"Where do you suppose this trail goes to?" Marius stuffed the last piece of bread into his mouth. "We could explore it a bit while the nobles chase bandits."
"Is it any safer to explore than to head on down the road?" Daren wadded his blanket back into his sack.
"There's got to be something at the end of this track, see how straight it is? Maybe a real Wizard, who needs a secretary and a bodyguard."
Daren looked glum, "Huh. A real wizard would probably notice that I haven't got a weapon." Which of course led to a morning of cutting staffs with Marius's little belt knife, which was sharp, for all the pretty engraving on the hilt. And practice. When they finally got tired of hitting each other and themselves, they saddled Flowers and led her further down the track. It ran straight along the side of a small valley, staying level along the west side as the valley floor dropped. A recent forest fire had charred a lot of the slope. Now the black was fuzzed with bright green grass and some tangled briars.
"What's that?" Daren pointed up the ridge. "On the edge of the burn, looks like an old building of some sort."
"Whoa! It's even got a wizards tower." The ruin perched on the highest point of the ridge, half hidden in trees on one side. "Let's go see."
They had dragged the reluctant Flowers only a few steps up the uneven rocky hillside when they heard the thud of running hooves. They were too far away from any trees to hide, so Darius urged Flowers further off the path.
"If we're out of the way, they won't bother with us," he puffed, more from anxiety than the steepness of the hill.
Two ridden horses burst out of the trees, and galloped past them. The riders were filthy and bloody, one shying away from the sudden appearance of a horse, the other immediately drawing his sword and veering toward them. "Ah, stupid peasants." as he started to turn away his eyes felling the sack across Flowers saddle. "Gimme that."
The bandit reached for the sack, and without thinking about it, Marius swung his staff at him. The unexpected blow caught the bandit off guard and cost him his balance. He hit the ground with a yelp, and pulled himself off an angular stone with a hand to his ribs. His left hand held the reins of the skittering horse, and he let the animal pull him a few steps before he turned back, furious. Daren grabbed a rock and let fly, and another. One hit the horse and it reared, dragging the man further back. He grabbed for his sword, only to find the empty sheath. The sword was on the ground where he'd fallen, and as more running horses flew into the burn, he turned to throw himself on the horse.
Lord Justin grinned and reined up "Go get the other one." he ordered the young nobles behind him, with a whoop they crowded past and galloped off.
The bandit, desperately trying to both draw his knife and mount, wilted as Lord Justin's sword touched his breast, the knife slipping from his fingers.
"Smart fellow. Boys, find something to tie him up with." He sat there, tall and confident, while Marius cut off some of Flower's twine and bound the man's wrists together.
Justin dismounted quickly, never taking his eyes off the man, and barely moving his sword. "Why do I keep tripping over you two?" he asked, "What are you doing here?"
"We figured the bandits were north of the road, so we were doing a bit of exploring south." Daren pointed up the hill. "We were going to explore the wizard's tower."
"That's an old watch tower, from before the War. A hundred years old, at least. No wizard would be stupid enough to live up on an exposed ridge that catches the worst of every winter storm."
"You know it?" Marius sounded indignant.
"Less than a day from Jeffford? Every boy in the county has spent at least one night sleeping up there listening to the wolves howl. I know what it's like in a winter storm. Taught me to never take a dare." The fancy man looked around in exasperation, "Look, swap saddles with this fellow's horse, and keep his sword and dagger, as reward. I need to get going."
Daren pulled the war saddle from the lathered horse, and Marius unsaddled Flowers. The weary gelding didn't move when Darius cinched up the old saddle.
"More twine." Justin took the two feet Marius cut off and tied the man's hands to the stirrup. Apparently he was going to be walking beside the horse. "Give me the rest of that twine, " Justin ordered.
Marius cut it off at the bit and handed it over, wondering what he was going to do about Flowers without it.
Justin tied it around the gelding's neck, then slipped off the bridle and slipped a loop of twine around his muzzle for a crude halter. The bridle landed at Darius's feet, and few seconds later, the bandit's sword belt and scabbard. "Enjoy your camping, boys," and the man was back on his horse and leading his captive off.
"Huh. Nobles." Darius muttered, carefully to be sure the Lord couldn't actually hear him. Then he dived for the sword. A real sword. He held it up. "A _real_ sword!"
Marius was switching reins from the heavy bitted war bridle to Flowers, who had gone back to eating. He grinned back. "And we fought an actual bandit. Don't forget that."
"I can't believe you hit him with your staff!"
They dissected the battle all the way up to the top of the ridge.
It was easy to see why this site had been chosen for a watch tower. Even with a century of trees allowed to grow up around it, you could see forever. The Imperial Highway, which was twice the age of the tower, was in plain sight not just through the foothills, but down onto the floor of the Big Valley, and the other way up into the true mountains.
"Don't care what Fancy Pants says," Daren declared. "This is what a wizard’s tower should be like."
"Yeah." Marius was hanging over the side of the tower beside him. A rickety ladder, the product of a town's worth of boys' labor over the years, had enabled them to climb up to the top of the tower. Or at any rate, the top edge of the outer wall, which was all that was left.
"If we had an axe, we could cut some timbers to put through those holes, and have a floor up here." Daren said.
Marius looked at the holes dubiously, and then further down. "We'd have to do a floor down there first, so we could reach these holes."
The view forgotten, Daren scrambled down the ladder. Sure enough, he could see how the first floor had been anchored. A ledge of stone was built into opposite walls of the square tower, to lay timber across. The ground floor was littered with the shattered slate of the original roof. "We could do thatch, though." He climbed down to pace out the dimensions.
Marius got his fancy box out of the sack and drew pictures and wrote down lists. "We could really do this, you know. What would we need to put a roof on the other building? Flowers could stay there. I supposed we'd have to cut grass for hay?"
"Helped a bit with haying last summer," Daren said. "Hard work."
"But we've only got Flowers, not a whole lot of animals." Marius pointed out. "Let's go see what the bandit had in his saddle bags. His lordship didn't even look."
Grubby clothes, a hatchet and a small purse of coins. Thirteen pennies and two silver marks. They each ritually opened their own small purses and counted their riches.
"I've never had this much money in my whole life." Marius sighed happily.
Daren blinked in surprise. "Thought you were nobility. Didn't want to think about anything bad enough to want you to run away from home."
"Ha!" Marius glowered, "Well, I suppose I'm half nobility. Madam Kestlia's was a very expensive whore house. They didn't have 'guests' that didn't have titles. Momma claimed my daddy was a Duke. How would she know? Then when I got old enough to start serving refreshments, instead of scrubbing pots in the kitchen, some of the nobles started looking at _me_. That's when I decided to leave."
"Wow." Daren thought this over. It very nearly made his mother look virtuous. "My parents weren't married. Ma wasn't quite the blacksmith's mistress, she still had to work to pay the rent and buy food, but he came by often, and brought presents. He was good to me." Daren scruff his old boots on the ground. "He was there that night. Something must have gotten knocked over. I slept in this lean to against the kitchen wall, real drafty, but . . . so the smoke didn't get me, like it did them. That's what Mister Bagley said, that was why I woke up and got out, when the fire burned up to the roof and got to my lean to. I grabbed my stuff and scrambled out, and looked around and the whole thing was on fire." He scruffed harder. "I couldn't get in. It was so hot, I couldn't force myself to go in. Mister Bagley said they were already dead."
"Oh." Marius scruffed his own shoes, not quiet the elegant footwear they'd been just a week before. "I'm sorry. At least I know my Mother is alive. I told her I was leaving, and she laughed. She said I'd be back when I got hungry enough, and to not mess up my pretty face in the mean time."
Daren grabbed the hatchet. "Let's go chop some trees."
It was a lot harder than they'd expected, but with references to Marius' notes and blisters all around, they managed two beams across the tower before they cleared space in 'their' tower for sleeping and a camp fire.
Breakfast was a bit thin, as they realized they were out of food and would have to return to town.
"Either that or hunt for onions." Marius said. "And I can identify a bunch more things we can eat, too."
"There were berries down in the valley, and I could braid something for cord, for snares." Daren said.
"We could buy a real axe. And some food." Marius suggested.
"Could do both, buy enough food to carry us until I can get the snares set."
This plan was quickly agreed on and they saddled up Flowers for the trip back to town.
General Fletcher laughed helplessly. "So these two boys did all the work, and you paid them with a nag and tack you didn't own. Justin, I think you're a soldier at heart." He wiped his eyes, "I hope the king changes his mind about you passing yourself off as a dissolute dandy to get information on the so-called loyal opposition. It won't work. And Elizabeth is getting irritated."