Ettis of the Fane
It was two hours shy of mid-day when Bardic first scented death. He had made his way up the craggy hills that separated his own valley from the nearest Callanach. Here, a fane sacred to both Danaan and Callanach served as a sanctuary for outlaws and a place where seasonal observances could be made. He had a dim memory, carried from his childhood, of great piles of whitish rock leaning at angles against one another, swooping above a dell formed by the angles, where enough earth had gathered to form a fine shelter, part-grown-over with bushes.
Working his way cautiously forward and up, his gaze raked the earth for sign and his ears were pricked for any disturbance. But all he could hear was the buzzing of flies. At length, he drew himself into the shade of one of the great slabs – smaller than his memory made them, but still several times his height – and took his time gazing across every inch of the dell.
A body lay part-concealed by the bushes at the opposite end of the dell, away from the fane itself. Several men had attacked the victim, dragging him out of the sanctuary then killing him. The actions of scavengers and time, and the cover of the bushes, meant that Bardic could not tell, from his distance, whether this had been Ettis.
He loosened his great blade in the scabbard hung down his back, and stole across the dell, ready for ambush. Wrinkling his nose at the awful stench, he stooped over the remains for a moment then backed away, satisfied that the man had not been Ettis, but some young man, probably a Danaan by his style of dress. Then he realized that he too was being observed.
Standing quietly amongst the branches of a fair-size bush, an ancient regarded him solemnly. Bardc could see at a glance that once, this had been a powerful man: his shoulders were wide and square, but the flesh had fallen away from his tall frame. This must be Ettis, Bardic concluded, and raised his palm as sign of peaceful intent.
Ettis brought him away from the fane, down to a well-concealed temporary camp with easy access to water. Over a broth, the wise man confirmed Bardic’s guesses and shared some advice:
“The men of the Callanach broke the sacred truce of the fane, dragging one of your cousins out and killing him. Cadroc their chief used always to be fierce: but now he is cruel, and fey. He is not someone you could defeat alone: he is a war-prince and chief, and you a landless wanderer. He will not accept a single combat.
“Draic, your own war-prince, has acted rashly, leading your cousins of the Danaan to two disastrous defeats. The most able of your cousins have left in disgust, to go west to where the clans are gathering against the Aquilonians.
“If you merely act as a brigand, leading your own men against Cadroc, you will further weaken Draic and leave your people worse than before. My advice is to act in such a way that Draic is strengthened. To do this, seek out your cousins in the great camps, and bring as many as you can back to join Draic. Then go from there. Once Cadroc is weak enough and Draic strong enough, the Callanach will not be able to prevent you from learning what is behind the stealing of children.”
Vorel of the Long Ride
Vorel lifted his hand in a last salute as he rode to take his place at the head of the Hyrkanian caravan. He had no real idea when he would return to the Border Kingdom, and it could even be that by the time he did, the others would have moved on. He made a mental note to try to pick up word of his erstwhile comrades’ movements as he returned.
Amur Khan lifted his voice in a ringing trail-cry, and it was taken up by the seven Hyrkanian warriors in a baritone, then by the women in an eerie high-pitched descant. The wagon, now converted to runners, lurched forward, followed by three sleds and a tail of spare horses and running children. The watching Cimmerians lifted their own voices in a farewell song: sad and haunting, speaking of cold hearths and rusted weapons.
Kuruk rode alongside his fellow-Hyrkanians, then reined in and watched, bow raised in salute. When he returned to his own village, he was almost certain to be accepted again by his elders. Whatever imagined grievance they held or imagined slight he had committed, the return of Amur Khan’s band would prove him as a true son of the tribe. For now, he would fight alongside his sword-brother Bardic, to kill whoever was stealing children – and for silver!
Hod, now the lone Bossonian, scratched his head, but otherwise watched and listened impassively. His own bump of curiosity suggested that a journey to the east would be a great adventure, but the practicalities in front of him were that he still had only the one riding horse, and very little in the way of armor. The more experienced couple, Darius and Theodora, had quickly picked over the fallen knights and men at arms, then traded unwanted equipment or horses for better equipment. He had upgraded his own armor by adding a scale corselet and steel cap, then trading a nifty brooch to Zekias for the repair work needed. But he hadn’t found anything that had convinced the Hyrkanians to part with any more horses – they needed all the rest for hauling sleds.
Draic of the Valley
Still shrouded by the familiar mist of Cimmeria in summer, Bardic led his group of six – Celo, Edric, Morath, himself and Hod and Kuruk – over the hills to the valley of his sept’s war-prince, Draic. It was possible that the departure of the Hyrkanians would fool valley gossip into thinking they had all left for the east, so now was the time to move. He hoped the girls would be well looked after by his mother. She’d indicated she had one or two routine chores they could do… he hoped none of them died under the load of chores that a Cimmerian woman might consider routine!
As they neared their destination, Bardic drew his fellows in for a quick council:
“I’m the Cimmerian, so it’s me who’ll lead the way in, to show I’m not a prisoner. We don’t know how many men Draic has, or how hostile they’ll be, so be alert and don’t be rash.”
Striding boldly down towards Draic’s settlement, Bardic felt the eyes of scouts on him, and attempted to look unwarlike. Rounding a hillock he caught sight of the big house and its surrounding huts. As he came within far bow-shot, a half-dozen men and striplings leapt down from cover and ran to block his path. Bardic’s companions assembled a respectful distance behind as Bardic walked slowly forward. A powerfully-built young warrior, with the slump of defeat on his broad shoulders, emerged from the big house and walked out to confront Bardic arms folded across his deep chest.
In bold terms Bardic explained his mission to solve the mystery and Draic of the Valley – for it was he – acknowledged him as cousin and bade him welcome as such, and his comrades as guests. Over a mid-day meal Draic admitted his difficulties and urged Bardic to bring more strength from the west:
“Seek out Gollarn, especially: a veteran warrior, who has perhaps a half-dozen of our cousins with him. He’ll be at the hearth of the great clan Cat Dan.”
Thus it was agreed. Bardic chose to take Celo, who knew the Cimmerian tongue. The others perforce lingered at Draic’s house, sleeping, tending the horses, or preparing for war. Edric had gathered fortifying herbs, and worked hard extracting their essences.
Gollarn of Cat Dan
Following the same precautions as in Draic’s valley paid off for Bardic, who was quickly welcomed and directed on to the hearth of Cat Dan. As they descended from the heights, Bardic and Celo lost sight of the far-distant Aquilonian fortress to the south, and the more distant of the scattered encampments of Cimmerians. There seemed to be a lot of Cimmerian encampments, even the least-curious could see.
The war-chieftain of Cat Dan welcomed Bardic as a distant cousin, and his follower as a guest.
“It is already growing late. Come with me to the great council hearth, Bardic, and you can speak to Gollarn directly. He’ll be giving his opinion, as will I, though I doubt either of us will be changing our tune. As a warrior who has travelled in the south, your voice will be welcome as well.”
Within hours, Bardic hunkered down in the warmth of the hearth of the great council. Its embers were a full dozen feet across, and around it sat some fifty of the best warriors and canniest war-leaders in all Cimmeria. Celo sat further back: as a Cimmerian speaker his presence was not too objectionable.
The counsel being sought was as to the wisdom of assaulting the fortress. It seemed that Cimmerians from many clans had at last assembled to meet this year’s invading force, but the task of assaulting a fortress was a formidable one, and only a few thought it would merely be a matter of charging and killing.
One of those few was a mere youth, powerful in frame, deep of chest and already six feet or nearly so in height. His word, which was heeded, was simple:
“Assault the walls and put all within to the sword, by Crom!”
But Cat Dan’s chief spoke caution. Many though the Cimmerians were, the fortress walls were steep and large numbers of warriors would be slain just crossing them.
Gollarn stood next. A typically rangy, deep-chested Cimmerian, he wore better equipment than most. Successive seasons against the Aquilonian soldiery had allowed him to gain a chain shirt and a good Aquilonian-pattern broadsword. A bright-painted targe lay beside his place at the fire. He too spoke of the need to weaken the Aquilonians and use stratagem to wear them down and exhaust their Bossonian archers.
Cat Dan’s chief then introduced Bardic as one that had fought alongside the Aquilonians and knew them from the other side of the wall, so to speak. Bardic advised cutting off supply trains, killing reinforcements, and only assault once the defenders had sallied out to save their supplies.
Bardic segued immediately into an appeal for Gollarn to aid him in his own quest.
“Spare me but a few days, and we can end the stealing of children and protect our clan!” he finished.
After the council broke up, Gollarn sought Bardic out and gave his support to Draic and Bardic’s causes. Dawn found Bardic and Celo, in company with Gollarn and five sturdy axe-wielding Danaan, heading back up into the hills bound for Draic’s settlement.
Bardic, Gollarn and Edric each had their own advice to contribute and Celo too had some good ideas about approach. Draic proved tractable, perhaps because of his bitter lessons in defeat. At last, the plan Bardic roughed out with him was to make an attack in strength on the nearest valley of the Callanach, so that the enemy could not refuse battle but had no time to send for reinforcements. The attack would be afoot, save for Kuruk, who could most likely manage to scramble his pony over the hills.
Bardic would stand a few feet to the fore, as champion. Then Draic, Gollarn and Gollarn’s sturdy fighters would form the main line. Edric would stand just behind that line. The few warriors of Draic’s valley would form the second line and reinforce the first when called. Finally the few striplings would use their bows, from behind, alongside Hod. Kuruk would launch himself from there. Celo and Morath would stay concealed forward on the flanks, and then spring out when the time was right.
The first village
The battle went very much as planned, save that the village’s war-hound launched himself past Bardic’s first cut and locked his mighty jaws in the chainmail protecting Bardic’s throat. Having survived that, Bardic cut his way through the first wave of attackers before they could use their numbers, and slew the village war-chief. Deadly fire from Celo and Morath slew several on the flanks and Draic and Gollarn acquitted themselves well in the center. Hod and Kuruk did not even need to waste a shaft. Two of Gollarn’s five warriors were sorely hurt, but none were slain.
“It seemed to me that Mitra was blessing those who welcomed his blessing, but your Cimmerian cousins were different – I can only bind their wounds and let them heal naturally,” Edric explained later.
“So be it – we push on to the next village before the alarm can be raised,” Bardic growled. “As Draic laid it out for me, if we strike the village nearest my own village, it will block any foray Cadroc might be able to mount.
“Draic’s seen one success and his warriors have tasted it: next, Draic will take the center and I’ll stand to the right of line. I think Gollarn will stand on the left. It will give Draic more confidence and keep his strength growing.”
The second village
Bardic groaned silently as Draic, bellowing in his rage, raced forward on the heels of the fleeing half-dozen Callanach. The steep valley slopes, littered with numerous places to hide, were crowding them into an obvious killing-zone.
Sure enough, on either flank, nine or ten men leapt from cover and charged, howling with berserk fury. The half-dozen ceased their feigned retreat and flung themselves at Draic, hoping to take his head. No sign of a great warlord could be seen: this was simply the tactic Cadroc had taught them to use.
Between Bardic’s blade and covering fire from Hod and the striplings the right flank was secured, and Gollarn and Celo performed wonders on the left. Morath finished off some on the right and Kuruk cantered through to bring down a couple of those mobbing Draic and his guard of sturdy warriors. Draic fought valiantly though wounded. Edric summoned Mitra’s support for those who believed, and weakened the arms of their opponents. The odds swiftly turned the other way and Bardic, Morath and Gollarn mopped up the last few Callanach. But three more Danaan had fallen, and Edric was not in time to save one.
“We’ve had hard fighting with little rest,” Bardic announced to the assembled victors. “But Draic has explained to me how close we are to Cadroc’s own village. If you are willing to march across the hills in the night we can rest before dawn then attack before he believes we could be ready. He’ll have only his own village at his back: and we can take one village!”