Lord Belsing closed his book as he heard his coachmen yelling, “Whoa!” What was this? It was still half a day to Lord Releh’s castle. He heard the Captain of the Guard shouting orders. Belsing pulled the curtains and stuck his head out of the carriage window
He saw guards lined up on either side of the carriage, six more were ranked across the road in front of the carriage horses, Captain Udon in the front. Beyond him were masked men, highway men from the look of them.
“Give us your gold,” the lead highwayman said. “No one will be harmed.”
Captain Udon’s horse danced, the Captain brought the horse back into line without effort. “Be off with you, brigand. You’ll get no gold from us.” He moved his hand to his sword hilt.
The brigand eyed the Captain then the carriage. “Those are Lord Belsing’s colors, Captain. He has enough to share. We’ll spare you, your men and the lord if you accede to our demands.”
“Fancy talk for a thief,” the Captain snarled. “Ready!” he called.
The guards drew their swords. The guard beside Lord Belsing’s window said, “Better get inside, my lord.”
Belsing thought not. He was on his way to propose to Lady Nyesta Releh and wanted this business done and without bloodshed. He was about to get out of the carriage when he heard rustling. He looked into the woods. There, men came out from behind tree trunks and boulders, all ready to fire their bows. They outnumbered the guard five to one. He opened the carriage door and descended.
“Gentlemen,” he called.
Captain Udon didn’t turn around. “Please return to the carriage, My Lord. I’ll deal with this scum.
Belsing strode to the Captain and addressed the brigand. “Sir. Would three purses of gold satisfy you?”
The brigand laughed. “I can see the chests in your supply wagon. You carry more than three purses of gold.”
Belsing sighed. He didn’t want to treat with this man at all. “May I have your name, Sir, since you so clearly know mine.”
The brigand gave a jaunty salute. “Iristan, My Lord. Prince of the woodlands.”
“I’ve heard of you, Prince Iristan. You’re causing a great deal of trouble on the roads.”
Iristan bowed. “Thank you, My Lord. Now, if we could have at your supply wagon.”
Captain Udon drew his sword. “Hold, ruffian. Or you will meet my sword.”
Iristan laughed. He flicked his hand. A circle of arrows hit the ground encircling the Captain’s horse.
Belsing jumped as three of the arrows whizzed past him.
Iristan patted his horse on the neck to sooth it. “You are surrounded and outnumbered. There is no need for you or your men to die today.”
Belsing raised his hand. “Hold Captain. Let us walk back to the supply wagon with Prince Iristan.”
“My Lord!” The Captain began.
“Come, Prince.” Belsing waved to the brigand. “Let us complete this business and we’ll be on our way.”
“By your leave, My Lord.”
Belsing marched back to the wagon and stopped next to the driver. Iristan rode behind him and the Captain followed as half of Iristan’s men came out of the woods to the road. “There,” Belsing said. “The chests of gold are marked. Please leave the rest.”
Iristan made a small gesture and his men came forward. Two men jumped up into the open wagon and hauled the small chests to the back and handed them down to their fellows. “Take just four,” Iristan called to his men. “After all, Lord Belsing must pay his way on his journey.”
Belsing was relieved at that. While he was a Lord, gold didn’t grow on trees and he didn’t have much compared to the other Lords. Udon grumbled under his breath.
Iristan rode up to the wagon and looking in. He picked up a highly-polished box, hinges, clasps and corners capped with fine brass and inlayed with mother of pearl in a swirling leaf design. “This, I’ll keep for myself.”
“No!” Belsing leapt forward. “You cannot have that.”
Iristan wheeled his horse around, box still in his hand. “Why not?”
Belsing swallowed to calm himself. “That is a gift for Lady Releh. A…a proposal gift.”
Iristan laughed. “Men! Lord Belsing is going to propose!” They all laughed. He looked back to Belsing. “What’s in the box?”
Beside him, Belsing could see Captain Udon’s sword rise. “Please. It’s a very rare tea. Grown in China. I’ve had men gone for two years to bring it to me for this gift.”
“A great treasure then.” Iristan put the box in his lap. “What say you, men? Should we give the Lord his tea back?”
Some good naturedly shouted yes, some no. Belsing’s stomach clenched. The Lady was known to love tea. He wanted the box back. “Man-to-man, Prince, return the Lady’s gift.”
Iristan looked around him. Belsing could see his eyes dancing with merriment. “It would be cruel to send the Lord to his proposal with no gift.” Iristan handed the box to Belsing. “Take it and good fortune.”
Before Belsing could respond, Iristan whistled. His men scurried into the woods on all sides and disappeared as Iristan and his mounted riders galloped away, down the road Belsing had just traveled.
Captain Udon shouted, “About! Follow those men!”
“No!” Belsing called. “We proceed to Lord Releh’s castle.”
“My Lord!” Udon pleaded.
“It’s a waste of time. The men on horseback will have already melted into the forest with the rest of the men. You’ll not find them.”
“We need to clear the King’s Way of this rabble.”
“We do.” Belsing sighed and walked to his carriage door. “But not today. Let’s go.”
With poor grace the Captain called his men into marching order and the carriage moved on. Belsing stroked the smooth surface of the box, tracing the mother of pearl. Yes. We’ll catch up with the Prince of the Forest. But first, I’ll propose to Lady Nyesta.