The party, as a whole, was cold, tired and a little hungry. For two days, the lads had holed up above floods while a storm rattled around them. Thanks to the wilderness skills of the barbarian and ranger, a fire had been kept burning, and thanks to the tarp and 12 horses no-one had been in danger of dying of exposure. But after two days of seethed oats and iron rations Curst the nag was beginning to look pretty tasty!
The grass this far north was not yet enough to support much stock, and by the looks of it, the spring had been a cold one. A chuckling trader met in the early afternoon had told them that many lambs didn’t make it, and he had bought slink skins at two a penny.
Now, in the late afternoon, they approached the village of Newtral. It looked big enough to be called a market town, but had no significant municipal building. It lay on the ambergris trail, and goods passed north from Hanumar and rawmaterials, south from Border Kingdom growers. According to the trader, this was where Hanumar merchants held a big wool fair each summer.
By Edric’s best reckoning, and judging by the garlands decking the village gate and the caps of the gate guards, it was either the first or second day of summer. The gate guards, and the odd half dozen villagers visible, were all well wrapped-up against the cold northerly. A fiddler scraped a rather pathetic little tune just inside the gate, bowl out in front of him.
“Afternoon, squires!” one of the muffled guards broached in Trade Talk, “I see yer fightin’ men an’ a priesty feller.
“We got nothin’ agin’ either fightin’ men nor priesty fellers, but we don’t like our girls knocked up an’ we don’t like civil wars. Makes no never mind if ya be on the side o’ Mitra, Bori, or…” – he waved his arm expansively – “Hanuman with all his monkey devils, so long as yer don’t try ta get one set o’ folks ta kill the other set o’ folks. So keep yer pants laced an’ yer preachin’ hole shut!”
As the six companions urged their mounts and pack-nags in through the gates of Newtral, they perceived that the wool fair was beginning. There was but one main street, easily broad enough to wheel an ox-cart round. The inclement weather was keeping all but the sturdiest merchants and growers indoors. Here and there, wool-buyers had set up their carts, and wool-sacks were piled up near each. The far end of the street was dominated by a tall inn, and in front of it, a small knot of men were struggling. One of them, in the dark robes of a scholar, had a rope about his neck; the other three of them, dressed in the robes of the Damson Friars, were wrestling him towards the inn, where the high coping-piece offered good lynching!
“Hey! We can’t have that!” shouted Edric, outraged.
Bardic’s hackles rose: even without Edric’s urging, the situation would have called for him to interfere, and now his inclination changed to certainty! He kicked his mount forward into a canter, Celo muttering protests but following close on behind. As they drew abreast of the stalls and wagons, Celo realized that several other umber-robed friars were scattered throughout. He called a warning to the intent Cimmerian, and reined his horse’s nose towards cover.
Behind the lead pair, Morath, Vorel, and Edric slipped off their horses. Alleto, a confident rider, followed Bardic’s path along the street. Morath and Edric sought cover on opposite sides of the street, while Vorel readied his longbow and looked for the choicest target. He shook his head: this smacked of interference in matters not concerning him.
“It’s those meddling swine – get them!” called one of the friars. The Damson Friars are also known as the Hack Brothers, because unlike most holy orders, they train with Bardiche Axes: except for the three around the scholar, the others turned, picked up their axes, and made for the interlopers. As they closed, they chanted brief orisons for Mitra to guide their axes!
Two rangers, settling into cover beside a stall, likewise raised powerful Bossonian longbows and arrows zipped by Bardic as he closed on the struggle. Grim and hard-bitten, they silently sought the best targets for their shafts.
Bardic leapt off his horse and menaced the friars with his broadsword: from nearby, two axe-wielders charged while one of the original three turned with a stout iron-shod club in his hand. Alleto was surrounded by two more axe-wielders with two more, fast closing in. Celo and Edric stole around the back of the stalls towards the rangers’ position while Morath, realizing his original quarry was in the open rushing at Alleto, hid awaiting his chance to strike. A volley of three arrows buzzed from Vorel’s bow at the nearest friar, scoring once.
Alleto weaved, ducked, parried and laughed: “What! Too slow? This is where I am – do you need a map to find me? Ha!” Changing his tactic abruptly, the Zingaran switched into an aggressive hurricane, his fine Zingaran broadsword whistling out to slice at an exposed wrist. A bardiche blade slammed into his armor, but being finely-crafted chain, it gave without snapping.
“Crom!” Bardic cursed, quietly admitting to himself that he was in trouble. Struck first by an arrow, then by several terrible axes, he was bleeding profusely and unable to fully use his superb mobility. Then with a rattle of bow-cases, two swarthy, barrel-chested, hook-nosed types rushed round the corner of the inn, and two shafts slammed into the backs of the two friars still trying to lynch the scholar! The scholar promptly slipped his attackers and – throwing off the throttling noose – ran to shelter in the inn doorway. Arrow after arrow cut into the friars who, with the Cimmerian’s blade menacing them, could not turn nor flee: both fell swiftly. Bardic and the Shemites had only three others to deal with!
One of the rangers uttered a terrible cry: Celo’s blade sank deep into his back! But with an amazing show of vitality, he shook off the pain and even as Edric’s quarterstaff struck him, the pair jumped to their feet and fled out into the open, driving arrows back into Celo, who winced and shuddered at the heavy blows.
At the gate end of the street Vorel, faced with a charging friar, dropped his longbow into the muddy street: his hands flashed down and across then up again, broadsword and shortsword appearing as if by magic!
Morath slunk closer to the center of the street where Alleto’s flashing blade held four friars at bay. His deadly skills seemed needed there urgently! Behind him, Vorel’s swords cut repeatedly down and his opponent slumped. Vorel reached once more for his longbow.
The two rangers fled, ducking from cover to cover, as Vorel sent a last shaft arcing after them. Turning, he realized his five friends had dealt with the remaining four friars. The two Shemites were inspecting corpses, and retrieving the odd undamaged arrow. The scholar, rubbing his neck, appeared to be supervising them.
Bardic inspected his new armor: like Alleto’s, it had stood up to the axes remarkably well. A few links had parted – nothing a good smith couldn’t repair. The same could not be said of himself! On shaky legs, he staggered to the inn porch. He recognized the Shemites now: they were the two guards he had met that day long ago when the Picts attacked! And sure enough, the scholar was the same shaven-headed southerner.
A Scholar’s Reward
“It has been a fortunate meeting for me: and this time, we will not play with straws,” joked Iapet the scholar grimly, voice still rasping with pain. “You have traveled far and risen in the world: I see you have adopted the Mitran code?”
“Yes, it offers me much,” agreed Edric. “Being the true path,” he added.
“I still have made study of the ancient tales, seeking out writings and unearthing lost wisdom. But now I see a way of repaying your aid. You know, of course, the tale of Astola, the tale of the treasure?”
“Of course,” Edric replied, and the others listening nodded. The yarn was common throughout Hyborian lands, though mainly told as a children’s story.
“Astola promises only earthly treasure – but silver is welcome when funds are low. (Here, the Shemites’ gaze switched from Vorel and Bardic, to whom they had been talking, to the speaker.)
“My linguistic researches revealed that Astola is a Border Kingdom name. Tracing it, I learnt that this village was founded by the survivors. I was about to interview the oldest villager when I was attacked. I have had my fill of this never-ending cold, so I shall travel south and never come back! In leaving, I leave with you the secret that brought me here. May fortune turn your way, redressing the ill fortune of Astola.”
The Road to Astola
Two dawns later, the companions departed Newtral from the northern gate, accompanied by Xavian, youngest grandchild of the gaffer Edric had interviewed. At the party’s van, Vorel scanned the open road. This ran roughly north, and had been built not long ago. A cold northerly prevailed: no-one was tempted to doff their winter cloak. The horses humped their backs against their riders but soon settled back into the rhythm of the road. All were new-shod: Framary the Farrier had given them the best of treatment.
Xavian, excited to be on his longest trip away from the village, bounced uncomfortably along on Edric’s nag. His grandfather’s directions were memorized, and he would have great tales to tell on his return! Amazing that the old tale, told at his father’s humble hearth as he and his siblings snuggled a-bed, was part of his own story!
Four days later, Vorel studied the lay of the land. He could see the old road, running roughly north-west, the way Xavian had explained it. The lad himself gladly waved goodbye and headed back: after four days, horseback travel and wilderness camps had lost their glamor.
“We’ll ride single-file,” Vorel decided. “I’ll lead, in case there are hidden pitfalls.”
“Don’t forget to watch out for bandits,” Celo reminded him, slotting in behind Vorel’s pack-nag. “The gaffer told the kid there’s some kind of gang out this way.”
“Oh, goodie!” bragged Morath, “Bandit for lunch!”
Mere hours later, Vorel’s wilderness-tuned senses picked up a lack of birdlife: he scanned the light scrub and young trees growing along the overgrown road. Behind him, Morath and Celo also scanned the trees, detecting the odd patch of homespun or untanned leather. In the middle of the party, Bardic’s keen ears detected the lack of birdsong and the muffled rasp of clothing on branches.
Morath, Celo, Bardic and Vorel leapt off their horses as the bandits opened up! Morath was unlucky to be hit despite his alertness:
“You’re first to die!” he hissed, vengeful spite filling his voice.
At the rear of the column Alleto was hit, and he slid off his mount, whipping his broadsword out and bringing his sturdy targe to the fore. Edric slid off more clumsily, lips moving in a prayer to Mitra.
Celo, wincing from an accurate shot from the bandit chief, returned fire. As Vorel joined in, the chief realized he had bitten off more than his band could chew, and began drifting back. On the other side of the ambush, Bardic and Morath raced out into the light foliage and swiftly cut down a pair of brigands. “Told you!” Morath commented, moving on to the next. Nearby, a third poised in mid-nock, held fast by Edric’s spell! At the rear, Alleto charged two bandits, who abruptly realized they were outmatched as they tried to bring their aim to bear on the ever-shifting, blade-weaving target. One fell, the other surrendered.
As the chief and two confederates fled, Vorel sighted, half-breathed out, and loosed: the flighted shaft sped true, cutting through the chief’s spine and snuffing out his dreams of glorious pillage!