Marcus crouched in the undergrowth. Brambles tickled the back of his neck but he fought the urge to scratch and kept still.
“They’re not coming,” whispered Gavin. He gripped his quarterstaff lying alongside his stout frame and glowered at the empty trail stretching beneath the star-speckled night.
“They’ll come,” said Marcus. “They have to come. This is the only road.”
“Are you sure?” On Marcus’s other side, Phillip rubbed his mountainous nose.
Marcus rolled his eyes. “Of course I’m sure. When there’s only one trade route it’s easy to know where the merchants are going to go.”
“No,” said Phillip. He blew out a weighty sigh. “Are you sure about doing this? I mean, it’s stealing.”
“The embargo is illegal, we all know that. We’re just squaring matters.”
“I don’t know…” said Phillip.
Marcus shook his head. “We’ll be heroes.”
Phillip frowned. “But I don’t want to get anyone hurt”
“We’re not going to hurt anyone,” said Marcus. In frustration, however, he tightened his grip on the daggers tucked beneath him. “We’ll take the cart, leave the drivers to spend the night in the woods and we’re off.”
Gavin clucked his tongue and Phillip adjusted his bulk beneath the branches.
“Quiet,” said Marcus, “you’ll get us spotted.” He glanced between his companions, inspecting their resolve in the gloom.
Gavin looked nervous, but then again, he always looked nervous with those beady eyes and the perpetual gleam of sweat on his brow. When matters came to a head though, Gavin would be at his side. Phillip, however, was concerning. Marcus could nearly hear the methodical thoughts traipsing through his large friend’s head.
“Look,” said Marcus, taking on the reasonable tone he used when explaining his transgressions to Professor Ruddle, “how long has this embargo been going on?”
“Since last spring! Can you remember the last time we had something that wasn’t salty or sour? The last time a cake tasted like a cake or Angela’s lemonade didn’t curdle your toes? The festival is in two days. We do this, we do this one thing, and the town can have a summer banquet worth celebrating.”
Gavin licked his lips as if savoring the treats shoveled out of the bakeries for the three day celebration. From beneath his linen jersey, Phillip’s stomach grumbled.
“We’ll be heroes for sure,” said Marcus. “Think of that. Kings of the festival. I bet Vera and Adelaide would be ever so grateful.” He grinned as both boys blushed.
Then Phillip frowned, shattering the constructed reasoning like glass. “Wendy’s not going to like it. She’ll be mad at you.”
Marcus snorted. “So. I’ll dance her around the floor a bit and we’ll be square again.”
“Shhh,” said Marcus.
The rattle of wooden axles penetrated the night, nearing with each heartbeat.
“We’re doing this,” he whispered, thrusting one finger into the dirt in emphasis. “Just like we ran off with Mrs. Honeywell pie.” Gavin winced. “And hid Pascal’s last keg that night he was too drunk to walk straight.” Phillip grimaced. “We were in it together then,” said Marcus, covering his face with his mask and gripping his two unsheathed daggers. “We’re in it together now. Don’t let me, don’t let the town, down.”
He crawled back out of the brambles and stood. The plod of four hooves joined the racket of the cart. One lantern swayed, spraying golden rays upon the thick foliage. A wavering tune broke the nighttime hush. Marcus recognized the song, but the singer was an octave low and off key. His voice stumbled through the air like Pascal’s inebriated stagger.
Perfect, thought Marcus. He dashed up the road, to where the trail narrowed at the bridge. Dropping into the shadow of a jutting boulder, he listened to the horse’s steps and held his breath.
“Careful now,” slurred the driver. The horse whickered and the plodding tread slowed.
Marcus counted the fingers of one hand and then rounded the obscuring boulder.
“Evening,” he said, showing both drawn blades. He swiveled the daggers so the lantern’s light glinted off the sharpened edges.
“Whoa,” said the driver. He pulled back on the reigns and nearly toppled from his seat. His voluminous cloak and tunic spilled off of him in a waterfall of fabric. “Evening.” He wiggled back on the bench and squinted bloodshot eyes. “Little late to be on the road isn’t it boy?”
Marcus bristled beneath his mask. “I could say the same to you.”
“Bah,” the driver drawled. “I’ve got Brutus here and an all-route pass.” The horse whinnied and the driver patted at the left side of his chest before his hand dropped limp into his lap.
“Well,” said Marcus, a grin reforming on his lips as he noted no one else in the cart, “I’m afraid you’ve gone far enough today.” He grabbed Brutus beneath a saliva-coated bit and slashed both reigns.
“Hey now.” The driver stumbled off his perch, steadied himself on the cart’s rail and pointed a wobbling finger at Marcus. “What do you think you’re doing, boy?”
Crunching steps and a soft swoosh announced Gavin and his slowly spinning staff.
“We’re relieving you of your burden,” said Marcus
The driver snorted and looked over his shoulder. Behind a masked Gavin, Phillip loomed like a fortress wall. He popped his knuckles and glowered behind his own mask.
“You know, lads, I don’t think I can let you do that,” said the driver.
“We don’t want to hurt you,” said Marcus even as he stepped forward, brandishing his daggers. “But we are going to take your cart.”
Gavin and Phillip edged closer, flanking the driver like a closing noose.
The driver glanced at the pair, and then over at Marcus. His lax jaw stiffened as his wilted posture straightened. The wavering focus in his eyes sharpened enough to cut.
By the time Marcus’s stomach had a chance to sour, the driver had swept into motion.
He wind milled his left arm, catching Gavin’s staff and yanking the weapon free. Gavin gave a startled cry and then doubled over with a woof as the driver shoved the quarterstaff into his gut.
Phillip tried to move forward, but Gavin and the narrow road kept him pinned.
The driver wheeled again, swiping the staff at Phillip’s temple. Phillip raised a defensive forearm, blocking the blow but earning a bone-snapping crunch.
While Phillip howled, Marcus leapt into the opening. He swiped his blade at the driver’s billowing cloak but caught only fabric. The driver grasped his own hem, twirled once and the cloth coiled around Marcus’s arm like a snake. With a tug, the corkscrew of cape tightened and Marcus’s fingers began going numb.
Marcus tried hacking at the fabric with his free blade, but the driver yanked. Marcus dropped both knives to cushion his fall. The quarterstaff whirled in his peripheral vision. The last glimpse Marcus had was the end of the stick coming toward the back of his head and then in a blinding flash, the world turned to pitch.
Eventually, dawn gleamed through the branches and wormed through Marcus’s shut lids. He grimaced and squeezed his eyes closed as the shards of light pierced his brain. He noted, however, someone using his head like a drum. Opening one eye a slit, he saw the empty bridge dappled in the morning but no drummer in sight. Touching the back of his head, he snapped his fingers away from the bulbous lump he discovered on his skull.
With a groan he shoved up onto his hands and knees. The world spun. He waited for the trees to point toward the sky again before sitting upright. He spotted Gavin, curled into a fetal ball and snoring, while Phillip leaned against a tree, his arm in a splint. Like his, their masks had vanished.
“You awake?” asked Marcus. He winced as his own voice amplified the swollen throb beating on his head.
“Yeah,” said Phillip without opening his eyes. He gave Gavin a shove with his boot.
Gavin jolted awake, pebbles sticking to his cheek. “What? Hum?”
“Time to get up,” said Phillip.
“Oh. Hey, we’re still in the woods.” Gavin wiped his nose with his sleeve.
Formulating a witty retort swelled the lump on Marcus’s head. He stood instead and looked around for his blades.
“They’re up there,” said Gavin, pointing and then gathering the broken halves of his quarterstaff.
Marcus followed the stout finger. Both of his knives jutted out of the bark, out of reach and far enough away from any branches to make retrieving them more of an ordeal than Marcus thought he could muster. With a wave, he dismissed them for later and then extended his hand to Gavin.
Once Gavin reached his feet, they turned to Phillip. He batted them aside his one good hand and stood on his own.
“Some heroes we turned out to be,” said Phillip.
Marcus snorted and shook his head before thinking better of it. Gavin caught him as he wobbled, and shoulder to shoulder, the trio lumbered toward home.