They reached the top without incident and rode under the trees. The day had already started to turn hot, but the shade was cool and the horses seemed to welcome the change. Dale dismounted and led his horse through the thicket on foot. After a few seconds, he stopped and stood gazing back down at the road. “There.” He pointed to the road down below.
Kheri dismounted and came to stand beside him. “Yeah. Definitely an ambush. That’s a log, not a tree. But I don’t see anybody.”
“I don’t either. All right, we have three choices. We can ride over the hills and try not to get spotted. We can cut through the woods down there. Or we can stick to the road.” Dale twisted his head around to look at Kheri. “Your call.”
Kheri gazed down at the barricade and chewed on his bottom lip in thought. “Let’s cut through the woods,” he suggested after several seconds of silence. “The hills are too open. There’s no one at the barricade right now, but there could be by the time we get there. I really don’t like the idea of walking up to a trap in broad daylight.”
Dale nodded and remounted his horse, watching the barricade as Kheri did the same. They retraced their route back down the hillside, then dismounted and led the horses into the woods.
Dale walked a short way into the trees and stopped. Something else they fail to mention in various books, he thought, is that horses cannot walk through underbrush without making noise. “Kheri, we need to leave the horses behind till we find out what’s going on.”
Kheri glanced around at the forest, and then shrugged. “They should be fine right here. Plenty of grass here for them to munch on till we get back.”
They tethered the horses to a couple trees out of sight then made their way slowly through the trees towards the road on the other side of the barricade. It remained empty to Dale’s mind as they approached and he stopped scanning once they reached the eaves and it came back into sight.
Kheri touched him on the arm. “Look. Smoke.”
Dale turned to see what Kheri had spotted and nodded.
A thin wisp of smoke drifted up into the air from behind the hill on the other side of the road.
They watched it for several seconds then returned to the horses, rode back through the woods, and sat watching the smoke from the shelter of the eves.
“Think that’s where the bandits are camped?”
“Probably.” Dale attempted another scan then shook his head. “That hill’s blocking me. I can’t see what’s over there.”
“Yeah. I can’t see through whatever it’s made of.”
“Oh.” Kheri refrained from further comment and turned his attention back to the smoke. “If those are the bandits, do you want to get rid of them?”
“I’m considering it, yes. If we have to come back this way, they will still be a problem.”
“Plus they might have water bottles.”
“They might, but that isn’t my main concern. How many do you think there are?”
Kheri waved his hand at the barricade. “Not very many or they’d have someone on this fence at all times. Probably just two or three.”
Dale watched the smoke ascend for a little while longer, then turned his horse, and headed down the road away from the barricade.
The cut Dale was searching for occurred several yards down the road on the other side of a sharp bend. He dismounted and tied his horse to a bush.
Kheri tethered his horse beside Dale’s and checked his daggers.
“Think they heard us?” He loosened the hunting knife in its sheath.
“I hope not.” Dale checked the charge on his blaster. “I’m counting on the element of surprise.”
“You can take ‘em anyway.”
The tone of Kheri’s voice brought Dale up short. “Don’t count on it. You get sloppy and it’ll wind up costing both of us.”
Dale held up his hand. “Don’t automatically expect me to win. I can lose, and I have. We can’t afford for you to get cocky, overconfident, or sloppy. Okay?”
Harrowing images of the kinds of creatures it would take to best Dale in a fight filled Kheri’s mind. He looked into Dale’s eyes then took a deep breath and nodded. “Ok.”
Dale watched as Kheri’s expression changed, and then lifted one side of his mouth into a partial smile. “Thank you. All right, let’s go.” He turned and ran across the road.
Kheri set his jaw, squared his shoulders, and followed after.
They moved cautiously up the cut, staying out of sight as much as possible. The slope wasn’t steep and a large number of boulders were scattered around the edges, providing decent shelter. Dale stopped after a bit and tried another scan. “Three,” he breathed, his voice barely audible. “That’s all I find.”
Kheri nodded and fell back to the rear guard position.
They advanced cautiously up the cut and slipped into a small stand of trees at the end.
Dale paused, motioned Kheri forward, and pointed through the trees at a small open area surrounded by steep slopes that lay on the other side of the stand. In the middle of the area, not more than ten feet away, three people were sitting by a fire.
“Two men and a kid,” Kheri muttered, shaking his head.
“Something bothering you?”
Kheri’s face darkened and he nodded. “Yeah. He’s too young to be out here ambushing people.”
Dale tilted his head and studied the three-some. “He doesn’t look that young to me.”
“He can’t be any older than seventeen!”
“And you were how old when you started picking pockets in town?”
Kheri mumbled something under his breath, crossed his arms, and scowled at a tree.
Dale grinned and patted him on the back. “Yeah, he’s too young to be out here.”
Kheri touched Dale on the arm. “Look,” he hissed, pointing at a pile of items lying to the side.
Dale scrutinized the pile, and then shook his head. “What am I looking at?”
“That’s the Baron’s insignia. Only members of the Baronial House can wear it.”