Royce had to admit it wasn't the best start to the morning.
True, it was a lovely day; the sun was bright and pleasantly warm, he had woken up to find that nothing had been stolen (which surprised him as Hadrian had insisted on staying the night in a dodgy pub with no locks on the doors), and the birds were singing. Unfortunately, Royce could not think about any of this if he wanted to stay alive.
He shouldn't have let Hadrian convince him that going after the screaming woman would be a good idea, but he had been in a good mood and not as vigilant as usual. They had heard the scream when they had passed by the cave entrance, and Hadrian was off his horse and halfway to the cave before Royce could even open his mouth. Reluctant to leave Hadrian to get into all kinds of trouble, Royce was forced to follow him down the tunnel in the direction of the screams.
'It sounds like she's being tortured, Royce,' Hadrian had insisted when Royce had told him to turn back.
'You know, you don't have to help everyone we meet. It's none of our business. You're always telling me to leave people alone.'
'When you're trying to steal their purse, I feel the need to interrupt, strangely.'
'Well, I feel the need to tell you to get the hell back up that tunnel. She's not alone down there.'
Royce had followed Hadrian to the opening of a large cavern, and he had to pull his friend back by the spadone on his back to stop him from walking right into the trouble. The cavern was dark, and Hadrian couldn't see the ten men standing in the room, surrounding an old woman who was tied up on the floor, but Royce could see everything.
'It's just an old hag, let's get out of here.'
'Royce! We have to try and help her. She can't defend herself.'
'Hadrian, didn't you here me?' Royce had hissed, already turning back up the tunnel. 'She's old. Real old. She'll probably be dead before the weeks out, anyway. There's no need to risk going in there with a bunch of thugs.'
The only reply Royce had received had been the clash of swords, and he turned around in annoyance.
'I was having such a good day,' he had muttered, before drawing out Alverstone and entering the fray.
He was now fighting a huge man in a grubby shirt and a leather jacket that didn't fit. Braziers had been lit around the cavern, which unfortunately meant that the thugs could now see, so Royce didn't have that advantage. The giant swung clumsily at Royce, and he had no great skill, but Royce retreated because the weapon he wielded was enormous. It was a huge log with iron spikes embedded across its entire surface except a small amount of handle. The giant had almost no control over it, but from shear luck, it had almost hit Royce more times than he felt comfortable with, so he backed away, his dagger ready.
Waiting for the right moment, Royce saw the studded club lifted over the giant's head ready for a strike that would kill him if it landed, but Royce was not there when the log came down. He rolled away under the man's arm and jumped onto his back, slicing Alverstone across his muscular neck. He was almost crushed as the giant fell backwards with a ground-shuddering crash.
Hadrian, the man he was fighting and the six other thugs looked around at the noise, but rather than be intimidated by their friend's downfall, they seemed even more furious. One roared like a great bear, and Royce could hear dozens of footsteps thundering towards them from the tunnel opposite the one through which he and Hadrian had entered.
'Time to go, hero,' said Royce, letting Hadrian finish off the man he was fighting and then dragging his arm. 'Come on!'
'Not without the woman,' insisted Hadrian. Royce growled but Hadrian ignored him again and ran to the left wall, parrying attacks as he went. He helped the old harpy to her feet, and Royce wasn't surprised when he saw her hobble along slowly.
'Hadrian!' yelled Royce angrily, killing another thug. Hadrian looked at the wrinkly witch and picked her up, running with her in his arms to the entrance.
'We need to have a serious talk when we get out of here,' hissed Royce, running past Hadrian to the tunnel entrance. 'I was having a good day.'
The footsteps of their pursuers echoed down the tunnel, making it hard to know how close they were. Royce glanced back and saw the closest were only fifty feet away, and some had crossbows.
'Get to the horses and go, they have crossbows,' Royce shouted at Hadrian, not understanding how a man with such long legs could run so slow, even carrying the hag.
Eventually they made it out into the sunshine again and saw the horses tied where Royce had left them. He unhooked his from the tree and jumped onto her back, looking back to see how far Hadrian had fallen behind.
'By Mar. What are you doing? Chuck her on the bloody horse and get out of here,' he shouted, but Hadrian stopped and placed the shrivelled prune on her feet. She closed her eyes and began waving her hands in the air as though flicking through an invisible book.
'For Maribor's sake, grab her and let's go!' A bolt flew past Royce's ear and hit the tree behind him.
'She told me to put her down,' Hadrian shrugged.
'Yes, because she's going to be an excellent help in a fight.'
Suddenly there was a rumble, and the ground began to shudder under them.
'I think… Royce, I think she's doing magic,' said Hadrian.
'Wonderful. She's very talented. But an earthquake isn't going to save her from a bolt in the chest so if we could just get a move on?'
Royce didn't care a damn about the troll but he knew Hadrian wouldn't leave until he had got her to safety, or killed all the thugs who murdered her. Pulling his horse around, Royce was about the grab the old crone himself, but his horse reared up and tried to bolt in the other direction. He managed to control her, but soon saw the cause of her distress.
The entire side of the mountain was beginning to crumble. First pebbles, then rocks, and then boulders crashed down over the entrance, just as the thugs reached it. A huge plume of dust enveloped Royce, and he coughed and squinted as the last rocks settled.
'Hadrian?' he called out, hoping his partner hadn't been crushed by the crazy woman's avalanche.
'We're here,' he heard his friend call back. "We"? Damn it. That meant the bloody hag was still alive too. As the dust cleared, Royce saw that the cave was completely blocked, and none of the thugs had escaped. He could hear some of them shouting and cursing behind the rock fall, but he suspected not all of them had avoided being crushed.
'Uh, Royce?' The thief turned his attention back to Hadrian's concerned tone in time to see the haggard old bag collapse in his arms.
'Brilliant. Now she's gone and fainted on us.'
'Royce, she's dead,' Hadrian told him, after checking her pulse.
'Oh, even better. We risk our lives trying to save her, and then she goes and dies. Not exactly the gratitude I was hoping for. I thought there might have been a bit of coin to be traded. I suppose we can just take her whole purse now.'
'Royce,' scolded Hadrian with a frown, as he closed the old bat's eyes. 'She saved us.'
'We would have been fine, especially if we had gotten on the horses and left. Or even better, not gone in at all.'
'We should bury her,' said Hadrian, ignoring Royce.
Rolling his eyes, Royce got off his horse. He knew Hadrian couldn't be argued with on this point, so they might as well make it quick. But as he approached, a bright light radiated from the body in Hadrian's arms, and blinded them both. When he sensed it was gone, Royce opened his eyes again, and gave an exclamation of disappointment.
'She's gone! Purse and all. Bloody rude.'
'Where did she go?' asked Hadrian in confusion, looking down at his arms. 'She just disappeared.'
'Well, I don't think she got up and walked off. Maybe it's a witch thing. At least we can go now.' Royce started walking, but stopped when Hadrian didn't follow. 'We can go now, can't we?'
'Do you think it was the magic that killed her?' he asked, standing up and looking at the rock fall. 'Do you think she died because she was trying to save us?'
'Oh, dear Maribor,' cried Royce. 'Let me back in the cave to be killed by thugs so I don't have to listen to this idiot. Please!'
Royce started towards the cave, but Hadrian dragged him back impatiently.
'I just think it could have been that she overdid the magic trying to save us,' said Hadrian, heading back to his horse.
'No-one risks their life to help someone else. You're the exception that proves the rule. She was just trying to save herself. Besides, did you see how old she was? I'm surprised she didn't snuff it before now. Now please, will you listen to me next time you want to go running off?'
'You didn't have to follow,' Hadrian pointed out, as they plodded down the road, the screams of the trapped thugs floating off into the distance. 'I could have handled it perfectly well. They only called for reinforcements when you dropped that giant.'
'Well, I'm sorry. I didn't want to be hit by that huge club. It was the size of a tree and had spikes on it, in case you didn't see.'
'Alright, I admit I was glad that you dealt with him and not me. Thanks for following.'
'Well, I knew you'd make a fool of yourself if I didn't. Just promise me you'll listen to my advice for the rest of the day, at least?'
'Alright,' Hadrian agreed. 'I'll let you pick where we stay tonight too. That place wasn't exactly the homely inn I thought it was going to be.'
'Didn't the drunken brawl outside give you a hint?'
'Every ale house has a drunken brawl.'
'Every ale house you go to, maybe.'
They continued down the stony track, and Royce noticed the sun again, and the presence of all his belongings. He drew out Alverstone again and wiped the blade clean on a scrap of material from his pack. He tucked the dagger back in its sheath and then pulled out the small sack of gold he had hidden in his tunic.
'Where did you get that from?' asked Hadrian, hearing the clink of coins and looking round.
'Did you really expect me to follow you in there purely for the sake of saving an old biddy from a couple of thugs? I snatched it off the giant guy.'
Royce chucked the bag up, enjoying the sound of the coins, and caught it again before tucking it carefully into his pack.
It was a good day.