Not a Contemporary - The Trouble with Abductions
And today I have the second semi-finalist to share with you guys, this time the not a contemporary. Instead, it's a Medieval Adventure. So, without further ado, The Trouble with Abductions by Olivia Ann.
“It’s hot enough to cook breakfast right here on these stones,” Alejandro grumbled.
“Feel free,” Rhiannon replied, not moving her eyes from the track below their vantage point. Unnecessary though it was, she couldn’t disagree with her partner’s observation. Undulating heat – the kind that blurs sky and land into a watery mirage – lay fine upon their isolated surroundings.
The duo was nestled about ten feet above a narrow, little-used path cutting its way determinedly between two slabs of mountain. Alejandro, as per usual, had found the hiding place: a surprisingly spacious hollow bordered by crags and outcroppings on three sides for a good half-mile each, opportunely blocking them from the view of any traveler who might wander into view. This was the only monolith for miles, sloping gently down and spreading into far-reaching plains.
“I’d love to, if there was any food to cook,” came Alejandro’s answer.
Rhiannon tossed some slightly withered apples and two cakes of meal over her shoulder in her partner’s general direction. “Never say I don’t provide for you.”
Alejandro’s only response was something that sounded suspiciously like a snarl, but Rhiannon still didn’t glance back. She had grown adept at ignoring him in the months since they’d joined forces as roving mercenaries.
“Why are we even here?” Alejandro truly whined this time.
“You sound like a child, you know that?”
“I don’t care.” He purposefully drew out the word.
Rhiannon sighed. “As I told you the last time you asked, we’re waiting for this prince fellow. Ronald or Roland or something.”
“I thought you said his name was Ronan.”
“If you already know that,” Rhiannon hissed, “why do I need to tell you again?” She had let her comrade get under her skin for about the twentieth time that day. Her mistake. She knew better than to be distracted by Alejandro’s antics. He may have been infuriating, but he would snap into shape the moment any real trouble raised its head, and that was all she really needed in a partner. Ordinarily, nothing he could do would even make it past her consciousness, but today she was tense. Jumpy, as Alejandro would say. She always got like this the day of a job.
“Okay, so we get this Ronan. What do we do with him then?”
“That’s enough for now.” Rhiannon nibbled her lower lip and allowed her fingers to drum her sword hilt.
Rhiannon didn’t have to look back to know that Alejandro had cast her one of his sideways glances as he said this, but she did anyway, though she didn’t say anything.
Alejandro squirmed a bit. “What? Isn’t it a reasonable assumption? Our line of work is generally not regarded as the most spotless of occupations, you know.”
“Have we ever killed anyone before?”
“No . . . well, not that I remember. There are a few scuffles that are a little hazy.”
“Well, then, you should know that I’m not a common assassin.”
“Yes, but I also know you well enough to know that you’re not a common thief, either. You like to have a reason. So what reason is there for waylaying some unsuspecting royal? Are you an anarchist? Do you have some ‘Down with tyranny!’ cause you’re a part of?”
Rhiannon had to smile a bit at that. “No.”
She heard him rise. “Well, can you blame a bloke for being curious? Perhaps I should have thought harder about allying myself with a woman of whom I know next to nothing.”
“Perhaps you should,” Rhiannon replied dryly. “As it is, you’ll have to face the consequences now.” She was sure Alejandro was opening his mouth to fire back, but a sound from below silenced both of them in an instant. Alejandro dropped flat next to Rhiannon, and they raised their heads to look over the cliff edge. Horses’ hooves were drawing nearer; soon the pair could see two riders approaching slowly. They were men about the same age (young), both clad in ordinary travel raiment, two poorly-concealed scabbards the only deviation from the standard.
“There they are,” Rhiannon whispered.
“How can you tell it’s them?” Alejandro inquired. Rhiannon shot him an irritated glance, but by now the travelers were seconds away from their hiding place. Alejandro was none too happy that Rhiannon hadn’t bothered to explain the plan to him. Were they going to jump down onto their unsuspecting targets? Use the crossbow? Call out? His puzzlement was quickly satisfied, in an unexpected and rather unwelcome way.
The horses slowed as they approached the overhang and came to a stop below the mercenaries. The taller of the two men dismounted and came to stand in front of the camouflaged hideout. Tilting his head up, he called boldly: “You didn’t really think I didn’t know you were up there, did you?”
Alejandro glared a whole casket-full of daggers at Rhiannon. “This,” he hissed in a seething tone, “is certainly the most poorly-planned surprise attack I have ever been a part of. If they overpower us, my reputation will be ruined, and I warn you, Rhiannon-of-wherever-you-come-from, I shall hold you responsible if I lose my credibility. This is humiliating.”
“Oh, shut up,” Rhiannon muttered back. “I suppose my informant wasn’t so well-informed himself.”
“Well, if that isn’t the –” Alejandro began, but Rhiannon cut him off by raising her voice to address the travelers below, taking care to stay hidden from view.
“We’re not looking for any trouble,” she called.
“I seriously doubt that,” came the reply. “Please don’t waste my time. I know you’re ambushing me – or, rather, trying to – so we might as well get it over with, yes?”
The two mercenaries looked at each other and shrugged. They turned and scuttled, bent double, to the lowest part of the rock wall. Vaulting over it, they descended to the path, trying to retain at least a modicum of dignity. Their challenger was still standing beside his horse, hand on his sword hilt, displaying tense but confident readiness. His companion dismounted slowly. He looked much more uneasy than the taller man, who spoke again as soon as all four were facing each other.
“As I said, let’s get this over with, shall we? I’ve got a long distance to go yet.”
“I wonder if you’re going our way,” Alejandro quipped. “Perhaps we can go together.” The stranger grimaced and braced himself for combat, as did Rhiannon and Alejandro. But then his escort did something rather unexpected: he turned and fled, leaving his horse behind, and it truly sounded as though a shriek was emanating from his mouth as he ran. The taller man turned to watch his fellow’s speedy departure in shock, leaving his back completely vulnerable, but he needn’t have worried. Alejandro was so flabbergasted by the unexpected, unheroic and rather comic behavior that his mouth dropped open, and even Rhiannon’s sword lowered a little in confusion. After the ninny’s figure became almost invisible, the stranger turned very slowly to face his antagonists. There was silence for a moment.
“I don’t mean to be critical,” Alejandro cleared his throat, “but what exactly is his plan with no horse?”
“Indeed,” remarked their quarry. “I must confess, I was not quite prepared for my comrade’s lack of courage in such a situation . . . I suppose I shall have to make the best of it on my own. We all know you two will overpower me, but I, at least,” – this with a glance in the direction his companion had taken – “can die making an honorable, albeit futile, stand.” He gripped his sword again and crouched, ready to begin the fight. After a moment, however, Rhiannon sheathed her sword decisively.
“I am not an advocate of futility,” she replied crisply. “We have no intention of killing you, so there’s no need for heroics.”
“Well, considering the event, I feel like someone should at least try.”
“Two against one,” Alejandro said cheerfully, following Rhiannon’s suit and replacing his weapon. “I agree with her.”
“What, so you’re just going to let me go?” the man asked incredulously.
“Of course not,” Rhiannon returned. “Your name is Ronan. You are the prince and heir to the throne of Adren. Our employers have engaged us to bring you to them – they did not specify that we bring you dead.”
“We’ll leave all that to them,” Alejandro interjected with a grin.
The prince bowed a little and gave a sardonic smile. “I appreciate the explanation. But I’m certainly not going to stand by and allow you to take me prisoner without a fight, if that’s what you imply.”
Rhiannon allowed a little sigh to escape her. She was already tired, and they had many miles to cover before resting that day. “If you insist,” she replied wearily, brandishing her sword again. Alejandro copied her. The struggle was brief and ended as everyone had known it would. But Rhiannon had the strangest feeling, watching Alejandro tie their prisoner’s arms behind his back, that he hadn’t been trying his hardest to defeat them.
Their march was long, brisk, and uneventful. Alejandro kicked up a tremendous fuss when Rhiannon told him they’d be going on foot to spare their horses, but he soon contented himself with quiet fuming, knowing better than to try to reason with Rhiannon once her mind was made up. Their path led away from the mountain into the sparse plains.
On the second day of their journey, Ronan took it upon himself to make conversation, which struck Rhiannon as strange behavior for a captive, but which delighted Alejandro, who, as he often vociferated, was subject to frequent attacks of boredom.
“I suppose there’s no use in asking who these mysterious employers are?” Ronan remarked. “I assume you won’t be telling me to whom I will be handed over for dastardly purposes?”
“You’re correct,” Rhiannon replied.
“Even mercenaries respect confidentiality,” Alejandro explained.
“Ah, yes. ‘The honor of outlaws’ and all that. I rather thought that was a myth.”
“It’s quite real,” Rhiannon assured him. “Some of us even have standards. Boundaries. Things we won’t do no matter the price.” She glanced at Alejandro as she said this, but he pointedly ignored her gaze.
“Really?” The skepticism and sarcasm in his tone rankled.
“Really,” Rhiannon shot back more angrily than she had intended. Ronan took the hint and changed the subject ever so slightly.
“Well, in any case, I also doubt that you’re interested in hearing my side of the story before delivering me over unto mine enemies?”
“I’ve no objection,” Rhiannon shrugged. “A little entertainment never hurt anything.”
Ronan frowned but began anyway. “I don’t really need you to tell me who your employers are – it could only be my half-brother, Alastair. By right of age, he should be heir to the throne, but his mother was my father’s first wife –”
“The Alladian baron’s daughter who came over to marry our king close to two score years past,” Rhiannon supplied. Both Ronan and Alejandro stared at her, and she turned away to hide her embarrassment at her inability to conceal her interest in Adrenian history. Perfect. She really wasn’t keeping up her ruthless criminal persona very well today.
“Ye-es,” Ronan went on slowly. “And Adren’s laws state that the monarch must be full-blooded Adrenian. So – though his mother was of noble birth – right to the throne skipped over Alastair and passed to the next son born to my father, yours truly.”
“What happened to Alastair’s mother?” Alejandro asked.
“She died when Alastair was about ten,” Rhiannon answered, then bit her lip.
“Perhaps my lady should continue the tale; she seems to know it as well as I, if not better,” Ronan suggested, with another of his mocking half-bows.
“Carry on,” Rhiannon mumbled, and picked up her pace to put a bit more distance between her and the men, staring straight ahead and trying hard not to listen to the conversation going on behind her. His lady, indeed.
“She’s right,” Ronan continued to Alejandro. “My father’s first wife died a few years before I was born, but she brought four daughters into the world before she did so.”
“And now?” Alejandro queried.
“Now Alastair has decided to contest his right to rule. I believe he did some investigation into the laws that hinder him using a posse of privately-hired lawmen, but, that failing, he has struck out with a fiercer tactic – namely hiring you and your associate to turn me over to him. He left Adren about a year ago, giving very cryptic explanations to my father’s inquiries about his purpose in so doing, and hasn’t contacted the palace since, to my knowledge. I believe it worries my father, though he doesn’t admit it.”
Hearing the change in Ronan’s tone, Rhiannon risked a casual glance over her shoulder and saw that he was walking more slowly, with his eyes cast down in thought. She shook herself – she was having to do that a lot today – and returned her gaze to the horizon. It was no concern of hers, and the cardinal rule of mercenary work was never getting involved beyond simple logistics.
She heard Alejandro give an elaborate sigh to break the silence. “Royals. No offense meant to you, my good sir, but they are so unoriginal. Can’t one of them ever get angry about something other than their precious thrones? It sometimes seems like every paid abduction is a part of some coup or other.”
“I suppose you would know,” Ronan rejoined, and the conversation petered off.
They made camp that night halfway between the mountain path and the coastline glittering faintly at the eastern horizon. Rhiannon nodded her assent to making a fire and even deigned to volunteer for cooking duty while the other two looked after the horses. She had to walk about a mile to find water for the stew. Once back at the campsite, she borrowed a judicious amount of meat, potatoes, and carrots from the food supply she had hidden from Alejandro and set to work, vaguely concerned that perhaps her stew-making skills had grown rusty. Evidently, she hadn’t lost too much of her old knack: Alejandro and Ronan were not shy about voicing their enjoyment of the meal.
“Where did you learn to cook like this?” Ronan asked her, incredulity and not a little admiration in his tone.
“Did anyone ever tell you that prisoners typically aren’t this chatty with their captors?” Rhiannon countered.
“Truly, where?” he persisted.
“I was not always a mercenary,” she replied simply.
Ronan studied her across the fire for a moment. “What were you?” he asked in a gentler tone.
“The same as many another. Daughter, sister.” She brushed some biscuit crumbs off her breeches and stood. “I am a mercenary now.” She turned and walked over to her self-claimed space by the horses. Taking a book from her haversack, she spread out on her side and began to read.
“A cook and a reader?” Ronan whispered to Alejandro in disbelief. “What kind of assassin is she?”
“She’s no assassin,” Alejandro replied with a shake of his head. “I don’t know what she is, but she’s not an assassin.” The two men soon retired to their bedrolls and quickly fell asleep, but Rhiannon rolled over onto her back and lay gazing at the stars with her hands behind her head while the flames of the fire dwindled into coals.
The trio reached the sea by early afternoon the following day, thanks to Rhiannon’s decision to use the horses. They found they had to scale another low, flat mountain before reaching its elevated path, but all three privately felt that the climb had been more than worth it when they were able to walk a wide, level track for miles afterward, with the muted cacophony of the ocean tumbling and crashing hundreds of feet below them to the left. There were even flowering bushes and other vegetation along the mountain to their right. At one point, Rhiannon fell back and stood looking out over the vista. The men rode ahead, though Ronan glanced back, puzzled by her apparent interest in the natural beauty. Neither dared to ask her anything about it when she caught up to them a short time after, and she didn’t explain. She did, however, inform the men that they were close to twenty miles from the harbor town that marked the boundary between Adren and neighboring Persicc. “We’ll cover about half that distance today and the rest tomorrow,” she announced.
“Let me guess,” Ronan remarked wryly. “The town is the meeting place? That’s where you’ll hand me over?”
Rhiannon said nothing, which was more than enough. Alejandro shook his head again. That Ronan fellow was alright, he had quickly determined. There didn’t seem to be any good reason to turn him over to his power-hungry brother, but he decided to bide his time. Best to leave Rhiannon to come to that conclusion on her own. And she would, if he knew anything about her. But then again, he reminded himself, he didn’t know very much.
At camp, which they made a few miles after leaving the coastal mountain path, Rhiannon opted to read her book a little closer to the fire than the previous night. While Alejandro tended the horses again, Ronan plunked himself down next to Rhiannon and cheekily asked what she was reading. Lowering the book, Rhiannon stared at him.
“Your last night before your vengeful brother gets hold of you, and you want to know what book I’m reading? Don’t you have something better you should be trying to do?”
“I don’t know, prayers? Escape attempts?”
Ronan shrugged. “I can pray wherever I am. And somehow, I don’t think an escape attempt would go over well. So, no: I much prefer asking my ruthless abductor – who, by the by, is going to hand me over to be slaughtered on the morrow and shows absolutely no remorse therefor – what she is reading.”
“You’re truly not even a little afraid?”
Ronan’s face fell a little. He bent his head and scuffed the dust and ash around the fire with the toe of his boot. “I never said I wasn’t afraid.” His voice was small.
Rhiannon turned her head in the direction of the sea, which they could hear but not see because of the quick onset of darkness. “My employer didn’t tell me he was going to kill you. I generally ask about that kind of thing.”
“You really think he wants to ‘talk it out’ instead?” Ronan asked with a cynical little bark of a laugh.
“I don’t know.” Rhiannon’s voice was suddenly as small as his had been a moment before. “I hoped so.” She sensed that Ronan had turned to look at her, and even though he surely couldn’t see much except her profile, she had to keep herself from fidgeting. It was several moments before Ronan spoke again.
“What happened to your family?”
Rhiannon inwardly debated whether she should tell him. It was certainly no business of his – but on the other hand, how could he possibly use it against her? She’d never see him again after the next day, and it wasn’t as if, even supposing he lived long enough to tell the tale, it contained information that others could use against her either.
“There was a fire. Some of them were killed, some of them fled. I was left behind because a beam had fallen in the room where I was, and everyone assumed I was already dead. I managed to drag my younger brother out with me, but he died from the smoke a few days later. I don’t know where the others are.”
There was silence again between the two of them. Alejandro was sitting near the horses, and the only sounds were their quiet snuffles and the heaving of the sea. After a time, Rhiannon heard Ronan scoot off the log and lie down, using his cloak as a pillow against it. Suddenly worn out, she followed his example.
She was testy the next morning. This was usual for her on delivery day. Alejandro expected it; Ronan did not. Following a rushed breakfast, the trio mounted their horses again and set off, continuing their downward trail away from the mountain. Ronan seemed eager to dispel the awkwardness that had inevitably settled upon the group. Riding his horse closer to Rhiannon’s, he leaned over and asked her how she and Alejandro had gotten acquainted.
“We’re actually distantly related – cousins or something of that nature. But we’d never met until I decided I needed a partner less than a year ago. Then I sought him out and persuaded him to join me.”
“I would’ve thought you were far too independent to admit to needing a partner,” Ronan dug.
Rhiannon rolled her eyes. “I have nothing against the idea of being with a few other people. As long as they’ll respect my boundaries, I’ll respect theirs.”
“What did Alejandro do before you met?”
“Probably much the same sort of thing,” she shrugged. “I don’t really know. I found him in a dusty town in the middle of Persicc, doing nothing in particular except taunting the law officers and lolling around.”
“How many unfortunates such as myself have the two of you delivered unto death?”
Rhiannon squirmed imperceptibly in her saddle. “Not many. We mainly steal things, not people. Less messy.”
It was mid-afternoon when the wharf of a coastal town came into view. Rhiannon glanced over to Ronan and Alejandro. Ronan stiffened a little but kept his eyes on the harbor. Alejandro looked back at her questioningly, but she turned her head. They rode single file into the town, Rhiannon in front and Alejandro bringing up the rear. Making their way to a tavern-like structure close to the quay, Rhiannon led them around to the back, which turned out to be a spacious courtyard. As the trio dismounted, a group of men entered the space from the tavern. One of them Rhiannon recognized as her contact, and one, judging by his clothing and Ronan’s sudden tensing, she guessed to be Alastair.
Without really thinking about it, Rhiannon dropped her hand to cradle the pommel of her sword. Alejandro moved unnecessarily close to her and nudged her with his arm. Rhiannon tried to think. She had been hired to turn Ronan in, not to question the legitimacy of her payer’s motives. Still, she liked to think that she was not an ordinary assassin, nor even that pernicious of a mercenary – that she had some moral feeling left. Leaving Ronan in the hands of these men certainly made her uneasy, but what ought she to do? Even if she’d take leave of her senses long enough to attempt a double-cross, it was lunacy to think that the three of them could successfully flee the wrath of a man as motivated as she knew a snubbed royal could be, whether they had another royal’s backing or not. Vaguely, through her deliberation, she heard Alastair asking why Ronan’s arms were not bound, and she was struggling to find her way out of her thoughts and to an answer when Ronan stepped forward.
“There was no need to bind my arms, Alastair. I came willingly enough.”
Rhiannon and Alejandro both turned to look at him. “What do you mean you came willingly enough? You made us fight you,” Alejandro contested.
Ronan shrugged. “That was for show. As I told you, I knew you were waiting for me. Don’t you think I could have found other roads than the mountain path if I wanted to avoid capture?”
Alastair and Ronan looked at each other for a long moment while no one moved. Finally Alastair spoke.
“Well, be that however it may, you no longer need to worry about me – at least, not for the present. I’ve changed my mind. I’ve decided to travel to Alladia. I have more family there than here, in truth, and at least there they will not refuse me my birthright, nor disrespect my mother.”
Rhiannon and Alejandro shot each other puzzled glances. Ronan seemed no less skeptical. “Truly? Between the time you engaged these two and the time we arrived, you changed your mind that much?”
It was Alastair’s turn to shrug. “Disposing of you would be messy, both literally and politically, and as I see it, there’s no need to take the harder way just because it’s harder. Our father has agreed to pay my passage to Alladia. Seems eager to get rid of me.” It was evident that the note of bitterness in his voice distressed Ronan, but Alastair gave him no time to protest. He signaled one of his men to come forward. “I’m off. Pay these hirelings half the agreed price, since their service was apparently unnecessary to begin with and unwanted in the end. I doubt they’ll quarrel with you.” He turned glacial eyes towards Rhiannon and Alejandro. Rhiannon stared back. After another strange pause, Alastair nodded to Ronan and strode back into the tavern, taking half the men with him. The other half rushed up to Ronan, wringing his hands, clapping his back, and all talking at once. It was difficult to decipher much of the conversation, but Alejandro and Rhiannon gathered that they were a delegation sent from Ronan’s father to reason with Alastair. Presently, one of the men broke away from the party and approached the duo.
“Here’s your payment,” he said a little roughly, holding out a leather pouch. Alejandro took it. Rhiannon was more interested in finding out what had just happened.
“Why would he have come willingly?” she asked the man, slightly perturbed.
“Well, I’d wager that he knew Alastair was more than capable of embroiling Adren in a war if pushed. Probably he found out that Alastair had been in contact with his mother’s country and surmised that he was petitioning for more men. Our prince doesn’t value his throne so much that he’s not willing to give it up if it means keeping the peace for his people.” The man looked proudly toward Ronan, then shrugged. “Who knows? Perhaps he thought Alastair would make as good a king or better than he himself.”
“Ah, yes,” Alejandro interjected. “People who hire other people to kill their relatives typically make excellent monarchs, I find.”
Rhiannon elbowed him. “For the last time, we weren’t hired to kill him.” The Adrenian courtier shrugged again and went to rejoin his compatriots. Alejandro fingered the money pouch as he turned to face Rhiannon. “I highly doubt that that’s the last we’ll see of Alastair. I saw his face as he walked off. There’s rage in that man, and I warrant it’ll take more than a jaunt to see his mother’s family to cool it.” He tossed the pouch up and down. “Ah, well. That tavern’s calling my name. I’ll bet there’s food in there to rival even your delicate concoctions.” He winked at her and half-ran into the tavern.
Rhiannon stood with her arms crossed, watching the group around Ronan. Well, that was the end of that – at least, for the moment. Alejandro would hardly have believed it, but she was glad everything had been resolved sans bloodshed, even if she agreed with him in doubting it would really end there. To her own surprise, she felt that she would have liked to have gotten to know Ronan a little more – or at least a little longer – than she had.
She shook herself. It was what it was, and she’d be leaving now. Alejandro knew where to meet up, and she herself had no interest in patronizing the town any longer. She had half-turned when Ronan broke away from the group and stepped toward her.
“Not leaving so soon, I hope?” he asked.
“Job’s done,” Rhiannon replied somewhat tersely.
“Well, see, I’ve been talking to members of our court, and they were hoping that you might come to work for us. We’ve been needing someone who could direct our rangers and our forestry team for a while now, and I’ve the highest regard for your skills. What do you say? Could you bring yourself to try it? Payment would be handsome, of course.”
Rhiannon studied him for a moment, then laughed a little in spite of herself. “Really? That’s how it’s going to be? The adversaries who become unlikely friends decide not to part ways just yet?”
“Who said we were friends?”
“Do you want the job or not?”
“It’s just so cliché.”
“People try too hard to be original.”