The Highwayman by R. A. Salvatore

  The Highwayman is Born

  “Who are you? What do you want?” Tarkus Breen said, the confidence long gone from his voice.

  “I am…” Bransen paused as if awakening from a dream, as if for the first time actually realizing what he had done. While his body had come in here, fighting perfectly, his thoughts were stalled back at the tree. But what was he to say?

  “I am the Highwayman,” he said, hardly considering the implications.

  Breen’s knife slashed left to right then back again, but Bransen retreated and veered so as not to trip over Cadayle. Bransen’s hand pushed the strike out wide, but then his attacker surprised him by breaking off and turning back to Cadayle.

  Tarkus Breen stabbed the knife out toward her.

  He never got close to connecting.

  Bransen rushed back to Cadayle, catching Breen’s wrist with his left hand. He lifted Breen’s arm and went under it, turning it and forcing the bully to come up straight. Bransen kept twisting as he stood up straight. He lifted his right arm and drove his elbow against Breen’s.

  The snap of bone sounded like the breaking of a thick tree branch.


  Map of Honce and Behr

  God’s Year 74


  1 Walking in the Clouds

  2 My Dear Brothers

  3 Prydae

  4 Sailing to Civilization

  5 Long Roots

  6 Along the Rim of Time’s Circle

  7 To the Side of Things

  8 Forward Looking

  9 The Dangerous Concubine

  10 The Loss of Control

  11 The Power of the Written Word

  12 The Inspiration of the Season

  13 Orphan Born


  14 Taming Honce

  15 The Stork

  16 Hierarchy

  17 Offspring of Two Religions

  18 For the Line of Pryd

  19 The Way of Samhaine

  20 When All the World Turned Upside Down

  21 For the Boy?

  22 I Will Not Fail Garibond


  23 Walking—Awkwardly—in Place

  24 The Laird’s Manly Sword

  25 Straining the Quality of Mercy

  26 Paralysis of Another Sort

  27 Catching His Mother’s Spirit

  28 Alone, and So Be It!

  29 Almost Honest

  30 In the Hearts of Everyman

  31 The Sparkle in His Eyes

  32 Trinkets and Revelations

  33 A Woman and Her Jewels

  34 Behind Two Doors

  35 The Downward Spiral

  36 Buzzing in His Head

  37 Their Pet Idiot

  38 The Waterfall at River’s End


  Map of Honce and Behr

  God’s Year 74

  Seventy-four Years after the Death of Blessed Abelle

  Harkin cracked his whip with an urgency wrought of terror. Orrin slumped next to him, a spear buried deep in his side, bright blood flowing freely, staining his brown woolen tunic a dark and ugly red black.

  “Come on, run!” Harkin urged his team, and he cracked the whip hard again. He couldn’t help but consider the terrible irony of it all. He had been transferred from the front lines of battle—in a war that had been raging since he was a young man—to the seemingly safe job of driving Prince Yeslnik about the growing lands of Greater Delaval. And now this—to be caught and killed on the road!

  The horses dug in and pulled hard, but an undeniable drag slowed the coach. “Orrin, you hold on!” Harkin cried to his injured friend, and he shifted his hands just enough so that he could pull back the slumping man, who seemed as if he would tumble from his seat.

  Harkin glanced all around frantically. He heard Prince Yeslnik shout, though the words were lost in the tumult. He heard Prince Yeslnik’s wife, Olym, scream in fear. When the coach hit one straight, flat stretch of the tree-lined road in the southeastern reaches of Pryd Holding, Harkin dared to stand quickly and look back. The coach was dragging a tangle of logs. “Ah, you cunning beasts,” he lamented, for the bloody-capped powries had hit the coach with some sort of grapnel, affixed by rope to the logs.

  Harkin’s mind tumbled through the possibilities. He knew that he had to do something; it was only a matter of time before those bouncing logs caught on a tree or some other obstacle at the side of the road and either stopped the coach or, more likely, tore it apart. He couldn’t go back to free the grapnel while they were charging along, and he couldn’t stop. He knew the truth. He had seen the bright red berets. He had heard the grating voices and the guttural shouts. These were powrie dwarves, and powries showed no mercy.

  “Come on,” he called again to his straining team, and he cracked the whip once more.

  Good fortune got them through the straight section of road without any serious entanglements, but Harkin knew that the flagstone path twisted and wound around many stones and trees, down into dells and into sharp-cornered turns over ridges. “Bah!” He snorted in dismay, and he pulled back hard on the reins, bringing the coach to an abrupt halt. Before the wheels had even fully stopped turning, Harkin looped the reins about the bench seat and leaped to the ground. “Stay inside, my prince!” he cried to Yeslnik as he ran past the door’s open window and around the back of the coach.

  He followed the rope to the grapnel, and found it secured underneath the carriage. Cunning powries, indeed! They hadn’t hit the coach with a spear or anything like that, but rather had set a trap in the road to hook it from beneath.

  Harkin started to bend and even dropped to one knee, starting under the coach frame to free it, but the thought of crawling on the ground, so vulnerably, with powries closing, had him gasping for breath. Instead, he drew out his short bronze sword and began hacking at the rope with all his might.

  “You fool! What are you doing?” cried the prince, leaning out and hanging on the now-opened door. “Why have you stopped? I am the nephew of the Laird of Delaval!”

  “We cannot go, my liege,” poor Harkin tried to explain. He hacked with all his strength, and finally the rope snapped. Yeslnik saw it and cried out in dismay, and then he saw a spear come arcing in and hit the coach near Harkin.

  “Get back in, I beg you, my liege!” Harkin cried, and this time Yeslnik didn’t argue.

  Harkin scrambled around the coach and back up into his seat. If he could just get them moving…

  The reins were not there.

  Harkin’s gaze went forward to the nervous team, and there, between them, he saw his doom. For there stood a powrie, a smile on its leathery and wrinkled face, white teeth showing behind the long hairs of an overgrown red mustache.

  “Ye lookin’ for these, me lord?” the dwarf asked, and he held up and jiggled the reins. “Aye, but ain’t yer horses tired from yer stupid run?”

  Harkin could hardly draw breath as he heard other dwarves moving around the sides of the coach, for the powries’ reputation preceded them. They were not here for treasure, other than human blood.

  The dwarf in front dropped the reins and drew forth a long, curving knife with a wicked, serrated edge. “If ye don’t fight, it won’t hurt as much.”

  Harkin’s mind whirled—he didn’t want to die, certainly not like this! “Wait!” he cried as he heard the coach creak behind him and knew that a dwarf was beginning to climb on it. “I got something for you. Something that’ll get you all the blood and money you want!”

  The dwarf in front held up his hand, and the one creeping near Harkin stopped.

  Poor Harkin heard the coach door open, and a moment later, he heard Prince Yeslnik’s wife scream, followed by a protest from the pr
ince himself.

  “Aye, that one,” Harkin improvised. “He’s noble blood, and his laird’ll pay whatever you want to get him back. Money and people—it won’t matter to Laird Delaval, as long as he gets the safe return of his precious nephew.”

  “Hmmm,” the dwarf in front mused.

  Harkin could hear more movement and shouting from behind, but no sounds of battle yet joined. The dwarves were waiting, he believed and prayed.

  “What’re ye thinking, Turgol?” asked the one in front. “Ransom? That be our game?”

  “Nah,” said the dwarf to the side and behind Harkin, and he nearly fainted when he realized how close this second one actually was. “Lots o’ work in that, and we’re to rile up a laird? Nah, kill ’em now, I say. Three humans to brighten me cap.”

  The dwarf in front began to nod and smile all the wider, and he opened his mouth to speak.

  “Oh, wrong answer,” came a voice from above—a human voice and not the grumbling chant of a powrie. Harkin and the dwarves turned, their gazes flying up, up to the high boughs of a wide oak tree.

  And there he sat on a limb, a smallish man dressed head to toe in a black outfit of some exotic fabric. He wore a mask black as night that covered more than half his face, with holes cut out for the eyes.

  “If it was just a business deal—a good one—then perhaps I could have wandered along on my way without interfering,” the mysterious man said. “But since you insist…”

  As he finished he shoved off the branch and came flying down at the coach.

  “By the gods!” Harkin cried, and he fell back, throwing his arm up in front of him, expecting the man to go crashing through the coach.

  The powrie behind Harkin shrieked but instead of retreating, lifted up a heavy battle-axe.

  The dwarf roared and swung trying to bat the man in black out of the air. But amazingly, the axe whipped below the descending man, as if he had somehow slowed his fall. And he didn’t crash through the coach roof—as he should have after falling from so high—but rather touched down firmly on it right behind the swinging blade. He fell as he hit, absorbing the impact with a forward roll following the swing of the axe, and he came up tangled with the dwarf—at least as far as the dwarf was concerned. For the man’s balance as he rolled fast to his feet remained perfect, and as he leaped down from the coach his hands caught the dwarf so that the dwarf had no choice but to go flying away with him.

  Again the man landed in perfect and easy balance, as the powrie crashed down hard beside him, sprawling on the ground, its axe flying away.

  “Not a graceful sort, now is he?” the man asked a pair of powries standing before him, their mouths agape. He jabbed his elbow back as he spoke, for he had cleverly landed right beside the open coach door, and a simple shove from that elbow had it swinging closed. “I beg your pardon, Prince Yeslnik, but would you please remain inside while I finish my business out here?”

  The two dwarves recovered, roared, and charged; and the man sprang into a forward somersault right over them. He touched down, running, turning as he went, and drawing from over his shoulder the most magnificent sword that any of them—man or dwarf—had ever seen. Its blade gleamed silver, shining in the morning light, and tracings of delicate vines ran the length of it. Most wondrous of all was the hilt, all silver and ivory, the pommel shaped as the head of a hooded serpent.

  The powries swung and rushed right in, one thrusting a spear, the other stabbing with its own sword, a weapon of bronze.

  Two quick, sharp raps turned both those weapons aside. The man retracted his blade to his right, spun it end over end suddenly, and it disappeared behind him.

  The foolish dwarves kept coming.

  Out from the left now stabbed the silvery sword, forward, a quick tap to the side to push the dwarf’s sword wide, and then ferociously ahead to stab the powrie in the chest. The man came forward at the same time, turning at the last second so that the thrusting spear flashed past him. He caught that spear shaft in his right hand as he stepped closer to the dwarf, tearing free his sword from its falling comrade. Too close to use the weapon effectively, the man tossed the sword up into the air, and predictably, the powrie’s eyes followed its ascent.

  The man hit the powrie with three short left jabs—short but amazingly hard. The dwarf staggered back a step, dazed.

  The man caught the sword as it fell, and his hand flashed out, smashing the snake pommel into the dwarf’s face. He had to turn as another dwarf came at him; and as he did, he flipped the sword and stabbed straight behind him, plunging the magnificent blade through the stunned dwarf’s chest so forcefully that its tip exploded right out through the creature’s back.

  The man let go of the hilt again, his hands moving in a side-to-side blur before him to confuse the next attacker. Somehow those flashing hands evaded the stabbing powrie sword. The man’s right palm slapped the blade out to the dwarf’s right, while the lightning-fast fighter brought his left hand under the dwarf’s arm, backhanding it out even further. Suddenly he grabbed the dwarf’s wrist and pulled it between them. His right hand bent the dwarf’s wrist, overextending the ligaments and bringing a howl of pain. A sudden brutal jerk took the strength from the dwarf’s fingers, and the man slid his hand down, pulling free the powrie’s sword.

  “You only get one chance,” he said, throwing the dwarf’s arm out wide, slapping him across the face with his left hand, then grabbing the powrie by the hair, and forcefully tugged it back.

  The dwarf growled and started to punch, but his forward movement only served to present the man with a clear line to an exposed throat.

  The sword slid in, turning the growl to a gurgle, and the man pushed on.

  The dwarf wasn’t punching anymore but was frozen in place, staring up at the morning sky, its arms out to the sides and twitching.

  The man was gone, leaving the powrie’s sword in place.

  Another dwarf pursued, with several more circling as if to cut the man off, for it seemed as if their enemy were unarmed now.

  The man remedied that as he came upon the dwarf he’d skewered with his sword. The man dove into a sidelong roll right over the dwarf, catching his sword’s hilt. When he landed on his feet on the other side, with two powries rushing up in front of him, he had his sword in hand. He put it to sudden and devastating work, launching a series of short back-and-forth slashes, striking their weapons in succession. Somewhere in the side-to-side blur, he thrust out, once and then again, and one of the powries staggered back, bright blood erupting from its shoulder and chest.

  Now the man’s sword went into a tight circular motion around the remaining dwarf’s sword. He had the dwarf watching the dazzling display: he knew from its spinning eyes.

  A fatal mistake.

  The sword then changed its angle, and, with a sudden shove and a cry that came from somewhere deep inside, the man threw the dwarf’s weapon out wide and stiffened the fingers of his free hand as he stepped forward, thrusting that hand straight out, his fingers driving into the powrie’s windpipe.

  The dwarf shuddered and staggered back, all its body jerking in death spasms.

  “Who shall be next?” the man asked, spinning and bringing his sword into a series of left and right diagonal cuts.

  But none of the remaining dwarves wanted anything to do with him! They were off and running, scattering to every direction.

  The man laughed and looked at the coach, where the Prince of Delaval was peeking out and slowly opening the door and where the unnerved driver was staring at him from above. “They always run when half are down,” the man calmly explained. “If only they would play it out to the end, they might find me growing tired.”

  As he finished, he launched into a series of leaps, twisting and striking out with his sword, a barrage that would have likely taken down any ten enemies standing too near.

  “Or perhaps not,” the man said with a salute.

  “Who are you?” Prince Yeslnik asked.

  “My reputation ha
s not preceded me? I am wounded.”

  “The Highwayman,” Harkin said.

  “Thank you for that,” the man in black replied. “I would hate to think that all my hard work these past months has been for naught.”

  Prince Yeslnik slid out of the coach. “Your reputation does not do you justice, my friend.”

  “Why, thank you.”

  “You will be rewarded.” Behind the prince, the Highwayman could see his female companion staring out at him from the coach, leaning toward him eagerly.

  So predictable a reaction from these fair ladies of court.

  “And pardoned,” the excited prince went on, “for any crime of which you have been accused. You will live the life of a wealthy and free man, from one end of Honce to the other.”

  “As if that was yours to give,” said the man. “ ’Tis a big place.”

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