Master Doogie Stone yelped in pain. The arrow he had intended to send flying at the target across the courtyard slid along the cord of his bow and hurtled downward. The arrow's blunt practice tip stabbed him in the foot. Startled by the cry, two elderly women looked up from their knitting and nodded sympathetically at him.
The archery instructor, Lieutenant Brent Corbett, had long ago lost patience with his Liege's third and youngest son. Lieutenant Corbett took his job seriously knowing that some day his friend's life might depend on his instruction. The Lieutenant , only slightly older than his student, fixed him with a gaze that said more than words. With all the calm he could muster he said, "The young sir must hold the arrow firm with the right hand and guide it with the left so it flies smoothly to the target."
The other humans around the courtyard knew enough to hide their amusement at the young man's anguish, but Cloud, Doogie's pet crow, had no such inhibitions. The black bird made loud laughing noises and flapped his wings while he did a little dance on his perch.
"Shut up, you stupid bird!" the boy shouted in embarrassment. "I'll shoot you if you don't knock that off!"
The bird squawked as if to dare the boy to try, because that was what it was saying and the boy understood it. The boy yanked the arrow out of his foot and, dripping a little blood, rapidly nocked it into the bow. He pulled back on the bow with a sureness that stood in contrast to his last attempt. He pointed the arrow at the bird.
Lieutenant Corbett jerked the bow out of the boy's hands. "Do NOT aim at something you do not intend to shoot!" He glared at the boy at eye level. Even though most of the people in the service of the boy's father, the Noble Lord Roweling Stone, thought of him as a child, eighteen year old Doogie had grown as tall as most of the men in his father's guard and had broader shoulders than even the strongest among them.
The bird hopped around uneasily and squawked again.
Doogie looked at the bird and said, "I'll get you next time!"
The bird taunted him to try.
With a determined look in his eye, Doogie calmly retrieved the bow and arrow from Lieutenant Corbett. He nocked the arrow and aimed for the target. It landed solidly in the center. He confidently pulled another arrow from his quiver. He put it into the target to the left of the first. He put another one into the target to the right of the first and then one above and one below. All five arrows sat neatly in the center of the target's smallest circle. The humans in the courtyard were silent. Cloud made small unsettled noises as he shifted from one foot to the other on his perch with his wings held tightly to his sides.
"It's like magic!" Lieutenant Corbett whispered stunned by the boy's sudden display of skill. In the years they had been working together, the boy had never put on such an exhibition.
"No, my friend, it's focus," Lord Stone said as he strode across the courtyard. "The boy needs to focus."
Before settling down to take possession of his inheritance, Doogie's father had been a heart breaker. Even now with gray on his temples and a little stiffness in his walk, women stopped to stare at him as he passed by. His reputation for amorous encounters before he married Doogie's mother was as well established as his reputation as a military strategist. Doogie looked every bit his father's son. There were those who said Doogie was more like his father than either of his two older brothers.
The elder Stone solidly said, "Do it again. Think about your anger. The target is not coloured circles. It is a bear ready to kill you."
"Yes, Father," the boy answered meekly.
Lieutenant Corbett had retrieved the arrows from the target and dropped them in the boy's quiver. Doogie nocked his first arrow and pulled it back, concentrating on the dot in the center of the target. Sweat popped out on his brow. Doogie hesitated just long enough for his father to stomp on his still bleeding foot. The arrow flew straight and true to the center of the target.
"Do it again!"
Doogie sent four more arrows home to the target. The pattern looked like the diamond shape he had created with his last volley.
"Focus your anger," Lord Stone said as he turned away and punched the solid muscle of the boy's shoulder.
Cloud made one short squawk before Doogie silenced him with a pointed finger. Cloud then flew from his perch to land on Doogie's shoulder. He twisted his head around to look Doogie in the eye. Doogie pulled a few grains of corn out of his pocket and palmed them so Cloud could eat them. Cloud flew back to his perch laughing in his strange crow laugh.
Lord Stone motioned for his captain of the guard. The captain had been watching the lessons with interest. He had been concerned about the Lieutenant 's abilities as an instructor. His skills as an archer were well documented, but Doogie was his first student.
"Has your opinion changed?"
"No, Milord, with all due respect sir, I disagree that your son is ready for this mission."
"Even with Lieutenant Corbett as his escort?"
"I have complete confidence in Lieutenant Corbett, sir. I agree that he is the best choice to accompany your son should you decide to send him on this mission. Sir, my concern is for your son. He has the body of a man and the strength of two, but he thinks like a child. These lessons are a game to him. He is an excellent archer when he cares to be. He is a skilled swordsman and can hold his own against some of my best, but to him it is sport, not combat. What will he do when he faces a real opponent who seeks to kill him? He has the strength in his arm to kill a man with a single arrow. I am not concerned for his ability. It is his desire that worries me."
"He will probably do as we did. Was it so long ago that you have forgotten our battles?"
"No sir, but it was different for us."
"Perhaps not as different as we might hope."
A courier handed Lord Stone a message. He read it and handed it to the captain.
"Sir, may suggest Lieutenant Corbett take a detail and escort them?"
"My son should go with them," Lord Stone replied with a grin.
The captain smiled. "I shall begin preparations. By your leave, Sire."
"Captain, allow me to tell the Lieutenant."
"Lieutenant Corbett, the signal I awaited has arrived later than I had hoped. Our guests will arrive today, but not before dark. Please mount a party of a dozen armed men in their finest parade livery. Ride out the west road to meet them. Escort them back here."
"As you wish, my liege," the Lieutenant replied.
"Douglas, will go with you. He will lead the party and carry my colors."
Lieutenant Corbett silently raised an eyebrow.
The Noble Lord gently rested his hand on the young man's shoulder. "Trust me, my friend. Have I ever led you astray?"
"No, my liege."
Turning to his son, Lord Stone said, "Douglas, before you leave you must bathe and have the women tie your hair back with a ribbon. Visit the chemist for an appropriate scent. You should look and smell like the son of a nobleman you are and not like a stable boy."
"Stand up straight. Don't slouch in the saddle."
"Yes, father, as you wish, father."
Doogie held out his arm for Cloud and together they raced for his quarters. Unlike his brothers who had male attendants, Doogie's attendants were female. By the time he reached his quarters, they had prepared his bath and waited with scented soaps. Two of his attendants had been with him since he was an infant and had sons of their own who were his age. One of these sons would be riding out with him to greet their visitors. The two youngest attendants were only slightly older than him. He knew them intimately because he often enjoyed their company in the bath, a practice his mother had encouraged so that he not fall for the first woman that looked his way. The success of that idea had been sorely tested on more than one occasion.
Doogie frequently marvelled at the feat of engineering that provided the castle with continuous running water. His grandfather had built an aqueduct from the mountain lake above the castle and except for the driest of summers, it provided cold clear water to the castle and the village that surrounded it.
The chemist, having learned of Doogie's mission, arrived as the women were tying the last knot in his braided hair. The women argued over which scent to use and finally settled on something that smelled faintly of wild flowers. They dusted Doogie with it and pushed him out the door. Cloud followed indignantly because he, too, had been cleaned and dusted.
Doogie picked up the flag with his father's colors from the dining hall as he headed to the courtyard. Carrying the flag carefully so as not to impale any of the servants scurrying around in the castle's corridors, Doogie did his best to imitate his father's purposeful tread as he headed for the tack shed. Knowing that his horse would already have been saddled and groomed, he sought only to pick up the flag strap. When he arrived, the farrier had it waiting for him.
"Is the young master to escort the young lady then?" The farrier asked him with a twinkle in his eye.
"My father did not tell me who I would be meeting," Doogie answered.
The old man's smile lit his entire face revealing several missing teeth. He chuckled as he said, "The young master is in for a pleasant surprise. Ride well and proud good sir!"
Doogie was the last of the party to arrive at the courtyard. He quickly attached the flag strap to the saddle and mounted the horse. "Lieutenant?"
"Are the men ready to depart?"
"Yes, sir, they are."
"They are your men. I will follow your command."
Lieutenant Corbett only blinked once in surprise. Doogie's father routinely deferred to his more experienced subordinates, unlike Doogie's brothers who were more insistent on having their own way. When he thought about it later, Lieutenant Corbett was reassured by how many lessons the youngest Stone had absorbed from his father.
Lieutenant Corbett stood in his stirrups and bellowed "Form UP!" to his assembled party. The men formed into two lines with Doogie riding alone in the front and the Lieutenant behind him. "Move OUT!"
The formation headed out the castle gate and across the drawbridge. Above the clatter of the hooves on the stones, Doogie heard many of the villagers shout "Ride well and proud!" as they passed. Doogie smiled and waved in return. It was just an escort party and not a war party out to defend against marauders.
Once they had passed the outskirts of the village, Lieutenant Corbett ordered the party into an easy trot. The trot would eat up the distance between them and the arriving guests without straining the horses. Doogie loved riding and the spirited horses pleased him. He often tagged along with the mounted units as they patrolled the outskirts of his father's holdings searching for bandits and marauders. More than once he had joined them in battle against the bands of brigands that harassed the holdings. His swordsmanship and horsemanship were exemplary, but his archery left something to be desired. This was why Lieutenant Corbett devoted so much time to Doogie's archery practice.
They rode for two hours until they came to a stream. They dismounted and watered the horses. Cloud, who hated the horses and hated riding even more, settled on Doogie's outstretched arm to rest. He had circled overhead as they rode keeping an eye out for possible threats. On previous missions, Cloud had warned them of danger more than once and, in spite of the superstitions regarding crows, the men were generally happy to see this particular crow accompany them. As the horses drank greedily, Lieutenant Corbett wandered over to Doogie and said, "Sir, your father wished me to remind you to be on your best behaviour and to mind your manners in the presence of our guests."
"Aren't I always when we have guests?" Doogie retorted.
Suddenly Lieutenant Corbett stiffened, and Doogie knew it had nothing to do with their conversation.
"What's wrong, Lieutenant ?" Doogie asked timidly.
"I don't know. Trouble nearby." He closed his eyes to concentrate. Doogie had ridden with him often enough to know that his "feelings" deserved careful attention. In spite of Lieutenant Corbett's youth, other members of Lord Stone's guard had also recognized this ability and often requested that he accompany them on patrol. After a long pause he opened his eyes. "Master Douglas, could you send your bird up in that direction to scout for us?" He pointed at an angle away from the path they had intended to take along the river.
"Cloud, are you ready for a little aerial recon?" Doogie asked.
Cloud looked at him askance as if to say, "Of course I'm ready for aerial recon. I'm a crow you stupid human." All of which Doogie understood.
"Go in that direction and report back what you find."
Cloud hopped into the air and headed in the direction Lieutenant Corbett had pointed.
"MOUNT UP!" Lieutenant Corbett bellowed.
As soon as they had formed into their lines he called "Move OUT!"
Once the column was moving at a trot he commanded the trumpeter, "Sound the colors!"
The trumpeter lifted his horn to his lips and blew Lord Roweling Stone's recognition call. He played it three times, and after each one, he waited for an answer. The column of soldiers with Doogie leading with the flag trotted in the direction Cloud had gone. Three more times, the trumpeter blew his horn to alert friend and foe alike that they were in the area.
They heard Cloud before they saw him. His raucous cries clearly meant trouble ahead. They pushed their horses into a gallop and followed the low flying bird through the lightly wooded terrain. Taking Lieutenant Corbett's lead, the men drew their weapons. Unable to both carry the flag and draw his sword while still staying on the horse, Doogie led the charge unarmed.
Faintly in the distance they heard a horn over the sound of their horse's hooves beating into the soft ground. It was a distress call.
"Blow the colors again!" Lieutenant Corbett commanded.
When the trumpeter had blown the colors twice, Lieutenant Corbett ordered "Blow Charge!"
"Charge" was the trumpeter's favourite call. He blew it with enthusiasm. He blew it a second time to leave no doubt that he meant it the first time.
Doogie and the rest of the detail pushed their horses as hard as they could in the direction of the other trumpeter. The next trumpet call the charging column heard was the colors of the guests they had been sent out to meet. This call was repeated three times. Doogie interpreted this to mean that whoever was attacking their guests had been frightened off by Doogie's detail's approach.
They crested a ridge to see a coach and a convoy of heavy farm wagons in a circle on the road below. The coach was in the center of the circle. A company of horsemen stood between the carriage and the wagons facing outward in a protective ring. Alternating between "charge" and the colors, the trumpeter furiously announced their arrival. Doogie lead his battle group dressed in their finest parade uniforms toward the convoy holding his flag high so it stood out in the wind. This was a manoeuvre his father had drilled into him as a child. When surprise was not an option, the attacker should make as much noise as possible so the enemy would think they faced a larger force than they did and would retreat in the face of what appeared to be superior numbers. The tactic had worked. Doogie and company had arrived in time to prevent the attack.
Doogie greeted the officer in charge of the convoy's guard. "Sir! Douglas Stone, son of His Lordship Roweling Stone at your service, sir!"
"It is an honour to meet you, sir. I am Captain Barry Maguire, guard to the lady Miss Amber, daughter of his lordship Viscount Ryan Thorvald. With your permission, sir, may I take some of your men and give chase?"
Doogie shot a quick glance at his Lieutenant Corbett who nodded imperceptibly. "Yes, you may." He turned to join the chase.
"Master Douglas!" Captain Maguire called.
"I believe the ladies would feel safer if you stayed here with them, sir."
Doogie nodded. "We must not upset the ladies any more than they already are." Turning to the crow who had just lighted on his arm he said, "Cloud! Recon for them." Cloud nodded once and took off in the direction of the fleeing band.
With a sweep of his arm, Captain Maguire ordered the combined force into action. They rode off in pursuit.
In his best attempt to appear like a gentleman instead of a country bumpkin, Doogie rode to the carriage to introduce himself, straightening his coat as he rode. He sat tall in the saddle as he approached with his horse carefully under control. His parade helmet hid his unruly hair. The curtain opened. A young lady with stunning eyes peered out and challenged him. "Are you the wretch I am being forced to marry?" She spat the words. Her voice had the harshness of sand.
Caught by surprise, Doogie's nervousness evaporated and he laughed. "I certainly hope not!" The laugh felt good.
"How dare you laugh at me! Young Sir! Do you not understand the seriousness of a woman being sent off to marry a man she has never met?"
"Certainly! But, what you said deserved to be laughed at Milady!" Doogie rolled back in his saddle enjoying the release of the laughter. Even as he laughed he could not help but notice that she was no older than he.
"How dare you laugh at me! You arrogant knave! Am I not good enough for you? You don't even know me!"
Doogie smiled as he shook his head. "No, Milady that has nothing to do with anything. My feelings about you have no weight."
Trying not to sound condescending, Doogie replied, "You are a stranger to local customs." He regained his proper posture in the saddle. "My great grandfather decreed that in any territory governed by the family Stone, no woman shall be forced to marry any man she does not wish to marry." He paused to see that he had her attention. "Further to that, no man may ask for a woman's hand in marriage. She must ask him. The man may court whomever he pleases and make his desires known, but she asks for his hand and she must do it in front of two independent witnesses."
"How bizarre! You come from a strange place."
"Perhaps. So there! But you know only half of why I laughed at you. First, since I am a Stone, you can not be forced to marry any one you do not wish to marry while you are in my company and second, I am certainly not a wretch, nor a knave thank you very much!"
"A wretch would not have noticed your eyes, preferring to let his eyes drift elsewhere. I, however, have noticed only your eyes and have been mesmerized by them. Were it not for the care with which my mother raised me, I would have fallen for you as soon as I saw your face. With those beautiful long eyelashes you could whip any man you wished into submission."
"It is but a mask." Her expression softened. "I call them ultra lashes because they do work like whips and help me get my way with foolish young men such as yourself."
"Milady, we have failed to introduce ourselves. I am Douglas Stone, youngest son of the Noble Lord Roweling Stone."
"I am Amber, eldest daughter of his Lordship Viscount Ryan Thorvald."
"It is my honour to meet you noble lady." He glanced inside the coach. "Your lady's maid has been mighty quiet in there. If our positions had been reversed, my maids would have given you a piece of their minds by now."
Amber turned to look at her maid. "She passed out from fear when we were surrounded. She has not recovered." Amber stopped, about to say something, when a thought wafted across her face. "Your maids? Do you not have man servants?"
Doogie did not get the chance to answer the question. A dozen of the marauders who had previously been rebuffed burst out of the woods. They had split off from the main party and had looped back to the convoy. Doogie was outnumbered. He had four men of the convoy escort who had remained behind, an unarmed driver in each wagon and himself to fend off a dozen well armed highwaymen.
The Noble Lord Roweling Stone had impressed on his sons the importance of seeking the higher ground. The highest point in his immediate vicinity was the top of the carriage that the women rode in. Without a second thought, Doogie whipped his bow and arrows from their saddle straps. He made sure his sword was securely in its sheath and using the flag pole as a staff, vaulted to the top of the carriage. Doogie's pulse quickened and his breath steadied as he prepared himself for battle. He felt his anger swell. He understood this anger and welcomed it. He had fought raiders alongside his father's guard before, but now he was alone to defend himself and the convoy against a larger force. He felt his energy focus on the advancing marauders. He nocked an arrow and pulled back on his bow as hard as he could. The tension in his shoulder felt good, strong, reassuring. There was comfort in the familiarity of the tension.
For a fleeting moment Doogie appreciated the hours of practice and exercise he had been forced to endure. He patiently waited for the first moving target to come in range
. These were not men to him. In his mind they were targets little different from the ones he practiced on in the courtyard except that they moved. He loosed his first arrow. His aim was true and the arrow's flight was swift. His strength gave the arrow a power few of his father's guard could match. Had he been fighting properly equipped warriors his arrow would have hit leather armour on the man's chest and bounced off. As it was the arrow penetrated between two of the brigand's ribs and protruded out his back puncturing a lung. Blood ran freely from both the entry and exit wounds as the man fell off his horse screaming in pain with his remaining lung. Doogie did not linger to watch the mandrown in his own blood.
The rider next to the one Doogie had just shot turned to look at his fallen comrade. Had he not done so, Doogie's second arrow would have sailed harmlessly over this target's shoulder. Instead, the arrow hit him in the side of his neck and severed his jugular. Too stunned even to cry out, the man fell from his horse as geysers of blood sprayed over him and his horse.
Doogie's third arrow missed its target as the horse swerved unexpectedly.
Doogie shifted his gaze and focused his attention on the closest rider. The column of marauders had split and was now coming from two directions. He chose a target from the group on the left. Lieutenant Corbett had told him to aim for the point below the sternum, but that only worked when the target was coming straight in. This man was circling looking for an opportunity to charge inward, Doogie momentarily shifted his attention to the second man in the group thinking he might have a better shot. The first man, believing he saw an opportunity, turned to charge the coach. Doogie focused his anger on the man's sternum and placed the arrow exactly where he knew it should go. The man fell forward, but did not fall off his horse. He continued bouncing on the horse as it fled. The bouncing drove the arrow the rest of the way through the man's body and out his back.
Doogie heard screams from behind him as the four remaining guards fought valiantly to fend off the attackers. He hoped that the screams were those of the highwaymen and not of the guards. Doogie heard more than felt an arrow glance off the metal of his parade helmet. His moment of inattention had almost cost his life. Without thinking, he turned in the direction that the arrow had come and let off one of his own. His arrow struck the man in the shoulder. The wound would slow the man down, but would not take him out of the battle. An arrow came at Doogie from behind. He was under attack from two sides. His next arrow missed as he ducked behind the luggage carried on top of the coach. Holding his bow horizontally as he had been shown to do when shooting from cover, Doogie sent another arrow at another target. This arrow found its mark and the fourth man Doogie killed that day fell from his horse screaming in pain.
Hearing a commotion on the side of the carriage, Doogie turned around. He looked down to see the man he had wounded in the shoulder attempt to climb into the carriage window only to be stabbed in the arm by a dirk held in a hand wearing a white lace glove. The dirk laid open the muscle from the man's wrist to his elbow. The brief pause as the man reacted to the pain was all the time Doogie needed to draw his sword. Swinging the sword in a carefully aimed arc, Doogie severed the man's uninjured arm at the elbow. Doogie's return swing opened a wide gash in the man's neck causing him to fall to the ground as death overtook him. That would be five, although Doogie would not think about the count until later.
Doogie saw a black shadow pass overhead and turned in time to see a highwayman climbing up the back of the carriage with his sword drawn and a dagger in his mouth. With the crow equivalent of a war cry, looking for all the world like an eagle about to swoop up a fish, Cloud collided with the back of the man's head digging his claws deeply into the back of the man's scalp. As much to steady himself as to further the attack, Cloud dug his sharp pointed beak into the man's forehead. Doogie grasped his sword firmly with both hands, pulled his sword back over his right shoulder and set his feet at shoulder width with his left side facing the struggling highwayman. When the man stood to try and dislodge the angry bird, Doogie swung his sword with all his might and removed the man's head. Doogie's sixth kill of the day fell to the ground in two pieces.
Cloud screeched angrily as he clawed for altitude declaring that Doogie need not have bothered. Cloud had matters under control. Doogie laughed and then turned to survey the suddenly quiet battle scene. Ten marauders lay dead or dying on the ground. Two more were fleeing as fast as they could ride. All four of the guards had been injured, but none seriously. The drivers had hidden terrified under their seats and had escaped injury.
Doogie gingerly climbed down off the carriage. The carriage door opened and Amber stepped out. Her arm was covered in blood. She gripped her dirk firmly and menacingly. Her maid followed twittering like a frightened bird.
Doogie, with blood spattered on his parade livery, bowed to the ladies and asked, "Is Milady injured?"
"No," she huffed, "but they are." She pointed to the guards.
They turned their attention to the four guards who were cleaning their wounds with water from their drinking flasks. None of the wounds were serious, but they would need medical attention. Two would have impressive battle scars as evidence of their bravery.
Cloud heralded the return of the main party and then headed off in raucous pursuit of the fleeing highwaymen.
Lieutenant Corbett dismounted at the edge of the clearing. He stooped to examine the arrows lodged in the bodies and recognized the Stone family colors. There was only one archer who could have used those arrows. Lieutenant Corbett had often wondered if Doogie would take after his father or forever remain the young boy who would be of little help in defending the holdings. The patrols in pursuit of marauders had been a game to him. While the Lieutenant had hoped he knew the answer, this was the first time he really believed it. Captain Maguire dismounted near his men who had stayed to defend the wagons.
"I see you gentlemen have been busy in our absence." The captain addressed his four guards. "Your report, please."
"Yes, sir," the squad leader answered pointing out the bodies on the ground. "That one is mine. That one is Brian's. That one is Jim's. That one is Dan's." He paused.
"And the rest?" Captain Maguire asked.
The squad leader swallowed. "The kid," he took a deep breath before finishing. "But the lady got one in the arm and the kid finished him off."
Captain Maguire looked at the squad leader in disbelief even as Lieutenant Corbett displayed the bloody arrows that proved what he almost did not believe himself. "Sergeant, are you telling me that a boy killed, four, five, six men?"
"Yes, sir, I would not have believed it if I had not seen it with my own eyes sir. Just as calm as you please, sir. Didn't even get his clothes dirty until the last one, sir. See the one with his head over there at the base of the tree and his body over here? That one sir."
Lieutenant Corbett turned to Doogie and asked, "Is this true?"
Doogie looked at the ground and shuffled his feet. "Yes, sir, it is, sir." He paused. "Sir, should we go after the two that got away?"
Lieutenant Corbett gaped in amazement. The boy's blood was as cold as his father's. The boy would give chase. "Probably not wise to follow them through a forest that they know better than we do. Let them spread the word what a fierce fighter the third Stone son is. After today, word will spread to not challenge the Stone family flag."
"Had not my father and grandfather already established that?" Doogie asked nervously.
Lieutenant Corbett shook his head, "Nothing like this. Captain, would you agree?"
Captain Barry Maguire had been mentally trying to piece together the sequence of battle. "I might have expected such from one of my legendary Green Berets, but a single boy, never. I shall be sorry when I leave the safety of your company, young sir. I hope that should we ever share a field of battle we are on the same side."
Doogie looked up and said, "I think we have overlooked Amber's part. Had she not stabbed the man climbing the carriage door, he would have gotten me from behind."
Captain Maguire nodded to Amber and said, "So noted. I will include that in my report as should you, Master Douglas."
"Report?" Doogie shrieked.
Lieutenant Corbett chuckled. "Your father will want a full written report."
"You can't be serious!"
"Um, Gentlemen," Amber interrupted. "It might not be advantageous for my pursuit of a husband for it to be known that I stab strange men in the arm. We should tell Lord Stone and my father, but I do not think it should go any further."
"As you wish, Milady."
Lieutenant Corbett turned to Captain Maguire. "We should get your men to the doctors. Two of my men can escort them to the castle and inform Lord Stone that we will be late for dinner."
"Absolutely," Captain Maguire agreed.
Lieutenant Corbett turned to Doogie and said, "With your permission, sir."
Doogie huffed, "As always, I follow your command."
Lieutenant Corbett looked Doogie in the eye. "No, sir, not anymore. After today, I follow your command as willingly as I followed your father's."
Trembling, Doogie took a deep breath. "Lieutenant Corbett, your plan is good." He drew a second deep breath, uneasy with command. "Make it so."
Lieutenant Corbett bowed slightly at the waist and said, "By your leave, sir."
"Captain Maguire, would you assist Lieutenant Corbett?"
The Captain smiled and said, "Certainly, sir, by your leave, sir."
The officers and their men left to send the messenger party off. Doogie, Amber and her maid were left standing by the carriage door. The maid was still twittering and crying.
Amber looked at Doogie and demanded, "What was that all about? All that Manly Man nonsense?"
"I think they were impressed," he said softly still not believing the evidence of his eyes and the ache of his muscles.
"They freakin' well better be impressed!" She shouted. "You just offed six goons by your freakin' self and the best they can do is be impressed. Gag me with a spoon! What kind of tight asses are they? They should be shaking your hand or thumping your back or whatever it is you guys do when you get excited."
"Lady Amber, that is enough." Doogie said sternly.
"What do you mean that is enough?" she screamed at him. "I have a right to my opinions! I have a right to make comments. Are you going to let them ignore you?"
Doogie was losing his temper. He knew he was hearing the remnants of the terror that still gripped the lady and her maid, but he was in no mood to deal with it. He was having is own angst and did not need to be dealing with hers. He set his jaw and as levelly as he could manage, he commanded, "You have every right to make all the comments you want where no one can hear them. I have a right to not listen! Get back in the carriage!"
She stomped her foot. "NO!"
"GET BACK IN THE CARRIAGE!"
Doogie slammed his still bloody sword into its scabbard. He grabbed Amber around the middle and threw her over his shoulder. She was a little heaver than he expected, but not so much that he lost his balance. He threw open the carriage door with his free hand and stepped inside. He threw her onto the seat. He stepped back, picked up the terrified maid and deposited her inside the carriage somewhat more gently than he had her mistress. He slammed the door shut and locked it from the outside.
Cloud appeared out of nowhere and landed on Doogie's arm. Doogie turned to see the two officers chuckling as they looked at him.
"What's so funny?" Doogie demanded in obvious anger.
Captain Maguire raised his eyebrows. "Lovers' quarrel?"
"That's not funny!"
"Yes, it is," Lieutenant Corbett answered suppressing a laugh. "You're one of us now. That makes it funny."
"No! It doesn't!"
The officers and the men who had been gathering during the interchange burst into laughter. It was a deep, rolling laugh and eventually Doogie laughed along with them.
When the laughter had subsided, Captain Maguire said, "We should be on our way."
"What about them?" Doogie asked pointing to the bodies strewn on the ground.
"My men have taken their weapons," Captain Maguire said. "Their comrades will be back for the bodies, or not. It is of no consequence to us."
"We can't leave them here to rot!"
"Yes, we can, especially since some of them have been killed with arrows marked with your colors. We have collected the arrow heads so we can use them again, but the bodies will serve as a warning to those who might wish to cross the house of Stone."
Lieutenant Corbett addressed Doogie, "There are creatures of the forest for whom these carcasses could mean the difference between surviving the winter or not. Perhaps Cloud would be willing to notify his friends of the bounty."
Doogie looked at Cloud. Cloud bounced once to indicate he understood. "Give us some time to be clear before you call in the clean up squad."
Cloud bounced once to show he understood and flew off to find the trash collectors.
Doogie stopped to calm Amber and make amends for having manhandled her. She would have none of it. Doogie took the lead with the flag as the shadows lengthened and night approached.