The small cart trundled along, Arden’s teeth chattering as the wheels bounced over the uneven cobblestones. The cart was piled high with furs, the spoils of a long hunting trip that he was bringing to the market. It was pulled along by an old half-lame horse named Snorts. Spend more than ten minutes in his company, Arden often said, and it will become abundantly clear why.
Arden couldn’t see further than fifty yards in the pre-dawn darkness, but he knew that the town of Crickhall was a few miles down the road. It was the only place that could even pass for a town within a week’s journey, so every road led there. There he could sell his wares and get a hot meal in his belly before he started the journey home.
As Arden’s cart rattled along, the night began to fade. The darkness gave way to a pale grey light and birds began to sing softly in the trees to Arden’s right. To his left, a small river ran. It was usually thick with fishing boats, but this early in the morning the water was empty.
It was the absence of a sound, rather than the presence of one, that made Arden pause. He shook his head to fight off his sleepiness and listened carefully. The river still burbled, and the axles of his cart still groaned in protest of the bumpy road. There was still the sharp sound of Snorts’s hooves on stone, along with frequent snorting. The birds, however, had stopped singing.
Arden let out a low whistle, and Snorts slowed to a saunter, then to a stop. He tossed his head and, of course, snorted. Arden drew a long hunting knife from his belt and stood up. “Who’s there?” he called.
He was answered by a rustling in the trees off to his right, and by the emergence of three men. The leader was a bald man of medium height; he was heavily muscled and had a long sword held low in front of him. His hands and face were crossed with scars, and his dark beard was peppered with grey. Behind him stood a young man, flame-haired and baby-faced, and a giant of a man, a veritable boulder of thick muscle. All three wore a motley assortment of worn and mismatched armor, as if they had scavenged an ancient battlefield.
“You won’t be needing that knife,” said the first man. He stepped towards the cart, sword pointed at Arden, as the other two circled around to rifle through the furs. “Toss it away.”
Arden did as he was bid, and the knife clattered to the cobblestones.
“Hand over your purse,” the scarred man said, “and get down from your cart.”
Arden hopped down to the road and withdrew a small coin purse from his belt. “I don’t think I can just let you take this,” he said. “This is all I have.”
The man snorted. “Maybe you should have used it to hire some protection.”
“Jode,” called the young man, “I’ve found something. There’s something under these furs.”
The third bandit gathered a bundle of furs in his massive arms and tossed them to the street, revealing a chest of white wood banded with dark metal. The young man leaned down to inspect it. “It doesn’t have any hinges,” he said.
Jode rounded on Arden and leveled his sword at his throat. “What is this?” he asked.
“I have the key in my boot,” Arden said. “I’ll toss it over if you get this damned sword out of my face.”
Jode lowered his sword and allowed Arden to reach down to his boot. “Toss it over then,” he said, extending a scarred hand. “And don’t try anythi-”
Arden moved with blinding speed. He straightened up, drawing something from his boot and sending it flying. A small knife flashed across the intervening space and buried itself in Jode’s throat. Jode grasped at his neck as he fell, trying to stem the flow, but there was nothing to be done.
Normally a stunned silence would follow something like that, but Arden never stopped moving. He leaped over Jode’s falling body and lashed out with both of his feet, shattering the young man’s nose and kneecap. The fire-haired youth fell to the ground with a piercing scream, but Arden was already attacking the third bandit. He plunged another knife, this one seemingly pulled from nowhere, into the massive man’s chest, then spun away as the giant’s sword sliced through the air. The bandit stumbled forward, trying to take another swing, and then collapsed to the cobblestones with a crash.
“Who are you?”
Arden turned towards the shaky voice to see the young man trying to stand, leaning heavily on Arden’s wagon as blood streamed down his face. “This was supposed to be easy,” he said. “Three of us against one merchant. Jode said it would be easy.”
“You never should have listened to Jode, my friend.” Now, as he sobbed, and blood and snot mixed with his tears, Arden could see just how young the man was. He couldn’t have been more than eight and ten.
“Didn’t have much of a choice, did I. I didn’t have anywhere else to go.”
“There’s always a choice,” Arden said. “Always.” He retrieved his knives and wiped them clean on Jode’s pants. “Was Jode at least smart enough to bring horses?”
The young man nodded. “We left them tethered a ways back.”
Arden moved past him to gather up the fallen furs. He piled them back onto his cart, taking care to cover his hinge less chest. “You’d better start moving then. That’s a long walk with a broken leg, and an even longer ride to the nearest town.”
“You’re just going to leave me here?” The young man’s voice was high with indignation.
Arden climbed back onto his cart and whistled to Snorts. His cart began to trundle down the road again. “You did just try to rob me,” he called back over his shoulder. “Be happy that I’m leaving you alive.”
With any luck, the young man would reconsider his life on his walk. If not, Arden thought, he wouldn’t last much longer as a brigand with only one good leg.
As the little cart rolled down the road, the heat of the day began to burn away the early morning fog. The birds began to sing. Arden whistled in return. Snorts snorted. The cart’s heavy wheels bounced and rattled over the cobblestones of the road.
Read more about Arden here.