Chips of volcanic red sparked in the Cimmerian’s blue eyes and even Morath, hardened as he was by a life in Shadizar, raised his eyebrows in distaste as “Leto” (meaning “forgotten”) revealed the workings of the kidnap gang. It seemed that the kidnaping of attractive young children had been going on for a good ten years. Somewhere in the south, perhaps Shem, they had a value that was enough to make money for all involved. The immediate ringleader was a foreigner named Xaphur, though behind him a shadowy Zingaran able to deploy a galley provided the main transport. Leto had never met Xaphur, but warned the six companions not to test themselves against him. As for the gang’s hideout, he could tell them only that it was among ruins and could be found by a bearing off a hat-shaped rock formation to the south.
* * *
“Bardic! Restrain yourself! This wretch has given an undertaking to reform, and I’ve given him some coin to make a fresh start! Don’t shame me by turning on him!”
“Why that – Edric – you know for ten years – he sold children – into misery or death – and thought it a fine living!” His words coming in quick panting breaths, Bardic rushed at the cowering Leto, attempting to brush Edric out of the way, but the scholar once more proved his toughness and resilience, fending the barbarian off with ease. Moved by Edric’s strong stand on the matter, Verus intervened:
“Let my words add to Edric’s, Bardic: ’tis true this foul blot should be slain, but we have promised to release him and should not lightly go back on our word. Let be!”
Growling and calling on the Morrigan to plague the miscreant, the barbarian allowed Leto to take to his heels along the main road away at the fork. Having crossed on the early-morning ferry into Poitain, the party had made their way to this agreed crossroad. Around them, the soft verdure of Poitain welcomed them. Friendly peasants harvested well-tended fields, or broke fast under the gentle shade of palm or lime tree. Favorably impressed – especially given the unkempt scrabble-lands of Dimas they had recently ventured through – the company marched south.
About three hours later, Vorel glimpsed steel-clad riders and motioned his comrades to one side of the tree-lined trail. While still good going, the trail was no more than one cart wide, and traffic had been light. Seeing them in turn, the riders, clad in typically bright Poitainian silks and with banner flying, reined in and cautiously hailed the six afoot.
Edric judged some of the heraldry to be of a lesser branch of Poitain itself. So it proved: while four of the riders were a troop serving the local knight Valanus, one “Rough-houser” was a nephew of the Count, the other “Goldie” rode as the young noble’s lieutenant. The six were on the hunt for a brigand or bandit, a wily fellow named Abul, who had escaped prison some two weeks prior, had gathered a small gang of villains, and was already preying on nearby hamlets.
Seeing that their purposes might dovetail, Edric proposed that the group lend a hand. Celo and Morath were dubious given that they had taken coin for a job already, but Edric explained that local help would be ideal in their present mission.
Once all were agreed, Vorel took the lead in tracking back on likely trails, with Bardic loping nearby like a barely-tamed wolfhound. While his ranger’s instincts sifted through the evidence in front of his eyes, Vorel let his mind go back over Leto’s recollection of what the ruffian Wagtail had said. Wagtail had been the one to try to knife Vorel himself that day in the charter town. His reason, barely heeded by Leto, had included some talk of a baron of the north, perhaps in the Border Kingdom, and an idea that Vorel had tracked him down in revenge for a slaying. A slaying? Surely that would have to be the killing of Vorel’s entire family! If only Wagtail had not resisted – but Morath’s sword had slain him, leaving a cold trail back to the Border Kingdom. Too cold?
The evidence of the trails led to a stoney hillock standing a little apart from other outcrops and foothills, and with a watered ravine at its rear. The chivalry and adventurers joined in planning their approach.
Morath, mentally cursing his too-casual approach to the climb, quietly placed his holds again and clambered up the ravine well behind Bardic. Really, he told himself, he should not even be exposing himself to this amount of risk, but by Bel – it was fun! Reaching the top the pair confirmed they had the escape-route of the brigands, and concealed themselves on a still-warm shoulder of rock above it. Far down at the scarp left by the ravine’s occasional flooding, Verus waited. Much less visible, the remaining companions lay in ambush near him.
A rearguard appeared as the thrumming and rattling sound of crossbow-fire began tapering off. He was allowed to scramble down the ravine to the welcoming committee. Then the apparent leader appeared, slipping nimbly from shadow to shadow. The two in ambuscade nodded to one another and descended on him like twin bolts of lightning! Both blades sank deep and true, the Cimmerian’s steel biting through cap into skull and the Zamorian’s sinking past collarbone deep into chest: the brigand collapsed with barely a groan. As the now-trapped remainder of the brigands surrendered, their stricken leader was finished off, and Morath began methodically stripping the corpse. About his own size, the brigand had worn a fine dark reinforced leather jerkin, boots of Kordavan leather and his dagger was almost certainly a master-work of Kothic origin. “By Mitra, doing the right thing really pays!” he chuckled gleefully.
The Poitainian noble and his lieutenant were delighted with the speed of this police action, and as well as shouting the lads a goblet of the finest wine, agreed to assist them. Zoro, the half-dozener in command of the little troop, would guide them to the landmarks required to find the ruin, and two riders would be provided for added security. “I know the landmark you mean,” Zoro assented, “and I have heard of ruins across the river. When you line up the hat-shaped peak with one shaped like a woman’s breast, that’s the old border with Zingara. Kova’s riders used to fight us there. Since then, the border on this side has pushed south and the border on the other side has gone north. But that’s where the ruins lie.”