The sun was starting to awaken from its slumber and brighten the clearing where we had made camp but a night as dark as pitch still ruled under the tree canopy. I was about ten yards in when I was grabbed the first time.
I hate my peaches being manhandled as it leaves you no dignity and it hurts something fierce; but the grungy highway robber was the first man I’d ever killed over it. I jabbed my torch in his face and he released me with a scream. I continued to rake the burning poker across his ear and his greasy hair and beard caught fire turning him into a human torch.
Right before the idiot started running in circles fanning the air and causing the flames to spread even more I reached in and stole the big pig sticker off of his belt and then skipped off after the sounds telling me that my sisters were putting up a good fight.
They’d caused so much trouble the human traffickers had been forced to stop in a small clearing and were smacking them around trying to subdue them so that they could continue to carry them off. Showed what they knew; we’d been knocked around enough that their fly slaps weren’t working as well as they’d expected. From out of the corner of my eye I barely had time to move to take the sting out of a fist coming my way.
With as much contempt as I could manage over a busted lip I asked, “Who taught you to fight you wuss? My old Gran hit harder with a broom and her bedridden and suffering from bent bones.”
An enraged bellow was followed by the man making a round house swing at me but in the process opening up his arm pit as a target for the long blade in my hand. As soon as I pulled it free blood gushed from what I knew would be a severed artery. The man would be dead in moments and was already falling shocked to his knees trying to stop the spurting flow. I turned from him and started stabbing kidneys and tripes, which was only determined by the side they had turned towards me.
And I wasn’t the only one. Hannah, with a reach to match her proud height, was using a spear to advantage until it got hung up in the ribs of one man. Another man was about to crush her when suddenly Carter came out of the brush bellowing like a bull and with one ham-sized fist nearly took the head off of her attacker.
I would have been satisfied with just rescuing my sisters but the Kipling men decided to obliterate the highwaymen from existence. The remainder of the battle was as bloody as the first part but was over much quicker as the highwaymen gave up in resignation. When all was said and done Captain Uhl had the corpses all strung up in a large tree so that any traveler would see and that word would get around that injured or not, you did not mess with any from Kipling.
The strange thing to me was that despite the brutal finality of the battle there was no gloating by the men of Kipling. By rights they could have. Most men in my experience would have. Instead these men simply gathered their wounded, patched everyone up both male and female, and headed on down the road quietly with not even one mocking jab at the inadequacy of their opponents.
My foot was sore and my face and knuckles bruised but the Captain still had me astride a mule with a stout bow in my hands and a quiver across my back. I watched the tree line and listened for out of place sounds beneath our own travel but would occasionally glance at Docia and Nel as they helped the Nephew tend to the wounded too injured to do anything but lay or sit in one of the wagons. The Captain rode at the head of the caravan. He looked at ease but I could see the tight lines of anger around his mouth and wondered if it was at the additional delay or the injuries caused to his men.
Carter, apparently thinking that our camaraderie over the spears and the battle made it easier to speak to me, approached and asked, “So’s … Maid Hannah …”
I rolled my eyes. “Just because I carry this bow doesn’t mean that I call Cupid my kin. If you want to know something about Hannah go ask her.”
“Welllll ….” The big man was actually embarrassed. In that moment I couldn’t have kicked the poor teddy bear had my life depended on it.
“Honestly, you Kipling men are so strange.”
He asked, “In what way Maid Fel?”
“Well that for one. Calling us all ‘Maid’ like we have some station to our place in this world. And for another … well, the lot of you act …” I had to stop as I didn’t even have the words for how strange they were. I snorted. “Let us just say that you act different from the men of our town and leave it at that.”
Looking honestly curious he asked, “And that’s bad?”
I shook my head. “No, not if this is truly real and not some play acting meant to fool us for some reason of your own. My crèche sisters might take a while to get used to it though.”
Keeping an eye on the road I said, “Not so much as they. My Da was strange in his own way too. He was a traveler that stopped and then decided to stay as he liked the look of my Ma; the taste of her cooking didn’t hurt either. He was more like your Captain only not so refined of speech. He …”
Even after four years the loss of my family felt like a dagger in my heart and I gave up trying to explain. Carter didn’t seem to be offended at our unfinished conversation … the big man didn’t seem to get offended by much at all. For all his size and ferocity in battle he seemed good natured and easy going.
The next to try their luck was a young buck by the name of Lem Hemmings asking after Daphne. “She’s … she’s …” I was forced to glance over and witness a moony look that had me looking away as fast as I could to keep from laughing.
“Hmmm, yes Daphne looks … hmmm …”
“She looks like a real lady. My mother warned me not to fall for some Outland girl with no manners. Maid Daphne … even my mother could not find fault with her.”
Oh Glory. “Best then to wait for you Ma to … er … have … er … have her say before you go any further. It would be good to show her how much … er … you respect her advice.”
I had to bite my lip to keep from saying something cheeky. It would suit me fine for Daphne to wind up with some namby pamby but I could not wish on her the mother in law from hell; she did not deserve that much pay back though I’ll admit a part of me was tempted.
It was like that off and on to the point I went from being embarrassed to finding it a little funny to beginning to be irritated … and perhaps a little jealous as none of the men approached me for me, only to find out a bit about my crèche sisters. Luckily I only had to endure a few more days of it before we approached a tall, concrete stockade with heavy gates.
Before we were within a hundred yards riders came out and there was a lot of back slapping and laughing. The way Nephew road up and was embraced by one of the men from the stockade, and by their similar look and build, I took the older man to be his Da or something close to it. The Captain had us push on and he seemed a bit anxious. The women were beginning to be anxious as well and I watched their confidence and curiosity begin to leave them, replaced by a subdued fear of the unknown.