New story going up on my patreon this month.
Vasilis smiled with satisfaction as the arrow took the hart in the chest, sliding neatly between ribs. The creature bounded away to the north, but it wasn’t going to get far. “Come on.” He slung the bow over his shoulder before gesturing at his bodyguard. Then he headed after his prey.
The hart was magnificent, and would make a fine centerpiece for the feast. His father would be pleased, both with the feast and the visit to the camp. It had taken him a couple months, but he’d managed to turn the rather pathetic force at the old fortress into a reasonably competent patrol. Security along the southern border had been lax the last few years, but trouble among their neighbors had seen bandits and other filth daring to attack citizens. He hadn’t quite worked up the nerve to imagine this alone would see him named his father’s heir, but it would definitely be a point in his favor.
With any luck, the king’s visit would see Vasilis himself able to return to civilization. He hadn’t had a decent bath in two months, having to wash himself in a basin or dip into the river. The number of people he’d cheerfully kill for some properly chilled wine increased daily. Leaving the bottle in the lower cistern was nowhere near as effective as actual ice. His father’s palace had a shipment of ice brought down from the mountaintops once a week.
“A meal fit for a king.” Akelos moved next to him. The guard’s bow was still unstrung. Vasilis had to admit to feeling more than one twinge of pride when Akelos had acknowledged Vasilis was the better shot. Akelos scanned the woods around then, and frowned slightly. His dark brown eyes were wary. Then again, they always were. Akelos could be an old mother hen at times when it came to Vasilis’s safety.
“What’s wrong?” Vasilis raised an eyebrow as he looked around the area. He could see the hart’s trail plainly. It was losing blood. Perhaps he should have brought a couple servants to carry it back for him.
“Possibly nothing, but we are very near the border, my prince.” Akelos continued forward. “Let’s find your prize and get back to camp.” His eyes remained on alert.
“We’ll be fine.” Vasilis tried not to roll his eyes. Akelos had tried to insist on bringing more guards, perhaps even a full retinue. They’d have frightened off every deer for miles. And Akelos himself was worth a dozen men. His friend had proved that more than once, having been a soldier before being entrusted with Vasilis’s safety. One of his great-grandfathers had been the most famed gladiator in generations.
“Yes, my lord.” Akelos smiled.
Akelos moved a branch aside for Vasilis. The younger man moved back into the lead, following the trail. Vasilis grunted as a bit of his blond hair caught on another branch, and he pulled his head free. “Under brush is thick here.” The man tucked the strands back. Akelos had suggested the prince tie his hair back, or perhaps even cut it while on military duty, but Vasilis had balked at the notion. Short or bound hair was not the current fashion in the capital. Some were apparently weaving things into their hair to make it appear longer.
His own dark hair was cut short, close to the head to make a helmet easier to don. He wasn’t wearing one now. It cut down on visibility to much for hunting, but this close to the border he was wearing armor. Vasilis was as well, though he’d gone with a bit lighter than Akelos would have preferred. The prince had complained the breastplate interfered with his aim. At least he’d agreed to wear a sword. “Likely the hart has often used this area to dissuade predators from giving chase.” Akelos nodded. “Sadly, it doesn’t realize it is now being hunted by something famed for its stubborn nature.”
If there were servants about, he wouldn’t have dared be so familiar with the prince. As much as he would have preferred a full guard accompanying them, there were a few benefits to it just being the two of them. “I trust you’re talking about humans in general.” Vasilis grinned as he looked back, blue eyes sparkling with mirth.
“Of course, my lord.” Akelos gave a playful bow before moving ahead again to clear the path. He was the stronger of the two. Though an adult, Vasilis still had some growth remaining. The prince had a lithe, youthful form, but had yet to build much in the way of muscle upon it. In some ways, the man was little changed from the boy he’d been upon their first meeting.
Vasilis cursed at another branch that dared impede him, and Akelos shifted to lift it out of the prince’s way. Despite his royal birth, Vasilis had amassed a collection of rather low brow curses. That wasn’t entirely his fault. Vasilis had a decent collection of such curses before they’d ever met. It had, in fact, been how they’d met. Vasilis had decided to don more common garb and sneak out of the royal accommodations on a whim, only to foolishly start cursing someone much larger than himself.
He’d intervened, assuming the soft-skinned young man to be one of the younger sons often sent to be trained as a commander. The other soldier didn’t deserve to be crucified for laying hands on a whelp, and Vasilis didn’t deserve to die for being young and stupid. Akelos had taken Vasilis under his wing the rest of the evening, showing him to a better drinking establishment and teaching him to play a few of the common gambling games the men liked.
A small group of assassins had figured out who his charge was before he had. He’d killed them all, but been wounded in the fighting. Waking in the healer’s tent to find none less than the king looking down at him had been quite the experience. Tek, the farmer’s son turned soldier, disappeared that day, reborn as Akelos and given the rank of tribune. Vasilis had been his responsibility ever since.
“There.” Vasilis pointed and started moving ahead into the clearing. The hart lay on the other side, breathing its last.
Halfway across, he heard a twig snap, and caught Vasilis’s arm. “Vas.” The prince immediately went on alert, taking his bow off his shoulder. Akelos put a hand to his sword as he saw movement in the trees ahead. Trouble.
Vasilis shifted out of the way, putting his back to a tree as Akelos drew a sword. A half-dozen men emerged from the trees around them. Most were armed with makeshift clubs, but one also carried a sword. They had no armor or shields, and were dressed in little more than rags. Bandits, and not particularly successful ones. He started to reach for an arrow as the first of them foolishly charged at Akelos.
Akelos’s blade opened the man’s throat up, sending a spray of blood across the grass. The others hung back a little, moving to spread out a little more. Vasilis started notching an arrow to his bowstring when he caught movement out of the corner of his eye. He ducked back out of the way of a swing from a quarterstaff, and switched his target to put an arrow in his assailant’s shoulder. The man staggered backward. Akelos moved deal with his own targets.
Aiming into the melee was difficult, but one of the men was foolish enough to try to circle around Akelos. Vasilis put an arrow in him. Movement to his left, and he started to turn to aim. A sword caught his bow, pulling it from his hand. To his surprise, the new assailant was a woman. She smiled at him, and he stepped back to pull his own sword free of its sheath. If she wanted to die, he was happy to oblige her.
She ducked beneath his swing, spinning around him. The flat of her blade caught him across the back of the knee, making him stumble. A heartbeat later, her sword knocked his out of his hand. He lunged, trying to grab her before she could take advantage of the disarm. She spun again, catching his wrist with her free hand as she kicked his leg out from under him as he went past.
He yelped as his arm was twisted, sending him to his knees. Vasilis started to pull free, only to feel cold metal against his throat. “Drop your blade.” The blade pressed against him as she shouted.
In the midst of the melee, Akelos froze. He’d killed three and wounded two others, but more men had come, leaving him facing four. Akelos stared at Vasilis, and Vasilis gave him an apologetic look, shaking his head. “Don’t.” Vasilis swallowed, then felt the blade force his head up.
“Drop your blade…” The woman drew the blade just slightly, and Vasilis hissed when he felt it cut. A drop of blood trickled down his skin. “Or he dies.”
There were two more men emerging behind the woman. From the look of her garb, she was one of the mountain people. Which meant she could fight. Akelos looked at Vasilis, who was trying to shake his head. He should never have allowed the prince to leave the camp without a full escort. “Killing him will serve no purpose.” He kept his blade in his hand, but made no move to attack.
“Neither would letting you kill my men.” She smirked. “Surrender, or he dies.” She twisted Vasilis’s arm harder, making him wince in pain. “I think we’d both prefer a ransom to that, yes?”
Then she knew Vasilis’s worth. Akelos swallowed. The first group through the trees had been bedraggled, armed with staffs. The men with the woman were better armed. Deserters or former soldiers. He’d never be able to defeat all of them, especially not before the woman killed Vasilis. His only duty right now was to keep Vasilis alive. Akelos took a deep breath as he straightened up from the fighting crouch. Vasilis’s eyes went wide as Akelos dropped his blade. “Akelos…”
“Good boy.” The woman smiled, but did not release Vasilis. Her voice suddenly became sharp. “No.”
Akelos looked to his left to see one of the men he’d been fighting raising a club. The man blinked at the woman. “Orna, he killed…”
“Bind him.” The woman shook her head, then her eyes went back to Akelos. “Kneel.” She used the sword to tilt Vasilis’s head back.
He swallowed, then dropped to his knees. That these bandits were smart enough to take him prisoner boded well. He’d be punished for allowing the capture, possibly even executed, but he’d be able to keep Vasilis safe. His arms were grabbed and yanked roughly behind his back before being bound tightly. As soon as the men stepped away from him, the woman took the blade away from the throat of Vasilis, allowing the men with her to begin binding Vasilis’s hands. “Get away from me, you cretins…” Vasilis started struggling.
“Manners, boy…” The woman grabbed Vasilis’s hair and forced his head up to look at her. “Or I’ll cut out one of your man’s eyes and feed it to you.” She smirked down at Vasilis as the prince went still. “That’s better.”
They took Akelos first, putting a blindfold over his eyes. Four men surrounded him, one on each side, one leading him by a rope around his neck, and the last occasionally shoving him from behind. Vasilis glared at the woman, and she just smirked before gesturing to the man behind him. A foul- smelling rag was used to blindfold him, then he was shoved forward.
Captured by a woman. In single combat no less. It was fortunate none had been there to see it but Akelos. As much as it shamed him that Akelos knew, he trusted that his friend would tell no one. All he’d get from Akelos was recriminations over ignoring the suggestion about bringing a retinue.
Thoughts of the hart and the feast trickled through his mind. This was supposed to be his triumphant moment. How had his patrols missed this many bandits? He was going to crucify someone for this indignity. No doubt one of the centurions was in league with these bandits. They dared betray him like this? As soon as he found out which one, he’d have the man castrated before the crucifixion.
He’d lost count of both his footsteps and time before he smelled woodsmoke. A few minutes of walking later, he was shoved to his knees. His hands were bound to something before the blindfold was removed. A quick glance showed Akelos bound to a tree next to him, no more worse for wear than when the trip had started. Vasilis gave a small shake of his head. “I’m sorry.”
“Keep your wits and strength about you, my lord.” Akelos gave him a small nod. They were in what appeared to be a small camp, hidden back in trees and rock and looking dismayingly well provisioned. A chill went through Vasilis. They were possibly over the border.
The woman came back over, followed by another woman, this one older. His hair was yanked, forcing his head back. The woman gave him an amused look as the older woman dabbed a cloth across the shallow cut on his neck. It stung a little, and he smelled wine. Then he was released. The old woman moved away as the other woman kept watching him. “I’m Orna. Welcome to our camp, your princeliness.”
“My father will return any harm done to us tenfold.” Vasilis glared up at her. “Release us at once.”
“You are an arrogant little prick, aren’t you?” She shrugged. “Have to do something about that.” To his irritation, she patted his cheek. Then she turned toward Akelos. “You killed four of my men.” She folded her arms. “A few of the others would like to discuss that with you.”
“I gather this will not be an exercise in rhetoric.” Akelos met her eyes calmly. Vasilis felt terror start to trickle through him.
“No.” She smiled. “It won’t.” Orna drew a knife from her belt, and then laid it against Vasilis’s cheek. He saw Akelos go still again. “In fact, if you offer any defense, your princeling here will lose an eye. Understand?”
Instead of answering, Akelos simply bowed his head. Vasilis started to shake his own, but stopped, mindful of the knife beneath his eye. He swallowed as Akelos was unbound. The camp had at least two dozen armed men, watching, three of them near Vasilis. Akelos let himself be dragged toward the campfire. “What are you —” Vasilis started to look up at his captor.
“Silence.” She moved the knife away, but kept it in her hand. “Watch and see.” She smiled.
A chill went through him when he saw another man emerge from the other side of the camp. A coiled whip dangled from his hand. “No.” Vasilis started shaking his head. They were going to torture his friend. “No.”