When they awoke they wasted no time in setting off for the Gypsy encampment. The day passed uneventfully, and as they settled down for the night they began roasting the last uncooked bits of the stag while swilling ale that Artemis had bought off the innkeeper in Calpin. Well, Artemis and Victor indulged. Ana sat at the fire and sipped tea she had brewed.
As they were settling down for the night, Victor having again drawn first watch, a throwing knife was launched from the tree line and hit the log between Victor’s legs. He arose with a shout, calling Artemis to battle. The Hunter was up in a flash, hatless, but having his sword in one hand and a pistol in the other, trying to discern where the threat was.
Five shadowy figures emerged from the blackness, holding various weapons and looking none too friendly. Artemis grinned at them, glad to have a visible enemy to fight. “So now you show yourselves, you dogs,” he growled.
“Ranger Victor Dryden,” one of them said, “this is from Queen Ophelia. You will regret spurning our matriarch.” With that he lunged at Victor, striking with a longsword.
Victor swirled around the blow, drawing his long knife and striking the man in his exposed armpit. The man grunted, and Victor said, “You can tell Queen Ophelia that I am coming to see her. I will be there soon.”
The man fell dead, and Victor turned away, deflecting the attack of another man with two short swords. Artemis had leapt to the fray by this point, shooting one of the men full in the face and engaging another with his sword. This one was wielding a morning star, and swung heavy blows at the Hunter. Artemis blocked, sliding out of range and letting the shock of the blow dissipate so as not to paralyze his arm. The morning star struck one of the logs and stuck, and Artemis took the opportunity to slice his enemy’s head from his shoulders.
Ana had awoken in a fright at the sound of clashing arms, having gone to sleep earlier than the Hunter and the Ranger. As Victor dueled with the man wielding two short swords, the last stood above her, hoping to inflict some damage on their party with his final breaths. The large brute raised a claymore above his head, Ana screamed, and time slowed.
Artemis turned at her scream, eyes widening with shock as he saw her blood on his hands. Victor stabbed the man he was dueling with in the chest, hitting his heart, and heard her scream. His head snapped to look at her, and he stopped as a bright light filled the road. The girl was holding up an amulet that neither of her companions had seen before, the cord wrapping around her neck, and the man who’d sought to slay her was frozen.
Ana had her eyes closed, holding the amulet out at arm’s length, praying under her breath. The man who’d attacked her was encased in shining white light, and her companions were forced to shield their eyes. Her lips moved faster in prayer, and the man opened his to scream, but no sound was forthcoming. And with a flash that lit the night, leaving sparks floating down from gods knew where, he was gone.
Artemis’ jaw dropped. He had not realized the girl had this much power at her disposal. He’d often considered the gods to be just superstition, not something to be taken seriously. Now here was proof, and the Hunter felt very humble indeed in the face of power that could make a man vanish. At any rate, the girl could certainly protect herself, and that was a relief to know. He ran over to her, placing his arm around her shoulder, trying to comfort her. He caught himself whispering, “It’s okay, they’re gone. You’re all right.”
Victor watched this happen, and had several new opinions about his old friend. Apparently he wasn’t the only one who’d gone soft in his old age. Artemis must truly care about this girl, Victor thought. He eyed his friend with a new level of respect as he comforted the young priestess. Some things truly do change, and maybe for the better.
Artemis caught Victor’s stare over his shoulder, and snarled at him, growling, “What are you looking at?”
Victor noted that Artemis didn’t release the hyperventilating girl. He coughed, looking away pointedly. “Well,” he said, “I think we have our answer as to who’s behind all this. I told you it was Ophelia, Artemis.”
“Are you okay?” Artemis whispered to Ana. She nodded, still shaken, but getting a handle on herself as the danger passed. “Good,” Artemis said. He patted her on the back and stood, facing Victor. “And now she’s got on my bad side. It’s time to teach this bitch a lesson. I don’t know about you all, but I’m not getting back to sleep anytime soon. I say we press on and find her camp. I have a few words I’d like to tell her about attacking young women at night.”
Victor nodded, and Ana climbed out of her bedroll, still shaken. They packed up camp and led the horses on through the night, Victor and Artemis keeping a sharp eye on the trees lining the road. As the sun rose they were coming to the end of the forest, and had seen no attacks, but several false alarms from squirrels and deer. They kept on through the day, meeting other travelers, and once a trader caravan. Asking for sign of the nomadic Gypsies, they were given some conflicting stories, but they were pointed in general outside of the city of Garnath, a day’s ride south from the city gates.
Artemis and Victor were united in their purpose at this point, and nodded solemnly at the news. They didn’t deign to stop at the town to resupply, but continued on to the south in hopes of catching up to the Gypsies. They caught sight of a forest, and Victor spied a great many tracks that left the road and ran directly into the wood. There were horses, a great many people, and a few wagons.
“This has to be them,” Victor said. “That forest is one of Ophelia’s favorite spots to set up their camp after leaving town. I remember it from the old days.”
“Oh, yes?” Artemis smirked. “Did she take you in and show you around?”
Victor rolled his eyes, but said, “Yes, she did, if you must know. I traveled with them for several years while we were together.”
“Maybe that’s what all this is.” Artemis thought he might’ve hit upon an idea. “Maybe she wants you back, Victor. Had you considered that?”
“I had, but I thought that might be wishful thinking.”
“Well, would you go back to her if she offered?”
Victor thought hard. “I don’t know. She’s mad enough to send a bunch of murderous thugs after us. She can be vengeful at times. It’s possible she’d take me back for a time only to end me when I wasn’t expecting it. Although…” he trailed off.
“Although?” Artemis raised an eyebrow under his wide brimmed hat. “You do still love her, don’t you? I always knew you were foolish, Victor, but this is unprecedented.”
“Well, when someone’s a part of your life for that long, it’s not so easy to let them go.” Victor turned to Artemis and smiled. “I know this is difficult to understand for a womanizer such as yourself, but we aren’t all born letches, friend.”
Now it was Artemis’ turn to roll his eyes. “Maybe you should’ve been. At least we wouldn’t be in this predicament right now. So,” he turned toward the forest, “are we going in tonight, or do we wait for morning?”
“I don’t think it would be wise to camp out here this close to them. If she sent one group of thugs, she’d send others. We should go in tonight.”
“Right then.” Artemis faced Ana. “You’re going back to town,” he said, shaking a finger at her.
Ana looked affronted. “I will do no such thing, Sir Artemis! I know that you and Sir Victor are confident in your abilities, but going into that forest without a healer is madness!”
“Yes, and we’re just mad enough for it to work.” Artemis sighed. “Besides, I’m not about to let you get hit by an arrow in the dark on this green pretty boy’s account. I’ll take you back to town. I know an innkeeper who’ll take care of you till we get back.” He raised a hand and cut off her protests. “I’ll not hear it, little one. I’m taking you to town. Don’t worry. We’re a couple of big, strong men. We’ll at least be able to crawl back to the road if we get hurt. So if we’re not back by morning, you walk down this road looking for us. Sound good Victor?”
“Yes, I think we’ll be able to manage that,” the Ranger responded.
“Good,” Artemis continued, “now you come along with me.” He grabbed her horse’s reins and began leading her back towards town. Garnath was an hour’s walk back the way they’d come, but Artemis wasn’t worried. The sun would set on his way back to the encampment, if they made swift progress. He and Victor would have all night to work.
Ana pouted for a while, then her curiosity got the better of her. “Sir Artemis?”
Artemis didn’t even turn around, keeping a firm grip on the reins, “I told you, I’ll not be hearing it, girl. My decision is final on this. You ride with me, you listen to my orders.”
“That’s fine, but…”
“And have I given you any orders before this?”
“Which means this is really important, doesn’t it?”
“Artemis Cromwell, stop that!” she shouted.
Artemis did stop at this, and turned slowly to regard her with one eye. “Yes?” he asked. “What can I do for you, Lady Ana?” His tone was conversational, but there was a distinct undercurrent of menace to the words. Ana knew he wouldn’t hurt her, but he was clearly not playing around anymore.
“I-I wanted to ask about Sir Victor and this Gypsy Queen.”
Artemis recovered his good nature in a flash, resuming his walking lead of the horse. “Oh, that. Certainly. What did you want to know?”
“Well, this Queen…”
“Queen Ophelia, then. How did she and Victor meet?”
“It’s a long story, so I won’t bore you with the whole thing, but the short version is they were hunting in the same forest and Victor somehow managed to save her life. They had a little tryst in that wood, apparently the danger was very great, and interfered with both of their better judgment when it was past. After that, she kept him around for a while, several years, in fact. Their relationship wasn’t ideal, quite torrid, actually, but they did appear to love each other. At least from what I saw. The breaking off of the relationship was fairly stormy. I don’t know if he broke her heart, or if she cast him aside, but whatever happened Ophelia vowed vengeance against him, at least to hear him tell it. Hell, by his version she’d gone completely mad with rage, and that’s why she wants him dead now. Either way, we’re putting an end to this nonsense tonight. I’m not sure how it’ll turn out, but one thing is certain. Victor won’t have to worry about crazed Gypsy Queens anymore.” Artemis nodded, more to himself than to Ana, and added under his breath, “If he can keep it in his trousers from now on.”
Ana considered this, lost in thought. The sun sank, the shadows grew longer, and the horse’s hooves clopped along the hard-packed dirt of the road. Victor seemed like a nice enough man to her. He was strong, handsome, and had only treated her with respect for the past two days. She couldn’t imagine him doing something to infuriate a Queen, but then Ana supposed she hadn’t known him long enough. Surely he had depths of rage that he wouldn’t show to a young girl, let alone one he wasn’t courting. As they approached the walls of the city, she hoped that they would be safe this night.
They entered by the Southern Gate of Garnath and Artemis paid for the horse’s stabling, then led her to the inn. There was a sign of a bed and a bottle hanging over the door, and music was coming from the inside. Keeping a close eye on her, almost dragging her through the building, Artemis came to the bar and signaled the innkeeper. The burly man came over, a head taller than the Hunter, and grinned broadly when Artemis swept off his hat in a bow.
The innkeeper was a bear of a man, and his voice did nothing to dispel this illusion. It was deep and rumbling, full of gravel and growl. “Artemis Cromwell, by the gods! Let me get you a drink!”
Artemis held up a hand, “Just a small flask for me, tonight, I’m afraid. I have business to take care of. But Terry, I need a favor from you.”
“Name it,” Terry said as he fished a hip flask from under the bar and tossed it to Artemis.
Artemis caught the flask and said, “I need you to take care of this girl for me for a night. I’ve got some business outside town, and I need her someplace safe. You’re the only person I’d trust with this kind of thing.”
Terry looked Ana up and down, rubbing his beard. “I think I can manage that, my friend. You’ll of course be paying in advance?”
“Terry, how long have you known me?”
Terry extended a massive arm with a hand like a shovel on the end. “That’s why I want payment in advance, Artemis. Now, that’ll be two gold coins please, to cover expenses for the lady, as well as that flask.”
“Two gold!” Artemis shook his head. “We’ll discuss your price gouging when I get back on the morrow. Here, you old skinflint.” He reached into a pouch and tossed two gold coins at the giant, turning to Ana as Terry’s massive paw leapt out to catch them. “If he tries anything, you let me know and I’ll make sure he never does again.”
Ana smiled at Terry, saying, “I’m sure Mr. Terry will be nothing but a perfect gentleman. Thank you for letting me stay here, sir.”
“My pleasure, young lady,” Terry growled amicably.
Artemis left them, wondering at his own good sense, or rather lack thereof. He took off down the street after finding the door, and ran through town to get out before they shut the gates for the night. He made it, if barely, and as the great oak doors boomed shut behind him he sighed. Now that he was past the gates, he walked swiftly down the road back to where he’d left Victor. No need to tire himself out too early by running the whole way. They’d have plenty of moonlight to finish their work by.
After about another hour he found the area where they’d left the Ranger. He looked around, but Victor was gone. “Oh, you bastard,” Artemis growled, and started off towards the woods. “Of course you wouldn’t wait for me. You never could sit still for long, could you? Great gods.”
Artemis was no great tracker. He could hunt if needed, but there was no way in all the hells he’d be able to follow the Ranger’s trail through this forest. The Gypsy caravan, however, he could follow well enough. The moon wasn’t giving off much light, but the stars at least were bright enough for him to be able to see somewhat once he got into the forest. He took his time, creeping carefully, sticking to shadows and trees. The Hunter didn’t really know if he was being properly stealthy, he’d never tried to creep up on a gathering of wanderers in a foreboding forest before, but he did his best to not step on any twigs.
He almost leapt out of his skin when a hand grabbed his shoulder and pulled him into the shadow of a tree, another covering his mouth. He drew one of his flintlock pistols and stuck it into the gut of the person who grabbed him, but relaxed when he saw that it was Victor. His shoulders sagged with relief, but his heart still felt as though it were trying to escape his rib cage. Shaking off the hand on his face, he whispered, “What the bloody hell do you think you’re doing, sneaking up on me like that? Do you want a sucking gut wound?”
“Now is not the time, Artemis. They’re ahead. After you left I took the opportunity to scout a bit, and found you on my way back. We must be as silent as possible. These woods have ears and eyes.”
“Don’t tell me the trees are alive now.”
“What? Stop being ridiculous, Hunter. We’ve got to navigate around their lookouts so we can get to the encampment.”
“And what do you propose we do when we get there, eh? Just waltz in, expecting to not get shot? We’ll be pincushions in no time! Here’s a better idea. This is your argument, so I’ll draw off as many of them as I can, and you can talk with Ophelia. How’s that?”
Victor considered a moment. “Can you make enough noise for them to think an army’s come through?”
“I’ll just shoot one of the lookouts and yell about how ‘He’s got him,’ and ‘He’s over here.’ It’ll be no problem to lure them off, I’m a fast runner.”
“You’d better be, my friend. Keep yourself out of sight.”
“When you hear them all leave, do your part.”
Victor nodded, and Artemis wandered off to find one of these lookouts. It took him around half an hour to discover one. He was sitting in a tree about 200 yards from where Artemis had left Victor. Lucky for Artemis, the man was wearing a cloak like a right fool, so Artemis simply reached up, grabbed it, and plucked the man out of the tree like a ripe fruit. He cried out as he fell, no doubt alerting his fellows, which was precisely what Artemis wanted.
He grabbed the man around the throat and slammed him into the tree trunk, grinning like a wolf in the starlight. As his gloved hand tightened around the Gypsy’s neck, he whispered, “Do you want to live?” The man nodded, and Artemis continued. “Good. That can still happen, but you need to help me first. I want you to make a racket. Yell about how you’ve found the Ranger, and when your fellows show up, you lead them all off on a wild goose chase, far from your camp.” Artemis held up one of his pistols so the man could see the starlight glinting off it. “Rest assured I can kill you all, it would be no problem. But you do this and you and your friends all live. Does that sound like a deal to you?”
Artemis felt the man gulp, and he nodded again. “Excellent. I’m happy we can come to an arrangement where everyone gets to go home at the end of the night. Now, go start your ruckus. I’ll be watching, and following, so you’d best do a good job. And remember, you saw the Ranger, and he went away from your camp.”
Artemis melted into the darkness, leaving the man gasping. He turned and twisted, trying to catch sight of the man, but couldn’t see him. He heard a hissing voice come out of the darkness, seemingly everywhere at once, saying, “Now! To your work!”
The man tripped over himself, and set up a great yelping as he got off the ground. Soon the other scouts in the area appeared, he told them his story about the Ranger almost killing him, told them where he’d gone, and they sent one back to inform the guards at the camp. A detachment would come, and Artemis hoped it would be enough to weaken the camp’s defenses so that Victor could get in. He let them leave, not moving a muscle, and then crept away, making for the camp. He knew that Victor was like as not to get himself killed, and Artemis would prefer to avoid that outcome if at all possible.
At a certain point he passed the group of guards, all carrying torches and making a quite the racket. He hid in a tree until they passed, climbing to the higher branches for better camouflage. When they’d all left, he crept down and continued on his way, wondering how Victor was doing.
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