The stone wall upon which Corbray sat was hot from the warm, summer sun above, and all about him he heard the song of birds and of the gentle wind as it blew through the trees. He had been waiting for some time, but he had also come early- he was sure that she would come. While he waited, he whittled a small piece of wood which had once been a branch from a rowan in the Chetwood. Whittling had long been a favorite pastime of his, since he was a young child, and he seemed to spend more time now than ever carving pieces of wood he found in the Chetwood. It took his mind off things.
This particular piece of wood, he’d found two days prior, and he wanted to make it into something special. He decided to carve it into a figurine depicting his friend, the very friend whom he was to meet. Her name was Elisa, and she had been a friend of his since he was a child, and the two of them had grown even closer since the fire at Corbray’s house. Corbray paid special attention as he carved her eyes; he wanted every detail to be perfect.
“What’ve ye got there?” came a familiar voice from behind him. Corbray jumped upright with a start and thrust the figurine into his pocket. He wanted it to be a surprise for her when he finished it. Elisa slid onto the stone beside him before hopping back off of it.
“Ouch!” she cried, then turned to him with a giggle. “The stone is hot! This is no place to sit! Come, let’s find some shade.” She took hold of his hand and pulled him along, off of the short wall. Together they went, running and laughing through the brush of the Chetwood till at last they came to a small pool. At the water’s edge stood a large, smooth stone, half buried in the soil around it, yet wide enough for them both to sit upon it. There they sat and spent long hours talking and swimming in the pool.
“Tell me about the lumber camp. Have they taken you on as a laborer?” she asked. Corbray answered with a nod.
“Aye,” he said, “Though the pay is little, hardly enough to afford food to eat. The foreman says that when I’m older and better know the job that they’ll pay me more, as much as any of the men who work there.”
“It seems wrong,” Elisa said, “To work a boy half to death only to pay him in pennies. Has he no compassion for yer situation?”
Corbray shrugged. “Maybe so, but there is little opportunity to make coin in Combe aside from working at the lumber mill. Though, one of the men, Halcombe, says he knows of a way to make some extra money on the side, and invited me along tomorrow afternoon.”
“Well, that’s great news!” She smiled, and her deep, brown eyes beamed with excitement. “Do you know what he has in mind?”
“Not yet,” replied Corbray, shaking his head. “Halcombe is a strange fellow; he always seems tired, as though he gets too little sleep, and he drives the other workers hard. But, he knows how to get a job done, and he has one of the nicest houses in Combe. He must be doing something right!”
“He must,” agreed Elisa, though her smile faded.
“Is something the matter?” he asked, leaning in toward her. Elisa shook her head.
“No. At least, I think not...but I have a strange feeling about the whole thing. Something seems off about it, and my heart is disquiet, though I know not what nor why.”
“You worry too much,” said Corbray, and he set a comforting hand on her shoulder.
“You’re right,” she admitted with a sigh. “Surely, there is nothing to worry about.”
“The hour grows late. What took you so long?” growled the old man. Halcombe was tall and broad, and gray stubble covered his chin. His hair, a dark brown streaked with silver, was cut short, and he wore a tattered tunic the color of leather. The man leaned back against the wall of the Comb and Wattle Inn, and held a half-eaten apple in his hand. Corbray felt his belly sink when he heard the old man’s voice; he needed any money he could earn, and this was no way to start a venture.
“I, uh,” stammered the youth, trying to find some worthwhile cause for his lateness.
“You are late. Were a tree to fall, and you tarried till it landed on you, would it care to hear your excuses?” The old man’s eyes dug into Corbray’s own like daggers.
“Er, no, sir,” answered Corbray, who lowered his head in embarrassment.
“Then neither do I. But you are here now, and we’ve business needs doing. Did you bring your hatchet like I asked you?”
“Yes, sir!” squeaked Corbray, excited to have done something right. “It’s right here, in my pack!”
“Good,” said Halcombe in a flat and unimpressed tone. “Perhaps you may then be salvaged. But a word of advice, lad, a tool like your hatchet is best worn on your hip, where you can grab it quickly. You never know when you might need to...chop branches. Understand?”
Corbray did not understand, but he nodded anyway, and pulled his pack off and rooted around in it till his fingers felt and closed around the haft of the hatchet. He pulled it free from the pack and slid it down into the loop of his belt.
“That’s better, and you won’t be needing that pack. Best to leave it here. Head inside and see if Miss Honeymeade will let you leave it with her.”
Corbray did as his elder advised, and scurried back to Halcombe soon after.
“Is there anything else I need bring?” asked the boy, eager to please and excited to earn extra money. The old man scoffed.
“Nothing that can be carried in a bag, nor bought at market. But enough talk. Come, lad.” The man led, and Corbray followed him to a nearby wagon filled with fresh-cut lumber.
“Why is the wagon only half-full?” asked Corbray. “Oughtn’t we take as much as we can, if we’re to take it to market?”
“Were we to take it to market, then surely we would take all we could carry,” answered Halcombe, “But that is not our business today. Now, hop aboard, and no more questions.”
The youth obeyed, and Halcombe climbed up beside him. The old man took the reigns to hand, and gave them a tug. The old-looking mule trod forth, and off they went along the road toward Archet.
They went only a few miles before they arrived at a fork in the road. Nearby, a tall, ash tree which covered the road with its shadow. Along either side of the road, waist-high grass grew and in the distance, Corbray spied the crumbling remains of an ancient ruin.
“This will do perfect,” said Halcombe, and halted the wagon. “Off, off the wagon, boy, and help me get the wheel off!”
The order confused Corbray, who found it odd to sabotage one’s own wagon, but, if Halcombe was to pay him, then how could Corbray refuse? He hopped down from his seat and circled the wagon around the back of the wagon. Halcombe stood there, waiting, and had his hands along the bottom of the wagon.
“I loosened the bolts already,” explained Halcombe. “Now, I will only be able to lift the wagon for a moment. When I do, pull the wheel off, and be quick about it! Remember what I said about the falling tree?”
“Er, yes, sir!” answered Corbray with an anxious gulp, and he grabbed a hold of the wheel with both hands. With a loud grunt, Halcombe heaved the wagon a few inches off of the ground, and Corbray yanked the wheel free. Halcombe hissed as he set the wagon down again, and the freshly-bared axle creaked under the weight of it.
“Good work,” said the old man with a soft pat to Corbray’s shoulder.
“Sir?” replied Corbray.
“What is it?” growled Halcombe.
“Well,” murmured the boy, “I don’t rightly understand why we hobbled our own wagon, sir. It seems strange and a setback; are we not to head to Archet?”
“Boy,” laughed the old man, “You have much to learn. No man became great in this world by chopping wood for another, nor by carting it from Combe to Archet. We are not here as woodmongers, but as hunters, do you understand?”
“‘Hunters,’ sir?” Corbray swatted at a mosquito as it landed on his shoulder. “But there is naught to hunt around here but wild boar, and we brought neither spear nor hound for such a task!”
Halcombe rolled his eyes and laughed again. “Corbray, lad, you misunderstand. There is only one beast that carries coin in any considerable amount, and that is men. And men, like any beast, can be hunted if one only studies their ways. Oh, come now, you need not turn so pale- our aim is not to kill them, only to lighten their load. But, to do so, it is vital that they think us likely to kill them; if they do not, they are all the more likely to fight, and then bloodshed would be necessary, and that makes for harder work. Do you want to work harder?”
Corbray shook his head.
“Good,” said Halcombe. “So, as I was saying, a man can hunt men as he hunts any other beast: by understanding the nature of men and setting a trap accordingly. Well, here we have our trap. Every merchant knows that lumber is the mainstay of Combe, and that Bree and Archet depend on our town for it. When one such a merchant comes along, we shall play the part of woodmongers from Combe off to market in Bree. Then, once their guard is down, will we spring upon them, like a spider seizing a fly in its web. We will ask them, as politely as they allow us, to share the excess of their wealth. Once we have liberated them of their heavy gold, we will pop the wheel back onto our cart and return to Combe. And, as payment for coming and helping with the wheel, you will receive a quarter of what we take. Does that sound good?”
The youth nodded, though Corbray’s heart pounded in his chest. He had never stolen before in his life, and he was not keen on the idea. Yet, Halcombe was a large and frightful fellow, and Corbray did not want to displease him, especially so far from town, and besides, the lumber camp did not pay near enough money to live.
“Good,” said Halcombe once more.
The pair waited for what felt like hours, and the sun pounded on their heads. As the day wore on, the flies grew ever more murderous, till Corbray gave up on swatting them from his face. At last, the soft creaking of a wagon along the road echoed down the way.
“Hail!” cried out Halcombe, and waved at the passersby. “Spare a hand for some fellows in need?”
The wagon creeped to a halt, only a few feet from their own, and down hopped a man and a boy, who looked not so different from Halcombe and Corbray. The man spoke.
“How can we help?” he asked.
“It seems our wheel slipped from the axle,” answered Halcombe. “The boy and I tried to get it back on, but what with all the lumber, the wagon was too heavy to lift. Would you fine gentlemen help? The boy and I will lift if you would slide the wheel back on.”
The man replied, “It might be better for me to help you lift the wagon, and one of the boys can slip the wheel back on.”
“A good idea!” agreed Halcombe with a nod, and the men set to their work. Halcombe and the stranger lifted the wagon with a grunt, and the other boy slipped the wheel back on while Corbray watched. The wagon repaired, the men all took a step back and regarded their work.
“A good job well done,” remarked the stranger.
“Aye,” agreed Halcombe, “But not a job quite done.”
Without further word, Halcombe pulled the hatchet from his belt, and dashed between the stranger and his own wagon.
“We will be taking your purses, now. Let us not waste one another’s time. Hand them over; be quick!” barked Halcombe. Corbray was surprised how quickly Halcombe’s demeanor had changed, but drew his own hatchet, as it seemed the most fitting thing to do.
“Thieving bastards,” hissed the stranger. “Have ye no honor, asking for help one moment, our coin the next?” He was met only with the laughter of Halcombe.
“No, as a matter of fact we don’t. What’s the saying? ‘No honor among thieves?’ Aye, honor is nice when one has plenty to eat. Now, give us your coin and be on your way. There is no need to make this any harder than it needs to be.”
A sad look crossed the man’s face.
“Ye doesn’t understand,” said the man. “We need our coin to buy steel in Bree. If we don’t, then the farmers in Archet won’t be able to shoe their horses.”
Halcombe laughed all the harder, though Corbray saw no joy in his eyes, no wrinkles from a smile. “I piss on your horses and on your steel. Now, give me your coin. I won’t ask again.”
The strange man let out a sad sigh, and looked down at the purse on his hip, then back up to Halcombe. “If ye takes this, we won’t be able to afford barley to last the winter. All of Archet will suffer without steel.” But the man’s pleas fell on deaf ears.
“Last chance,” said Halcombe, “Or else I will strip your coin from your corpse.”
Tears welled in the man’s eyes, and he looked to his purse one last time. His fingers reached toward it, and tapped upon the cord that bound the purse to the man’s belt, but he could not bring himself to give it away. He took a deep breath in, and softly said, “No.”
To Corbray’s surprise, it was not Halcombe but the strange man who struck first. A weak fist flew up in a sloppy punch at Halcombe’s face, and Halcombe answered it with a swing of his hatchet. But before the blade found its mark, the man was upon him, wrapping his arms around Halcombe’s waist and hurling the bandit to the ground. There, they rolled around, biting and clawing as each man struggled for control over the other.
Corbray watched, motionless. The other boy, however, was quick to dive into the fray.
“No!” he cried, and pounced on Halcombe’s back as the bandit rained down punch after punch onto the man.
“Runt!” Halcombe growled, or so it sounded to Corbray, as the bandit grabbed the youth by his collar and flung him over his shoulder. Halcombe spotted the hatchet lying nearby, grabbed it and swung it down, hard and heavy into the boy’s ribcage. The boy squealed in pain, and the beaten man howled in fury. He pushed Halcombe back, pulled his legs up, and then kicked and kicked at Halcombe, but the bandit met the flailing feet with the hardened steel of his hatchet, which hacked with ease straight to the bone.
The man cried out in agony, but if Halcombe knew mercy, he did not show it. Again and again, he hacked, first at the man’s legs, then at his belly, and worked his way up the traveler’s body till his final swing smashed through the dying man’s forehead.
“Father!” cried the boy from the ground nearby. The boy’s eyes were closed, and tears flowed like streams down either side of his face. Both of the boy’s hands clasped desperately at the gash in his side, and crimson blood stained the green grass all around him. “Father, help! Mother! Mother!”
Halcombe lifted himself to his feet, and staggered over to the boy.
“Shut...your damn...mouth!” grunted Halcombe, and brought his hatchet down. Corbray closed his eyes just before the steel met flesh.
The ride back to Combe was long and silent. Halcombe glowered at Corbray with disapproval, and said not a word, save one sentence. As the brigand climbed into the driver seat, he turned and glared into Corbray’s eyes.
“If you ever hesitate like that again, I will kill you, myself.”