A further two hours easy ride brought the small cavalcade beyond the limits of cultivation and stock running. Only the deer, boar and bison inhabited the open forestland, apart from wolves and smaller predators… An owl hooted and Vorel glanced up to see it sweep across the path from his left, disappearing into the trees again.
The friar rode a good bowshot back from Vorel and Theodora, but read the ranger’s body language.
“It could be an omen – but I wouldn’t worry about it.”
He gestured for Vorel to press on. So far, Vorel had managed to find wolfsbane for him, but there were two other useful herbs that might grow in sparse forest, or by streams, and Edric wanted to secure them as soon as possible. True, he had been given a couple of very useful herbal collections by Pleb, the fort’s clerk, but more would be even better.
“Rein in! Whoa!”
Celo’s voice rang clear from far back, and turning in his saddle, Vorel could see that his Tauranian friend had slid off and dropped to hold his ear to the ground. Vorel also dismounted, passing his gelding’s reins to Theodora. He could see nothing and hear little beyond the soughing of wind in the trees and blowing of the horses. Then Celo’s voice came again:
“Ponies! Riding off the trail!”
At the Flint-bed
After an initial alarm, and hesitancy, the nine moved off once more, and soon came within sight of a bridge. Vorel’s experienced eyes had not seen any definite sign of the ponies. He stalked up to a marker post at the near side of the bridge. It read: K’Langat, 8 miles. Looking to his left, Vorel could see that the stream, deep down in the stream-bed, was a trickle, running left to right. To the right, the banks were clay, but to the left he could see exposed flint beds. Returning to his nervous group he explained the layout:
“What do you think?”
Bardic was inclined to scoff at the idea that the peasant had been other than a decoy but Edric brightened at the thought that the shade of the bridge would be an ideal place for a particular herb he had been hoping to find. Morath, somewhat impatient at the delay, walked over the bridge and guarded the far side, while Bardic took the near post. Celo and Vorel skidded down the bank towards the flints while Darius, Theodora and Quinn led the ten horses more slowly down to cool and water themselves. Kilp, wary of mud, remained on watch near Bardic.
Though the stream was shallow, Edric found that the footing was slippery and there were a few deeper holes where the current formed eddies around the bridge. He lost his footing and went onto his rump with a splash and a shout of laughter from the others. Grimly, he pulled himself onto his feet, wrung out his hassock a little, and looked up at the deeply-shaded banks. Sure enough, the broad dark leaves of the tuber he sought were there!
As he eased the bulbs into his kit, and turned to work back to the others, he saw Celo and Vorel stagger as arrows thumped into them! More showered down and with savage cries, brigands surged out of their ambush to rush the stream! From behind the line of horses, more bandits rushed at the retainers, seeking to drive them off the valuable mounts.
Bardic cursed sulphurously: not even his razor-keen senses had caught wind of the ambush! He weighed up where best to throw himself in, while Celo and Vorel braced themselves for close combat, weaving to elude the remaining archers. Then he realized that Theodora, by sticking to her duty with the three horses in her care, would be exposed to the bandits. That decided him: he vaulted over the bridge, onto the top of the bank, and raced towards the fight. He could hear Morath’s running footsteps behind him, crossing the bridge. It would not take long to clean up these insolent dogs – the real danger was in loss of horses or retainers.
Darius checked swiftly around. Below him, Theodora and then Quinn were firmly grasping their mounts’ lead-reins, and above him Kilp was lining up the bandits. He could see that Morath had decided to commit himself to save the horses – no surprise there! Taking a gamble that the horses would not spook down the bank, he let their tethers drop and scrambled up toward the nearest oncoming bandit, shouting to attract the man’s attention. As he scrambled, he realized that two had decided to try for his four horses! Then one spun around, stumbling in the bushes, as a crossbow bolt sprouted from his chest. Darius made the top of the bank: caught a glimpse of a snarling, savage face as he drew his hatchet, then shoulder-rolled under the man’s swing, rising to his feet and blocking the return swing. As Darius predicted, the bandit had forgotten all about Morath: a fatal mistake. Next second, the bandit’s snarl turned into a scream of agony as Morath’s short-sword rammed through his right kidney.
Edric’s line of vision was limited by the steepness of the banks: he could see four bandits jumping down into the stream-bed, and Celo and Vorel looking behind them. Focusing his breathing, Edric began singing in a powerful voice, extolling mankind to stand in awe of Mitra’s works. The four bandits paused, and turned to marvel at this paean: but so did Vorel and Celo! As two or three bandits swept down to hack at Celo and Vorel’s backs, Edric realized his mistake and ceased. Instead, he used the power of his voice to command the nearest, a relatively well-equipped bandit, to stop still.
Theodora snarled as the bandit trying for her horses used his superior position up the bank to cut down: her parry was just enough to take the force off his blow: even so, it cut through her boiled-leather cap, and blood began running freely from her scalp. As she parried again, and tried a riposte, she found the weight of the horses was pulling her off-arm, preventing any effective action. Then the mighty Cimmerian bounded around the horses, making no difficulty with the tricky footing and slope, and with one mighty blow of his two-handed sword, caved the bandit’s skull in.
“Damn all men to hell!” Theodora raged, neck and arms corded with fury. Bardic laughed a gusty laugh of appreciation. It didn’t improve her mood. Looking down along the stream-bed, she realized the fight was over: Vorel and Celo had survived the initial onslaught and with Quinn, turned the tables on the three on the near side; others had fled save for one that was standing stock-still, staring and sweating.
“Good work,” Morath commended Kilp and Darius. “you did your job and showed initiative.” The Zamorian splashed across the stream and examined the lone prisoner. The man rolled his eyes in fright, but could not move.
“Do we want to question him?” Morath asked Bardic, who like him had made his way across.
Bardic glanced around to see where the others were. Vorel and Celo had scrambled up the opposite bank but far too late to prevent the last two bandits from fleeing with the ponies. Edric had apparently lost interest in the bandit and was tending Theodora.
“Why bother? He’s going to admit to being a bandit.”
Morath pinioned the bandit, and Bardic swung his sword lustily, taking the wretch’s head off. As the bright blood fountained up from the corpses’ neck, Morath saw something else thrown up by the blow, that spun and glinted in the light. He caught it deftly: an amulet of some type.
The forest drew back from a small inhabited area. The trail here ran right beside what appeared to be a ditch-and-mound at first glance. Around the mound but further back, the riders could count six cottages, each with wood piled high beside it and chimney smoking. Wooden rails were draped with hides of deer and wolf and smaller animals. A few dogs barked at their approach. This was K’langat hamlet.
Darius explained that the mound was not a ruin: it would be used by Brythunia’s army on campaign, and fortified with stakes. As the alternative was scattering out among the six hovels, the party erected the tents and slept in reasonable comfort, on the mound’s level top.
All save Edric: he persuaded the hamlet’s wise-woman to help him prepare the wolfsbane as quickly as he could. Working all through the night, by dawn Edric was reasonably confident with the end result.