voice. The signal. The bandits stampeded as they formed a tight circle round the cart. The draft horse pulling the cart pranced and cried out in trepidation, seeming to reflect my own trapped sentiment. I came out from hiding myself, and saw that the driver of the cart was a frail greybeard. The small, flaxen-haired girl beside him looked to be his granddaughter. She clung to his arm, burying her face and whimpering scared. Keon came out from the midst of the thieves, bow and arrow at his side, introducing himself and his company with the usual theatrics.
“Hello, there. There’s no need to be frightened. You see, we won’t hurt you as long as you do exactly as we say.”
“Please, just leave us alone! We’ve nothing of any use to you!” the old man wheezed.
“Well, I think we’ll be the judge of that,” Keon spoke as some of the bandits walked around to the back of the cart to take a look under the canvas. One of them muttered a few words to Keon, and he smiled sourly. “Lying isn’t a very cooperative thing to do. You’ve got potions in your cart. Potions are worth a great deal of money on the black market--”
“These potions are worth nothing to those who don’t know how to use them!” the driver interrupted with disquieting boldness.
“Are you professing to be a wizard?” Keon raised a brow.
“If you do not suffer me to pass, young man, you shall soon find out.” This man had such an intriguing, even intimidating, manner of speaking. I had never met a wizard before.
“Brave words, old man. Are you really threatening a mob of bandits?”
“I’m not as defenseless as I look, but I don’t want to hurt anyone. Now let me through!” Upon these words, the man had revealed a swirling, dark blue potion from his cloak. The little girl stared at with marble eyes.
“What does it do?” she whispered to him.
“Never mind that, Rhea,” I heard him coo.
“Put the potion down!” Keon demanded, drawing his bow.
“Let me go,” the old man said flatly, his hand on the cork of the small glass bottle.
“I said put it down!” Keon yelled, redirecting the aim of his bow at little Rhea. “I’ll shoot!”
“Keon!” I scolded, stepping up to his side, disregarding the questioning gazes of the Alfar. “Stop this chthonic fatuity! Leave them be!”
Keon squinted his eyes and lowered his bow just slightly before looking at me. “Has anyone ever told you that you have a bloody problem with insults? I don’t even know what the hell you just sa--”
I was never certain of exactly where Orlo had been during the altercation, but I did know that in that moment, he tackled Keon, knocking them both to the ground. The wizard opened the cork to the potion and muttered a few words beneath his breath. I winced, unprepared for what effect might take place. When I opened my eyes, the horse, cart, and all it was carrying had vanished, leaving only Keon and Orlo in the midst of the swirling dust. Rain began to sprinkle from the heavens, but all else fell silent for a spell.