Highway Robbery first appeared in the January 2001 edition of the online magazine Peridot Books.com. The site has since changed its name to Allegory E-zine.
I wrote the story during the copious amounts of down-time I had while working at a temp job. Re-reading it now I can’t say I’m exactly thrilled with the writing here, but Highway Robbery is nonetheless the first thing I ever got paid to write. As such, I do have a sort of sentimental fondness for it. I even kept the original contract, just so I could frame it some day.
* * * * *
By Christopher M. Walsh
Boris’ knees were killing him.
For an hour now he had crouched in the brush beside the Old Forest Road, staying out of sight. He watched for movement along the road, but so far nothing had disturbed the quiet of the night. No sign of the men he waited for. Boris began to wonder if this was worth the effort.
He shifted his weight, trying to regain some feeling in his legs. His knees popped in time with the creaking of his leather boots. After a few moments of trying to get comfortable, Boris gave up and sat down. The ground was still damp from the afternoon’s rains, but Boris didn’t care any more. His comrades’ lateness had already put him in a foul mood.
From where he sat Boris could see the Old Forest Road as it wound its way around Brennock Hill. The road came down from the far side of the hill and meandered east into the little ravine where Boris hid. The road continued straight for a little longer, then turned south, into the Elderwood. This ravine, neatly hidden from Brennocktown on the other side of the hill, was an ideal place for a highway robbery.
Boris looked off into the trees of the fabled forest. Night had fallen, and there was little to be seen in the darkness beneath the canopy. Boris smiled. The vast forest of Elderwood was the source of many tales that spooked children in their beds. These parts were haunted, folks said, and they whispered about the Shade of Elderwood.
These fairy tales had served Boris well.
A flicker of shadow caught Boris’ eye. Something was coming down the road from Brennock Hill. Boris eased himself back into his crouching position, and tightened his grip on his sword.
Two figures made their way down the road. Boris could see them clearly silhouetted by the waxing moon, which was just now lowering itself into the clutch of trees atop Brennock Hill. Boris inched back into the ditch along the side of the road and peeked out through the tall grass.
The two figures drew closer. In the dim light Boris could see they were both clad in little better than rags, with ill-worn vests of hard leather for protection. One of them wore a wide-brimmed had that flopped down about the ears. At their sides, Boris could see the dull shine of rusted sword hilts. As they came closer, Boris could hear their conversation.
“Got to be here somewhere,” the one with the floppy hat said.
“You sure? I dunno.”
“What? You scared?”
“No! ‘Course not. I’m just sayin’, maybe we coulda found a spot closer to town, is all.”
“Uh huh. Look, he says we do it out here, so we do it out here. He’s the boss, an’ he knows what’s what.”
“It’s just a bad night, is all.”
Boris spat in disgust. He emerged from his hiding place and stepped out onto the road.
“Bad night, eh?”
Floppy-Hat reacted quickly, whipping his sword from its scabbard with a sharp hiss. The other yelped and almost dove into the grass, fumbling for his own sword. Boris just laughed. How typical, he thought.
“Yer late,” Boris said.
“Boris, that you?” Floppy-Hat answered. He held his sword out with a confident stance.
“Who’d you think it was, elves? Put yer blade up, Clem, before ya hurt yerself.”
Clem, the one with the hat, laughed and lowered his sword. “That was a good one, Boris. Ya sure got ol’ Tom here riled up.”
“Ya shouldn’t have done that, Boris,” Tom muttered. He was still shaking visibly.
“Serves ya right for being late,” said Boris. “Whatsa matter, Tom? You scared of the Shade of the Wood?” Boris and Clem laughed. Tom made a sign to ward off the Evil Eye, and said, “You aughtn’t be jokin’ about that sort of thing.” Boris just laughed again.
“Now get off the road before someone sees you.”
The three men hid back in the ditch beside the road. Boris kept an eye out for any movement, but the road stayed quiet.
“Well?” Boris asked. “What do you know?”
“Oh, he’s coming, all right. They were loading up when we left town.” Clem grinned, and Boris could count the missing teeth in the moonlight.
“Who’s coming with?” Boris asked.
“Just those two grunts he’s got with him. They’ve got swords, and look pretty hard, but we can surprise ’em. They’re walking. The old man’s driving the cart, and it’s pulled by a couple of old nags, it looked to me. Wouldn’t you say, Tom?”
Tom, who had been staring off into the Elderwood, was startled. “What? Oh, right. I got in the stables at the inn before anyone came down. Right ugly, them horses. Look almost as old as the old man does. I almost wonder how they made it this far. No way they’re taking off in a hurry, with those poor beasts.”
Boris grinned. “Good. Stupid old man, ought to know better than to be traveling at night. It just ain’t safe no more.” Boris chuckled at that, and his companions laughed with him.
Half an hour passed, and lazy clouds began to roll in. Soon, Boris felt a light patter on his face. It was starting to rain. Still, the moon had managed to find a hole in the clouds, and the road was still visible from the Hill to the Wood. Boris stoically tried to ignore the raindrops and focus on the road, but that grew increasingly difficult.
When enough water had seeped under his leather jerkin, Boris’ frustration boiled over. “When is he coming?” he grumbled.
Just then, a shadow came from around the hill, accompanied by the slow clip-clop of horses’ hooves. In the rain Boris could barely make out the shape. A flash of lightning, however, showed him all he needed to know. A horse-drawn cart was coming down the road, accompanied by two smaller shadows – the old man’s grunts. Boris smirked.
“Get ready,” he whispered.
As the cart drew closer, a cloud passed over the face of the moon, throwing the land into pitch black. Boris strained his hearing to get the position of the approaching cart. The hoof-beats kept coming.
“Did you see that?” Tom’s voice, a tight whisper.
“What?” Clem whispered back.
“The trees! I think they… opened up. Like a tunnel, or something.”
Boris wanted to stab him right then and there. “Keep yer mouth shut!” Boris whispered back.
“But… the trees! It looks like they’re–“
“Shut it!” Boris decided he was going to have a word or two with Tom as soon as this was over.
The cart was close now. Boris could barely make out the approaching shapes in the darkness. “Almost there,” he whispered. He glanced back and saw Clem and Tom remove cudgels from inside their shirts. At least Tom is still playing along, Boris thought. He looked back up the road.
Two horses emerged from the gloom. They were just as Tom described. Boris wondered how they moved at all. Behind the horses appeared a rickety cart, and in the driver’s seat was a hunched figure covered by a dirty gray robe. From beneath the robe’s large hood Boris could see a grizzled, stringy white beard.
Behind the driver, in the cart, was what appeared to be three large casks, covered with a shining blue sheet. The casks were Boris’ reasons for being out on the road tonight. From the moment the old man rode into town with his two thugs, Boris knew he needed to get at whatever was under that blue blanket. He was positive the old man held something of incalculable worth, and Boris was determined to have it.
Boris waved sharply to Clem and Tom, and the two slunk off into the brush. The wagon was almost parallel with him now, but the dark and the rain made it almost impossible to make out. As if materializing from thin air, the two grunts appeared on the road behind the cart. They were both armed, with broadswords slung across their backs. Both wore long cloaks with the hoods pulled up against the rain. For an instant, when Boris beheld the horses, cart, driver, and guards all at once, his stomach knotted as if to tell him something was amiss, but Boris suppressed it. He shook his head, to clear his mind as much as to shake off the rain.
Boris clenched his fist around the hilt of his own sword. It was a broadsword as well, but in a single-handed fashion, unlike the bodyguards’. Here and there Boris’ blade showed signs of rust and wear, but it was still sharp enough, Boris was sure. He stood up and walked out into the path of the cart.
“Ho, there! Pull up, I say!” Boris called, sword arm extended. Almost leisurely the old man pulled the horses’ reigns and the cart clattered to a halt. Instantly the grunts had their swords from their baldrics and were moving forward. Two shadows darted in behind. Boris heard two sharp raps, and the guards toppled forward. Behind them Clem and Tom stood, cudgels in hand.
Boris addressed the old man. “We’ll be takin’ yer cart, and the contents of it. We don’t want no trouble, so get down real nice and quiet-like.”
The old man did not budge.
“Hey, did you hear me?” Boris advanced, leveling his sword at the driver. “I told you to get down!”
The old man remained motionless. Boris shot a glance at his companions; they looked as puzzled as he probably did. That infuriated him.
“Old man! For the last time, get off the cart, or I’ll come up there and throw you off!” Boris moved to the cart and made to step up onto it.
“No need to be so hasty, Master Boris,” said a raspy voice from inside the driver’s hood. “All in good time.”
“Who are you?”
The old man was silent.
“How do you know my name?” Boris demanded. He thought he could see the old man smiling.
“You watched as I rode into town the other night,” the old man said. “You wondered what precious cargo I might be carrying that needed the protection of two strong men. I know you were there, across the street from the inn. I felt you watching.”
“What are you supposed to be, some kind of magician?”
The old man ignored Boris. “You wish to know what I carry in those casks. You wish to know why it should be covered. You wish to take it. You wish it to have monetary value. You wish to be able to sell it, like all the other trinkets you have taken from travelers on this road. Preying on the unprotected.”
Boris was having a hard time concentrating. He looked over at his companions, but he couldn’t find them in the downpour. He hesitated. The old man still had not moved, even to look at Boris.
“Go ahead,” the old man said. “Look.”
Boris climbed into the back of the cart. There were three distinct shapes beneath the blue fabric, which had not stopped shining in spite of the rain and darkness. Boris reached down and pulled up the sheet.
There in the bed of the cart were three casks made of some black metal. There were no lids. A sickly pale light emanated from within each cask, and Boris felt his stomach knot again, though he could not say why. He knelt down and looked into the casks.
Boris saw a swirl of light and color. Though each cask was maybe two feet tall, on the inside there was no visible bottom, and the great spirals of light appeared to be far away, and massive. And there was a sound, Boris was sure, coming from the casks. He tried to listen, and thought he heard… voices? Boris leaned farther, trying to get a better look. He imagined he could fall into one of the casks and keep falling, forever…
A noise pulled Boris back. He turned, and saw the two grunts, standing over him, reaching for him. They had him before he could move. As they closed around him, Boris thought he saw something, like a light, behind their eyes…
Boris was hurled from the cart, across the road, and into the ditch. He hit the ground and the force knocked the wind out of him. He scrambled to his feet, but tripped again when his boot caught something lying on the ground.
A bolt of lightning streaked down from the heavens, shattering a tree at the top of Brennock Hill. In the instant of illumination, Boris saw what he tripped over. It was Tom’s head.
Tom’s eyes stared out, terrified. His mouth was frozen in a silent scream. A couple of feet away, Boris saw the rest of Tom’s body. Boris looked down and saw that his own hands were covered in blood.
“Clem!” he shouted, panicked. There was no answer.
Blindly, Boris scrambled up the ditch into the road. He could not get his bearings, He could not see the cart.
Another streak of lightning attacked the nearby hilltop. In the flash, Boris saw that he was facing east, toward the Elderwood. The trees looked as though they had parted, and a black, gaping hole led away from the road. Boris, dumbfounded, dropped his sword. The point stuck in the ground.
I’ll be damned, thought Boris. So that’s what Tom was talking about.
Then he saw the light.
Boris turned. Somehow, in his confusion, he’d gotten in front of the cart. But the old man… was not the old man anymore.
In his place stood a tall shadow-figure, so dark that the light seemed to be pulled into him. In place of the two run-down nags stamped two huge, horse-like nightmares, pitch black, with eyes that shined a bloody red, and the glow of burning coal in their nostrils. One of the horse-things snorted, and a gout of flame shot forth, lighting the road in front of it with an angry orange glow.
The two grunts stepped forward, but they were not the brutish thugs of moments before. These tall, black-cloaked figures appeared to be wrapped in shadow, and they brandished their gleaming blades, which ran red with blood.
But Boris was transfixed by the dark… thing that stood where the old man was. It’s eyes, two baleful points of light, fixed Boris where he stood.
“You have looked into the casks,” declared a voice that may once have been the old man’s but was now coupled with something far more sinister. “You have seen my harvest of souls.”
Boris only vaguely heard what was said. The shadow figure now appeared to be radiating light, or perhaps the light shone from behind it, Boris could not tell, but Boris could hear the voices again, and he knew they screamed in agony far worse than anything he could have imagined. And he knew they called for him.
The light grew brighter, so bright Boris wanted to shield his eyes, but he could not move. He felt his heart racing faster, faster, until pain radiated across his chest and down his left arm. Boris fell to his knees. He felt his insides being tangled and pulled, and felt his skin tearing. His own blood ran into his face, blinding him, choking him. He felt his soul being wrenched out of his body, and he felt himself fall, screaming, into the swirling river of light and dark that was the shadow-being.
* * * * *
The rains ended. The clouds parted. The sun came up. The people of Brennocktown all talked of what a nasty night it was. Good night to stay indoors.
Some travelers, who had sought shelter at the inn at Brennocktown, continued their journey at sun-up. The village-folk warned them, best stay out of the Elderwood by night. Strange woods, that is. The travelers thanked the villagers for the advice.
The travelers had barely begun their journey, just rounding Brennock Hill on the Old Forest Road, when something in the way made them stop.
A rusted sword stood in the middle of the road, it’s point thrust into the ground.
Curious, the travelers stopped and looked around, but could find nothing. One of them took the sword, thinking to pawn it at the next town.
And in Brennocktown, a few locals wondered whatever had become of that Boris fellow, nasty as he was. And the elders whispered, and the children giggled.
But none spoke openly of the Shade of Elderwood.
© 2001 Christopher M. Walsh