Once they’d climbed over the hump, the young prince could more clearly see what was waiting on the other side. Eryn had been roughly accurate in her count: five highwaymen blocked the path, each dressed in plain clothes and clunky, misfit armor, iron plates over some chests and hole-riddled chainmail covering others. Their roughness was plain to Varlaine even at a distance, and made him clutch his tome tighter to his side. The leather cover grew icy against his royal garb, magic welling up in a tingling sensation at his fingertips. While he’d never used his magical training in any real-life and certainly not in any life-threatening scenarios, it was better than being unarmed. Far beyond the group was a sixth, lagging behind, with a drawn sword slung over his shoulder. While his education in formations was scant at best, the young prince was uncertain why they would need a rear guard for such a small party.
The distance between the mounted pair and the roadblock closed faster than he would have liked, taking his thoughts out of the books he’d studied in his father’s libraries. Upon closer inspection, three of the men were carrying bags over their shoulders, thick burlap sacks all filled to the brim. As Varlaine and Eryn approached, Cassius shaking himself off uncertainly, they dumped the bags to the ground and dusted hands off to come forth and greet the pair.
“You two look lost.” One of the men, with a wide, curved axe slung over his shoulder, worked past the others. Varlaine took stock of him for a moment, the armor covering his chest and head, the dark, browning red dried to the edge of his weapon. “These parts aren’t very safe. Need’n a little protection to get home?” He bounced the axe on his shoulder with his question.
“No, thank you very much.” Varlaine shook his head, keeping his back straight and his head high, even while the fingers of the wind brushed his long, silvery blonde hair, showing just how young and small he really was. Even on horseback, if they tried to get through, or around, they would be taking too many risks. “We are perfectly capable of handling ourselves on our way South.”
Eryn, surprisingly, was rather quiet. She had her hand on the haft of her axe, but didn’t pull it free just yet. Instead, the rider sneered to herself, crossing her other arm over her chest and seeing how the diplomatic approach worked out.
“Maybe I wasn’t bein’ clear enough,” The armored man in front of them laughed, a dry, mocking noise. Varlaine could tell from the look on Eryn’s face that she was boiling up inside, that her pursed lips were aching to go off. “We’re gonna walk the two of you home, and then we’re gonna get a nice, handsome reward for it. Now, put that axe down, girl, before someone gets hurt.”
The sound of metal scraping lightly on leather as Eryn’s axe came free from its holster on the saddle made Varlaine wince. He pulled his book in front of him, opening it to the first page he found, and concentrating on the contents: a large, circular glyph, with symbols and letters in Immervian script. Immervolk had created the art of spellweaving, and shared it through the form of books like the one he was holding—filled with pages upon pages of incantations, of catalytic runes, enough for novice mages to summon forth magic. If Eryn was drawing her weapon, he should ready his own.
“I hope by ‘handsome reward’, you mean literally.” The griffon rider sneered and spat at the bandit’s feet. He stepped back, boots kicking up dirt as he scowled in return, tightening his grip on his axe and moving to speak before Eryn cut him off. “Because you certainly could use some help after getting beat so bad with the ugly stick. Maybe I could give your face a little help, with this.” She slung her own axe up to her shoulder, matching his threatening stance with her own. While his was rough, stained and simple and cheap, hers had been a graduation present from her parents and been purely decoration for her saddle thus far, a pristine, elegant looking tool that would look more at home on a wall than a battlefield.
Tensions were rising faster than Varlaine wanted to admit, and with the numbers and experience clearly not on their side, a battle wasn’t in their favor. Eryn had gone quiet, challenging the axe-wielding brigand with a glare. The sixth member of the crew had caught up to them while they talked, as well, further stacking the odds against the pair. He wore a full helmet covering all of his face except for a tan, scarred chin, and he was armored solidly from shoulders to toes. Perhaps that was the reason it had taken him so long to catch up. When the new arrival took his place at the back of the group, one of the members greeted him with a nod.
“Wotchu got there, Henrik? Fancy a new set of clothes while you were doing the rounds?” The bandit laughed. Most of the others flicked a glance at the more heavily armored man, who shrugged with one hand, the other still balancing his sword on his dented iron pauldron. The nicked, scuffed blade he carried tapped the metal quietly, and attention redirected towards Eryn.
The rider didn’t seem to be backing down or regretting her choice of words, which only made Varlaine more nervous. She was quick to anger, he’d learned from his time travelling with her, and slow to move on. The encounter was going to turn violent soon, unless he intervened. He started to open his mouth to speak, but was cut off when the bandit pulled his head back and spit at Cassius. The griffon stepped back in alarm, clicking his beak and stamping front legs.
“Ya’ve got a mouth on ya, girl. I was beginning to think ya were going to let yer boyfriend do all the talkin’,” He belted out a laugh, then motioned with his hand. Four of his compatriots started to fan out, forming a half circle, while the most heavily armored one in the back stood still. They couldn’t escape that way. “Beauty’s wasted on a temper like that. Ya’d do well to keep yer mouth shut when yer this outnumbered. Now, put down yer weapons, both o’ ya, if you don’t want us having your chicken over the fire tonight.” He moved a step closer, which spurred Laine into ushering his horse forward several steps.
“That’s enough!” The young prince lifted a hand up, palm out, trying to keep the peace. He wanted to cut off Eryn’s inevitable retort. She didn’t belong out here, and wouldn’t be able to make the right choice; he could see her already tugging on Cassius’ reins, pulling her axe back and tensed for a fight. “If you let her leave, I’ll come with you quietly. My name is Varlaine Serilvan Estergrand. My… my father will pay you well for my safe return.”
The man in front of them snickered at that. “Estergrand. As in, King Arivan Estergrand. You’re joking, right? What do you have to say about this, chickadee?” His head cocked, smirking to Eryn, who was seething. Varlaine didn’t know if she was angrier at the situation, or at him for offering himself over.
“I’d say my chicken is hungry.” She hissed back through her teeth. Then her hand on Cass’ reins lifted and snapped them back down, getting an ear-piercing screech from the great avian beast. “Hyah!” The scream split the air and sent Laine’s horse into a panic, rearing back, and he lurched to regain control. As he did, the ground shook with the weight of massive griffon claws galloping forward. Wings opened and flapped to gain a few feet of air, and both rider and mount let out a loud, angry cry as Cassius ascended before grabbing onto the surprised highwayman’s shoulders with birdlike claws and dropping their combined weight onto him.