A little tardy this week, but we get there all the same. Here’s the second stanza of chapter one. It was originally only going to be two stanzas, but for the purposes of posting it on line I cut it into three to make the reading shorter. The following is all action, which is no place for character descriptions, so the idea is to convey the general idea with speech. How a character talks can often conjure up an image of what they look like without the author saying a single word about their appearance. It’s a way of showing, rather than telling, although, in an action sequence, there’s mostly yelling, reactive dialogue and swearing, so characterizations then become more about deeds than anything else. Hopefully there’s enough in there to keep you interested.
Chapter One: Stanza Two
And then they all heard it; a steady squeaking noise cutting through the natural forest sounds, and growing louder. A few heartbeats and it was unmistakeable. Water had gotten through the grease and the axel had rusted; only a little, but the squeak was cacophonous all the same.
Whispers could feel everybody go still, their muscles and fears tauten. Some, like Kard, practically shook with suppressed anticipation while others, like Stoat, shook with terror. He’d vanish when the fun started, and wouldn’t reappear until after it was well over. The amount of blood soaking his leathers and woollens would leave no doubts about his effectiveness at cutting throats from behind.
‘Is that the coach?’ Brain’s voice made the hairs Whispers didn’t even have stand on end. Kard’s gloves strained so hard it was a wonder the seams didn’t split. There was no time to worry about him just then.
Light gilded the edge of leaf and branch, flashed across the muddy surface of the road. Water sucked and splashed under the weight of hooves and broad cartwheels alike, and the steady crack and moan of laboured timber followed. Two lanterns hanging on hooks either side of the driver’s bench swayed in time with the unwieldy coach’s movement, and a horse snorted, tossing its head. Keeping her own head down, Whispers knew the beasts could smell them. The driver, trained by long association, would see his beasts’ ears flick and their heads snap, and his instincts would start to twang. He’d be on guard, just as the armed minders to his left and right would. She hoped Kard had sharpened his blade this morning. He was an insufferable grimace most of the time, and the only one she wanted to be running behind when the time came to move. She felt her guts tighten and her bladder screw itself into knots.
All on a sudden, the fear came to her like a bolt of lightning; what if she hadn’t covered the rope well enough? That was one of her appointed tasks, and she had taken care to do it well just before the last light of day faded. Only, that was hours ago. The rain could have exposed the rope since then. Why hadn’t she thought to quickly dart out to check? Too late now; if it was exposed, the coachman would undoubtedly see it, and the game would be up. They’d draw swords and the ambush would turn on its head. They were relying on the distraction of the horses to attack the guards unprepared.
The light grew bolder and brighter as it neared. The five members of the party were revealed to Whispers’ dazzled vision. There was another thing she hadn’t taken into account. By the time her eyes adjusted to the light, the coach would have been long gone. She would have to run after it half-blind.
Its squeaking and crunching approached, and so too did the sweeping smell of horse and fish grease and sawn wood. This was a new carriage, then. Perhaps the crew was new as well, not as practiced at fending off highwaymen as perhaps they could have been. Good, that was in Whispers’ favour. She had no desire to lose her life tonight, especially seeing as there was no real way to tell if the coach would yield what they were desperately hoping for. Suddenly, risking her life for nothing seemed hardly worth it.
But the time for second thoughts came to an abrupt end. Corkknife slapped Brain’s arm, and the lumbering behemoth yanked hard on the rope. It splashed out of the mud and took the leading horse team full in the chest. Had they been galloping, even Brain’s considerable weight would have done little to slow them, so they all relied on the sudden shock to do the job instead. The horses reared and snorted in surprise. One slipped and fell, shattering the switch and dragging on its yoke, which in turn pulled the other three off kilter. Voices cried and horses screamed.
Corkknife’s snarling, strangled voice cut through Whispers’ fright like a spear thrust. ‘Go, go go!’
They all erupted from the bushes and made straight for the carriage. Kard, Corkknife and Starboard drew swords and went for the driver and guards, while Whispers ran out into the road and vaulted on top of the carriage. Or at least she would have done, had her foot not slipped in a puddle and tripped her up. The move saved her life. Sprawled out in the mud, winded from the fall, she watched from below as the carriage door swung open with a crunch. A huge crossbow appeared and fired, the string smashing into the wood like a whip-crack, followed a beat later by the bolt crunching into a tree.
Without thinking, Whispers lifted her own tail-coat bow and fired into the dark maw of the interior. Beneath the screams and shouts and steel-clashes of the others, not to mention the thrashing horses, she heard a yelp and a gasp of shock.
‘Hah!’ she cried, lurching forward. ‘I got one!’ But she couldn’t forget the scheme. Her place was atop the carriage; Stoat would be expecting her.
She took hold of the wet trim, placed a boot on the footboard and heaved. A thick boot appeared out of the interior and caught her hard in the chest, and she flew with a yelp back into the bushes.
A booming voice preceded an enormously fat man out of the carriage’s door. ‘YOU SHOT MY BUTLER!’
Up by the driver’s bench, things were going marginally better. One guard lay sprawled out and tangled in the switch, while two of the four horses were still down and struggling to rise, their screams shrill and cutting in the damp night air. Kard was up on the roof duelling furiously with the second guard, still on the bench; their steel shivering and clashing and catching the light of the lanterns in blinding flashes.
‘Knaves!’ the guard screamed, ‘I’ll have all your throats out and served on platters for this beastly act! Mark my words!’
Kard dodged a swipe at his knees and struck down hard at the man. ‘I’d rather mark you with this!’
Meanwhile, down in the mud, Starboard was wrestling with the driver, who had given them all a nasty shock by revealing himself as a third guard. ‘Filthy damn monkey,’ he snarled, pinching and biting and kneeing. ‘Go back to your own damn country and stay there!’
He punched Starboard full in the face, only to have the broad Eletrossan’s paw wrap tightly around his throat. ‘I like it here.’ Starboard’s voice was, as always, peacefully calm, even though his thick beard and black hair was saturated with muddy water and sticky blood. ‘Everyone is so friendly and welcoming!’
Corkknife had been inadvertently swiped by the hoof of a horse, and was just now coming around. He spat mud and shook his head. ‘Bloody Gethai,’ he mumbled thickly. ‘I think Brain went for me instead of the carriage.’ He picked himself up and ran back to the switch, fearful of the terrified beasts still trapped in the rigging. With a knife he went to work on their yokes, and soon had the leading pair free, where they bolted off into the darkness. This allowed the trailing team room to find their hooves, and once they were up, they took up the strain and followed after their fellows, dragging the carriage along for the ride.
Up on top, the sudden movement had Kard and his adversary sprawling. They both fell onto the canvas roof and punched straight through it onto the dead butler.
Outside, the fat merchant was being shunted into the carriage’s panels by Brain, who, since his job with the rope was over, had no idea what he was meant to be doing.
‘Would you stop that!’ roared the merchant. ‘I can pay you in solid silver! All you had to do was bloody ask!’
Brain stopped and stepped back, his heavy brow puckered in confusion. ‘We just have to ask?’ he repeated. ‘But the Cork knife said you’d say no, so that’s why we has to fight you for it.’
The merchant wiped blood out of his eyes and stared incredulously at his attacker. He then shook his head and chuckled in a high voice. ‘This is the calibre of highwaymen these days? And to think I paid the guards double for their service! Yes, you stupid great ox, I’ll pay you to leave me alone!’
That, apparently, was the wrong thing to say. Brain screamed and smashed the merchant in the face, pitching him straight back through the carriage door. ‘NOBODY CALLS ME AN OX!’
Whispers burst back out of the bushes, dripping mud and furious. If anybody had seen that disgraceful display, she’d die of shame. And he’d been a great fat one too. Bested by a slug! She’d never live it down! But where was the carriage?
She lurched through the thick mud after the thing, clung to its gilded rear railing and sprung lightly up to the roof. The roof that wasn’t there. ‘OH N—!’
Kard and the hired swordsman were still wrestling and growling atop the butler, only to be landed on by a plummeting Whispers.
‘GET OFF, WITCH!’ Kard snarled. ‘You’ve got more elbows than you know what to do with!’
The merchant was in there with them, howling and holding his broken nose, until the entire carriage shuddered and tilted. They heard the agonized bellow of Brain, and knew he was lifting the thing onto two wheels with his strength alone.
‘Brain, no, stop!’
It was too late. He heaved it up and over, and it crashed down onto its door, only to then carry on rolling into the bushes on the far side of the road. The horses, still locked into the yoke, screamed and twisted, their legs kicking the air.
Corkknife staggered into the road and stood by Brain, the both of them squinting in the rain. At their feet lay the first guard cut down by Kard.
‘He called me an ox,’ Brain sniffed.
‘There, there, big man, it’s alright. You can pull his head off if you like. But only after we find out how much he’s got to part with, right?’
Brain’s face lit up and he nodded, jowls quivering. ‘Sure, boss! Thanks very much!’
‘You’re welcome. You deserve it, for flipping that coach.’
One lantern had gone out, but the other had simply smashed, leaking its oil over the wood. The flame caught and a dazzling flower of fire shot into the air. The remaining guard clambered out of the ruined doorway and rose to his feet, gasping for breath.
‘Bloody maniacs! Who flips a coach? No need! Absolutely no need. Ruined now, thanks to you lot!’
He’d somehow collected his sword, a good solid single-handed double-edged blade. It was notched and dull through long service, and the ease with which he held it told Corkknife that he’d probably win in a fair fight.
‘Ah, Kard,’ he called, stepping back. ‘Kard! A little help!’
At that moment, Stoat appeared from behind the carriage, and so too did Kard from within. ‘You’re outmanned, sonny,’ he snarled, hefting his own blade. Blood ran in a sheet from his hair, which only made him angrier. The guard spun, seeing he was indeed by himself. Starboard was there too, cutting the remaining horses free, which meant the driver had at last been subdued.
‘There’s not much to interest you in there,’ the guard warned. Flame was reflecting in the steel of his breastplate, and the heavy mail on his arms.
‘That don’t matter to us,’ Corkknife replied, spreading his arms. ‘We’ll take what you have. Give it up and we’ll spare you.’
‘A liar as well as craven, I see. You’re crows, all of you, and you make me sick!’
Kard barked out a laugh. ‘We’ll make you dead in a minute. Lay down your blade, mate, and bugger off. You can run back to Pride and tell tales into your cups of a fierce band of mercenaries, and how they bested you at your own game.’
‘Fierce?’ the guard cried. ‘Farce, more like. I’ve had the misfortune to be attacked upon the road eight times in my day and this, by far, is the most laughable occasion of the lot!’
That was too much for Kard’s professional pride. From the carriage’s interior, Whispers had crawled free of the moaning merchant enough to see the swordsman splash forward, sword raised. The guard couldn’t get his weapon up in time to defend, and it looked like he was for the Judge, until Kard jerked and fell like a dropped sack into the mud. She almost bit her tongue off. Sticking out of Kard’s head were the fletchings of a long arrow.