A great deal of what Dilshai, small but redoubtable wife to Oboe, was saying was in Hyrkanian, but she switched to Aquilonian often enough that the listening adventurers followed. Her scathing critique was strengthened by the fact that all of the wives, save for Amur Khan’s two, were standing behind her. Her conclusion: the westerners would make good on their pledge to recover the two Hyrkanians from the next barony: forthwith: no delays or stratagems.
“Can we at least get some healing herbs?” Edric pleaded.
“No. All our skills and medicines are needed for Aerin, who was nearly slain by the Baron – and that is due to your clumsy ambush placing him in harm’s way. You’ll be all the better for a night on the plains. Go.”
The Mark of the Flame Knife
Morath was outraged to find the others packing, once he caught up with events. He was bone-tired and dishevelled from his patrolling and searching, and had been looking forward to picking off Damsons at leisure.
“We really don’t have a choice,” Vorel averred, handing over the sack of gold that made up the balance owed.
Morath was still fuming as they left. His mighty Balkhana stallion – once Baron Amuran’s, and a steal of a trade at three riding horses – wrenched at the bit and half-shied as it sensed his lack of self-control. Morath’s face paled a little as the last of his energy went into controlling it. Wiping his brow, he glanced back at the castle ditch: bodies lay naked in it, ready for burial.
“He too bore the mark of the Flame Knife, you know.”
“Who’s that, Morath?”
“Amuran. I decided to have a look – and sure enough, it was tattooed on his upper left chest as it usually is.”
To the disputed lands
The night had been clear and cold as it usually was at this time of year on the northern plain. Vorel had picked out a good-sized dip in the plain he judged large enough to hide all ten riders and their 22 mounts. All of the “top table” had thrown themselves down and slept the sleep of the dead after a hasty and unappetizing meal of oatmeal paste. Celo had awoken towards dawn briefly, alerted by the drumming of hooves far off, but reassured by Hod’s uncouth profile against the stars, fell asleep once more to awaken refreshed at dawn.
Now, a line of furze- and scrub-oak-clad hills rose before them. The trail petered out: this was about as far as Amuran’s patrols would come. Vorel glanced over his shoulder and checked distance and order: the cavalcade was spread out in a diamond pattern, with a long tail of spare mounts, including Morath’s stallion as it was too troublesome to ride.
“Riders up on the hill!” Morath called. The sun was high overhead, and shading his eyes, Vorel made a quick count: only six, mostly bearing lances, and most probably a knight in the middle. He waved his cavalcade to a slow walk, and studied them as the distance closed.
None bore a banner or device: their gear was apt for war and not the tourney field. Three rode lightly-barded hill-bred horses and bore light lances. Two were Hyrkanians, judging by their ponies and short powerful bows. The sixth was a knight or dressed as a knight, in strong armor, riding a strong, barded warhorse and bearing a stout lance. Seeing Vorel’s peaceful approach, that individual raised his hand in token of parley and walked his horse forward.
Sir Uthric of the disputed lands
This was Sir Uthric, a knight in service to the Count of Gunderland. He himself was a hard-bitten, bluff Gunderman, blue-eyed and fair-haired as so many of his countrymen were, and boasting blood ties to the Count and back to the Throne.
“So you’ve beheaded Baron Amuran?” Uthric repeated. “He was a redoubtable swordsman – who was it that was mighty enough to cross blades with him and live?”
Vorel explained their stratagem. It was clear that Uthric thought the less of them for it, but he listened on as Vorel ran briefly over their reason for this venture.
“I’m no mathematician, but I’d say the odds are pretty good that these are the two lads you’re looking for. Come back to the castle and share my hospitality, and we’ll talk more.”
Should have thought of that
Uthric’s castle was a simple hill-keep. It was much too small to stable the extra twenty or so horses, so Vorel detailed Darius to set up a watch roster for the horses where they were turned out on long tethers to graze overnight. However, all were permitted to enjoy a simple but hearty meal at the long board where the keep’s entire fighting complement dined each evening. These were hard-bitten border fighters, not given to foolish trials of strength or skill, and the company soon relaxed and ploughed into the venison on offer.
“What of the noble ladies Amuran had with him?” Uthric asked at last, having listened to the details of Vorel’s account.
“Oh… the ladies. Right. They are still back at the castle. They are, erm, somewhat in the nature of safeguards for the Hyrkanians.”
“Hunh. Hmm. Well, I’ll make a bargain with you. I’ll release my Hyrkanians, since as Amuran’s dead I won’t need them anymore, if you return with the ladies.”
“Hmmm. We have given our pledge to return with the Hyrkanians.”
“I think we can find a way to agree. All you need do is ride back with the Hyrkanians, correct?”
“Yes, that would cover my first pledge. I could send the ladies back to you.”
“You can’t be suggesting sending noblewomen out on their own!”
“No, we can escort them back.”
“Then it’s simple. You all have plenty of horses. Just leave your best horses here, and ride back as fast as you can, and return with the ladies, and then you can collect your horses again.”
New missions, new deals
Edric concluded an agreement with Morath and Celo for assistance against the Damsons. The two mercenaries had different outlooks on what constituted the start of a contract and how much they were worth, but eventually the same type of deal that Vorel had with them was repeated. Gold was moved from the Friar’s “war-chest” to their ever-swelling purses.
Darius took Bardic and Vorel aside as this was going on. He explained that for six years he had been seeking his sister Jessica who had been kidnapped by a local lord then passed from one noble to another from land to land. He had learned from the garrison that Uthric’s immediate baron nearby currently possessed her. He had to take her back! Vorel agreed this was acceptable, once the ladies had been returned and the horses were no longer standing surety. Bardic and Vorel volunteered to help buy her back or take her by force.
Edric also urged a course of action on Vorel that he was very willing to undertake. Once they returned the ladies and rejoined the small Hyrkanian tribe, Vorel should ensure they reached Hyrkania safely. It would restore him into the ranks of the civilized and give him the chance to learn the Hyrkanian bow.
Trouble on the horizon
Kuruk’s yipping alarm roused Vorel from his musings upon his new missions great and small. Glancing back to his left he saw the little tribesman, who was now followed by the two new “recruits” Yarmik and Egor, using his bow to point towards the danger. Off to the north-west a line of half a dozen or so riders could be seen: spread widely as though to sweep a search. And then he noted a similar line, off to the north-east. Mentally dividing each line in half he gauged that each had eight riders: a total of sixteen possible foes!
Vorel turned to call to Bardic, riding not far behind him:
“Bardic! Sixteen riders! I think the Damsons have found us! Where best to make a stand?”
Bardic hardly needed to think. They had just debouched from the hill where they had first met Uthric. It was as good as anything for a stand. Explaining his idea with vigorous sweeps of his hand, he quickly gained consensus and the cavalcade swung back on its course.
Zekias and the two younger Hyrkanians took the horses to the rear while Vorel and the three Hyborian retainers set quivers of arrows to hand and took positions on the forward slope well above the base of the hill. Hod was to his left, then Theodora and lastly Darius.
Zekias returned to finish helping Vorel strap up the breastplate armor, and he slung his targe ready to hand and thrust the point of his bastard sword into the turf beside him. Bardic readied himself a few feet away to Vorel’s right, and turned to Edric, standing behind him with quarterstaff ready.
“You say Mitra can grant me a layer of armor, Edric?”
“Yes, I will claim Mitra’s protection for you, and the armor you are wearing will be as good as Vorel’s.”
Bardic nodded and checked his helm’s fit, ready to close the visor.
Below, Morath and Celo faded into the furze and folds of the base of the slope, on opposite sides. Their plan was to swing in behind the friars once they had all begun to scale the slope. It was steep enough to force a charging man to a walk.
Zekias retired again, and Edric briefed the Hyrkanians:
“You stay out of sight until they are on the slope. Then you ride out, shoot them. I pay one gold per head.” The three Hyrkanians nodded enthusiastically.
“Can I get a gold a head?” Bardic asked. Edric nodded.
“We’ll strike a heavy blow – remember, they know us all and seek our deaths!”
The Damson Friars, realizing their wide-flung sweep had been seen, united and dismounted about a quarter-mile distant. The onlookers could hear their voices raised in prayer. Then leaving their mounts tethered they shook into a rough phalanx and started a calm walk towards their quarry. They came roughly six abreast, two deep, with four others walking a little to the rear. As the range closed, those on the slope picked out bardiche axes in the front ranks, and longer staves behind – perhaps quarterstaffs. Within five hundred feet, they could gauge that two bore long glaives rather than staffs, and two bore quarterstaffs.
“They’ll be clerics,” Vorel said darkly.
“They’re all clerics,” Edric reminded him. “And they are all capable of healing or harming with their warped powers.”
“I’ll try a shot at one of the friars at the back,” Vorel announced, then reminded his retainers ranged to his left: “wait until I tell you to loose!” He raised his mighty Bossonian longbow and aimed it high. With a deep thrum the shaft leapt off the string but somehow his hand quavered as he released and the shaft went wildly astray.
“They have protected themselves,” Edric murmured, “I would think that you can shoot the bardiche bearing men.”
“Then that’s what we’ll do,” replied Vorel.
At about 400 feet range the Damsons began to be struck. One went down and a cheer went around the little group of defenders – then the man’s neighbour leaned down and raised him, clearly well again.
“We’ll have to kill them three times then!” Bardic muttered.
At about 200 feet the fire became more telling. By the time the Damsons reached the slope, they had lost two, and most of them had used their healing abilities already. They came on, strong in their belief, warped and evil though it had become. Even the strongest spells that Edric could hurl were shrugged off. Bending forward the group of fourteen hastened up the slope as best they could: but now the fire, being direct, became deadly. Celo and Morath rose from cover and loosed: five more fell as the Friars drew close. The Hyrkanians rode out from the slopes of the hill, cantering in to stopper the trap, yelping encouragement to each other.
Vorel stepped back, throwing aside his bow, swinging down his targe and raising his bastard sword from its position. Then as its weight dragged on his arm he realized that weighted as it was for horseback combat, it was not a friend in close foot combat. With a snarl of vexation he flung that aside too, and drew his longsword. More calmly Hod and Darius readied their battle-axes and Theodora her broadsword and shortsword. She seemed poised rather than enraged: very different to her mien on previous days. She and Darius exchanged a glance and a grin.
The friars below called out prayers or encouragement: it was hard to tell: but both Vorel and Bardic felt compelled to drop their weapons. With a surge of fighting will, they broke from the suggestion and stiffened their sinews once more for battle.
“Now come and get killed!” roared Bardic. And the Brothers of Hack complied! They charged as best they could, four pressing around Bardic and three assailing Vorel; the two quarterstaff-wielding friars pressed close to the latter three, healing the worst hurt. Bardic struck one down immediately and wounded another. While Vorel’s strong armor, and the agility of the lightly-armored retainers, protected that flank from harm, Bardic was struck himself and the blood ran red down his arms. But his deadly blade cut clear through man after man, or gave hurts so fell that no amount of healing would suffice. Then he advanced on the last cluster surrounding Vorel. Morath and Celo ran lightly up to finish off the fallen and cut at the heels of the fighting. The Hyrkanians trotted in, volleying their long flights in.
In seconds more, it was over: even the protection cast by the senior friars could not last, and they too fell before Bardic and Vorel, Morath and Celo. Darius and Theodora were not even scratched, though Hod was cut about severely.
“Yes! Victory!” Edric shouted.
“Heads! Gold!” Kuruk agreed happily.