tagSci-Fi & FantasyThe Enchantress of Ingley Ch. 05

The Enchantress of Ingley Ch. 05

byMetal_Slime©

The stitched hide walls of the Bandit Queen's tent did little to stifle the noise of the feast going on outside. They had felled a boar that very day, and with the ale they had captured earlier in the week still in ready supply, she could hardly fault her men for wanting to enjoy themselves a bit. She was just thankful that their camp was far enough into the forest that the trees swallowed up the sound. The ridge that separated their lair from the village no doubt helped in that regard as well, and also kept the curious from seeing the lights of their fires.

Zara, called The Blade or simply Zara Blade, lay back in her brass tub with a faint slosh of that steaming water. It was significantly too small for her tall, muscular frame, but the blonde woman made do with what she could steal, and nothing larger had come down any of the trade roads. Thus, even with her arms draped over the near edge, her legs sprawled over the opposite rim, letting tiny rivulets of water course over the smooth, bronzed skin of her limbs, to patter on the woven straw mat below.

As she lay back in that tub, she let her thoughts wander. At first to pleasant things, but then to the situation her band found itself in. They hadn't had a great deal of luck of late, and funds were running low. She could only maintain loyalty through strength of arm for so long before her fellows would become restless.

Ingley wasn't exactly a major hub of trade, and pickings were slim at the best of times. Zara stared upward at the peaked roof of the tent above, which was mostly dark. For the hundredth time, she considered proposing that they move camp closer to the capital. Greater prey would mean more profit, but there was the matter of better armed patrols. The last thing that they needed to do was run afoul of the King's Men.

A commotion outside interrupted Zara's thoughts, and she turned her gaze lazily to the flap of her tent. No doubt some drunken revelry had turned to a potentially deadly quarrel. Violent men plied with strong ale were prone to taking the barest of imagined slights as grounds for drawn blades. She was certain it was nothing her lieutenant couldn't handle.

With a sigh, the tall blonde hoisted herself out of the tub, letting that water course down her powerful frame. She picked up a rough rag to wipe herself down, and was still nude when the flap of her tent was disturbed. Silence had fallen outside, which she had taken as the aftermath of her lieutenant's intervention into whatever had disrupted the celebration, but as moments stretched on, it seemed something else was up.

"Lady Blade," Her lieutenant's soft, high voice drifted in, overly formal as always. "One of the men watching the wizard's house has returned."

One of the men. She had sent a proper band to watch the place, they should have been able to deal with anything they ran across. A week ago, one of her men had overheard the sage's wife ordering goods from the capital. Silks, spices, things of luxury that the young sage heaped upon his pretty bride. It was too tempting a target not to try for, despite what she knew of the wizard's home. So for the last week she'd had men watching the place, with orders to intercept the shipment. What could possibly have gone wrong?

"I'll be right out." Zara's response was gruff, and she tugged a tunic and snug pair of leggings on. It wasn't long before she stepped out beside her lieutenant.

Cordelia was her name, and where Zara was taller than most of the local men, and as strong as any of them, her lieutenant was a delicate flower of a girl, at least if one got past the blades. Ever formal, Cordelia clad herself in finely tailored black clothes when she wasn't wearing her dyed black leathers. Her shock of short red hair was kept trimmed close, and she usually wore a scarf of black silk to hide features that were too fine, too noble for a proper bandit. Her enchanted daggers were sheathed at either hip, never far from her reach.

She was from the capital, that much Zara knew, but hadn't bothered to press for more information. The little scrapper was deadly with her blades, and had saved her life innumerable times since their meeting. Cordelia was, in Zara's estimation, the most loyal of her band without question.

Cordelia held one of Zara's own swords ready for her when the blonde bandit queen finally did exit her tent. Zara snatched it away, and belted it about her waist as she sauntered out.

The rest of her men, and the vast majority were indeed men, had fallen quiet, and stood staring at one of the bandits assigned to watch the sage's house. By coincidence, it was another of the few women in her band, a girl by the name of Kat. She looked winded, her own mask tugged down, her hood cast back to let her dark hair fall in a tangled mass past her shoulders.

"Blade," like many of her fellows, Kat preferred not to use the titles Cordelia had assigned Zara. "Bad news. The others, they're dead."

Zara tensed, her jaw set and her hands fisted. She was confused, and confusion always made her angry. "What? How? Were you done in by simple merchant guards?"

"N-no. There were three men, two on horses, one on foot. In the dark, we couldn't make them out too well. We never really had a chance to determine whether they were a threat or even the ones that we were waiting for. They noticed us, and we were forced to spring the ambush early.

"One of them was the smith's apprentice, Hafred, but the other two, they were armored and armed. One was clad in blackened mail, older and with dark, shaggy hair. The other was younger, more lightly armored, but it had to be enchanted, for I saw a shot that was dead set bounce off the very air. His sword glowed in the night as well. I heard them call him Prince, and Your Majesty."

Zara's blood ran cold for a moment, and her eyes widened. "T..the Prince? Here?"

Before she could ask more, however, Cordelia stepped forward. She demanded in a cold tone, "The older man with the Prince, describe him."

"W-well it was dark, and-"

"I said," Zara's lieutenant spoke with an uncharacteristic harshness, "Describe him."

Kat did her best to describe what she had seen of the man, and it seemed to satisfy Cordelia, who simply nodded grimly.

"Black Dog Rufus, second in command of the King's Men and personal bodyguard of Prince Cantrol. You're lucky to get away alive. He's a hero of the realm and a devastating warrior."

Zara's brows raised as she watched Cordelia's reactions to the news. "You seem to know quite a bit about him."

"Let's just say that we have a great deal of history. Lady Blade, if the Prince is in the area, it means that at least some of the King's Men will be with him. Do you think that we have been found out?"

The Bandit Queen thought, for just a moment, then shook her head. "There's no reason they should be seeking us. And if they're seeking help from the sage, their business must be more important than mere bandits." A slow smile spread across her lips, "Perhaps much, much more important." She waved Kat away, "Go rest, get any wounds tended to."

As the woman ran off to join the others, Cordelia stepped in toward Zara. Her own voice fell to a bare murmur, "I don't like that smile, Lady Blade. What are you thinking?"

"I'm wondering, my dear, whether a Prince's ransom could be held in one wagon, or two?"

Her words obviously irritated the lieutenant, for a dark cloud crossed Cordelia's features. "You can't, my Lady. I beg of you, it's too risky."

"Do you doubt my skill, Cordelia?" The blonde turned to regard the shorter woman, who just shook her head.

"N-no, that's not what I meant. It's just, I don't want to see you harmed."

"We're bandits, Cordelia. Harm and death may be around any corner. But this, this is an opportunity we can't ignore. We've been living on the pickings from an outlying farmer's hold for far too long. With the money we could get for the Prince himself, why, we could leave this all behind. Maybe even go to the Free Cities, travel the world," Her voice took on a dreamy tone.

"Rufus is no push over, my Lady, whatever he is involved in cannot be taken lightly."

Zara clapped one large hand on Cordelia's leather clad shoulder, then gave a light squeeze. "I promise you, I'll be careful. Besides, you'll be the one helping me plan. You'll just have to make sure you catch anything I missed with your usual skill."

It was obvious that her lieutenant was uncomfortable with the idea, but finally she nodded her assent.

"Good, I don't know what I'd do without you." She offered Cordelia a warm smile, which was weakly returned.

Zara turned to guide her lieutenant toward the table near to her own tent. By that time, the revelry had picked up once more, though with a slightly more somber feel. After all, they had just lost a few good men out there.

"We need to move swiftly. We know the Prince and his bodyguard are out at the Sage's then, and with what, the smith's son? He's got a strong arm, and no doubt old Garn has taught him a thing or two about wielding a blade. Kat said they were the only three."

"Three men, by cover of night," Cordelia mused. "There is no doubt that the Prince would be traveling with a cadre of the King's Men. If they weren't with him, then they'll be stationed in Ingley somewhere."

Zara frowned faintly as she took up a tankard, and filled it from one of the nearby kegs, only to settle down at the table. Cordelia took a few scrolls from a pouch on the table, and began to spread them out. They were crude maps of Ingley Village and the surrounding terrain, used to plan their raids. Zara thrust one finger down at Ingley Manor. "The Prince will be within his rights to demand lodging for his men from the Squire."

Cordelia considered that a moment, and though she nodded, she spoke carefully, as if still settling on her thoughts. "True, but if he's traveling virtually alone, with only his bodyguard and a local guide, the Prince is likely hiding something, and there's only one person out here whom the Prince would bother hiding from."

"The Squire?" Zara's brows rose once more, as she glanced to her lieutenant.

"No one else could pose a threat to his business. If that's the case, then he won't have his men in the manor."

"Which leaves only the Tepid Toad with enough beds."

Zara nodded and steepled her fingers. "We should send a few fellows there, to see how many of the King's Men are there. Then, we just have to find a way to intercept them before they return to town."

Cordelia turned as Zara feel into thought, and waved a few of the men from the nearest table over. She sent them off to the Tepid Toad with their instructions, which earned some grumbling, but they were off soon enough.

"Cordelia," The Bandit Queen frowned as she troubled over where the Prince might be bound. "Have a few runners go to the sage's house as well. If they haven't left yet, we might be able to trail them wherever they are bound. As for the rest, you say this Rufus is a great warrior?"

"Amongst the best in Rasthuri, my Lady."

With a sigh, Zara ran her hands through her hair, before cradling her own head between her palms. "We'll need to prepare the rest of the men, then. If he's as skilled as you say, we'll need them all. We can get a sense for where they're headed, then have the men head to cut them off all together."

There was hesitancy in Cordelia's words, "I think that might work. Maybe. But what then?"

"One thing at a time," Zara shot a grin to her worried little lieutenant. "We'll get them in hand first, and see how many we have left," A grim feeling settled into the pit of her stomach, as she turned her eyes back over the bandits feasting about them. If this Rufus worried Cordelia as much as she appeared to be, it was a certainty that a number of them would not live to see the plan's completion.

Something caught Zara's eye, however. A lone figure, heavily cloaked and hooded, walked out from the eaves of the woods. There had been no alarm from the sentries, whoever it was stalked unaccompanied right in amongst the feasting bandits. Zara had no recollection of seeing anyone like that.

Cordelia followed her gaze, then rose to her own feet, one slender hand fell to a hilt of one enchanted dagger. The men grew silent once more, though it was not from concern. No, their gazes turned toward the figure with abject lust.

It was a woman, definitely, and though her features were hidden entirely, her body was not. An elegant black gown hugged her every curve, though long sleeves, high gloves, and tall boots masked any sign of flesh. She moved with an almost serpentine sway, and though the inky shadows of the woman's hood obscured any sign of her features, Zara still got the distinct impression that eyes were fixed upon her. A shiver ran down her spine.

Cordelia took a few steps forward, and planted her lean form between the woman and Zara, as if she were protecting the much more imposing Bandit Queen by her very presence. "Halt, who goes there?"

"I seek the one who calls herself The Blade." The voice which hissed from that drawn cowl was intoxicating. It was like the whisper of wind through tree branches, or the slither of a serpent through dry leaves.

Zara wanted to hear more of it, so she called forth, "I am she. What is your name?"

"My Lady, be on your guard," Cordelia's own tone grew cold once more. "It is an Enchantress."

The Bandit Queen frowned at that news, "How do you know?"

"My name is unimportant," The woman in black spoke up once more, not waiting for Cordelia's answer. She stepped forward, heeled boots carried her ever closer toward where Zara sat and Cordelia stood. The men which should have been eager to put such a bold stranger in her place instead parted before her, giving her a wide berth.

"Don't come any closer." Cordelia drew both of her blades smoothly. There was a soft hiss as the enchanted steel came into view. Each blade glowed a faint green, and dripped a sickly greenish fluid from its point, like a pair of matching serpent's fangs ready to strike.

The woman did stop, and that hooded head turned to stare at Cordelia instead. Zara felt her head clearing. The woman's voice sounded more sinister than inviting now.

"Well, well. A little puppy trying to defend her master. How quaint."

Cordelia faltered at those words, though Zara wasn't certain why. They had both certainly been called worse in their time. Still, the plucky little redhead recovered her courage in an instant.

"Why have you come here? And do not try your charms here. I know what you are, Enchantress." This time, Cordelia spat the word out accusingly.

"I told you. I wish to speak with the one called The Blade. I have a proposition." The black clad woman's hands folded before her, and she approached no further.

"As I said," Zara felt the need to take control of the situation once more. "I am her. What do you want of me?"

The Enchantress turned her shrouded gaze to Zara, and nodded once, "Tonight, a pair of young women will be traveling along the path from Ingley Village to the Squire's Manor. One is the Squire's daughter Marissa, one a silly little barmaid named Jenrea. I would like you to capture them for me. I will pay well, Zara Blade."

At the last, Zara shot a glance to Cordelia. Still, her lieutenant looked uneasy, so in usual form, the Bandit Queen barreled ahead. "Just how much will you pay, Enchantress?"

The black clad woman held up a small pouch in one hand. Where she had produced it, none could tell. Cordelia tightened her grip on her venomous blades at the sudden movement. Lazily, the Enchantress just tipped the pouch over, and a cascade of perhaps three dozen golden coins fell to the ground. They bounced and tumbled, glittering in the firelight as they came to rest in a broad circle at the woman's feet.

"Consider this a down payment. You'll receive another pouch of like amount for each of the women you capture, Jenrea, Marissa, preferably both."

Zara swallowed nervously. It certainly was no Prince's ransom, but it was enough to keep her men happy and content for months on end. She nodded slowly "Alright, we will see what we can do."

Cordelia glared across to Zara, "Lady Blade, she's an Enchantress, they are not to be trusted. They are wicked creatures, who toy with men's minds."

"And we're thugs who threaten and murder for money. But I will take your concerns into consideration," Zara spoke in what she hoped was a whisper, but feared the shadow shrouded woman would hear her anyway. "We'll keep an eye on her."

Frustrated, Cordelia just whipped her own gaze back to the Enchantress. The laugh that the mysterious woman gave voice to was chilling, to say the least. She turned and began to stalk back through the encampment, passing men and a few women who still stood enthralled. None made any attempt to stop her progress. Cordelia did advance as the other woman retreated, staring daggers at her back.

Zara rubbed her hands together as she let her gaze fall to the coins on the ground. When it rained, it certainly poured. She wasn't certain whether she could spare enough men to do that little side project, but perhaps if she saw to it personally, it could be managed.

"Oh, one other thing." Once more the Enchantress spoke. Though she was near the tree line, and her voice was hardly more than a hissing murmur, it still managed to reach Zara's ears with unnatural clarity.

"I believe that one of the girls in question is one of my kind. Her powers have simply not awakened yet."

Zara and Cordelia both stared at the woman there near the edge of the woods. The idea that either Jenrea or Marissa was some sort of supernatural being, capable of twisting minds for their own amusement was ludicrous at best. If it was true, though, it certainly put a twist in any plans they might make.

With that, the woman disappeared into the shadows amongst the trees. Cordelia practically trembled as she sheathed her blades, then spun in place. She approached Zara with long strides, her features twisted in anger.

"Why did you do that? We don't need gold enough to tangle with the likes of her!" Her tone, her approach sent another hush through the ranks of men that were still recovering from the Enchantress's presence. It was the first time that her lieutenant had spoken with her with such vehemence before the rest of them.

"What would you have me do, Cordelia? We can't hope to challenge someone like that without a plan? What would you have done if I had rejected her and she enthralled our fellows? Would you have cut your way through them all to take her out?"

The Bandit Queen's words sent a soft murmur through the bandits about them, and seemed to bring even Cordelia to a halt.

"I don't know," she finally admitted, "but I have a terrible, terrible feeling about this, Lady Blade."

"So do I, but capturing a few village girls wandering the roads at night shouldn't be that challenging. It won't detract from our main goal."

Cordelia sighed in defeat, "You still intend to go after the Prince as well? And what if one of those simple village girls turns out to have the power to twist minds?"

"That's why you and I shall be going after Jenrea and Marissa," Zara spoke with a certain finality.

"You and I? My Lady?" Cordelia was still incredulous, but the tone of challenge was gone from her.

"Indeed. You showed yourself remarkably resilient in the face of that Enchantress, though I don't know how you managed to resist her words. Would a less skilled one be more of a challenge?" The tall blonde raised a single brow, as if daring Cordelia to question her again.

The red haired lieutenant shook her head hurriedly "No, my Lady. I will be able to resist them. We can certainly capture them ourselves."

Zara laughed and nodded, "So it is settled, then. Send those men to watch the Sage's house. The rest of you, be ready to move on a moment's notice. Cordelia and I will go fetch the girls and bring them back here. We can keep them tied up while we then head out to act on wherever our scouts tell us the Prince is heading. Tonight, we'll capture a Squire's daughter and the Prince of the realm!"

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