For the “Do up whatever story/stories suit your fancy or for whomever most wants/needs ’em.” commission and the poll here.
Daxton’s rescuer really had thought of everything. She’d packed a change of clothing for him, as well as scissors to trim his scraggly hair and a razor for his beard. When they rode away from the cabin, he was as clean, as well-dressed and as smooth-shaven as he had been on the day the Red Queen’s agents had taken him.
He was skinnier, by quite a bit, but he had a full stomach for the first time in ages. And he was a lot more nervous than he had been, right up until the moment the Red Queen’s people had grabbed him.
“You could ruin me, you know.” It wasn’t the most cheerful conversation for your prospective wife, but then again, most prospective wives didn’t pull one out of a dungeon owned by a wildly powerful despot.
“If I’d wanted to ruin you, I would have left you in the dungeon.”
“Wedding.” The mercenary woman shrugged. “I gain nothing by blackmailing you. Nothing but – down!” She had her short horse-bow out and was wheeling her horse around before Daxton could do anything but duck. But duck he did – he hadn’t survived as long as he had by ignoring the people paid to protect him.
Heartbeats passed, his and the horse’s, Daxton’s nose in the roan mane. He could hear the mercenary’s horse shifting restlessly, and see the way the woman’s calf stretched as she stood in her saddle. Then she settled down. “False alarm. Sorry.”
Daxton rose slowly to a sitting position. “No need to be sorry.”
“If you’re going to keep being this reasonable,” she teases, “I’m going to think I got a ringer. Do your family keep doubles around?”
“We’re not nearly that important. Well…” Daxton shrugged. “I thought we weren’t that important. It’s not as if my parents are King and Queen, just Duke and Duchess. It’s not as if I’m heir.”
“And yet your parents sent mercenary after mercenary after you.”
“Put up a reward, you mean. They didn’t actually send anyone, did they?”
“It’s quite a reward.”
It was. If his parents followed through… “I don’t even know your name.”
She barked out a laugh. “I imagine you’d find out at the vowing-in, if not before. Esharina nic Myodoc. Esha.”
It seemed the thing to do, so Daxton bowed from his saddle. “A pleasure to meet you, Esharina nic Myodoc. I look forward to showing you the hospitality of the Ducal Estate at our earliest convienc-”
“Down.” Her voice never changed from a conversational tone, but Daxton ducked anyway. Three arrows whanged over his head in quick succession. “Ride, your graceiness. Ride.”
Some time later, Daxton might think to ask about “your gracieness.” At the moment, however, all he thought about was riding. They would ride, and then the mercenary would wheel around and fire another arrow past his ear. They’d ride more, and another arrow would whing past. Again and again, until finally Esharina let their sweating, lathered horses come to a walk.
“That was either the last of them, or they’ve stopped follo-” She followed Daxton’s gaze to her shoulder, where a broken-off arrow waggled with her every move. “What?”
“You have an arrow sticking out of you.” He said it slowly, in case it turned out he was somehow wrong.
“We’re a half-hour hard ride back to the Ducal estate. I’ll be fine that long.” Esha seemed entirely too casual about the whole thing.
“You don’t want me to – I don’t know, pull it out or something?” Daxton found his hands flailing and used both to grab the saddle horn.
“Not unless you have hidden talents as a medic that I don’t know about. You can help me bind it, and we’ll be good for the rest of the ride.”
With her left arm bound, she wouldn’t be able to shoot. “Give me the bow, then.”
“You can shoot?”
“I’ve hunted. I’m not a warrior, but I can hit a target.” He nudged his cooperative mount as close to hers as he could manage.
“There’s rags in my left saddlebag. They should work.”
He wasn’t surprised that a merc kept clean, wrapped rags close to hand. You had to survive long enough to get to a healer, after all. He bound her arm to her side, following her directions, and wrapped around the arrow, to keep it still. It was nerve-wracking work, all the worse with his spine itching, trying not to look behind him every two seconds. Finally Daxton let out his breath. “That should hold until we get home. Bow?”
Still she hesitated. “A merc’s weapons…”
“I will hold them as carefully as I would hold your honor. After all,” he smiled gently at her, “I may soon hold that, too, and you, mine.”
She was startled into a weak chuckle. “Nobles. I wouldn’t have put it that way. But…” She swayed a bit in her saddle. “Let’s ride. Put the pointy bit into anyone who attacks us.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He checked over the bow to be sure he knew how to use it. It was a different sort than he’d handled before, more compact, more efficient. Of course, mercenaries generally had to be more efficient than “nobles.” Content he could manage the piece, he let it rest against his thigh. “Let’s ride.”
They were close to home now, close enough for all of Daxton’s worries to come back. Esharina was right; there was a chance that Daxton’s father wouldn’t follow through with his offer. He was usually a fair and honest man – but had he anticipated getting a merc for a good-daughter, even if he had posted the offer? Had he expected to get Daxton back at all? What were they riding into? Before the Red Queen had taken him, there had been talk of marrying Daxton to the Dowager Duchess of the Blue Mountains, whose duchy bordered theirs. It would secure the border – but the Dowager Duchess had outlived three husbands and four sons and was not yet forty.
“Heads up!” Esha’s snapped warning brought Daxton out of his worries. He could see the Ducal estate on the horizon – and off to the left, he could see riders coming towards them. “Friends of yours?” He readied the bow anyway.
She squinted into the distance. “They – yes. They’re flying the troupe’s colors. Please don’t shoot my friends.”
Daxton didn’t lower the bow. “I won’t shoot your friends,” he answered, carefully. Someone had snatched him from the middle of his father’s lands and thrown him in the Red Queen’s dungeon. Now that he was free, he found he had no interest in going back and less interest in dying.
Esha made a small noise. “If they’re not friends, I’m in no shape to fight,” she warned.
“If they’re not friends, I think we can try running again. If we head straight for my parents’ estate, that’ll run us into the orchards quickly. It’s hard to shoot through trees at a running target.”
She made another noise. Daxton glanced over at her. The mercenary’s face was gray, her lips pushed together tightly. They had to hurry. He wasn’t sure what he’d do if she passed out. And he really didn’t want her to die. “You,” she spoke slowly, “are more interesting than I thought you were.”
“That’s the goal.” He looked between her and the quickly-approaching riders. “Ready to run?”
“I’m sure I can manage a couple hundred yards.” She straightened her spine. “If I have to. Daxton, if I can’t trust my troupe—”
“I hope we can. I really hope we can. But I—I’m not feeling particularly trusting right now, sorry.”
“No, no need to be sorry. But – oh!” She straightened a bit further and her color improved. “It’s Senner and Karron. We’re safe. If I can’t trust them, the world’s gone upside down.”
Daxton lowered the crossbow, even as he was considering: Esha being able to trust them and him being able to trust them were two different things.
They road towards their visitors, and their visitors rode towards them. When they were a hundred feet away, the stouter of the two shouted “Esh!” and urged her mount into a canter. Esh’s horse danced for a couple steps before settling down to a walk again; Daxton kept his hands on the crossbow and watched the newcomers carefully.
They had no eyes at all for him, not at first. “Esh, Esharina, shit, how bad is it?” The stouter woman – that had to be Senner, Captain of the mercenary troop. The leaner one – that would be Karron, then – was young, barely old enough to be wearing armor at all, but she already had three gold earrings and an elaborate silver hair-piece. “Esh, what happened?”
“Give me some space to talk, Senner.” Esha sounded like herself – as far as Daxton could tell, at least, cheerfully snappish. “They came after us. Probably the Red Queen’s people, but I didn’t stop to ask for their particulars.”
“The Red Queen’s…” Senner turned to look at Daxton. “By the mountain’s tits, that is young lord Daxton!”
Daxton found himself blushing, a situation only worsened by the way Karron was whooping. “Esha’s getting marrr-eeed, Esha’s getting marrrr-eeeed,” she crowed, like children at play.
“Maybe.” Esha’s voice was soft. “But I got him out, at least.”
“That you did, Esh, that you did.” Senner’s smile took in both of them, a small, proud thing. “And a job well done. Now let’s get you back two back to His and Her Grace, so you can claim your reward. And then, Swordslady, we’re taking that arrow out of you properly. Come on, let’s ride!”
And they rode towards home, the sun setting to their left.
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