~ The fortieth of Life’s Reign in the year 1045 at nine o’clock in the morning ~
A short, thick-set man drove his cart down a dusty road in the hills west of Ravenswood. He hummed a tune he’d heard his wife, Mary, singing that morning as she’d prepared breakfast with his two daughters. He took a bite of spicy, hard cheese and admired the colorful spring landscape.
“Ahsha! Ahsha!” He blew his nose on a clean white cloth. “The pollen’s pretty bad this year, Lou.” His chestnut mare didn’t answer. “You must breath in a lot of it, with those big nostrils of yours!”
“I’ll double my offer! Ten gold pennies. That’s more than you’ll get from Rolant for bringing me in, and you know it!”
The bounty hunter turned and looked at the man in the cage on the back of his cart.
“I don’t know where it all went wrong for you, Will.”
“I made a lot of bad choices—I admit that. I shouldn’t have killed that man just because he wouldn’t buy me a drink.”
“You shouldn’t have killed him for any reason. You shouldn’t have gone into the Queen’s Arms Inn that night, or any time, for that matter. How can you stand it? It’s…vile? No, that doesn’t quite get there. It’s like… a hellish party attended by morose and depraved lost souls, held inside a latrine pit.”
“I’m lonely since Juliana died. I need some company, and that’s the best I can afford. You get used to it. Please, man! Fifteen gold pennies.”
“You can’t afford to drink in a better tavern, but you can afford to pay me what you, a laborer, would make in a full season’s work, if you could keep a job?”
“I’ll sell everything I own!”
I imagine he has already, then drank the small amount he earned from the sale. “You’d just end up on the streets, stealing to survive and drink.”
“Please! I…I’ll be your slave, for as long as you want! I’m a deadman if you don’t release me!” Will began to sob.
I hate this part. “I can’t, Will. You’d work for a few days then run off, and you know it. Slavery’s illegal at any rate. This is my job, and it supports my family. Nobody forced you to murder that man, and as I said…” He’s not listening, and I’m tired of saying the same things over and over.
The bounty hunter called to the men running down the road ahead of him. “Hello! Hello! Yes, you there!” A skinny, bearded man dressed in odd bits of fur and leather armor turned and looked at him for a moment. Victor Lundgren. The man running next to him grabbed his shoulder, yelled at him, and pushed him down the road. Francis Tinker, I believe. Don’t know much about him. A huge, wild-looking man in similar garb had fallen behind the two thin men, but ran on. Fillius Talbert. He’ll be a tough tree to fell. He was trailed by fifty yards or so by a fat man with flame-red hair. Gordon Smiley. He stumbled along, just ahead of the cart, clutching his side and favoring a leg. I’m surprised he’s lasted this long. “Fear of the cell or noose I suppose, Lou.”
The bounty hunter took another bite of cheese, watching flower petals dance and swirl in the crisp morning breeze. “Ahsha!” He turned the white cloth to a fresh spot and blew his nose, then shouted at Gordon. “Look, man! It’s a mile or more to Dragon’s Spine! You can’t even see the rocks yet!” Gordon wailed incoherently, struggling even to walk. He turned to look at the bounty hunter, terror in his eyes, then tripped in a hole and fell to the dirt. He cried out in pain and began crawling away through a cloud of dust. And pollen.
“Hold up there, Lou.” The bounty hunter set the brake on his cart, then hopped down. That’s one pathetic outlaw. “Gordon Smiley, I arrest you in the name of King Rolant Bardolf. Do you yield?”
The fugitive stopped and rolled onto his back, chest heaving, tears streaming down his face. The bounty hunter looked at him compassionately. “All’s not lost! King Rolant’s a just man. State your case, tell the truth, and you never know—you might be back on the road in a few days.”
The other outlaws were gone. “Ah well, I’ll have to find them in the Spine, Lou.” The bounty hunter extended his hand and Gordon grabbed it after a moment. He rose slowly to unsteady feet. “I…yield. I’ve no…choice”
“True.” But you had plenty of options before today. It’s always the same. Bad choices compound. The bounty hunter unlocked the cage and helped Gordon in, then locked it behind him. “There’s food and clean water. Have a rest now, and don’t worry about the future.” The bounty hunter looked down the road as he climbed into his cart. “It’s going to be a long day, Lou.”
He pulled the cart into Dragon’s Spine, and parked it in front of a tidy, timber-framed inn. A freshly-painted sign hung from an oak beam. It read: The Dragon’s Horde Inn. “I’ll be a few minutes, Lou.”
Will called out from the cage. “Bring me a drink, eh? One last drink?”
The bounty hunter ignored him and walked into the tavern. A few patrons sat eating and drinking quietly in the sparse, but clean, common room. A mean fire burned in a small hearth. The landlord scrubbed at the spotless bar and looked up at the bounty hunter as he approached.
“‘Aven’t seen you in a while. You gonna buy somethin’?”
“Ale. I’m looking for three men dressed in mismatched leather and furs. Two skinny, one big. Have you seen them?”
“Today?” Always the same dance.
The landlord pulled a pint from a barrel and placed a pewter mug on the bar. “Yes.”
“Will you tell me when and where?”
The bounty hunter sipped his ale and placed a short stack of coins on the counter. The landlord gestured for more.
“That’s all I’m willing to pay. Take it or leave it.”
The landlord scowled. “Upstairs, last room on the left. No trouble, eh?”
“None.” At least not for my part.
The bounty hunter raised his hand to knock on the oak plank door, but it swung open before he could. Fillius occupied the frame almost entirely.
“Saw you pull up. Caught that fat fucker Gordon, I see. He was good with locks, but I guess he’s for the noose now.”
“I couldn’t say. You’re trapped, Fillius. Do you yield?”
“Trapped, are we! There’s three of us in ‘ere, if you’d care to look.”
“I’m pleased to see that’s true. May I come in?”
Fillius laughed. “Why not? I can respect a man who’s just tryin’ t’ do ‘is job.”
“Thanks. It’s not easy, you know.” Fillius stepped aside, and the bounty hunter walked into the cramped room. Francis and Victor sat at a table by the window.
“Trackin’ an’ catchin’ men can’t be,” said Fillius. “Have a seat. There’s ale if you’re thirsty.”
Victor stood, knocking his chair to the floor. “Don’t fuckin’ give the man a drink! He chased us all mornin’!” The bounty hunter ignored him and looked at Francis. He looked away.
“True,” said Fillius. “But you two are no company, and we’re perfectly safe. The man’s not even armed! Whereas us…” He walked to the bed and drew a long claymore from its scabbard.
The bounty hunter lifted his hands. “There’s no need for violence.”
“Agreed.” Fillius sheathed the sword, then returned to the table and sipped his ale. “So, where ya from?”
“Fillius Talbert, Victor Lundgren, and Francis Tinker. I, Cornelius Jehoshaphat Applebaum—”
Fillius and Victor roared with laughter. Even Francis chuckled. “What kinda name’s that!” asked Fillius. A funny one, but you’ve already figured that out, so why ask?
Cornelius sighed, and pressed on. “I arrest you three, in the name of King Rolant Bardolf. Do you yield?”
Fillius stopped laughing and stood, puffing out his barrel-chest. The room grew silent. “Fuck off, little man. We do not yield.” Of course you don’t.
“That's a shame. You see, Mary’s making a pot roast for our—”
“I don’t care what your whore wife is cookin’! Fuck. Off. Last warning.”
Cornelius stood his ground. “May I speak for a moment?”
Fillius laughed, caught off guard. “Why not? Just don’t be boring—I’ve got plenty o’ that with these two.”
“I’ll do my best. Here’s the situation as I see it.” I’d write this on paper, if more people could read. “I’m the King’s first option. His cheapest option.”
Fillius sighed. “On with it then. Say your words, then fuck off.”
“I’m the King’s cheapest option, not his only option. I don’t know what you’ve done, but I do know the king’s a proud man.”
Fillius nodded. “That he is.”
“He’ll hunt you down, at a loss if need be, with several armed men. You see, he needs… well, we citizens of Sylvandia need criminals like you three to be brought to justice, so we can live in a civil—”
Victor stood, face purple with rage. “Let’s gut ‘im, Fill! Why are we just sittin’ here!”
“Easy now. I take this man’s point about bein’ the cheap option, and I think he’s nearly done. Best to just hear him out.”
Fillius turned, grabbed Victor, and threw him across the room. He landed in a heap on the floor, holding his head. “Like I was sayin’, I understand. But that doesn’t mean I think we should go quietly.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” said Cornelius. “If that’s your final word…”
Fillius folded his arms across his chest and planted his feet. “It is.”
“Then I have no choice but to compel you to obey the king’s orders.”
“By the Dancing Devil, little man! Can’t we just have a drink and some friendly conversation? I mean to say, I don’t understand how exactly you mean to force us.”
“Ah. I thought we might get stuck on that point.” Cornelius moved to the window and looked out. “You’ve seen my cart and cage on the street there—Gordon and another inside, yes? You said as much when you opened the door.”
“Ah for fuck’s sake man! You know what I mean!”
“I do, Fillius, I just thought I’d speed things up by skipping to the next part.”
“The one where we submit meekly, then climb into your cage like that fat shit Gordon.”
“Exactly. We understand each other!”
Fillius laughed. “You’re funny! I’ll give you that. And persistent.”
“Mary says I’m the most obstinate man she’s ever met.”
Fillius looked at the floor. “Ah, yes. Sorry to ‘ave called her a whore. I lost my temper. I’m famous for it, in fact. I’m sure Mary’s a fine woman.”
“Apology accepted. She is. Now, if you’d all be so kind as to come with me.”
Fillius rubbed the bridge of his nose. “I’m at a fuckin’ loss, man. I truly am.”
“Understandable,” said Cornelius. “We’re fresh out of words.”
“Almost,” said Fillius. “I have a few more for you. I’m goin’ to lay this out nice and neat, ‘cause I think maybe you’re a little slow upstairs.” He pointed to his head. “Pay close attention now. We’re…not…goin’…with you. Understand?”
Cornelius nodded. “I do. Now, if you’d all like to put your weapons on the bed and come with me…”
Fillius whispered under his breath, nodding his head. “He is slow.”
Nobody moved. Guests laughed in the common room below. A gentle breeze blew through the window, and Cornelius struggled not to sneeze.
Victor, who’d been slowly rising from the floor—thinking that Cornelius hadn’t noticed—rushed forward, sword in hand. Fillius roared and charged. Cornelius dropped under Victor’s rushed swing and tripped him. He flew out the window, screaming, then crashed to the ground two stories below. Fillius missed Cornelius and slammed into the wattle and daub wall. “My thuckin’ nose!” He spat out a wad of blood.
Cornelius leaped into the air as Francis lunged low with his rapier, then drove his elbow down, grazing Francis’ neck. He’s fast! Fillius stood by the bed, five-foot sword in one hand, the other holding his bleeding nose. Cornelius stood with his back to the door, as the two men began circling him.
“Wound one’s owa. Wictor’s out,” said Fillius. Francis laughed hard. Cornelius focused on the men as they spread out, trying to get an angle on him.
“You’re pretty thuckin’ thprye. I—”
Francis darted in, thinking to stab Cornelius, but he was ready and rolled out of the way, directly into a small table and washstand set a few feet from the door. The clay bowl smashed to the floor. He looked up to see Fillius’ enormous blade coming straight at him. It buried itself in a thick oak beam.
“Thuck!” Fillius struggled to free it.
Cornelius darted away from the door. It’s too tight in here! Let them run. I can subdue Fillius if I have some space. Francis on the other hand…
The outlaws didn’t leave the room. Cornelius stood on the opposite side of the bed, near the table and window. Francis looked at Fillius’ massive sword. “I told you to get a smaller fucking blade, you arsehole!”
“Thuck thou, Thrancis!”
Fillius gave Francis the shit-eye. “Thuck—” Cornelius sprang onto the bed, then Fillius’ head. The two men went down as the door swung open.
“What’s going on! My master—” Francis stabbed the landlord’s boy clean through with his rapier. The boy looked stunned as the blade left his chest as quickly as it had entered. He dropped dead.
Cornelius lay atop Fillius, both staring at the dead boy on the floor. Fillius recovered from the shock first. He grabbed Cornelius and flung him into the air, but Cornelius had grabbed ahold of Fillius’ beard.
“Thuck!” Francis lunged at Cornelius, now back atop Fillius and rolling off. The rapier pierced his side and exited, muscle bulging as the sword twisted out of Francis’ hand.
Cornelius cried out in pain, pulled the sword out of his flank, and threw it out the window. A man yelped below.
Francis laughed, dagger in hand. “Ha! I’ll bet you got Victor. He was still alive!”
Fillius was on his feet now, dazed. “Don’t speak,” said Francis, holding his hand up. “I couldn’t bear to hear you. And besides, all you do is yell thuck!”
Fillius nearly spoke, but didn’t seem to have the heart to press the matter. He stood, two-handed sword in one hand, holding his smashed, bleeding nose with his other. Cornelius was behind the bed again, holding his bleeding side.
“I’ve lost count,” said Francis. “Let’s call that round three. It’s a draw at any rate.”
“Except for the boy,” said Cornelius quietly.
“Curiosity killed the cat. It’s your fault, if you think about it. You could have ambushed us on the road tomorrow.”
“True, but you’d have been expecting that. You didn’t expect a knock on the door.”
“No.” Francis glanced at Fillius, “But then you, and the great hairy arsehole standing over there, had your long, boring talk, so we weren’t surprised anymore.”
Cornelius sighed. “True again. I guess I just hoped you’d see reason.”
“Does anyone ever?”
“Sometimes. A lot of the people I track are just tired of running, looking over their shoulders.”
Francis nodded. “The outlaw life is pretty damn stressfu—” Fillius roared as he swung his sword in a high arc over the bed. Cornelius had anticipated the attack, so he dodged the swing easily. Fillius, expecting to hit flesh, lost his balance and fell onto the bed. Cornelius grabbed a pewter candlestick from the table and brought it down on the back of his head, then threw the fallen claymore out the window. A man howled in pain in the street below.
Francis laughed. “Victor again I bet! What are the odds!” He looked at Fillius, lying dazed across the bed. “Go ahead, smash his fuckin’ skull, but I warn you, it’ll take a while. I only needed him for the brute strength part of my last job—I let him think he was in charge. I mean really, what kind of knobhead roars before every attack? I’d have been very disappointed if you’d not dodged that one.”
Cornelius held his wound and winced. “Seems like the big ones feel a need to announce their attacks. Do you yield, Fillius?”
Fillius rolled slowly onto his back, holding his head in two places. “Thuck…no. Thuck…thou!”
“Well, he’s yours if you can drag his three-hundred-pound body out of here!” said Francis. “But why not just kill him and take his head to Rolant? I know you’ll earn less, but…oh right, no sword. Cornelius, you’ll have to admit, this would have been easier if you’d brought a weapon. Perhaps even an armed assistant? Why do you do it this way?”
Cornelius pulled a long bandage from his pocket and wrapped it around his midsection. “I used to carry weapons—a short sword and brace of daggers I could use anywhere. I’ve got a net in the cart, but I’d forgotten about it until just now.”
“Sensible solutions, all.”
Cornelius tied his bandage off, gritting his teeth. “Ah that burns! I guess I’m lucky you didn’t kill me! Well, I stopped carrying weapons, as I found they tend to escalate already tense situations. They have their uses—I’m not saying they don’t. It’s just that I’m usually able to get the drop on my man, or woman as the case may be. Weapon or no, he’s usually scared, looking for options. I give my little speech, nice and easy. And remember, most fugitives aren’t violent, or particularly good at fighting.”
“That’s true, now that you point it out, and you do have a soothing presence.”
“Mostly, I think it’s because I just don’t like hurting things—animal, vegetable or mineral, as they say. I should finish Fillius off with the candlestick, but I just can’t. If you a weren’t here, I’d truss him up and pay for help getting him to the cart.”
“Ah! I have an idea,” said Francis. Let’s throw Fillius out the window! I’ll help! It’ll be fun!”
Fillius started to drag himself off the bed. “Ehh? Thuck…thou…I’ll…”
“Quiet Fillius! I’ll knock him out, and help you throw him out the window. We probably won’t hurt him, but he may land on Victor. But hey! He’s probably done anyway, with the fall and two swords in him!”
“Assuming I didn’t unintentionally stab someone else. I’d look, but you’d kill me if I did.” Cornelius thought for a moment. “I admit, your plan has merit.”
Fillius stood on shaky feet with a wild, confused look on his face. He leaned against the bed and started to speak, but Francis shushed him.
“Yes! He’ll be knocked out, and if you leave this room alive, you’ll just have to get him into the cage. Shit! No. Tie him to the cart and drag him back to Ravenswood! He’ll probably survive, and technically, he just has to have a pulse for you to get the full bounty. I know all about it, as a lifelong criminal.”
Cornelius thought for a moment. “And Victor goes, dead or alive. It may be time to cut my losses.”
“It is. I’ll sweeten the deal. I’ll just walk away, and you’ll let me. I’m armed, but you scare me, I won’t deny it. I won’t gain anything by fighting you.”
“And I’ll live. I don’t love it, but it’s the best I can do. Anyway, the town guard could be here any minute. I’m surprised they haven’t come already—we’ve made a lot of noise, and the landlord will miss his boy soon. We have a deal.”
“Thuck that!” Fillius roared as he clumsily charged the man he thought was Cornelius. Francis stepped aside easily, and Fillius’ eyes went wide as he tried to stop.
“Ohhh thit!” His momentum carried him through the open door, across the hallway, and over the railing. Cornelius heard a loud crash and people screaming.
“We'll be down in a minute, Fillius!” yelled Francis over his shoulder, his eyes fixed on Cornelius. “Ha! He did our job for us. Let’s take the stairs.”
“Agreed.” Cornelius stepped over the corpse in the doorway. This boy’s death lies at my doorstep. He’s dead because I was impatient.
When the two men reached the common room, Fillius was standing on trembling legs by the shattered ruins of the table he'd landed on. How can he take so much punishment? He’s supposed to fall harder because he’s bigger. Fillius shook his head and swatted at things Cornelius couldn’t see. I’ve been there.
The inn's patrons were on their feet, not sure of what the immense, confused man might do. The landlord hurried over.
“Oi said no fuckin’ damage! You'll pay for this! Jim! Where are you! Fetch the guard!” The boy’s name was Jim.
Francis took hold of Fillius’ arm. “Come now, big man. How about a nice, private stroll in the country with our new friend?” Fillius shook him off, then punched him hard in the face, apparently still under the impression that Francis was Cornelius. Francis grunted as he staggered back, then fell through an open door and down a flight of stairs. Fillius staggered after him, ignoring Cornelius.
I should probably just stand back, and let Fillius kill himself and Francis, but I’ll get less of a bounty for them if I do.
The landlord stared at Cornelius, his hands clenched into fists, rage in his eyes. “Where’s Jim! Did you hurt him?” Cornelius ignored him and ran out the door to deal with Victor. I won’t have much time—this situation is about to come to a head.
The street was empty. Where’s the town guard! This is a ghost town. Victor lay moaning in the shadow of the cart, one hand on the claymore stuck in a thigh, the other, on the rapier in his shoulder. Blood pooled on the ground under his leg and flowed down his arm. Gordon was curled into a sweaty blob, crying, but Will was laughing, hands on the bars. “Well done, Cornelius!”
Cornelius shook his head. Nobody will believe me when I tell this tale. “I didn’t do it on purpose, though that hardly matters. Sorry, Victor.”
“Sorry? You’ve killed me, you fucking bastard! Ah shit it hurts! I don’t want to die!”
“You may not. Well, you probably will, if I'm honest. But remember, you attacked me!” He’s lost a lot of blood…I don’t know what to do, and no matter what I do, he’ll likely die anyway.
Cornelius glanced over his shoulder. The landlord stood in the door, glaring at him. “You brought this trouble with you! Pick ‘im up, and fuck off! Them two in the basement—”
“I’m working on it, and am sorry for your trouble. I’m an agent of the king, and will see that you’re compensated.”
Cornelius took a deep breath, centering himself. Francis is either in a tight spot or dead. Probably dead. Either way, he and Fillius have to come through the front door—
“Does your inn have any other doors? Any other way out?”
“No! Now fu—please leave, and don’t bother the king with my little inn.”
“Thank you.” He’s hiding something.
Cornelius turned back to Victor. “Like I said, you’re probably going to die, but you’ve got a chance. The sword in your thigh is preventing you from bleeding to death, so I’m going to tie it into place until I can get you to a doctor. It’ll hurt.”
Cornelius looked at the landlord. “Help me, and I’ll be gone all the sooner.” He rushed over. Suddenly we’re friends. What’s he hiding? “Hold him down.”
Victor screamed and thrashed as Cornelius wrapped a bandage around the sword and his thigh, holding it firmly in place. He then removed the rapier and dressed the wound. “He needs a doctor.”
“Not the one we’ve got. “E’s passed out drunk inside.”
Cornelius rubbed his eyes. “He comes with me, then. Help me get him into the cage.” He looked at Will. “If you make me chase you when I open this door…” I couldn’t blame him if he tried.
Will shook his head and stepped back. Cornelius opened the cage door a little. Will sprang forward, but Cornelius was expecting it and slammed the door in Will’s face.
“Ah shit, Cornelius! My fucking skull’s broke!”
“Unlikely, but I warned you! I’m not a violent man! I’m just trying to do my job—I need to feed my family! If you criminals would just listen! Just one time!” Will crawled into a corner, holding his head in his hands. Cornelius and the landlord lifted Victor into the cage.
Cornelius locked the cage and looked at the landlord’s bloody hands. “You have the king’s thanks.”
“No trouble at all, sir. May O’i be of any further assistance?”
He’s definitely hiding something, and it’s probably tied in with the lack of guards in this town. “No, thank you. I’ll see what I can do about the two in the basement.”
The men started walking back inside, but Francis shouldered them aside as he ran from the building. “Run! It’s going to blow!”
Cornelius ran to his cart and yelled at the landlord. “What have you got down there?”
The landlord ignored him and ran off down the street, followed by his few patrons. Where’s Fillius? Cornelius leaped onto his wagon, released the brake, and snapped the reins. “Let’s go, Lou!” The cart bounced down the rutted street, the men in back screaming as they were thrown into each other and the bars. After about a hundred feet, Cornelius pulled on the reins. “Easy now, Lou. We should be safe here.” The cart stopped, and Cornelius turned in his seat, wincing at the pain in his side. I need stitching, and soon.
“What’s going on, Lou?” He waited for a moment, but nothing happened. “Ah, I see. Francis tricked me.”
Fillius staggered through the inn’s door.
Will laughed. “It’s good to see someone get the best of you. There’s hope for me—”
The tavern exploded, sending stone, timber, plaster, and Fillius flying through the air. The few people in the street screamed as they ran from the conflagration.
Lou bucked and neighed, and Cornelius bent over, covering his head as debris fell around him, banging off the bars, cart, and Lou. When the smoke cleared enough to see, Cornelius raised his head and looked at his horse. She was shaken, but otherwise seemed uninjured. He looked over his shoulder at the prisoners.
Will coughed and spat. “Victor’s done. Looks like the sword got twisted around. Shit! The fuckin’ blood back here! Ah! My leg! The sword got it!”
Cornelius sighed. One problem solved, and another created. “Take Victor’s bandage and do what you can for yourself. Gordon?”
“He’s back to crying. Look, Cornelius. You could say I escaped in the blast! Nobody would doubt it! Please, man!”
Cornelius ignored Will and hopped down from his cart. He patted his horse, comforting her. “I’m sorry about all this, Lou. It’s been a rough day, but it looks like you’re unhurt.”
He looked down the rubble-choked street through the dust, toward the pile of debris that used to be an inn. “Well Lou, I guess Francis was telling the truth. But either way, he’s long gone, again.” Cornelius coughed and sneezed. He couldn’t find the rag he used to blow his nose, so he blew it on his shirt. “Let’s take stock… Will, captured. Francis, gone. Gordon, captured. Victor, dead. Fillius, probably in pieces somewhere over there. No—he’ll be dazed, but unhurt somehow, presumably lying under a wall, next to five mangled corpses.”
Cornelius shook the reins and turned the cart around, then drove down the street as far as he could. He spotted Fillius, on fire and half buried in a pile of wreckage in front of the heavily damaged shop across from the inn. A woman threw a bucket of water on him as Cornelius turned the cart around. No sense in dragging him any further than I have to.
“Thank you, ma’am.”
“I doubt he’s even injured. Give him a minute.”
The woman shot Cornelius a confused look, watching in morbid fascination as Fillius rose from the wreckage, steam and smoke rising from his thick leather and fur armor. He looked around, dazed as bits of plaster and rock fell from his broad shoulders and tangled hair. He plucked a shard of wood from his face and dropped it. His savior smiled, then ran off to join the others now hurling water at the burning rubble.
Cornelius approached Fillius cautiously. “You’re a tough bastard. I assume you don’t yield, so I won’t ask.” Fillius looked around, mouth open, eyes focused on nothing. Guess he can’t hear. “I’ve got a plan, Lou, but my other guests won’t care for it much.” Cornelius unlocked and opened the cage door, then turned to face the disoriented giant, waving his arms around, trying to get his attention.
“No! Don’t do it!” yelled Will.
Fillius saw Cornelius. The expression on his face turned from confusion, to recognition, to rage in a few seconds.
Cornelius readied himself as Fillius made a retching sound and stumbled forward. Cornelius stepped aside, and let Fillius’ momentum carry him into the cage. Lou whinnied as Fillius smashed his head against the bars at the back, the cart shaking.
Various body parts, including part of Will’s face, were visible beneath Fillius’ bulk. “Ah fuck, my leg! Get him the fuck off of me! There’s no fuckin’ room in here! I need a doctor!”
“I’m sorry about all that, but you’ll have to sort it out yourself.” He locked the door as the landlord approached.
“You blew up my fuckin’ inn!” He gestured frantically to the burning wreckage, then looked around.
“There’s only one logical explanation for a blast like that,” said Cornelius. You must have had a stash of gunpowder in your cellar. Maybe you’re a smuggler, maybe you’re plotting with King Alexandru, or maybe you were planning a big, deadly party for someone. I don’t care—King Rolant will sort it out.”
“I didn’t. I—”
“You did—I guess someone knocked a candle over.” Cornelius thought for a moment. “No, that alone wouldn’t have done it, Lou. No, Fillius must have bulled into a cask of powder, sending it crashing to the floor. Yes, that’s it. It would have to have spilled open right next to the candle. Otherwise, one of them would have picked it up. Mystery solved.”
The landlord stood, mouth open. “No, I…it must have been—”
“Powder, and lots of ale and whiskey. Again, I don’t care. Rolant will investigate the scene and discover the truth. If you’re innocent, he’ll rebuild your business and compensate you for your lost revenue. But before all that, I, Cornelius Jehoshaphat Applebaum, arrest you in the name of King Roland Bardolf. Do you yield?”
The landlord ran off. Cornelius sighed and gave chase. He leaped onto the landlord’s back, driving him to the ground.
It was full dark by the time Cornelius set the brake and stepped off his cart in the courtyard of Ravenswood Castle. A stable boy placed a bucket of water in front of Lou and fed her an apple. Captain Dieter Everard strode up and extended his hand.
“Good evening, Cornelius. Oh! You’re hurt!”
“Francis stabbed me. I’ll live, but I’d appreciate a stitching if your doctor is about.”
“I’ll take you to him now.”
“Thanks, but let’s clear this mess up first—I need to be done with it.” Cornelius produced a paper and handed it to the captain. “Will, injured. Victor, dead. Gordon may be done crying…no, guess not. Anyway, Fillius, inexplicably alive. Francis escaped, but killed a boy working for the landlord. That man there—never got his name. I arrested him—”
“My name is Michael Drake, proprietor of the Dragon’s Hoard in the town of Dragon’s Spine. This man, your bounty hunter, blew it up!”
Captain Everard raised his eyebrow. “This should be interesting.”
Cornelius yawned. “Fillius punched Francis, causing him to…well, it’s a long story. The whole place exploded. No casualties, as far as I know.”
Captain Everard nodded his head. “Black powder, and lots of it.”
“No! I’m loyal to the King!”
Cornelius handed the cage key to another guard. “Who said you weren’t? Good evening. Roger.”
“Good evening to you, Cornelius! My, what a fine mess we’ve got here! But the captain will sort it out, on that you may—you’re hurt! Well, the doc will stitch you—”
Captain Everard held his hand up. “Please Roger, just get them to Tom. And if Michael speaks again, put your knife through his head.”
The landlord screamed. “No! I—”
Roger hauled him out of the cage. “Relax, man. The captain’s makin’ a jest. You’ll have your say tomorrow. Best get you down to Old Tom.” Roger escorted the man away as guards removed the other prisoners. “He’s a bit smelly, but…well, he’s more than a bit smelly, truth be told...”
Will shouted to Cornelius, terror in his voice. “Please!”
“It’s out of my hands.” Thank the gods.
“Let’s get you to the doctor,” said the captain. “I’ll bring your payment to you in the morning—it’ll take a while to figure the total.”
Cornelius yawned, then sneezed. “I appreciate it.” Captain Everard helped Cornelius across the courtyard and into the castle.
“Oh, I nearly forgot in all the excitement,” said Cornelius. “You have a guard problem in the Spine—there aren’t any, though Michael Drake seemed to think there was.”
Dieter sighed. “I’ll dispatch a troupe of men tonight.”
Doctor Thompson stitched and bandaged Cornelius’ wound. “I’d give you poppy milk for the pain, but I know you won’t take it.”
“I prefer to be…sharp, but I’ll take a few days off.”
“I recommend it. I’ll come tomorrow to check on you.”
Cornelius rose before dawn, ate breakfast, then didn’t know what to do with himself. He tried to help Mary around the house, but she sent him back to bed. Soon, the captain arrived with his payment.
“Good morning, Mary, Cornelius. How’s that wound?”
“It burns, and Mary won’t let me help around the house.”
“Let it heal, Cornelius. And remember, you can always peel potatoes and wash the table. Anyway, I’ve got some news for you.”
“Good, I hope.”
The captain rubbed his stubbly jaw. “I think it just might be. At sunrise this morning, we got Fillius cleaned up and marched him around back.”
“He could walk? Well, why not…He beat the hell out of himself…Likes to roar and charge at things. Burned a bit in the blast too.”
“The doctor tells me his leather and furs did most of the burning. He’s in rough shape, but the only thing broken is his nose. Anyway, we were taking him to see the carpenter—the King thought he’d be most useful working off his sentence.”
“What was his crime?”
“Petty theft. Stole a dress for some reason. We added a season to his sentence for all the trouble he gave you. He’s big, and would be damn useful to us, if only we could tame him. Good, honest work is preferable to spending much time with Old Tom in my opinion.”
“Mine too. Fillius charged someone, I take it.”
“How’d you guess? Alvin was getting the noose ready for a man you brought in last month. He was found guilty of murder, and we were going to hang him this morning.”
“But Fillius thought you were going to hang him when he saw the gibbet.”
“He did. He charged, hands bound behind him, into Lieutenant Brooks, who went down hard. Fillius ran into the woods, laughing and yelling obscenities. We chased him to the stream, and he turned to yell—”
Cornelius smiled. “Thuck thou!”
“Ha! Exactly. Well, when he turned, he tripped over a rock and fell off the cliff, screaming thuuuck thouuu the whole way down.”
“Dead, then.” How stupid can you be?”
“No! He bounced off a few trees, which redirected his course away from the rocks, and into the deep part of the lake, where the waterfall hits. I sent some men down to fetch the body while I watched from the edge. After a minute or so, he rose from the water at the shore, looked up at me and made some sort of sound, which I’ll assume was meant to be thuck thou. He ran off into the woods, hands still bound.”
Cornelius laughed harder than he had in a long time. “Should I go after him? When I heal, of course.”
“No, though it would be a mercy. We’d just throw him in the dungeon for a year if you caught him.” Dieter gestured with his hand. “Out there…He’ll kill himself sooner or later.”
Cornelius smiled. “I think much, much later.”
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