The Highwayman

The Royal carriage advanced slowly through the woods as the horses drawing it trotted along the well-worn path. The Royal Guards surrounding the carriage were in high spirits, and why shouldn't they be? Of all the possibly forests they could have had to pass through on their way back to the castle, the Sunnyglade Woods were easily the safest, and the safest path meant, if nothing else, the least amount of work they would have to do. As of yet, the most trouble they'd had was passing through Stone Town, a small village built around a marble quarry, where the excited villagers had attempted to storm the carriage to get a look at who was inside. All that had taken was a few good hits with the pommel of a sword on the more enthusiastic ones, and the problem was solved. "A job well done," their captain had said.

And now they were strolling leisurely beneath the boughs of the great oaks, enjoying the sunlight that filtered through the canopy and the sweet sounds of the wild birds calling to one another. Though the company kept their crossbows at the ready, their grip on them was relaxed; they didn't expect to be using them any time soon.

One guard, who had taken to staring up at the clouds in the distance as he walked, suddenly sported a look of confusion. A cloud had moved lazily across, which threw them into shadow but was far from unusual, except that it had then ceased to drift across the sky, and had remained in a position that cast darkness upon the entourage. He prodded the guard next to him, intending to point the curiosity out (more out of interest than of worry), but was interrupted as the captain raised a fist and yelled, "Company halt!"

The skygazing guard, a young man named Daniel, thought perhaps the captain had noticed the peculiar cloud as well, but he wasn't looking upward at all. In fact, his eyes were closed. He seemed to be listening intently to something, though what he heard was beyond Daniel, for he heard absolutely nothing but the murmuring and shuffling of the guards, and the quiet noises of the now-stopped horses as they grazed on the sparse grass beside the road.

That was when it hit him.

The captain was listening to nothing; the soothing sounds of the wind blowing through the branches and the wildlife at play had utterly ceased. No birds were singing, no chipmunks chattering, nothing. He hadn't caught it before, but now that Daniel noticed it, it was entirely disconcerting.

And the rumbling he suddenly felt in the ground was just downright frightening. It was a steady beat, like a town's worth of people pounding on a drum in unison. Or some sort of giant creature walking...


The panicked shout had come from the forward scout, and as the entire company turned to look, crossbows leveled, an enormous forest dragon came into sight down the road. As its eyes found the carriage and its guards, it reared its head and let out a bellow that caused many of the guards to quiver in their boots, but the captain, Sir James of His Majesty's Royal Guard, held the line.

"Crossbows at the ready! Wait for my mark!"

Being given orders had an instant calming effect on the highly trained soldiers, and the lot of them raised their weapons in unison, readying them to fire. The dragon advanced slowly but steadily toward them, and Sir James was disappointed to see that the dragon wasn't simply happening by; it intended to at least trample the convoy, if not openly attack it. His lips curled downward in an angry sort of frown.

"Fire," he said flatly, and the entire company's crossbows loosed at once, raining down bolts upon the dragon, who continued on, unfazed. Sir James had been expecting this; forest dragons had infamously tough hides, and the volley had been meant to serve more as a deterrent. He didn't hold much hope in them getting a lucky shot in the dragon's eye or something of the like at that distance, but perhaps in the second volley they would have a better chance, what with the dragon being closer.

As his men rewound their crossbows and prepared for a second volley, he noticed something amiss; while the projectiles had, as expected, not harmed the dragon, they hadn't stopped in their tracks either. None had stuck in the dragon's scales, none had broken upon hitting him and bounced back, they were all stuck in the ground behind him. Sir James refused to believe every one of the shots could have missed, but what could possibly explain...

"Faerie trickery, men!" he shouted at the top of his lungs. "To arms! Ignore the dragon! Draw your steel!"

Sir James drew his own sword and turned to face the carriage, but he found his warning had come too late. Nearly half of his soldiers were already incapacitated or dead at the hands of various animals, plants, and elements, and the fae themselves hadn't even joined the fight yet.

"Form up around the carriage! Protect the cargo!" the captain shouted, nearly frothing at the mouth. He grabbed one soldier, who was still staring at the dragon, by the arm and spun him around. "It's a glamour, soldier, pull yourself together! What's your name?"

"Daniel," said Daniel, who seemed to be quite shaken by the developments.

"Daniel, guard the carriage with your life. It must not fall into enemy hands. Do you understand me?"

Daniel nodded mutely, and followed cautiously behind Sir James as he made his way over to the carriage, where the other men were gathering. The forest had ceased to attack the men itself, and things were suddenly eerily quiet as Daniel took up a position at the front of the carriage, near the horses. Not a moment later, something caught hold of his ankle, and he was on the ground before he could even yell.

The faeries have summoned bewitched roots to pull me down to hell, he thought miserably.

He was pulled quickly under the carriage, and before he could find his wits and call for help, a hand clapped over his mouth, and a rough voice whispered in his ear.

"Keep still and quiet if you want to live, kid," said the voice, and from its tone Daniel could be quite sure it wasn't the smooth, light voice of a faerie, but something else entirely. He nodded his head slowly and the hand retreated. Daniel tried to turn to get a look at his captor, but couldn't find the room to maneouvre under the low bottom of the carriage, especially with his armour on.

"I've seen this dozens of times; a few of the more skilled ones distract everyone with a glamour of a dragon or a giant while the rest silently pick off as many as they can before they're found out. Then come the poison darts."

Daniel made a concerned, though quiet, noise and made to crawl out from out of the wagon, but found that he was still being held back.

"It's safer for you down here. Don't worry about your friends, I won't let them die. I can't save the ones who are already dead, though." His captor sounded like he genuinely cared about the other guards, and this calmed Daniel down a good deal. He could sense the other person leaving, and he shifted uncomfortably as he considered his fate.

A whistling noise pierced the silence just then, followed by at least a dozen more of the same, and the guards surrounding the carriage fell one by one. Daniel barely suppressed a cry of outrage; the mysterious voice had said they would be safe! As small, lithe legs appeared in his field of view and made their way from the edge of the forest to the carriage, he made up his mind to leave his place of hiding and kill as many of the bastards as he could before they stuck a dart in his neck.

But before he could act, he heard a growl from behind him, on the other side of the carriage. Frightened by its ferocity, he tried to turn to see what had made the sound, but found he still couldn't move well enough in the limited space he had. He didn't have to wait long for an answer to present itself, though; after a few choked fae screams from the other side of the carriage, a set of four furry legs appeared from around the back of the carriage and pounced on the faeries right in front of Daniel's nose.

It's a werewolf, Daniel realized, eyes wide with fear. he cowered further back under the carriage as the beast made short work of the remaining faeries, swatting them around like a cat playing with a mouse. Darts glanced off the beast's fur as if it were made of stone, and soon there were no fae left standing.

The wolf then trotted over to the door of the carriage and Daniel gasped.

It's going to eat the princess! Ohhh, those foul beasts love the taste of royal flesh. This does not bode well!

He struggled to crawl out from underneath the carriage again, but before he made it far, the beast began to shift and change, and in nary a few seconds it was replaced with the form of a man wearing robes of green so deep they were nearly black. As Daniel finally freed himself from the cramped space under the carriage, the man slid a strangely-shaped dagger into the lock on the carriage door and opened it.

"Good evening, madame. I trust you are well?" Daniel was surprised at first to recognize the voice of the one who had pulled him beneath the carriage, but after a moment he realized it made as much sense as anything on such a strange day could.

Daniel could hear the princess reply, but from where he was he couldn't make out the words she spoke. The stranger inclined his head and chuckled.

"Of course I'll be rewarded. I'm here to rob you, madame; I just couldn't stand to see you murdered in my presence. See, I'm what you might call a highwayman. Now, if you would be so kind as to remove your jewelry and place it in the bag."

Daniel, severely confused but definitely not happy with these developments, made to draw his sword, but the cloaked man spoke to him, without bothering with a backward glance. "If I were you, soldier, I'd be administering the antidote to the fae poison to my comrades instead of attacking the man who saved them. It's in the bag there. Your princess will be safe, don't worry."

Daniel decided the man spoke sense, and made to do as he was told. His orders were to assure the princess arrived at the castle, not her jewelry, and he sure couldn't get her there alone.

The man, meanwhile, turned back to the princess, but he found that instead of her veiled face, he saw only a ring-clad fist heading toward his face. His only thought before he was knocked out cold was 'No human is that fast.'

Alarmed, Daniel made to stand, but the princess rose and exited the carriage then, pushing the unconscious highwayman out in front of her, and so he took a knee and bowed his head.


"Get up, would you? There's no need for the formality, there isn't another soul around for hours to give you trouble for it, and those soldiers need our help. Now, give me some of that antidote."

Daniel bowed further despite himself and handed the princess a vial of a blueish substance that was the antidote to the fae poison. "Would you have me dispose of the highwayman, m'lady?"

"Don't kill him, he saved our lives. But you can take his coin purse and throw him in the ditch. Perhaps being played by his own game will set him right. We won't be telling anyone about this, though. When they ask, we will tell them you managed to catch the fae off-guard and they had the antidote with them. I'm sure there will be a generous reward involved."

Daniel flushed red at the thought of the praise he would receive unwarranted, but he knew better than to disobey the princess, and so quickly administered the antidote and rolled the werewolf's body into the ditch, removing his coin purse as he was told to. However, he took a few coins from the purse and slid them behind the man's belt where they would be safe.

"You did me a kindness today, stranger, and I don't see it right to leave you here with nothing."

Neilen Darkshire awoke a few hours later to the twilight sky looking down on him, and grinned when he finally remembered what had happened. The carriage was long gone and the bodies all disposed of, but he had a bruise on his face to remind him of what had transpired.

He got to his feet and leaned over to pick up a few gold coins that had fallen from his belt as he did so, tucking them within the folds of his robes. A rough chuckle emanated from his lips as he noticed his coin purse was gone.

"Rob me blind and ride off to the safety of your castle, will you? We'll meet again, Princess, you can count on that."

The inhabitants of the forest offered him no reply, and so he simply trudged further into the woods to where his horse was waiting patiently for him before galloping away into the night.

The End

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