Jared stared down at the bloody mass of Harry. His ears rang with the fire of the battle. He didn’t feel the new cuts, bruises and scratches yet. He never did until later; when the roaring calmed and he could feel once again the beating of his own lifeblood in his veins.
The gravel behind him crunched.
“Who goes there!” he demanded as he spun, sword poised to counter an attack.
Socrates blinked in the flickering firelight, nodded his head and issued a soft whuffle.
Jared sighed. The girl was perched upon the horse’s back; her head snuggled against the neck, her hands clasped fiercely to the mane.
Safe! He thought for a moment. Socrates nudged his shoulder, his feed bag dangling at an awkward angle. Jared removed the sack and walked back towards the fire. Socrates followed at his heels. Only then did he see the other attacker.
Mick sat in a huddle, trying to be invisible against the boulders. His shoulder looked decidedly askew. Of course the blood dripping from his just below his left eye did nothing for his appearance.
Jared looked down at his feet. A long, curved dagger gleamed against the trampled snow. He picked it up, studying the well crafted blade paying particular attention to the runes etched in the metal. He eyed the miserable man.
“Not just simple thieves, were you?” he said as he tilted the blade to catch the light of the fire, a knowing glint in his eye. “Nobody carries the blade of The Lady by mistake. Why attack us? I’m no man of the King. Even my mount bears the Dragon’s Eye.”
Socrates sidled so that his blanket was illuminated in the firelight. The fiery red eye of the Dragon’s Hoard was picked out in luminous thread. Most men would steer clear of such a blatant display of piracy.
Mick gritted his teeth, clearly considering what he might tell his captor. Socrates walked closer, his massive body overshadowing the cowering brigand. Mick’s eyes darted about him, searching for possible escape. He shifted his weight carefully, returning his gaze to Jared’s hard stance.
Jared shook his head, “I wouldn’t even try it,” as he tossed the dagger in the air, reflexively catching it in a throwing hold. “All those years at sea, I had plenty of time to practice throwing a dagger. The Lady’s steel would end this night in your skull.”
Mick paled. “I reckon I believe you,” he croaked as he settled back on his heels.
Jared crept closer to the cretin. “Now, hows about some plain talking, my good man,” he stated in a low, calm voice.
The brigand swallowed several times. “It wasn’t you we was coming for.”
Jared smiled a crooked, evil grin. “I guess you’re gonna be telling me it’s me horse you’re wanting.”
“Nay!” the man squeaked as his own blade was put against his throat. “Tis the girl! She’s not what you think! The Lady’s wantin’ her dead.”
Jared did not let the dagger waver as he looked sideways at Julia still passed out on Socrates. He turned back to his captive, “I suggest you try again, mate. She’s nothing but a bit of baggage. A penniless orphan of your Lady’s war.”
Mick attempted to shake his head, only to find the sharp blade nicking his chin. Sucking in a sharp breath of pain, “Even you she’s bewitched! She’s the last remaining member of the Royal family save the King. And his health fails even as we speak.”
“You lie!” Jared growled, pressing harder.
Panic entered the man’s eyes as the blade crushed his throat.
Jared eased off. Truth reflected plainly in Mick’s eyes. At the very least the man believed what he had been told. Jared stood, considering his next move for only moments.
He walked to Socrates, rummaged in the saddle pack and located a bit of rope. As a second thought he also grabbed a handkerchief. In short order, the brigand was bound and gagged and left near the dying embers of the fire. Jared packed up the campsite and mounted behind Julia.
As a farewell he growled at the miserable wretch, “When you free yourself of my bindings, you might want to be burying your friend. He died an honorable death at my sword.” He then kneed Socrates forward into the cold, starless night.