A brook burbled amid the oaks of the Fairwood. Thickets and shrubs grew randomly, choking out the short emerald grass that spotted the landscape. The thieves’ cave camouflaged amongst the greenery. Tinges of red and orange were only beginning to betray its stealth.
Flattened undergrowth formed a path under Rowan’s feet. A light crunch emitted with each step. Above, the air smelled of light decay, a sort of sweet, subtle aroma.
The Triplet Moons shone in a cloudless sky. Melanie, the brightest, hung far to the west on the horizon. Rowan guided his band in its direction, traversing some thousand paces.
The bustle of an ox-pulled wagon revealed Count Lungren’s Highway long before it came into view. By the time they could see the packed dirt and drainage channels of the Highway, the cart was too far off to make out in the blackness.
“Lay low,” Rowan whispered. The other men nodded.
With those words, Rowan’s thoughts turned back to his fallen Sarah. Memory flashed before his eyes. She had told him to lay low, to apologize if he had to. It wasn’t worth getting into another fight over. He didn’t listen, couldn’t listen over the lust for blood pounding in his temples. The drunkard returned Rowan’s sloppy hook with an ales mug to Sarah’s head. He stood there, gaping, as the brute sent her to the tavern floor in a crumpled heap. By the time he found the sense to knock him off his stool, she was gone. Rowan coughed back a sob.
Melanie arched a full finger’s length in the sky before the clop of horseshoes became loud enough to hear. Two tall, dun horses emerged from the shadows. Their forms wavered, backlit by two torches affixed to a carriage. The driver sat on a velvet pad atop a high-seat. He glanced in the thieves’ direction and crinkled his brow.
“Release,” Rowan said, just above a whisper. Wolf shot out from behind a bush, his dagger stuck out in front of him. Valter raised an iron-rimmed buckler and followed. Lock pick in hand, Wasp crept toward the covered body of the carriage.
The driver’s drooping eyes flew open. His hand crawled to the knife scabbard at his belt. Wrapping the reins around one wrist, he scrambled to his feet and swore. Wolf drove an elbow into his leg, knocking him back onto his seat. A flick of the driver’s knife came within a hair-breadth of Wolf’s throat. Wolf’s manner lit up, turning even smugger. He plucked the knife from where it had imbedded into one of the poles supporting a canopy and somersaulted backward from the high-seat.
A sword gleamed in the low light from above Valter’s fist. Its hue tinted red, oozing, as Valter jabbed it clear into the driver’s ribcage and withdrew in one smooth motion. Crimson dripped across his lips, spread by a sputtering cough. The driver’s body spasmed, then slumped in the seat, lifeless.
Rowan sprinted off to settle the horses as Wasp and Wolf ran to keep up with the vehicle. He tore the reins from the driver’s failing grasp and whistled in a low-pitched whine. The equines slowed.
Inside the carriage the screaming had only just begun. Wasp tinkered with his pick on the door’s entry-lock. He mumbled as he worked, “Right, up, quarter-turn…” The door slamming into his face stopped him short.
A feminine voice called out, “I plead to you highwaymen, take all you can carry, but spare my daughter and me.”
“We don’t kill maids, milady,” choked Wasp from the drainage channel. He sounded hurt.
A new cry flew through the black. It brought all four looters to a martial stance, Wolf with his own howl and Valter a heavy grunt. Rowan cut the reins before the horses could jerk the carriage away in their fearful frenzy.
As Rowan glanced toward Wasp’s paralyzed form, his worst fears felt confirmed. He couldn’t make anything out yet, but he had heard too many horrific tales to doubt the beast’s name. A foul nemu stalked the night before them.