Friar of Breslau
Bartel turned to Jander. “There he is. Hide our swords.”
Jander blinked and peered towards the Sudeten Forest.
“I don’t see him,” he said, blowing warmth onto his mittened hands.
“Look at where the road enters the woods, under the trees. Do you see?”
In the distance before them, a great forest sprawled across the landscape. A white frost covered the trees and its canopy of crooked limbs. As the road wound into the gloom beneath, a solitary man waited at the gape of the woods. Faint wisps of frozen breath blew before his face.
“I see him,” Jander whispered. “I think he is looking at us.”
“He would have spotted us long before we saw him. Quick, cover the swords beneath the cloth.”
Jander faced their cart and hesitated. “If he’s that dangerous, maybe it’s best we keep our weapons in hand?”
“We are meant to be merchants, not soldiers or sellswords. Hide our weapons, and hurry before he gets suspicious.”
Jander tucked their swords beneath the cloth and pulled another over their wooden chest.
“Wait.” Bartel reached to pull the sheet back, just enough to expose the chest’s corner. “Let’s give him a glimpse of the bait.”
Jander banged a dirty palm against the chest. “A box of earth. Some bait you chose.”
Bartel smiled with the glint of a gold tooth. “If I owned a chest full of florins, I wouldn’t be out here bounty hunting. Now come on, start pulling.”
They each gripped a handle of the cart and pulled it with a bump and creak towards the Sudeten Forest. The road ran straight and narrow with stones crowned by lichen and ice. Ahead, the solitary man watched their approach. A cold wind cut across the hinterland and hackled the grassy verge.
Bartel felt the chill nip his fingertips and he buttoned his jerkin. He looked at Jander. The stocky man coughed and sneezed and covered his bald head with a shivering hand. The fool. Bartel had told him to bring a hood. He pulled his own from under his collar and tossed it at Jander.
“Keep yourself warm and stay alert.”
“Much obliged, Boss.” Jander smiled with teeth etched brown. “I would have brought my own, you know? Had you not used it this morning.”
Bartel laughed as he scratched his rear. That was his hood? He’d thought it a rag.
As they neared the forest, Bartel caught the scent of smoke and realised the waiting man had lit a fire. Yellow flames licked the air as a glow cast the man’s shadow into the forest.
“Look at that,” Jander whispered, eyes wide. “He’s not hiding from us.”
He looked to the cart and the cloth outline of their swords.
“Hold your nerve,” Bartel said. “This is his bait. To entice travellers with a warm fire. That means he has chosen to rob us.” He patted Jander on the shoulder and nodded at the chest. “And that my friend, means he has fallen for our bait.”
“I see. Then we must strike him quickly.”
“No. First we need to find out where he hides in these woods. Then we can claim his victim’s belongings as well as his bounty.”
“And how will we discover his den?”
“He’ll take us there.”
“Yes. Our chest is too heavy for one man to carry. He’ll lure us close to his hideout, then spring his ambush.” Bartel narrowed his eyes and looked into the dark of the woods. “We’ll let him lead us into the forest. When he stops and suggests we rest, we’ll know his den is near. That is when we strike.”
Jander hesitated. “And what if we’re too slow? Our swords are in the cart.”
“Then stay close to it. He can’t stop us both from grabbing a sword.”
Jander spied the surrounding countryside. “And what if he is not alone?”
“He will be. The reports have always been the same. Dead victims found robbed, with a single trail leading away into the woods.”
They came upon the outskirts of the forest. Tall trees rose before them like pillars, arched by branches that croaked in the wind. The man waited in the warm light of the fire, hooded by a brown robe.
As Bartel and Jander approached, the man removed his cowl to reveal an elderly face crowned with white hair. His lips were pale and thin, each split by a ragged scar.
“Greetings,” he said with a soft voice as he stepped forward. “I am Fritz, Friar of Breslau, the town beyond this woodland.” He smiled and his mangled lips twisted. “Forgive this ghoulish appearance of mine. An injury from my past.”
Bartel smiled in return. “The scar from a brave tale, I am sure.”
“And told too many times to recount again, I’m afraid.” The old man gestured at his fire. “But please, join me for a moment and tell me of what you know about the dire events up this road.”
“Dire events?” Jander said, his eyes widening as he pressed against the cart.
“We have not heard of any ill news on the road.” Bartel’s gaze fixed on Fritz.
The old man nodded to where the road disappeared into the woods.
“Sad news. A man lies dead farther up this way, besides a crossroad. Robbed I expect.”
“Robbed you say?”
Frizt bowed his head in a moment of prayer, sighed and looked to Bartel.
“I had hoped to pass through here and reach Breslau before dusk. But I fear the way is too dangerous.”
“Indeed. As travelling merchants, this is sour news to hear.”
Fritz looked at their cart and their chest. “It would be best that you do not chance this road either it seems.”
Bartel nodded. “True, but what are we to do?”
“There is another way.” Fritz opened a palm towards the forest. “A small track, not far from here, leads through these woods. We could travel it together. I know the way.”
Bartel placed a hand to his heart and smiled. “How fortunate of us to meet you then. We would be pleased to have you lead us along this safer route.”
“A pleasure.” Fritz gave a small bow and waved towards the crackling kindle. “Here my fire burns, please take a moment to warm yourselves before we depart.”
“No need – friend.” Bartel patted the cart’s handle. “It is better to get on with things.”
Jander chewed his lip and glanced to their hidden swords.
Fritz led them into the woods and in a short distance brought them to the small track. Barely trodden, it was overgrown by weeds and hemmed by bushes and brambles.
Bartel and Jander followed, heaving their cart through the mud and leaves as they drove deeper into the forest. The light faded and a chill crawled from the shadows. Roots tripped feet as brambles clawed clothes and soon Jander had lost Bartel’s hood. They pressed onward to round a gulley of sodden earth and to cross a rivulet cracked with ice. They stopped before the ruin of a dead tree that arched across their path.
Fritz held up a hand and reached for a branch.
Bartel whispered to Jander. “Remember, when he suggests we rest, he means to ambush us.” He leant over the cart and uncovered the hilt of a sword. “Don’t hesitate. Strike him quickly.”
Jander took in a deep breath and wiped his brow.
As Fritz pulled at the branch, it snapped and startled a pigeon above. The bird took flight with a flurry of wings and became snared in a knot of branches. The canopy clacked as leaves and twigs fell through a curtain of frost.
Jander let go of the cart to shield his bald head. A fist of ice thumped his brow and sent him to the ground with a thud. The pigeon broke free to leave behind a swirl of mist and silence. Jander lay sprawled upon the earth.
Fritz stepped over him and held out his hand. “Perhaps dear friend, we should pause and rest?”
Jander’s eyes widened and he recoiled from the old man’s hand.
“Rest,” he yelled. “He suggests to rest.”
He kicked out and struck Fritz on the knee.
The old man stumbled backwards. “By my Lord, what panics you?” He clutched his knee and turned to Bartel. “Your friend, what is the matter with him?”
Bartel threw aside the cart’s cloth and snatched hold of a sword. He swung it at Fritz who staggered away with raised palms.
“Peace!” he exclaimed. “If you mean to rob me, leave me with my life.”
Bartel lifted his sword high. “Trouble these lands no more, fake friar, we’ve come to collect your bounty.”
He cut the sword across Fritz’s neck with a sharp slice. The old man gasped and gurgled, groping at the wound. His split lips spoke wordlessly until his eyes rolled white.
Jander scrambled to his feet as Fritz fell dead from his.
An hour had passed before they returned to their cart after searching for Fritz’s hideout. Jander shivered and rubbed his hands as he looked back into the woods.
“Perhaps there is no den after all?”
Bartel leant on the cart and wiped sweat from his face. “It is here, but hidden too well.” He looked into the gloom of the forest and sighed. “Soon it will be dark and we have yet to find our way out. We’ll have to forfeit this den and any loot stashed within.”
“Perhaps we can return in a few days to seek it out?”
“No. Once we hand in his bounty these woods will be riddled by scavengers in search of it. Here, take this.”
He handed Jander a wooden plaque fitted with a loop of rope. A notice was carved along its front – Claimed bounty. Sanctioned by the Sheriff of Breslau.
“Hang it around his neck. We’ll leave the corpse beside the road. The Sheriff’s men will take it back once we notify him.”
“How long until he pays us?”
“The Sheriff is a brute but he pays promptly. If we get word to him tonight, he’ll have paid by morning. Come, let’s get this body back to the road.”
Bartel climbed onto the cart and kicked the chest off. It hit the ground with a crack, spilling earth between splintered boards.
Jander picked up a handful. “Maybe now you can fill a chest full with florins?”
Bartel laughed and shook his head. “I’d need many bounties before then.”
They slumped Fritz’s body onto the cart and headed back the way they had come. To Jander’s delight, the friar weighed far less than the chest. Soon they neared the roadside.
Bartel halted and raised a hand.
“Do you hear that, Jander?”
Jander turned an ear towards the road. “Yes, I hear talking. Who do you think it is?”
“Wait here, I’ll investigate. If they don’t harass me, bring up the cart.”
Bartel crept forward, pushing aside branches with his sword in hand. He reached the edge of the road and paused. At the entrance of the forest he saw three soldiers crouched beside Fritz’s fire. Their chainmail, Bartel spied, carried the emblem of the Sheriff of Breslau.
Bartel smiled, sheathed his sword and approached them.
“Good evening,” he said. “Fortunate timing that I happen upon the Sheriff’s men. I have a bounty that is in need of collection.”
A soldier stood as he rubbed warmth into his hand.
“No need,” he said. “We have already collected the body. It heads to the Sheriff as we speak.”
Bartel paused. “How so?”
“An hour ago, we collected the body and sent it away. It was left lying on the roadside, near a crossroads further in the woods.” The soldier nodded at his two companions. “We three remain on the orders of the Sheriff. Seems the Friar of Breslau has not yet returned and we are to be his escort home. Perhaps you have seen him?”
Bartel opened his mouth but spoke no words. A sickness knotted in his gut.
“No,” he eventually said.
“No matter. Should you see him, tell him to come here. He has a large scar across his mouth that is not hard to miss.” The soldier looked towards the eastern hinterland. “Earned in his youth by defending our town from the Slavs. He is a hero to these parts, and a good friend of the Sheriff.”
Bartel lowered his eyes as he pressed a finger to his temple.
“A good friend to the Sheriff,” he repeated as Jander appeared with the cart.