Snakes on a Train

The leader of the bandits was a bear of a man, built like a gladiator, with flaming red hair and thick, wild beard. Siris was his name. Siris the Snakehead, named so for the distinctive black and green tattoo inked onto his left forearm. He strutted up and down the aisle, taunting the passengers as his companions hastily collected what treasures they could.

"Come now, ladies and gentlemen. Let's get them valuables out quickly. We don't have all day!" he bellowed, sneering as he watched them turn out their pockets and empty their coin purses into the bags.

He loved this part of the job, revelling in the hostage's undisguised fear. He pointed his pistol at the more fidgety ones, secretly daring them to give him an excuse to blow a hole in them. Unfortunately, no one in the audience appeared to be willing to play hero and provide him with some target practice. But other than that slight disappointment, things were going just as planned.

His eye twitched slightly as a wail cut through the silence.

Almost as planned; the ceaseless bawling coming from the rear corner of the car was getting on his nerves.

The brigand spun on his heels and stormed down the to the small booth to confront the source of the noise. A young couple huddled together in their seats, the wailing infant sitting in the young mother's lap. "Can't you shut that brat up?" he demanded.

The woman paled as she rocked her baby. "I-I'm sorry, sir! I'm trying, but she's disturbed by all the noise."

"Then try harder!" roared the bandit, drenching the unfortunate woman in spittle.

"P-please, you're making it worse. I can't calm her if you continue to yell like that."

"Are you saying it's my fault, wench?" snarled Siris, waving his revolver.

"N-no, sir, of course not! I-I just meant—"

She flinched as he glowered. "Are you disagreeing with me now?"

"N-no, I mean yes—I mean…" Terrified, she fell silent and directed a pleading look at her husband. The man shook his head slightly and set his jaw, staring determinedly at the trembling fists in his lap. Cradled in its mother's arms, the infant began to howl anew. The brigand gritted his teeth and cocked his pistol.

"SHUT THAT GODDAMNED BRAT UP, NOW!"

The woman screamed and clutched the babe to her chest. Her husband yelled and reached over in a futile attempt to shield her. The revolver went off with a deafening bang.

Slowly, the young woman opened her eyes and saw only black. For a moment she panicked, thinking that she was dead, but then she realised that was looking at a mass of swirling black cloth.

Siris was stunned. Where in Oblivion had this joker come from?

He vaguely recalled seeing a man in a black cloak sitting at the counter on the other side of the carriage, but when had he come over here? Siris hadn't even noticed that the bastard had moved until a vice-like grip had clamped down his wrist and redirected his shot towards the skies just as his finger had squeezed the trigger. The bandit hadn't really intended on shooting the woman or her kid, but still, for someone to react in the split-second it took to fire off a shot… madness!

"That," the cloaked meddler said quietly, "was dangerous."

Siris very nearly dropped his revolver as the fingers wrapped around his wrist tightened considerably. The bandit's bones creaked beneath the crushing pressure.

"Don't you have any shame? Pointing your gun at defenceless women and children... what a coward."

Around them, the other passengers murmured their agreement. Siris could feel their fear waning. His face turned purple as he struggled fruitlessly to pull out of the other man's clutches. "Bastard, unhand me! I'll kill you, I'll fuckin' kill you! Don't you have any idea who I am? I am—"

"Siris the Snakehead, I know. Or should that be Neilan McCarthy?"

The bandit went wide-eyed. No one on board this train should know his real name, not even his men.

"A Lorenite bandit imprisoned for mugging and highway robbery in the Free Nations at the cost of a fifteen sovereign bounty," continued the cloaked man. "I know exactly who you are. The question is, what are you doing here?"

The brigand paled when he saw the gleam of white teeth in the shadows of the black cowl. He remembered seeing that image a few months ago… right before he'd been cuffed and thrown into the gaol beneath the Renartian Citadel. He glanced at the pin at the neck of the cloak and swallowed. "Oh, shit, you're—"

Eliah didn't bother to let him finish. Moving rapidly, she yanked the bandit forward and aimed a swift chopping blow to the bony ridge just below the back of his skull. Siris's eyes rolled up to the back of his head and he crumpled to the ground like a puppet whose strings had just been cut. "Just like last time," she said with a sigh, stooping to bind the man with a pair of shackles pulled from a pouch hanging on her belt.

She paused as a wild cry filled the air from the other side of the dining car and looked up to see one of Siris's followers began to charge down the aisle. Wordlessly, she looked at Roland. The thief blinked at her for a moment, and then sighed and stuck out a foot. The brigand tripped and tumbled head over heels, his sword skidding down the aisle.

Roland hopped out of his seat and scooped up the blade, gently pressing the trip to the hollow at the base of the man's throat. "Sorry, mate," he said with an apologetic shrug. "Gotta do what the bounty hunter demands or it'll be me in your place."

The bandit spat on his boots in reply.

Roland grimaced and glanced at the last of the trio. The youth blanched and scrambled to unsheathe his sword, but Roland shook his head. "I wouldn't bother if I were you, lad. Sword or not, you're going to end up in chains."

The boy hesitated for a moment. Coming to a decision, he dropped to his knees and raised his hands into the air.

"Nicely done."

Roland flinched slightly as the sound of chains clinked in his ear. He looked over his shoulder to find Eliah holding out a set of manacles.

"Those aren't for me, are they?" he asked nervously.

"Of course not, fool. I need you to chain him up so we can go and clear out the other carriages."

"We?" repeated Roland as he took the irons and clamped them around his captive's wrists, securing the man to one of the bar stools.

Eliah looked at him pointedly. "You've got a sword, don't you? Here, you can have this pistol too."

Roland blinked and fumbled as the bounty hunter flung Siris's silver pistol at him. He caught it and blinked. "You're giving this to me?" he repeated doubtfully. He narrowed his eyes at her. "What's the catch?"

"There is none," she replied. "Provided that you don't do something stupid like try to shoot me in the back, that is."

"Huh, there's an idea..."

She shot him a glare.

"Don't worry, I'm not that stupid."

"I agree; you're stupid, but not quite that stupid."

As Roland spluttered with indignation, Eliah turned her attention to the surrendered member of the bandit crew. The boy swallowed and cringed a little as the black-cloaked figure loomed above him. He was a skinny thing, draped in clothes that were several sizes too big for him. No older than sixteen, she guessed. She held up a hand to calm him down. "Relax, kid. Just tell me what I want to know and I won't hurt you."

He just stared back at her with wide eyes.

Roland sighed and scratched his head. "I've told you before, haven't I? Hearing that isn't exactly reassuring."

"I wasn't talking to you."

The thief shrugged. "I'm just saying… violence doesn't solve everything."

"Funny, it's worked perfectly fine for me over the last year and a half," retorted Eliah. She glanced at the youth again. "I don't remember seeing you or your hot-headed partner's faces amongst Siris's band the last time I caught him. You new?"

The boy shook his head fervently. "No, sir. Me name's Mica, I've been part o' this group for a while. It's the Snakehead who's the new one. The three o' us serve under Morinth."

"Morinth?" repeated Eliah. An echo in her ear told her that Roland had done the same thing. She glanced at him. "You know her?"

He scoffed, offended. "Oh, please. Who doesn't know the Red Widow? She's one of the highest paid assassins in all the Mortal Realms. She's like the murderous equivalent of me."

"Only she's never been caught and has a bounty that's five times the size of yours."

"Are you trying to insult me?"

"No. As long as you're useful, I don't care about your size."

He blinked. "You're talking about my bounty, right?"

She scowled at him.

"Right, of course you were." He turned his attention back to Mica. "So what exactly are you doing here? Pillaging from defenceless travellers isn't really Morinth's style. She's more of the 'creep about in the shadows and strike when you least expect it' type."

"I'm not 'sposed to say," mumbled the youth.

"Mica…" said Eliah warningly.

"Ah, but I'll tell you anyway! She sent us out to the other carriages as a distraction… mainly a-cause the Snakehead wouldn't shut up about wanting to make some coin. We were supposed to make sure that no one disturbed her while she carried out her job."

Thief and bounty hunter exchanged glances. "What job?" they asked simultaneously.

"She's got a contract on one of the passengers in first-class," blurted the boy. "One of the nobility from Valles, I think. That's all I know, I swear!"

"I see…"

Mica cringed as Eliah reached into her cloak, half-expecting the bounty hunter to punch him for being unable to divulge more information. She didn't. All she did was pull another pair of shackles from beneath her cloak and chain him to the nearest stool.

"Nobility from the Kingdom of Valles…" she muttered and paused when she realised that Roland was frowning at her. "What?"

"I've been wondering for a while now, where do you keep pulling those shackles from? It's almost like you pull them out from your a—owowowowow!" He yelped as Eliah pinched his ear and twisted.

"I'd tell you to stop running your mouth, but we both know that's not going to happen. Come on, we need to get back to our compartment. I have a feeling that little Miss Priestess-In-Training is in danger."

~x~

Myra sat on the floor, nursing a bruised forehead. She'd somehow managed to smack it on the edge of the opposite seat when the sudden jarring stop had catapulted her out of her chair. "By the Goddess, what was that?" she moaned as she rubbed the aching spot.

"Nothing good, I'd say," said Col gruffly as he grabbed his charge by the elbow and hauled her back into her chair. "You hurt?"

She waved him off. "I'm fine, just a little bump on the head."

"Alright, I'm going to see if I can find out what's going on. Stay put, you hear."

"Yeah, yeah…"

Col scowled at her. "No, not, 'yeah, yeah.' When you say that, I know that you're not listening to a word I'm saying. I'm not going to get in trouble with your royal father because you ignored my orders and ran off to get yourself tangled up in something dangerous again, Princess Myrathina."

Myra sighed and plastered what she hoped was a sincere smile onto her face as she said sweetly, "I swear upon my father's crown not to leave the confines of this compartment until you return, Master Col."

"Yeah, yeah…" grumbled Col. He unsheathed his sword and stepped out into the corridor, closing the door behind him.

Myra drummed her fingers against the armrest of her seat and waited impatiently for him to return. He couldn't have been gone for more than a minute when the door started to slide open again. She leapt to her feet and pulled it the full way to let Col back into the room. "Well that was quick, what's going—"

She froze mid-sentence as the edge of a dagger pressed lightly against her neck. Her blue eyes locked onto a pair of disturbingly crimson ones.

"Who are you?" she asked.

The crimson eyes glinted and below them a pair of glossy, blood-red lips curved into a sardonic smile. "Why hello there, kitten," said the curvaceous, dark-haired woman standing in the door. "They call me Morinth. But you need not remember it because in about twenty seconds, I'll be carving it into your jugular vein."