“Who said this was funny?” he shot at Curtis, again serious. The smile abruptly disappeared from the boy’s face. A wind had picked up, blowing the remaining flurries of snow sideways across the road, and the little flakes clung obstinately to the fur of Curtis’s hat.
“Henry, William. Back to camp.” The man in the top hat and the man in the dress scampered away, the latter doing this with some difficulty until he’d hiked the hem of his skirt above his pale, hairy knees. Brendan returned his gaze to the remaining bandits. “Colm: Mind your horsemanship. You were pushing too hard. You’ve got to have a better feel for your mount.” He held his leather-gloved hands out to model his words. “Let up on the reins; feel the strain of the horse. Only urge on when you’ve got the power to do so.”
“Aye, Brendan,” responded Colm.
“Now, back to camp. Get ice on that pony’s shin. And it’s two more weeks of horsemanship for you.” Brendan watched as the boy jogged away toward a limping horse in the distance.
Looking back at the line of four: “Carolyn, solid job. The hard work you’ve been putting in—it shows. Quite an improvement from last week’s drill. As for you, Aisling.” Here he smirked a little—Aisling was the pursuer who had been clotheslined by the cedar bough. There were still bits of twig and moss in her hair, and her face was smeared with tree sap. “Not so cocky next time, eh?”
“Aye, Brendan,” responded Aisling, chastened.
“Now back to camp with ye.” The two girls sprinted from the line as if they were running a dash and had just been waiting for the starter pistol. Only Aisling hazarded a look backward. She gave Curtis a quick, reaffirming smile—a moment that he barely had an opportunity to enjoy before the wiry whiskers of Brendan’s beard were inches from his forehead. They smelled like wet dog.
“As for you,” began Brendan, drawing out the words in a low growl. “As for you: I’ve lost too many good bandits who made that same move. They think it’s all in the bag, everything’s taken care of, and BANG.” His hand, shaped like a pistol and pointed at Curtis’s forehead, gave a little recoil. “Dead. All because of what?”
“They didn’t consider the passenger.”
“They didn’t WHAT?”
“THEY DIDN’T CONSIDER THE PASSENGER!”
“Right,” said Brendan. “Biggest mistake you can make. Not only is the passenger just as likely to be armed as anyone, he’s likely to be the most dangerous—in my time, I’ve seen more than one jumped-up banker come out of a carriage with pistols blazing, all panicked, and take out more of his own armed guards than bandits. Never open that door—don’t even approach it—till you’re sure whoever’s inside isn’t going to come out fighting. Got it?”
“Yeah, I got it,” responded Curtis, nervously adjusting his furry cap. Brendan reached up and gave the ushanka a firm pat, pushing the brim down over Curtis’s eyes.
“Good,” said Brendan, his voice softening. “I’d hate to lose our most promising recruit.”
Curtis beamed. It was the first time he’d heard such praise from the Bandit King during these many weeks of intensive training. It had been hard initially; for some reason, even mounting the pony without nearly toppling sidelong to the ground took a good two weeks to master, and Brendan hadn’t passed up a single opportunity to hector him for it. But he could feel he was improving; he knew that Brendan did not give such commendations lightly.
Septimus cleared his throat. “Um,” inserted the rat, “what about me? Did you see that move? Straight down his back!”
Looking down at the rat: “Very good, Septimus. But an easy target; you know Henry’s squeamish about rodents. He’s going to be traumatized for weeks.”
Septimus cracked his knuckles. “It’s a joy to have such an effect on a man.”
The Bandit King laughed before saying, “You two will make fine coach-robbers. I have no doubt.” His voice went steely as he continued, “Though I can’t say that you’ll have a chance to practice on the real thing.”
This much was true: For the past few months, the rustling parties that ha
d been sent out from the camp had been coming back empty-handed. There were fewer and fewer carriages on the road these days, and those travelers that did brave the frozen path were rarely carrying anything more than a few bushels of dried onions and wilted winter greens. It was severe enough for Curtis to notice; the elder bandits were all grumbling how it had been among the worst dry spells they’d ever seen. They said it was a herald of bad times.
The wind picked up, and a new front of falling snow moved through the trees. Winter was in full sway, and the light felt ever dim, even at midday. But now, at the first breath of evening, a dark mist was settling over the branches and obscuring the distant bends of the Long Road. Brendan shivered in his coat and gestured to the two remaining bandits-in-training. “That’s enough for today—let’s get back to the camp. There are many more points to review, and we have to be ready for tomorrow’s …” His voice dropped away as they began their walk toward the awaiting horses. Something had caught his attention. He brought up his hand. “Hold,” he said. “Something’s coming.”
Curtis and Septimus froze; they hadn’t heard anything. Septimus sniffed the air briefly before scrambling up Curtis’s pant leg and coat to arrive at his shoulder. Again he sniffed the air. “Bird?” he said.
Brendan, his hand still an open palm, nodded. “A big one.”
Suddenly, a crashing noise exploded from the canopy of trees above them, sending a flurry of smaller birds twittering away. A shower of broken branches toppled to the road below. The horses in the road spooked and whinnied. Brendan’s hand went instinctively to the saber hilt at his side. Out of the sky fell the crumpled form of something blue and gray and feathered. It slammed into the ground with a pained squawk; a spray of dirt and snow erupted at its landfall.
Silence followed. Brendan: “Who’s there? Name yourself!”
The lump of feathers quivered slightly where it lay. Finally, its long neck rose from its body, like the articulating antenna of a lunar rover, at the top of which was the stately beak of a heron. The bird shook its head and picked at the dirt that had sullied its wing.
“Are you okay?” This was Curtis, having recovered from the surprise.
The heron’s response was unexpected; it was defensive, embarrassed. “I’m fine, thanks,” it said acidly. “Just fine.”
“Who are you?” called Brendan. “And what business do you have in Wildwood, waterbird?”