Taking the reins
A light misting rain had set in by the time the six inspected the geldings being groomed for them in the stables.
“So these are from Vivo’s stud!” Alleto exclaimed, pleasure evident in his voice.
“Aye, trained ‘em meself,” Vivo’s head groom agreed. “Answer to their names they do. Good hearted an’ loyal to them as treats ‘em right.”
One by one he introduced the geldings:
Baro: A uniform deep chestnut, with glossy black mane and tail.
Eagle: An aquiline-muzzled chestnut with white blaze and three white stockings – his left foreleg plain.
Lefty: Lighter chestnut with blaze extended over left eye, and both left legs stockinged.
Meradin: Mouse-brown with pale mane and tail, and deeper brown socks all round.
Pango: Roan with dark mane and tail and slightly dappled hindquarters, and deeper brown socks all round.
Rook: A chestnut with very wide-spaced eyes, and a squarish blaze between them, right sock and both hind legs stockinged.
As all were superb, most of the six had no definite preference. Morath chose Baro, as the darkest.
Bardic reined in and shaded his eyes against the westering sun: “Morath, what do you see below the horizon?”
The Zamorian masked his eyes then opened his fingers fractionally. “The sun, glinting off several riders.”
“I thought as much,” Bardic growled, swinging in his saddle to look back at Edric, Alleto, Celo and Vorel. “Cala – about a half-day ahead of us. She did take the Ice-Spear Road.”
“What was the name of her guide?”
“Motrac the almost-right. Got his handle on some expedition he ended up in the wrong town,” grunted Bardic.
“He got this right enough!”
“Finding a road running north-west of the road we’re on and joining it isn’t hard.”
“How many riders did you make out, Morath?”
“I’d guess ten, and six pack mules or horses,” the rogue replied.
Bardic counted them off on his fingers:
“Cala; Pras; Gyorn; Ginstar the Nemedian fighter; Dadanel the tough Bossonian; Rhadamos the Brythunian; then four that we beat – I think there were three Aquilonians and a Zamorian.”
“I wonder if Cala is pushing the easy-beats around like we heard Vivo was doing, back at the second village.”
“I heard she wins their silver and gear then gives it back,” commented Bardic.
“What else did you hear?”
“Hmmm… she can’t be bluffed… and don’t stand behind her.”
“Why don’t stand behind her, did you find out?” Edric wondered, puzzled. Bardic shrugged:
“Bironos, an Argossean and one of those she beat, was about to be hired: but when he walked behind her she dismissed him instantly.”
“Bironos was hired by Vivo though,” Morath added, “along with that Hyrkanian cur who wanted to shoot into the combat – Shasur his name is.”
“Well, the horses are rested,” Vorel interjected, “let’s move out and find a camp along the Ice-Spear road.”
It was the third day of their journey toward the Gates. Had their mounts not been weighed down by the copious amounts of stores, and had they not been trying to learn where Vivo and Cala had travelled, the journey would have been far shorter. Now, finding a convenient campsite along the well-founded and paved road running parallel to the Valkia, they looked forward to ascending the Gates on the morrow. So far as they had been able to learn, Vivo’s party had drifted off southward into the hills around the Gates. This course was only practical thanks to the vastly experienced Fastwolf, the Hyperborean riding with Vivo.
The Gates: Castle Crow
Vorel led out on the fourth morning. As the winding ascent was traversed, more details of the castle on the western slope and the ruined tower on the eastern could be made out. A mounted picket was patrolling the area immediately below the castle, and waved them in as they drew near.
Edric studied the men and their heraldic device: a hill-like symbol. It meant nothing. The men themselves seemed a cut above the usual mercenary rabble small castles were prone to hire. So far as Edric knew, this was the Border Kingdom side of the border with Aquilonia: the mighty Hyborian realm had conquered all lands south of the Gates in the last years of Vilerus V.
Sir Anled of High Dome was the castellan’s name: he held Castle Crow for his Graf, who held it direct from the King. Anled was a family man but a sturdy knight. He and his wife Vidica, a local, lived in the castle with their children, a squire named Pastorvyn who was betrothed to Vidica’s sister Gerda, Sagitus the Mitran scholar, Werhema Sagitus’ novice and common-law wife, Haustyn the sergeant at arms, Black Hudig the Bossonian forester, Goat and Jess the war-hounds and a number of armed men and civilian population.
Over the midday meal, while Alleto and Morath exchanged flirting glances with Gerda, Edric Bardic and Vorel decided to stay on overnight to avoid the approaching heavy weather. They had already fallen at least half a day behind Cala, and had lost touch with Vivo. But they had the satisfaction of supposing that the opposition would have to endure cold, damp ground while they slept on comfortable pallets.
As for the fate of the Envoy: they had originally passed by on their way south, but had not returned. Survivors presumably had fled through individually; their passing had not been marked.
Vorel and Hudig had, in their blunt Bossonian way, agreed that neither would be helping the other. Hudig had only been able to reveal that it was not bandits that had ambushed the Envoy: he had been pushing bandits back west and north for some weeks. He had nothing further to add.
They rested, cleaned gear and groomed horses, and detailed Celo off to guard the stores.
“Why not?” Celo replied aggrievedly, “I’ve only been sitting here for two hours while you lot fed your faces…”
After dawn prayers, Sagitus had few words of advice for Edric, save to hold to his suspicions of the Damson Brothers, who held Roaring Pass for Aquilonia. A small hostel for wayfarers could be found a short way up the trail to Roaring Pass:
“Nothing to do with the Damsons. Procalus, the priest’s name is, or is it Percalo? Don’t quote me; the poor old fellow might be terribly hurt. He’s a good soul, lives there with but a novice; tends travellers caught in storms on the pass. We let him gather wood on our holdings, and of course send him over supplies now and then.”
Stretching and buckling on their war-gear, the five bade farewell to their hosts. Striding out into the inner bailey, they beheld Celo rousing himself from under a furry pile: Goat and Jess the war-hounds had snuggled with Celo for the night. Long and detailed were the complaints from Celo, while the others could only assure the young Tauranian that they had not had the privilege of such warm bed-companions.
The Gates: Westfarers
Through the Gates, and into Aquilonia they rode, unmarked and unheralded.
“You recall you have a price on your head here,” Bardic reminded Vorel.
“So do you, I expect,” the Bossonian rejoined.
“Here I am but another wanderer,” Bardic countered. “You Bossonians may know who Cimmerians are but by Crom, most of Aquilonia can’t tell one northerner from another.”
Within two hours they had found the west fork to Roaring Pass, and another two brought them to a small stone hostel. The novice alerted his master and the two Mitrans bowed low as the party reined in.
Percali, for so he was properly named, led them inside with their horses. There was but one chamber: contrived so that as many as two dozen beasts could be tethered around the walls, while a central hearth supplied cooking and warmth. Bed-alcoves were fashioned above the mangers, reminiscent of the Hall in Hieratgate.
After a brief meal and watering of the horses Vorel walked around outside. The novice joined him as he arrived at a well-tended grave-plot in rear of the hostel.
“Here be the mortal remains of those who have served faithfully here,” explained the novice.
It was obvious to Vorel that something had been recently buried. “What of this?” he queried.
“Ah… the previous novice: he died, and we buried him as the ground softened,” the novice replied.
Bardic and Edric decided that Percali was a priest to be trusted, and revealed what they were looking for.
Percali told them that “wild men” had ambushed the Envoy. Other such ambushes had occurred within the past year. He warned them in the language of a strict adherent to the teachings of poverty and chastity:
“Pursue not the adventuress, my son,” he warned Edric, wagging a boney finger at the young priest, “for her way is the way to death. Yea, come drink with me, saith the adventuress, but her bower is full of men’s bones.”
“Well, we’re really after the treasure, not the beauty,” Edric assured him.
“Seek ye Mitra’s deepest mysteries, not earthly treasures,” urged Percali, tossing the gold coin Bardic had pressed on him into the corner with other junk.
“More specifically, we want to earn the King’s favor,” Edric averred manfully.
“The gratitude of princes is legendary for its brevity,” Percali further warned.
“Yes,” Edric agreed doggedly, “which is why we want to move quickly on another matter once we get the King’s favor. Look, it’ll be fine. Just tell us where to start looking for the ambush.”
“Off east, into the hills,” Percali indicated vaguely. And with that they needs must be content.
The Hidden Valley
By dusk Vorel and Bardic, relishing the long summer twilight, had found the first signs of flight. It seemed that the Envoy had somehow wandered into the tangle of hills east of the Gates; and from there, survivors had fled back to the trail.
Over the next day, the six companions travelled roughly east, through lowering terrain. Fitful winds boxed the compass, but visibility was fair. Towards mid-afternoon, they discovered the original ambush site. The skeletal remains of a few horses, chewed and wasted leather gear, and a few bits of metal, were all that were left. It also seemed to them that someone else had scouted the site.
Bardic dislodged a spear from a horse carcass. The spear-head was stone. Edric inspected it closely. Neither could draw any conclusions other than the obvious: primitive of manufacture, and thrust or thrown by a man not a giant.
A wary watch was kept that night, but unmolested, they broke camp in the dawn and set out to track the ambushers. It was difficult work. Casting about during the morning, and following east, Vorel and Bardic worked out that both Cala and Vivo had been over the same faint trail-sign. Vivo had come from the north, Cala from the south.
Towards midday, with scattered rays of sun lighting the hill-slopes, they six realized that they were descending towards a hidden valley. What the valley contained remained a mystery: a thick canopy screened all. A few butterflies flitted and played over the treetops, a green and rolling veil over… who knew what?