Hide and go-seek
Bardic tipped up his visor as he and Hod put down the last man defending the wagon. Far off to his left he could see one retreating knight. Oh well, he thought, we want the Baron to know we’ve got his silver. With the visor lifted, he became aware that Morath was still active behind him. Spinning around, he saw with surprise that not only had the deadly Zamorian failed to terminate the knight’s existence, the knight had wrenched his leg free from under his mount – still screaming and kicking – and had picked up a sword. He was looking the worse for wear but still full of fight, yelling something about ransom and demanding to know who he was fighting. Hang on – 25,000? That was a pile of silver in one place. Oh well, he was probably lying anyway! Bardic raised his mighty brand, still bloody, but Edric’s voice stilled his arm:
“Stop! This knight has asked for quarter – Morath, stand away a moment!”
Bardic, seeing that no killing was needed for the time being, turned his attention to Kuruk, who had ridden over seeking help with something. Trying to ignore the standoff happening nearby, he puzzled out what the Hyrkanian hireling was trying to convey: it seemed that the other Hyrkanians were worried that the fleeing knight would lead to the deaths of the families of the Hyrkanians, held hostage against their service. Bardic asked:
“No can do – knight horse go quick quick.”
“Vorel! You’re a good rider – let’s choose us a couple of good mounts and get after that dog!”
Vorel was pale and his gait uneven as he came over to help, but the doughty Bossonian untethered two good horses – belonging to squires judging by their accoutrements – and swung up into the saddle, grabbing the high pommel as he swayed unsteadily. Vaulting up, Bardic began the chase, Vorel in his wake. The four Hyrkanians rode off as well, but more slowly.
Meanwhile, after some tense moments, Sir Kinnoc, scion of an ennobled Gunderland dynasty, surrendered his weapon and gave his parole and pledge of ransom on condition of safety. He was immediately bound to the wagon by spare tethers.
“How long will Bardic and Vorel be, do you think?” Celo asked. The plain seemed to underline how exposed the caravan was, now that the Hyrkanians had disappeared.
“Let’s focus on what we can usefully do. Who’s hurt?” Edric asked. Everyone except Kuruk raised their hand, though Celo assured the Friar that his was a mere nick. Indeed although the knight had ridden him down and swung his sword lustily, the blow had barely connected.
After some time spent healing and bandaging, Edric, seeing no help on the horizon, suggested that the wagon be rolled back to a hiding-place in the forest, ready to defend when the expected retaliatory foray struck. Mules were coaxed and whipped into action, wheels heaved on, and the wagon and attendant animals – and captive – rolled clumsily around and north a little, then into the forest as far as it would go. The defenders draped branches and smoothed grass as best they could. He noticed that Celo and the three foot retainers were setting about their work with a cheerful efficiency.
“I’m sure that it doesn’t need to be said,” Edric called, “but this silver is the King’s property, and of course, will be handed to the proper authorities.”
The sad puppy eyes that answered this announcement were nearly enough to cause the Friar physical pain. Wrenching his gaze away, he sought a distraction….
“Bardic, Vorel go here!” Kuruk called. He’d acted as lookout the while, trotting his pony in a circuit around the forest fringe.
“It’s been an hour!” “Where have you been!” and “Did you get him?” all clamored about the two tired riders as they dismounted and gabbed for costrels. Draining a deep draught of wine, Bardic grunted:
“No by Crom, we did not catch him! His horse stayed far ahead of ours. I tried everything” – he gestured back at the horse’s bloodied flanks – “but we could see we’d never catch him, and gave up.” He threw the empty costrel down, and stamped away.
“I’m not sure what I would have done if he’d turned around – and I’m kind of glad we didn’t meet anyone else, or I’d be dead,” Vorel commented, laying himself down on some cut branches with a sigh of exhaustion. Edric hurried to him and began re-bandaging his wound.
With further rest and wine and food, tempers began to heat as the question of the next course of action pressed. At length, it was agreed – though far from unanimously – that the wagon be disabled, the silver left in it, and Vorel lead all of them, man and beast, south but away from the road then loop in to a hiding place near the castle, yet not so near that they could be seen from the turrets.
You can lead a horse to water…
“It’s agreed then – I’ll steal close, scale the wall, throw the rope down, you all scramble up, I re-arm and we take the wall!”
So spake Bardic, stripped down to loin-clout and with a makeshift rope wound around one brawny shoulder: yet as he set out towards the village through the hay-meadows surrounding it, he found Celo hurrying after him.
“Change of plan – I’m going to scout the village to see if there’s some closer cover!”
Bardic groaned inwardly – yet another change of plan – but returned to Vorel’s side to await the Tauranian. About 20 minutes later he returned, looking calm and confident.
“It’s OK – there’s quite a bit of cover as you get through the fields then into the village – the men are all out in the fields and won’t bother us. From where I was hiding, you can make a run at the wall out of sight of the gates.”
Bardic followed Celo and found himself stealing through a quietly busy village to the shade under a raised store-house. A number of small children were playing some form of hide-and-seek game, accompanied in their frolics by a small dog, which immediately began circling the Cimmerian and yapping shrilly.
A pair of matrons appeared, holding domestic implements. Bardic’s heart sank. “Celo?”
When Edric, Vorel, Morath, Darius, Theodora and Hod arrived little more than a minute later, they found that Celo’s chosen rallying-ground was less a secret hiding-spot, more a village meeting. Several matrons were gesturing for the Cimmerian and Tauranian to go, others were discussing the situation in frightened tones, and all around, the children were playing their own games, but quietly, as though they feared discovery by their lords. Celo turned to blandly update Edric and Vorel:
“One old biddy there told me that riders did leave the castle yesterday evening. So Bardic’s all set to go.”
Bardic waited, attempting to ignore the chaos around him, until he was sure the watch on the wall was clear: then raced effortlessly up the slope, arriving at the outer rampart to press his back up against the crude stonework and breathe as silently as possible. He was still in shade: the sun was less than an hour above the horizon, for all the indecisiveness and double-handling so far. He checked the rope to make sure it would not catch or unravel as he climbed, clamped his strong white teeth onto his poniard’s blade, glanced up at the overhang formed by the palisading atop the rampart, turned and clambered effortlessly up.
The next part would be far more difficult: reach out, make a hand-hold or hand-jam onto the crude wooden hoarding, swing out, swing round with another hand-jam, then get a final hand-hold before hoisting himself up. He reached:
Stifling a groan, Bardic rolled back up against the wall and picked himself up. Luckily the drop wasn’t too far. Alright: no mistakes this time. Nice and slow… up the wall… turn…. Check handholds… reach…
“I heard something!” The call, not yet an alarm, convinced Bardic to take his bruises and retreat. Before the too-alert sentry could sight him, he dashed back down to the group under the raised store-house.
“I f***ed up!” he announced baldly, flinging off the rope and putting his hands on his thighs to suck some air back into his lungs. The matrons, still gathered to admire the wandering heroes – as they had by now decided they were – shooed the children away in consternation. Bardic straightened up and looked around.
“Well? Time’s running out – do we try the gates or get out of here?”
“Oh… damnation… try the gates I suppose,” Vorel decided, looking more to Edric for guidance than Bardic was expecting.
“I can keep some of them busy,” Edric explained to Bardic as the eight trooped through the village and up to the shrine part-way up the castle mound. “You’ll be able to climb, let down the rope, and have Vorel and Morath up with you before any of them can decide to stop you!”
But you can’t make him think
Kuruk had waited long enough. He hadn’t quite grasped what the hetmen were saying, but they had indicated he should wait and take care of matters at the camp. He aimed carefully. Sir Kinnoc opened his mouth as if in protest: the arrow slammed between his teeth to jut out of the sturdy neck just below the skull. The knight dropped wordlessly, dead. Grunting in puzzlement as much as satisfaction at a job well done – why had the hetmen left before killing the dog that could betray their plan? – Kuruk nodded cheerfully at Zekias who crouched in shock amidst the other mounts, and urged his pony into a canter. He’d sweep the approach so that no-one could make sally into the raiders’ rear.
Behind him, Bardic could still hear Edric’s mellifluous tones belling out, singing praises to Mitra, distracting the guards atop the gate. Bardic wasn’t quite as confident as the Friar that singing was the distraction Edric thought: he himself could ignore it quite easily! Gritting his teeth, he jumped the small ditch, seized a foothold, and began clambering rapidly up the corner formed between gate and wall. Two crossbowmen further along the wall could easily see him, and loosed their powerful arbalests: one bolt struck his leg a hammer-blow before he reached the relative safety of the shallow overhang formed by the palisades. Arrows thudded into the woodwork around him: they were coming from behind him, where the others were – supposedly – waiting for Edric’s spell to quiet the guards. Glancing back, Bardic could see an untidy straggle of archers: Vorel, Celo, Darius, Hod and Theodora had apparently moved to a new plan he hadn’t heard about. Morath had decided to follow him to the wall: he could see the Zamorian making good time through the killing zone, apparently unopposed by archery.
Swinging up and reaching out with one hand, Bardic let his footholds go and made the next handhold easily. Above him, a well-armored figure leaned out, to get a sure shot with his arbalest: then reeled back as one of Vorel’s shafts tore through his throat above his gorget! With a further swing and heave, Bardic vaulted over! In one fluid, panther-like motion his poniard was into his hand and stabbing up into the groin of a crossbowman who had failed to jump clear as he vaulted! The man’s terrible shriek echoed off the castle walls and donjon looming above the gory scene. Almost in the same moment, Bardic plunged towards a burly armored figure clambering up onto the gate-wall from a ladderway: the man swung his mace but Bardic was already upon him: their grappling boddies arced out and down to land with a heavy thump onto the earth of the outer bailey, at least twenty feet below!
Bardic landed atop the brigandined mace-man, and made best use of his position, slamming the poniard down again and again into the struggling man. Bolts thumped deep into the earth around him: whether from the rampart, or from the looming donjon, he could not be sure. Exerting his full might, he wrenched the man over and rolled so that he formed a human shield: two bolts slammed into the armored body, and it sagged limply.
Morath clawed his way up the wall. Below him, Theodora waited and Celo began climbing. This was a lot harder than climbing in tailor-made reinforced hide, by Zath! He grasped the top of the sharpened palisade timbers and heaved with all of his wiry strength: vaulted over: his short sword leaped into his hand as though it had always been there. Beside him, three crossbowmen menaced him while standing over the bodies of two of their comrades; below in the outer bailey, an armored figure stood at the ready over a twined pair of bodies!
Bardic shoved the body up a little: glancing around, he became aware that two armored boots had come into view. His gaze traveled up: great-sword at the ready, a fully armored knight waited.
“Nice of you to come calling!” Sir Hezha gloated.