The group returned south from the riverbank to the village, where the hubbub of panic had now given way to the anguish of bereavement and fear.
“I have a strong suspicion that there was an inside man setting up the nobleman to be murdered” Morath muttered. “The raid was a diversion,” Bardic agreed, once Morath’s thought was translated, and in return Bardic’s agreement was translated. Luckily, Edric and Vorel spoke many languages and dialects between them. “Even Pictish,” Vorel pointed out. “So if we should happen to get a prisoner we can find out how close we are to the truth,” Morath said thoughtfully, fingering his knife.
The six young men, rejoining the Inn sojourners standing off to one side of the square, found that the main concern of the village was, naturally enough, to rescue the children. “I can’t think why children should have been taken,” Edric worried. “Yes, there’s almost no market for children,” the Barachan responded. “Well, hope they have some fortune,” he shrugged.
It was apparent that the injured had all been treated, and while the womenfolk and some older men were setting what they could to rights, down toward the South Gate the huntsman was explaining something to the angry menfolk. Bardic, Edric, Morath and Vorel hurried off to overhear it, while Verus’ attention was drawn to a delicious-smelling barbecue. Celo lingered to watch the other guests, but for all his efforts, none seemed to be acting as though they were concealing a dark secret. The only really anxious guests were the noble’s guards, still debating how to report the death but agreed that sooner would be better than later.
Hal the huntsman was winnowing the volunteers down to a minima of competents. Having easily tracked the fleeing Picts to the riverbank south, he had returned to find that the good women of the village had fired their men up to such an extent that every man feared to be seen shirking. He chose seven, telling them all to wear at least a jerkin, but nothing noisy, and to arm themselves with a hatchet. Then four of the sojourners that had helped repel the Picts worked their way into the throng, asking how best to cross the river. Hal rubbed his forehead in exasperation: it seemed they had been hired to rescue wenches from the inn. True, they were mostly fighting men, but would they be any sort of use in the forest? “Are any of you boatmen?” Hal queried, and unsurprisingly, none of them were. How best to handle this? “I’ll put a couple of my best lads into your boat, you can learn as you go,” Hal decided. “Where’s the lad I came in with? He’s got heart. But he’ll need to lose the war-board and noisy brigandine.”
“So this is dog, then?” Verus paused in his barbecue meal. “Aye, th’ Picts kilt ‘im, flung ‘im in fire,” confirmed the old-timer tending the rotisserie. “Seemed a waste of a good Pict-dog, so I hauls ‘im out and set ‘im up here.” “Well… it’s good dog” Verus shrugged, resuming his hearty chewing. Morath and his new-found companions strode up. “Hey Verus, we got a boat. But Hal – that’s the man you ran into town with – says you have to leave your shield and heavy armor.” “Well, Hal should know, by Mitra, so that’s what I’ll do,” pronounced the beefy Nemedian. Another ten minutes saw Edric stripped out of his scholarly robes and Verus scratching some of the caked blood off a guard’s jerkin, the original owner no longer needing it.
The six cautiously perched in one of the village’s boats, watching carefully as the two locals, Pollos and Decimus, gave them a crash course in boat-craft. They followed Hal’s boat, arriving across the river not long after and not too far downstream.
Joining the huntsman’s group, the whole fourteen beat along the riverside quietly and cautiously, and within a fairly short time finding four canoes and a definite trail. “We go this way. And you?” Hal queried. A quick vote decided that the six would keep searching to find the two canoes that their own prey had used. Without further admonition Hal’s party crept away and were gone in the blackness of the forest-shrouded trail, leaving Vorel and Bardic feeling their way along the riverbank, the other four watching and hoping.
After what seemed two hours but may have been half that, Vorel finally followed drag-marks up to two concealed canoes. Bardic confirmed that the footprints leading away included those of two wenches and one unknown: they had the trail!
Vorel set a cracking pace, finding his way mainly by letting the trail underfoot tell him that he still followed it. Blackness – true blackness – closed in around the six: Vorel, then Morath, Bardic, Verus, Edric and Celo in the rear. Although some held bows at the ready they soon realised that such weapons would be of use only in clearings.
Abruptly, the sound of men struggling for their lives erupted from somewhere off to the left. Vorel felt a cross-trail under his feet. Pausing, he and Bardic deduced that several Picts had passed across from left to right. Vorel pressed on ahead, lifting his speed again. The sounds of fighting died away. Silent now, the forest seemed to press in on the six as they paced rapidly forward. A bat tangled itself in Morath’s hair, causing him to frantically wince and curse.
Just as abruptly the trail gave onto a broad clearing around a great oak stump. Knots of men struggled desperately, while several children were drawn away from the stump by three wounded villagers. Pausing to adjust to the wider space and better light, Vorel lifted his Bossonian Longbow. Bardic and Verus smoothly fanned out past him, Morath and Edric pacing behind them. There seemed to be slightly more fighting Picts than fighting villagers, but the addition of the Cimmerian with his battleaxe and the Nemedian with his arming-sword soon changed that. Only one Pict managed to flee, and judging by his head-dress he would have been a prize catch. He dropped into the undergrowth with Vorel’s clothyard shaft still in him, and Bardic and Vorel counselled Morath not to pursue.
“We are away. Thanks for your help, and I see you have not yet found the wenches. Don’t linger past dawn: if you are not on the river in the dawn mists the Picts will take you.” With that last laconic piece of advice, Hal and the villagers – most injured and one carried – fled with the children, back toward the river.
Bardic sniffed at the sky. It was the aching heart of night. Cold starlight and the last of a good moon lit the Pictish bodies sprawled around the oak stump. Vorel beckoned from one of the trails away from the clearing: “This is the one. Time to run.” The six reformed their order: Vorel, Bardic, Morath, Verus, Edric and Celo.
Interminable minutes later, Vorel felt a tiny tap at his boot’s ankle and leapt back: vipers on the trail! He drew breath again. It was much later that someone told him the hair at his temples had grown out grey. His keen ears picked up drunken singing – the last thing he expected on this night of dark horror! Signalling as best he could in the Stygian gloom, he moved forward cautiously.
Swampy ground sucked at the boots of the intrepid rescuers, but the three Picts, inebriated and indulging in lewd songs and horseplay before heading back to their tribe, failed to notice anything. In the slaughter that followed, the poor footing around the Picts’ islet of firm ground was the chief menace for the six. One Pict threw himself into the swamp to get away, and not lingering to search for the body, the chase continued.
Vorel’s sense of direction told him that the trail had looped widely around the rest of the swamp, and bent back toward the river. The deep of night had passed and half-light could not be far away. Then he heard:
“What was that?”
“It might be the others… who is there?”
Those words – in Pictish – signalled clearly enough even to the five that did not understand them that they faced a challenge. In response they grasped their favored weapons and charged forward. Leaping to their feet around a campfire back by massy boulders, the five Pictish assassins they sought burst into enraged howling! Off to one side of the wide campsite a paler-skinned man, skin painted with the same war designs as the five he ran with, seized the two bound wenches and began hustling them away. “Kill them all!” he screamed.
Tough as the six lads were, they could not hope to fell five hardened Pictish warriors and still prevent the stranger from escaping. Morath showed his skill at the back-stab to great effect, but Edric and Vorel were hit hard during the melee. Two Picts fled and three fell for good, but the stranger, surely the instigator of the attack on the noble, had a good lead.
As Edric checked the wounds, using shreds of his torn shirt to bind them, and chewed on a fortifying herb from his kit, Morath and Celo picked over the corpses, taking some beads, feathers and hatchets. “Ready again? We go!” Bardic pressed, waiting impatiently at the trail.
It was but a short way to the riverside. Though not yet dawn, black could now be told from white. Most of the party spotted an oddly regular shape in the dense secondary growth around the river, and after some study made it out as a stockade. But the trail, plain to feel as the wenches had been half-dragged, led past it to the river.
There, almost luminescing in the pre-dawn mist, festooned with vines and braches as a crude camouflage, a full-size Zingaran galley lurked. Nor were the crew napping: no fewer than eight armored crew pointed crossbows at the six, while the captain, also armored and armed, stood akimbo at the gangway head. He held up a hand, either in peace or to halt the pursuers. Morath’s sharp eyes caught a robed figure behind him, a smudge of Pictish paint giving the instigator’s identity away.
The six glanced at each other uncertainly. Then Edric decided to put the gentle diplomacy taught him by his mentor Orestes into practice. “Alright you fugly son of a goat, we want the wenches.”
“So, the market for white girls is better in these parts than I expected!” responded the captain, grinning and twirling his mustache.
“Yes, we’re willing to offer 30 silver, let them go and there will be no trouble!” continued Edric, sweating at how much trouble he was asking for.
“I’m bid 30, going once…” Glancing over his shoulder at the instigator, the captain seemed to read his insistent waving-away as no bid. “Sold! to the gentleman in the naked state of undress.”
Somewhat grudgingly or willingly as their hearts took them, the six coughed up the entire payment in advance. Reassuring the girls that a rescue was intended, they then retreated rapidly.
As pre-dawn gave way to dawn, the trails were retraced at even greater speed and two canoes seized from where the main Pictish body had left them. Mentally thanking the villagers for taking the trouble to show them how to balance in a boat, Bardic and Verus dug paddles into the Thunder River, sending the craft lurching precariously across to safety.
Tired to the point of exhaustion, the eight reached the village from where they had landed downriver during the course of the morning. The wonder expressed – and gratitude at the help given in rescuing the children – meant little to them until much sleep had been enjoyed. Then there was enjoyment to be had – food and drink pressed on them – and even better, a 30 silver piece bonus on top of the completion payment, so none of the six rescuers were out of pocket!