Verus seized the torch now beginning to gutter on the floor and swung it up, causing it to blaze afresh. He paced back toward the transverse wall: sure enough, Edric had vanished.
Bardic sprang back as the light receded behind him, awaiting a renewed attack from the two bandits he faced. But nothing came at him: his keen ears detected a pair of feet retreating. He faded back to report.
Vorel studied the area of the transverse while Verus and Morath covered the tunnels. As Verus had earlier suspected, it was not a simple right-hand turn. A much narrower tunnel led left, forming a transverse. The remnants of a yellowish powder could be seen in the damp, cart-rutted floor of the tunnel. That would explain why Edric had not given any warning: he had been poisoned!
While Morath covered the wider right-hand tunnel, and Celo held back near the “gallery,” Verus Vorel and Bardic pushed forward into the narrow left-hand tunnel. It kinked around a block of seemingly different stone, making it impossible to see down and difficult to illuminate.
Back in the darkness, Celo heard crossbows being cocked above him: the two bandits had returned outside, passed through their blockhouse, and into the “gallery” that somehow covered the tunnel.
Time to fall back again! He alerted the others, who regrouped. On this occasion the group’s tactic worked. Seeing their prey retreating, the bandits once again climbed down into the tunnel. Verus and Celo were there to meet them, and no quarter was given on either side. Both bandits fell, but Verus, trying to stanch the blood pulsing from his thigh, slumped unconscious.
Celo, having some rude skill with hurts, tied the leg off roughly but shrugged helplessly as the flow stopped. A lump came into his throat making his usually-cheery voice rough and harsh.
Bardic cursed: he would miss the Nemedian’s good natured support. Time for some vengeance to be dished out, by Crom!
The frightening distorted images began receding from Edric’s consciousness, and he became aware that he was lying flat on his back on a hard surface, arms bound. At different times he had sensed rather than consciously calculated that up to five figures had gathered round him. Something had cut his chest and there had been chanting. Somehow his senses had easily recognised the cadences of a divination spell. Mentally calming himself and schooling himself to appear inert, he began surreptitiously working the cords off his wrists and looking about him for his gear. There appeared to be two bulky guards in the smokily-lit, sizeable stone chamber, standing near an arched exit reached by a broad flight of steps up from the surface Edric lay on. The hair of one of them, a Black with a large club on his shoulder, was kinked and knotted in odd shapes. His companion, a blonde holding a battleaxe, was doing most of the talking, while listening at intervals at the arch.
“Ymir’s blood! let them on! why do they tarry? I want to rip out their hearts and lay them out for a good offering to the Frost Giants!”
“Aye dog-brother, a good fresh meat offering! Think ye we need wait?”
“Nay, by Sceaf’s mighty shaft! Time for my axe do do some killing!”
As the northern barbarian surged out, the southern barbarian hesitated with a glance over his shoulder at the hostage. But the wretch was obviously still helpless. Grinning eagerly the Black hefted his club, gathered a candle-lamp, and followed his comrade. Edric was alone.
Vorel, hugging the wall near the barbarian, whispered: “I hear heavy breathing from up the wide tunnel: I’ll check Verus again while you and Morath cover it.”
As Bardic neared the transverse again, a bandit, almost casually, stepped forward to gain a line of sight and nailed the barbarian with a well-placed crossbow bolt! But with a target for his anger, Bardic unleashed his rage: veins swelling and with a mighty cry to Crom, he charged!
Unknown to Bardic a second bandit, concealed until that moment, flanked the first. He discharged his crossbow as Bardic closed: the bolt went wide but Bardic’s backhand riposte dropped the fellow in a great spray of blood! Almost in the same motion the mighty broadsword reversed and swept across, hammering into the original target.
Morath hastened forward and a throwing knife sped from his hand into the knave’s shoulder. Unnerved by the onslaught, the bandit took to his heels. A great hee-hawing reverberated down the broad tunnel into whence he had fled.
The ranger stooped to where Verus lay amid a heap of slain: five bandit bodies lay around the spot. Celo showed him how he had laid Verus’ corpse out, and heart heavy, Vorel perfunctorily checked for a heartbeat. Then he tensed: a loose strand of fibre, lying across Verus’ mouth, moved: out, then in: breath still stired in the fighter’s rugged frame!
“He’s alive! By Mitra, Verus lives!”
Bardic grinned: Crom at this moment was no doubt shrugging and saying “I don’t care” but to the barbarian, life was sweeter. “Let’s go get this worm!” he exclaimed. “I’m with you!” Morath agreed. They hurried up the tunnel toward a donkey-cart that could now be glimpsed in fitful light. Judging from the bandit’s panting, he had taken cover behind a series of stalls, or cells, on the left of a large stone chamber. A similar series of cells occupied the right. An unhitched donkey, tethered at a rough manger, stood eye-rolling amid the chamber. Most of the cells were stopped by no more than a leathern sheet, some by a few strakes of timber. Bardic and Morath closed in.
The bandit, seeking to evade Bardic, vaulted into a cell. Bardic slammed against the strakes, while Morath vaulted behind the bandit. Clutching his cutlass and knowing he had to cut his way out or die, the bandit put all he had into a terrifying sweep that bid fair to cut Morath in two. Reeling back and hardly believing he still lived, Morath readied his own blade as Bardic smashed through the remaining strakes and plunged his sword through the bandit’s back! With deadly skill, Morath finished the job.
The sound of roaring and raging echoed up the tunnel to where Celo and Vorel were finishing making Verus as comfortable as circumstances allowed. They glanced nervously at each other. Leaving the fighter lying palid in the torchlight, the two stole away to a deep patch of shadow at the right-hand tunnel’s mouth.
The northern barbarian, calling on Ymir to witness his deeds, plunged out seeking enemies: the only thing he could see was a helpless enemy further up the tunnel toward the exit: it would do to begin with! He swung right lifting his battleaxe: then an arrow and a hatchet slammed into him, causing him to check and change direction. Ignoring the pain, he slammed his battleaxe into Vorel’s jerkin, and it was the ranger’s turn to grunt with pain. Bardic and Morath, gasping with the effort, came racing back, Bardic carrying a small lantern. The weirdly-coiffed head of the southern barbarian, clearly visible in his own lantern-light, signalled more danger arriving. Blood still boiling in his veins, Bardic cut cross-hand at the northerner who staggered, looking surprised and pained at the force of the blow. Vorel’s swift short-sword finished him. Then as Morath slipped around the rear of the fight, Vorel took a hefty clubbing, causing him to stagger and slip back. Celo loosed another arrow, Morath stabbed up, and Bardic, tiring rapidly, delivered one last great cut: it was enough: the southerner slumped with a rattling moan.
Edric stepped into the light, clutching his trusty quarterstaff:
“I’m here! I’m alive!
…Am I too late?”