An ungodly screech filled the air as Tia’s carriage tilted, hurling her sideways. “Ouch!” Pain erupted in her shoulder as she slammed into the frame. Tia craned her neck just as Rebecca slammed into her side. “Augh!”
The conveyance halted with a jolt, knocking both women to the compartments floor. Naturally, Rebecca landed atop Tia. Fortunately, she didn’t weigh much, and managed to soften the impact with an outthrust hand.
“I’m sorry, my lady.” The gypsy shifted position. “Are you ok?”
Tia winced and flexed her muscles as she climbed back onto the bench, which sloped steeply down to the right. “Kyle found another pothole. I’ll fire him this time. I swear it.”
“Damnit, Kyle. Again?” Sir Peter Cortez’s voice filtered in through the window.
“It wasn’t there.” Kyle’s dull oafish voice. “Somebody dug a hole and hid it.”
Kyle’s words sent a jolt through Tia’s frame. Bandits. Or opportunists, intent on extortionate ‘help.’ She’d had quite enough of such vermin.
“Trap.” Sir Peter reached the same conclusion.
Tia watched brush part across the road. A parade of louts in brown peasant breeches and tunics emerged onto the highway, accompanied by a brace of mules.
“Not again.” Tia muttered the words under her breath as she swung open the door. This was the fourth set of road-scammers in as many weeks. She’d not paid the last three sets of louts and didn’t intend to now. She climbed onto the road.
“Afternoon, Mam.” The speaker removed a broad hat from his blocky head and clasped it between his hands. “It appears you are in need of”-
“Leave.” Tia’s voice could chill water. “Leave right now and perhaps, just perhaps, I won’t have the roadwarden’s set on you.”
“That’s a mighty unfriendly attitude, Mam.” The speaker cast a glance over his shoulder. “I’m afraid that will cost you extra.”
The carriage shuddered as Kyle leaped to the ground. His massive frame dwarfed the speaker. “Well, well. If it isn’t Stefan the Sneaky Shit, still dodging honest work.”
The speaker took a step back. “Who – Kyle? Is that you? I’d heard you were way out west.”
“I was. I’m back.” Kyle took another step. “The lady said leave.”
“My, ain’t you the fancy one these days. Nice coat. I like the buttons.” Stefan smiled. “The hat’s a bit much, though.”
Kyle growled. Tia knew he wasn’t fond of the coachman’s attire she made him wear, but appearances had to be maintained.
Stefan held his ground. “Kyle, you know how this goes. I will have my due, one way or another.” He motioned at a thug almost the Oaf’s size. “You remember Carl, right?”
Tia glanced along the road. Where was Sir Peter? The knight could make short work of these varlets without breaking a sweat.
“Yeah.” A stubby rod appeared in Kyle’s hand. He swung. The stick connected with Carl’s jaw, knocking him off his feet.
Stefan’s band looked at each other.
Kyle growled a second time. Took a step. Stephen fled, and his men fled with him.
Tia faced her driver. “Kyle, I am severely disappointed in you. I”-
“My lady, we have other concerns.” Sir Peter’s horse materialized from the coaches far side.
Tia sighed. “What now?”
“Them.” Peter motioned at a band of mounted men clopping along the road, wearing dusty metal armor. The True Churches sunburst insignia adorned the lead rider’s tabard.
Tia’s heart dropped. Church troops. Led by a Templar. Friendlier, but no less extortionate than Stefan’s bunch.
“God’s blessing to you, fair travelers.” The Templar removed his feathered hat with a flourish and bowed in the saddle at Tia. “I see you are in a predicament.”
Tia smiled. Best to be well mannered around this one. She hailed from the Empire’s equestrian class, but Templar’s were often full members of the aristocracy. “Good day yourself, Sir Knight.”
“Ah, I apologize for my rudeness.” The Templar’s chest swelled. “I am Sir Aetius Sulcus Gracchus, currently sworn to the Abbey of Saint Andrew in Placius.”
Tia refrained from sighing. Placius. A priest-ruled leftover from the Interregnum when an ambitious Patriarch tried to raise a theocracy from the first empires successor states. Once, Placius held sway over the coastal lands from here to Carbone. Not anymore. Now, Placius was just a corrupt little oddity.
“You appear to be out of bounds, Sir Aetius.” Sir Peter maneuvered his horse before the Church Knight. “Placius is ten miles south of here.”
“Ah, but the Churches authority extends everywhere.” Aetius’s eyes narrowed. “This region is infested with outlaws and opportunists. Fortunately, I am here to provide you with assistance and protection in exchange for a suitable donation to the church coffers.”
Tia sketched a bow. “Your offer is appreciated, Sir Aetius, but not necessary. My men have the matter well in hand.”
The Templar glanced at Tia’s tilted carriage. “My lady, I do not agree with your assessment. No, I must insist.”
Tia saw Peter’s hand drop to his sword hilt. “The lady said your services are not required.”
Aetius took in Peter’s shield with its green field, vertical blue stripe, and tower. “And who might you be?” He motioned at Peter’s shield. “I do not recognize your insignia.”
“I am Sir Peter Cortez of Cosslet. During the war, I rode with Benedict’s Bravos.”
Aetius frowned. “Benedict’s Bravos. I’d heard they were decimated at Crowfoot Gap. Few of that company survived the war beyond Benedict DuPaul himself, who found God on the battlefield.”
“I survived.” Peter’s voice could cut wood. “As did my friend Adam DuBard. Perhaps you are aware he is marrying Lord Bestia’s granddaughter?”
Aetius gulped. “I know of the impending nuptials, but this is the first I heard of Adam DuBard riding with the Bas-ah-Bravos.”
“I’ll be certain to mention your name to him.”
Aetius’s eyes shifted back and forth. “Well, I believe you may have matters well in hand after all.”
Tia watched the Templar ride away. Then she stared at her carriage, two wheels mired to the axle in a long narrow trench. A groan drew her attention to the bandit sprawled in the ditch. It promised to be a long day.