Balthus and Adrianna eased their mounts down the sloping road that spilled from the highland evergreens to the valley below. Inhaling deeply, Balthus relished the gentle spring breeze that carried the mixed aroma of firs and newly blossoming heraldi flowers. Glad to be out of the snow, he wondered idly about the prospect of spending next winter in a warmer clime.
Balthus studied the road ahead, shielding his eyes from the bright sun that gleamed off the snow-covered peaks of the Ligour Teeth Mountains. The road was part of King Justin I’s effort to unify his realm. Carved from the side of the mountain, this section was wide enough to ride four abreast. Tall rocks rose on the right with a sudden drop-off on the left.
“It’s good to be back on the road,” said Adrianna.
Balthus nodded. “You know why that is?”
“Yes,” she answered. “Staying in one place too long causes petty details to grow in importance. On the road, our focus is usually in the moment, where life actually happens.”
Balthus screwed up his face. “That’s much better than the fresh air and sunshine remark I was thinking of…”
Adrianna chuckled. “Fresh air and sunshine are honey on the bread of the moment.”
Balthus rode in silence for a while then shook his head. “If I ever again see that bard who was hanging around you back at the Keep, he’ll run headlong into a fist of bad luck.”
Adrianna smiled and patted her luse’s neck as it sidestepped a rut. “You mentioned luck when you spoke to the stable boy. Do you really think your luck will run out?”
Balthus glanced at her with surprise. “Mine? Goodness no. You might think so, with all the luck that’s come my way, from finding you to not being skewered by every bravo from here to the Outer Sea. But I think luck comes to those who expect it, and I always expect it.” His eyes narrowed as he focused on the road ahead. “And speaking of luck, I think the morning’s about to get interesting.”
Adrianna stiffened in her saddle.
“I count four, maybe five,” said Balthus in a quiet voice. “Been watching us for the last few minutes. They will probably make their move around the bend by the tall rocks.”
“How do you want to play it?” asked Adrianna.
“Well, let’s try to talk them out of it.” He glanced at her and grinned. “You know how I like to reason with people.”
Adrianna smiled. “Yes, and it’s amazing how persuasive you are when you reason with your sword.”
“I guess there are just a lot of folks out there needing some hard lessons in kindness toward their fellow man. Ah, here are our brigands now.”
Four men in a ragtag assortment of armor and weapons blocked the road, swords drawn. A fifth man behind them held a leveled crossbow.
“Hold and dismount or we will be forced to cut you down!” cried the largest one in the front.
Balthus eyed their white-knuckled clenching and unclenching of weapons, the shifting from foot to foot and the licking of dry lips. He shook his head. “Humph. Not brigands, merely bandits,” he said in a low voice. “Adrianna, see if there is one at our backs.”
Adrianna quickly glanced behind, then shook her head.
Balthus scowled. “Not even bandits then, just amateurs.” He raised his voice. “Look boys, we don’t have the time to give you a lesson in manners, so how about you step aside and let us pass?” He reached up and scratched his ear.
“Down! Now!” shouted the leader. “Or Gregor will put a bolt in your eye!”
“Good idea,” said Balthus and brought his hand down sharply, throwing a spike pulled from the scabbard he wore down the back of his neck. The spike caught the crossbowman in the eye and, by reflex, he pulled the trigger. The bolt plowed into the buttocks of the bandit nearest the cliff. The punctured highwayman yelped and fell to the ground, almost slipping off the edge.
The spike had no sooner hit than Balthus and Adrianna leaped from their luses with swords ringing. Adrianna attacked the bandit furthest left. The other two came for Balthus.
One bandit charged Balthus, sword extended. Balthus drove the point of his opponent’s sword into the ground and stove in the bandit’s head with a backhand blow. The second man lunged and Balthus shifted slightly to avoid the thrust. He brought his sword down in a mighty arc that clove the bandit from collarbone to navel. He spun toward Adrianna and found her leaning on her sword, her adversary dead at her feet.
“A few inches of steel up under the breastbone does the same job as opening a man from head to groin, you know,” said Adrianna.
“Where’s the fun in that?” muttered Balthus as he glanced at his handiwork. “Now for the wounded one.” Balthus strolled to the groaning bandit who lay on his side, the crossbow bolt protruding from his left buttock.
“Lad, that wound’s more embarrassing than painful. Tell me, what –”
Adrianna stepped past Balthus, put her boot on the bandit and shoved him over the edge. The man’s screams echoed off the cliffs, then suddenly ceased.
“Hey, I was having a conversation there,” said Balthus.
“No, you were just playing. And I won’t let you pull the wings off flies either,” said Adrianna.
“I never touch flies – disgusting things,” he said, wiping the blood off his sword with the cloak of the cloven bandit. He looked up and smiled. “As I was saying though, it’s a beautiful morning.”
They remounted and continued down the road.