The Highwayman [Flash Fiction]
Themes: Fantasy, Crime, Rebellion
They knew him as The Shadow and spoke his name in whispers for fear of reprisal. He’d robbed six nobles in the last month alone, and now The Shadow had his sights set on a seventh. The wheels of the gilded carriage scattered clouds of dust into the night air as the horses blew heavily in their traces. They had travelled far this night, and swiftly.
The carriage was not unprotected, but that merely made his task more of a challenge—and increased his enjoyment of tweaking noble noses. The six mounted House guards he had anticipated, but the plainclothes men had the look of mercenaries about them, which was even better. Mercenaries exploited the fear of others; they would find themselves unpaid at the end of this night.
From his position in the hills above the road, he watched and waited. His horse, Storm, snorted and stamped one white-socked foot. He watched until the carriage reached the edge of Cherryhill Woods, then dug his heels into Storm’s sides. The stallion sprang forward with a squeal of excitement, horse and rider bursting forward like an arrow from a bow.
The night air whistled in The Shadow’s ears. Storm had done this so many times that The Shadow could practically give him a free rein. Before he knew it, they were at the edge of the woods. Horse galloped on, and rider reached into his pocket to pull out a length of wood carved with extremely expensive mystic symbols.
His swift approach drew attention. A cry of alarm went up from the mercenaries. The House guards surged forward into a canter, taking the carriage with them. The mercenaries slowed, two mounted bowmen nocking arrows whilst the rest drew swords.
A smile tugged at The Shadow’s lips. They never learn.
He lifted the wand, his thumb finding the familiar carving of concentric circles nestled inside each other. With the wand aimed at the mercenaries, he pressed the smallest circle. A chill of magic rushed through him, bringing gooseflesh to his skin. The magic hit the men and their horses, freezing them in place. He owed much of his success to the Spell of Paralysis.
With the mercenaries immobile, The Shadow galloped on. Many believed the mysterious highwayman to be a powerful Sorcerer. Who else would have the power and nerve to rob the nobles loyal to the King? In truth, The Shadow had bought his wand from a hedge wizard, an unscrupulous purveyor of magical goods who’d been cast out of the Azure Tower for denigrating the craft.
He caught up to the carriage and dispatched the House guards in the same manner as the mercenaries. The spell lasted fifteen minutes, but he only needed ten. As he drew level with the driver, he tucked the wand back into his pocket and unsheathed his sword. The terrified driver stared down at the sharp tip, his eyes wide.
“One way or the other, this carriage is stopping,” The Shadow told him. “Your life is worth more than this.”
The man saw sense, pulling on the reins until the team slowed to a halt. The Shadow tipped his hat and fell back to the door of the carriage. He rapped three times, expecting and receiving no response. The noble folk seemed to have an aversion to good manners.
“By my word, you’ll come to no harm if you open this door,” he called. “But if you make me use my powerful magic to open it, you’ll spend the rest of your lives believing you’re toads.”
His threat was all the magic he needed. The door opened to reveal a finely-dressed white haired noble and his fair daughter sitting in the gloomy interior. The Shadow tipped his hat again.
“M’Lord, M’Lady, I believe you know what comes next.”
The man scowled. “You’ve no right! This gold is the tithe we owe to the King. It doesn’t belong to you.”
“Nor does it belong to you. It belongs to the men who work your fields, the women who spin your yarn, and the merchants who carry the goods to and from your holdings. The King will spend your coin on throwing pointless banquets. A waste. Now, bring out what you have.” He ran the tip of his sword below the laced collar of the lord’s jacket. “I would hate for such finery to be ruined by your admirable over-protectiveness. Blood is so difficult to get out of lace.”
The man handed over the tithe hidden in the space beneath his seat, and The Shadow turned with a smile to the lady glowering silently. A beautiful ruby necklace was clasped around her neck, the stone nestled above a generous bosom.
“M’Lady’s beauty is cheapened by such gaudy baubles.” He brought the tip of his sword across her bare skin, to the deep red jewel. “If you don’t mind..?”
With the tithe money and jewelry packed into his saddle bag, The Shadow turned back to his victims and drew from his pocket a single red rose. This he gave to the lady; she looked like she wanted to slit his throat with its thorny stem.
“You won’t get away with this!” the man growled as The Shadow turned his horse.
“My dear sir, I already have.” With a laugh and a flourish of his cape, he turned Storm towards the deeper woods and disappeared into the night.
* * * * *
After stashing his haul in a hollowed-out stump, The Shadow took his horse to the stream and washed the chalk from the stallion’s lower legs. He did the same with the white chalk blaze he’d drawn on the animal’s forehead. Black stallions of Storm’s breeding were rare in the kingdom, and Storm was too easily recognised as royal stock.
With the horse back to his usual colour, The Shadow remounted. The tithe was safe and in time would be returned to the men and women who’d earned it. His father was wrong to tax the landowners so harshly to fund his own frivolous luxuries; it was the common people who ended up paying.
His duty to the kingdom done for another night, he turned his horse towards the royal palace. Towards home.
Every Friday, the Internet’s Chuck Wendig provides some sort of delicious flash fiction prompt for followers of his blog to respond to. This week’s mission, should you choose to accept it, is:
I want you to write a story of going against authority. That can mean whatever it means — but I want it to be a story with attitude, with a take-no-shit, have-no-fucks style. Whatever genre, whatever theme you want.
I went with a classic Robin Hood tale of taking from the rich and giving to the poor. If you’ve enjoyed this story, please check out some of the other offerings which will show up on Chuck’s blog from Monday onward. You’ll find some excellent authors contributing their own flash fictions.