The Wolf Princess: Chapter 36

Updated: May 24

There were two roads to Bradenstream. One followed a tributary that led to the river, the other wound through the forest and was considered the harder, but less vulnerable route. This was the one they traveled. Leafless white trees and evergreens closed in, sapping what little light broke through the gray mantle of clouds. A chill meandered through the woods, creeping out to bite through her cloak and gloves every time they passed through the shadows. Alleen took point. One man drove and two men sat in the wagon amongst the prisoners. Caoinlin and Nevan rode behind. Caoinlin did her best to keep her eyes off Atal, who hung his head as though sleeping and gave no sign behind his gag and blindfold of being alert to his surroundings. It was hardly mid-morning when it happened, just as she suspected it would. A dozen townsmen exploded, roaring, out the trees. They surrounded the transport and halted them. Moppel the tree cutter stood before Alleen, who seemed as surprised as Caoinlin. “Hand them over, Sergeant,” Moppel demanded, wielding an axe in his hands. “You know I can’t do that,” Alleen said with a sigh. “These men are prisoners of Tireachan and I would be remiss in my duties if I let you take them.” “We don’t want to fight you,” Moppel barked up to him. “But we will, if we have to.” The other men nodded. Hunger prowled in their eyes like starving wolves. But it was not food they needed. They shifted where they stood, unable to stand still. Then, Alleen showed that he had been well aware of this ambush: he got off his horse. One of the townsmen lunged at him and punched him good and hard across the face. In the same instant, five men stepped in between her and the wagon, turning their back on the prisoners. “We have no argument with you, Mhasc Caoin,” a squirrel-faced said. “Nor I with you,” she replied. “But I doubt this will be received kindly by the King.” While she spoke, someone grabbed Atal by the shoulders and hauled him over the edge of the wagon. One of the guards made a half-hearted effort to stop him and all three toppled in a squirming heap to the ground. “Let Blackstone execute their own captives,” the man said to her. Another prisoner was yanked from the wagon. The guards scuffled with the townsmen, receiving and giving enough black-eyes and bloodied lips to appear as though the fight had been a good one. Caoinlin watched, making no move to intercede. Soon all five prisoners were dragged to one side of the wagon, laid on their stomachs close together. Two of the guards pretended to be knocked unconscious, while the other two, including Alleen, held up their hands in meek surrender. “Was this farce put on for our benefit?” Nevan murmured to Caoinlin. She pursed her lips, holding Flegel under tight control. Moppel and most of the townsmen turned their backs to the prisoners and solidified the line between Caoinlin and the Ulic. “We’ll be taking these pigs to slaughter,” Moppel announced in boisterous tones of celebration. The townsmen grinned at one another. “I’ll be hoping that you won’t try to stop us, Mhasc Caoin. We respects you greatly for what you did for us and ours and we wouldn’t want to be causing you any harm.” “I would not wish to suffer such harm,” she replied. “Good then,” Moppel said. “Caoin,” Nevan whispered, urgently. “We don’t want any trouble from you either, old man,” Moppel thrust a playfully stern finger up at Nevan. His men laughed heartily. “Their chains!” Nevan cried out in warning. Caoinlin drew her sword. The townsmen recoiled before her, oblivious to the danger springing up behind them. The Ulic, freed of their chains, tore away their gags and blindfolds and rushed at the men from behind. Moppel was tackled, face-first into the muddy road, his axe torn from his hands. “Ride Nevan!” Caoinlin ordered. “To the Captain!” Nevan brought Brummer around. One of the Ulic, having killed two of the townsmen already, swiped at Nevan’s foot. Caoinlin pushed Flegel forward and kicked the Ulic in the face. He flew back. Another of the Ulic wrested Alleen of his sword, slit his throat, and jumped onto his horse. The Ulic shouted a command and one of his companions ripped his newly acquired dagger from the chest of a guard and raced to mount the horse behind. A third Ulic charged at her leg with Moppel’s axe. She evaded his swing and plunged her sword into his back. Not until Atal jumped from the wagon and onto the saddle behind her did she realize her mistake. Flegel danced and tossed his mane under the weight of the Ulic prince. Before she could react, Atal snapped his gag around her throat. She gasped, clawing at it. He seized her other wrist and forced her to drop her sword. Wheezing the thinnest stream of air into her lungs, her head felt as if it were swelling. Atal muttered something her ear, but she couldn’t hear it over the sound of her heart’s furious and panicked drumming. As she lost consciousness, she heard Atal’s distant, triumphant shout and felt Flegel jumping into a gallop