Those words, screamed as much as bellowed, issuing from the livid features of the Ostler, galvanised much of the common room into action.
The young Zamorian known to his companions as Morath, having secured a strategic place at the bar near the exit, swiftly hustled upstairs to their shared quarters and fetched down his bow and quiver. He heard the swift-moving feet of his comrades – Vorel, a cautious young Bossonian and Celo a devil-may-care youngster from the Tauran – not far behind him, but overtaken by the heavier tread of Bardic, the shaggy-haired Cimmerian who, like Morath’s own companions, had been casting about for work.
Bardic plunged into his own quarters and fetched down not only his own trusty battleaxe but the quarterstaff belonging to Edric the scholarly Aquilonian, with whom he had been sharing the room, the table in the comon room, and the hopes of employment by the “noble from the North” seated near them. As he raced back down stairs, just behind the Bossonian clutching a powerful longbow, he trusted that Edric would be ready to take action, hardly any time having elapsed. Then his barbaric senses warned him to peril from above! With a grunted curse Bardic flung himself aside as Celo executed a graceless vault onto the stair, ending up facing roughly the right way and still clutching his own bow.
The common room largely emptied as following the example of the Barachan, the Ostler and the Barkeep organised the menfolk away toward the guest ramp down. The two bar wenches, the northern nobleman that had recently arrived to settle a land dispute, the Aquilonian scholar Edric, and a shaven-headed southern scholar sitting in a well-lit corner, were all that was left.
Meanwhile a quarter-mile away to the north the village huntsman, Hal by name, grunted “looks like the mill is afire! run! put your back into it!” to the young fighting man named Verus who had shared the long miles south from Thandara, along with a young and all too keen Pict-dog that Hal had brought to provide his village with adequate protection.
Edric swayed as the bearded Barachan, with as much gusto as he had been giving to sinking the village ale, rushed past him to the guest ramp down to the rear door North from the Inn. “I wonder why he carries that stool?” mused the scholar, as he approached the “noble from the North.” Said noble had just dispatched his armored bodyguards to help drive off the Picts. It seemed to Edric that they should stick together for safety’s sake. Then the Cimmerian hared across the floor, weaving through the tables, and thrust the quarterstaff into Edric’s hands.
Morath cursed the poltroon that had barred the front door South directly onto the village square. Joined by his two companions the three made quick work of unbarring the door, and sped off into the glooming dusk, lit fitfully by three burning huts. Silhouetted by the firelight, painted savages pranced and sank copper-bladed hatchets into the last few cottars that foolishly sought to defend their hearths. Morath’s instincts, honed by a lifetime dodging trouble in Shadizar, guided him half-left around a couple of holy-looking types attempting to bring order to the defence, and into the murk where he could line his targets up with impunity. Vorel and Celo followed.
Bardic raced down the exit ramp and out the North door. The shadowed cart-yard held no threat that he could see, and he swung hard left around South, in the footsteps of the other various common-room menfolk. With speed born of the wilds that no mere civilised man could hope to match Bardic overtook most of them, rushing through the near-deserted village square and the tangle of artisans’ shops beyond.
Verus’s lungs seared as he struggled to keep up with Hal and the pup. His reinforced jerkin seemed made of hot lead, and the warboard bumping at his back felt like the cauldron of legend with every footstep. But his iron endurance kept his legs pumping. Even now, the gates were in sight. A wretch tottered out before the two: “Picts! the Picts are in the village!” it screamed. Hal unlimbered his bow, letting the pup’s leash go: it was far too late for his warning yaps. Hal and Verus flashed through the north gate and down the road past the Inn.
Vorel, with caution learned the hard way, eased his way into cover beside an intact hut. Celo’s impatient arrow hummed past his ear, while from cover all but unseen, Morath also loosed. Knowing that he had but the one shot, Vorel loosed as well, a hasty shot for the Pict merely winced and pulled away. It seemed that the Picts, having torched a few huts and brained a few villagers, had decided to pull back South. It jibed poorly with the tales Vorel had heard of their bloodthirsty ways.
Blood rushing in his ears, Bardic raced past long hurdles where during the hot day skins would cure. A hatchet, driven by a dusky-skinned hand, flashed out round the corner of the nearest building! Luck or uncertain lighting saved the young Cimmerian and he took the blow with a grunt, staggering but remaining upright. “Crom!” he bellowed, allowing the berserk rage to fill his veins! His battleaxe swung and took the Pict squarely. Then from nowhere a stool, closely followed by a leaping Barachan, laid the Pict out. The Barachan stabbed down with the businesslike sea-knife he used at table, and the Pict’s struggles were no more. Then an arrow flashed from the south, taking Bardic through the flesh of his bicep! There seemed more and more Picts around the South Gate, and after a brief abortive dash the Cimmerian and Barachan pulled back.
Verus and Hal raced into the village square to reinforce a growing defence formed around villagers, teamsters and armed guards. But it seemed that the Picts had aleady sensed the stiffening of defence. Painted devils leapt athletically up the one small hut next to the South Wall they had left intact, or ran back through the South Gate. The murk of the fires and dusk, and the confusion of the wounded and frightened, masked any cries that captives may have uttered. For as Celo, Vorel and Morath joined the main crowd, rumors of missing children became horrified fact.
Then, as the defenders struggled to comprehend this calamity, Edric struggled from the Inn. “They have slain the nobleman! Picts! They came up from below – there must have been half a dozen! There was nothing I could do! And… and… they dragged away the wenches – alive! O Mitra! still alive!”