Daniel's eyes snapped open to the sound of a thunderclap. Chaos swarmed around him. His skull throbbed, but even the pain was a gentle touch against the drums and trumpets blaring in his head. The sword hilt reverberated against his chest like a bell as a brigand careened through the air away from him, much as the noble boy had flown from the sword that morning. The sound of ringing steel pealed through the sword's song from his right, and he looked to see Sir Reuben with his back to a thick bush, holding off three enemies with his sword in one hand and a stout branch in the other. Karl snorted and neighed a bit farther off, and Daniel was surprised to see the animal back on his feet, the lines about his legs and neck tangled but slack. The horse thrashed and bit at two more bandits trying to get close enough to put a hand on his bridle.
Though this was only a tiny skirmish, by a warrior's standards, Daniel knew he should have been terrified, should have been confused and frozen with indecision. All he felt was resolve as he got to his feet and drew his sword. The brigand on Sir Reuben's left side was closest to the boy, and Daniel's sword point slid smoothly into his back, screaming through bone and flesh with equal ease. The adjacent fighter was distracted when his ally screamed and fell, distracted enough that Reuben easily brained him with his improvised club. The remaining highwayman turned and fled, and Daniel choked down the urge to skewer him for his cowardice.
Reuben turned toward the pair struggling with Karl while Daniel, mindful of his previous instinct about the gang's numbers, looked behind them, back into the brush of the ravine, as the sword whispered caution. Suddenly he ducked and jerked his head to the right a split second before the curve of his left ear burst with pain. Daniel cried out and reached for his head as stones thudded the ground and rattled through the bushes around him, stones slung by unseen assailants. One missile flew farther and pinged off Reuben's helmet as Daniel turned to flee from the defile. He slashed two of the ropes around Karl's legs as he went, then stopped at Reuben's far side to aid him against the bandits, careful to keep the knight's armored body between himself and the slings.
"You needn't have killed that man," Reuben shouted as Daniel drew alongside. As he spoke, he feinted a strike from his club at one of the bandits, then dealt him a heavy clout to the jaw with the pommel of his sword. The bandit grabbed his face and reeled.
Images of the three dead men he'd seen that day, two by his own hand, flashed through Daniel's mind, but now his blood still pounded hotly. "It seemed the thing to do at the time," he called back, advancing on the final bandit who was smallish, for a thug, and with a deep, concealing hood.
The brigand gave ground madly, stumbled and fell backward. As bandit rump thudded into the ground, the thief made a high-pitched cry and the hood fell back to reveal long, curling locks and fine features. Daniel and Reuben both stopped short at the sight of the girl, and even Karl calmed his thrashing. The sword's song danced with inquisitive flutes.
"Please," the girl hissed from the ground as Reuben was harassed by more and more accurate stones. "I only went after your horse to escape. Please, get me out of here!"