"Do you think we've come far enough to cut back to the road?" Marius asked.
The warnings of the footsore and disheveled former coach passengers about bandits had sent the boys off across country and along small wandering trails until they were back down in the forests. The lack of underbrush was well worth the loss of directional clues. They simply headed more or less down hill until they found a stream, and then followed that downstream. At the little trail that crossed the stream they stopped for a break and to chew some of the remaining jerky.
"I dunno." Daren shrugged. "I don't know anything about bandits."
"Me neither." Marius leaned back against a tree. "I've read all kinds of stuff, but it was mostly histories and tales about brave knights. Not common bandits."
"Huh. I can't read at all. Tell you what, we'll set you up as a public scribe, and I'll be your bodyguard and doorman and stuff."
"I don't think public scribes make enough money to hire bodyguards." He pondered, "Not sure they need them."
"How about a wizard? They live in towers and stuff."
"Or hovels out in the forest. We've got the forest, but where are we going to find a hovel, eh?"
"We'll build one."
"But we still won't have any money. You want to live on onion soup your whole life?"
"Hmph! Some wizard you are."
The trashing and thumping sent them scurrying back into the shadows. But when nothing came around the curve of the trail, they snuck along parallel to it, trying to spot the source of the noise.
Marius laughed out loud. "Look it's a nightmare!"
"Look it's an old nag!" Daren corrected walking up to the bony creature. "Got yourself in a nice fix there, sweetie." The mare had gotten loose with a bridle on and a long piece of tough twine tied to one side of the bit. The twine was wrapped around an assortment of bushes and three of the horse's legs. "Somebody's cart horse," he diagnosed, lifting one hoof to unwind the twine. "Hold still, silly."
Marius worked from the other end and pulled the twine out of the bushes. "What should we do with her?"
"Let's take her back to the road. Somebody ought to recognize her." The mare snagged a bite of grass, wild flowers hanging out of her mouth. "C'mon, Flowers."
"Flowers? Is that any name for the fine warhorse my bodyguard rides?"
Darren eyed the mares spine. "Ride? Heard that riding a horse bareback can ruin you."
"It does look kind of painful, doesn't it?"
They'd no sooner come into the open bit of rocky ground by the highway than they were spotted. By Lord Justin. Riding, this time.
"Boys, where did you find that horse?"
He didn't seem inclined to kill them on the spot so Daren just pointed back into the forest. "There's a trail, her rein was tangled in the brush about a mile down. What should we do with her?"
One of the soldiers with him, a Sergeant by the stripes on his worn and faded coat, was nodding. "That's old Harry's nag, sure enough. Take her into Jefford, don't know if Harry had any relatives." He shook his head at the bony creature. "Or whether they'll want her." he turned his attention to the noble. "We should send for more troops."
Lord Justin nodded reluctantly, "Or the bloods. I wonder if they're coming yet, I sent messengers west to all the nearest I knew had an obligation to work off, thinking the bandits were east of Ridgetop road. All right. I want a watch on this trail, while we get more swords."
Two of the troopers were sent off into the woods, and the rest turned west on the road.
Lord Justin turned back to the boys as he left, "Jefford's this way, bring the old girl along slowly."
It was late after noon before they got to Jefford. The little town was buzzing with activity, and the boys stayed to the side, watching the colorful nobles on their fine mounts showing off in the little central area of the town.
"I guess Lord Justin is one of the King's deputies." Daren said. "I've heard about them being able to call up knights to protect the kingdom."
Marius nodded. "Yeah, but what a mess. Those idiots are getting their horses all nervy and lathered." One of the horses, a big bay screamed and reared, the rider barely managing to stop its lunge at another horse. "And stallions. Only idiots ride stallions."
Flowers neighed, and Daren hastily pulled her to the side of the road and tied her up to a scraggly tree. "I don't think we'll bring her any closer."
They sauntered up the street, dodging people and wagons, and as they got to the square, they joined the crowd squeezing onto the railed walks, away from the prancing and stamping horses. The young bloods were putting on a good show for the locals.
Lord Justin and his sergeant were already there, their horses standing steady amidst the confusion. He was leaning over talking to a older man in a neat suit. But his eyes were roving and when he spotted the boys he waved them over. "Tell Judge Fawcett about finding the mare."
They exchanged glances, and Marius started. "We heard about the bandits, and decided to get off the road for awhile. We followed a stream down hill, and where it crossed a fair sized trail, we figured we'd take it back to the road. Then we heard this thumping, and snuck over to see it, but it was just that old mare with this long piece of twine tied to her bit and all tangled up in the bushes and around her legs. We got her loose and walked to the road where Lord Justin spotted us."
"Didn't see or hear anyone else, down at the stream." Daren added.
"And you came from upstream. All right, I think we need to get out of here before my honored companions kill someone. Judge, can you give the boys a reward?" He gathered his reins and turned away.
"Certainly, certainly." The judge nodded. "Since Harry hasn't any heirs, we grant you ownership of the horse you found."
Lord Justin turned back, "I was thinking more along the lines of . . . " he broke off at another stallion scream and cursing. A thump marked a rider hitting the ground, and the big bay galloping off the way they'd come. "Damn it Massey! Why do you always bring that bloody damn stallion? How are you going to catch him?"
Massey dusted himself off. and looked in the direction the horse had gone. "Ah, he isn't going any further than the nearest mare."
Damen and Marius exchanged glances. "Oh great. If the stallion doesn't kill her, the foal probably will."
"Here boys!" Justin leaned over to hand them some coins, then turned away to marshal his troops.
Daren whistled at the handful of silver, and pointed at the tavern behind them. They split the booty over a whole roasted chicken and then when the nobles were finally gone, walked out to find their horse.
Far from damaged, the rack of bones managed to look insufferably smug.
They each bought a few odds and ends from the pennies left from the silver they'd mostly spent on dinner, and a livery stable sold them a saddle nearly as broken down as the horse and oats to feed her. "Not that old Harry's nag knows what an oat is," the stableman said, pouring the oats into two sacks to drape over the saddle. "Don't know that she's ever actually been ridden for that matter."
Daren shrugged. "Never ridden a horse myself, so we're even."
They led the old mare out of town, in an unspoken agreement to not look stupid in front of everyone, and turned south of the road, away from the bandits, to find a spot to spend the night. Their first tentative spending spree had been brief, as the uncertainties of the road had made themselves clear. They'd save the rest of their money for traveling. They followed a thin trail to a small clearing and declared it a good camping spot, mainly because it had grass for Flowers.
Mounting, which had always looked so smooth, turned out to be quite difficult. Flowers just munched grass and ignored their repeated climbing on and off. Once up, Marius managed to pull on the twine reins hard enough to get her to abandon the grass and amble about a bit, then Daren tried it.
"Seems like an awful lot of work." Daren complained, dismounting with less clumsiness than his first dismount.
"That's all right, when I'm a mighty wizard, complete with tower, I'll just float in the air." Marius looked up from his battered book, "You'll have to ride a horse though, body guard."
"Huh. Maybe I should be the wizard and you the bodyguard."
"Sure, soon as I teach you to read."
"Hope that's not what you bought that book for."
"No, look it's a herbiary, has drawing of all the edible plants and stuff. And for medicine. Did you know you could use an infusion of flowers to get rid of bed bugs?"
"What's an infusion?"
"I," Marius hesitated, "I think it might be, like a tea."
"Drink it and the bed bugs disappear?"
"It says here to wash your hair, and wherever, in it."
"That's a lot of tea." Daren declared. "I don't see why Wizards have to be able to read, anyway. You can be my secretary and do the reading for me."
"Huh, you'll see. I'm sure Wizards write all their spells down, instead of just memorizing them."
They unsaddled Flowers and discussed the uncertain qualities of wizards until they slept.