A few good men
Cavalry circled warily around the outskirts of the battlefield, lancing the odd fugitive, while across the blood-soaked battleground armored men hacked at one another in isolated knots that marked where defenders had rallied to sell their lives dearly.
To one such knot, an officer rode, and ordered the fighting to halt, in a loud harsh voice. The attackers drew back and hope grew on the faces of the defenders. Would they be allowed to surrender?
“You four! You fight well! Our general has an offer for you. He can always use a few good men: so join his service: or stay and become a few dead men!” – Valkoli, mercenary lieutenant
“Sorry lads, this is where we leave you” – Bardic, remounting
“A wise choice. You will find Xaphur a harsh but generous leader. Follow!” – Valkoli
The attackers closed in once more and for those left behind, despair replaced hope.
It was Amalric that had first put the idea of working their way into Xaphur’s band as mercenaries into their minds. Bartering their mounts and loot from Zamboula for remounts and fresh equipment in Khoraja, they soon ran into the handsome yellow-maned Nemedian. They had known he was working in Koth, but had missed meeting him on their way south. Now, he had taken his band of mercenaries out of Koth and was negotiating to take service with the Agha. It seemed that the boy-king Khossus had taken many of the royal knights away north to aid one of Ophir’s Queens, a relative of the Khorajian royals.
Amalric was sympathetic to their quest, and pointed out that Koth was much less likely to know them than say, Corinthia. The long civil war had brought foreign mercenaries aplenty but while some were bound to know them, most were focused on the business of war. It ought to be possible to simply pass as mercenaries, albeit a cut above most.
He could even tell them which band to aim for. Xaphur, a foreign mercenary thought to be a Shemite of some ilk, was known to have a master alchemist in his service, Asmidi by name. Xaphur’s reputation was among the worst of those notionally serving Timonos’ Eastern Kothian loyalists. Merciless and cruel were words usually associated with his actions.
“Good. We do merciless and cruel quite well” – Morath
“One thing, though. And this may give you trouble, Bardic. I know Cimmerians as well as any Nemedian can, I suppose, and I know that once you give your word you stay loyal. Well, you’ll have to sign articles with Xaphur. You’ll be force to lie and con. So think about that and be sure you can pull it off” – Amalric
“I can do that” – Bardic
And now, by dint of tagging along with various mercenary bands until their latest was attacked, they had the chance they had been working towards.
Bardic, Celo, Morath and Vorel guided their horses up the slopes and towards the officers’ command post. Xaphur guided his black Stygian gelding around with his knees so that he faced them. Gallopers and captains surrounded him. He spoke in Kothian, fixing each with piercing dark eyes framed by black hair and beard under a well-polished black-enameled helm. Black was his armor and dark his robes. His bow, a powerful Shemitish piece, was ready in his hand.
The four spoke but a smattering of Kothian but enough to follow the fact that he was willing to take them on and that Valkoli was to sign them up. Something about “hands” and being “men of their hands.”
Once the loot had been gathered – and all picked up the rigid enforcement of common loot and shares – the mercenary company retired on its base. The four had a chance to see the composition of the force they had joined. It seemed to be evenly divided between mounted and foot, though the majority of mounted were light horse – mainly Shemites – and the minority of foot were light foot. Men of many nations, many crimes, as the saying goes. All seemed in good spirits and with wine at their belt and plunder to be divided, why not?
Valkoli, who seemed to have taken a proprietary interest in them, signed them into articles with his Captain, Escorus, then showed them the camp layout. It was orderly and reasonably clean, though a sour unfamiliar smell lay across it. The camp occupied a box canyon, sentries marking the cliffs above. At its terminal end, the mouth of a cavern was obvious: blackened by fire and unguarded.
Privately they wondered if that cavern marked a convenient incinerator for the dead, but Valkoli soon corrected them.
“That? That’s where Xaphur’s witchy-man lives! Witchy-man! Boogada boogada! Gonna getcha! Hahahaha ha… no? Well, he’s Asmidi, a witchy-man, stay clear, that’s what we do” – Valkoli
Within a short space of time they had a chance to see Asmidi. Dressed in dark but practical robes, the alchemist came blinking into the light the next morning. To the casual eye he was a normal looking Shemite of some scholarly class. On closer inspection, his eyes seemed too far apart, and to track slightly differently. It somehow gave him a blank yet sinister look. Xaphur was obviously respectful of Asmidi’s abilities, conversing with him as an equal. It did not take long to learn that Xaphur was a keen amateur alchemist himself. It was rumored that Asmidi was crafting a suit of magical armor for Xaphur.
The con: personas
The four soon made the acquaintance of their own sections, and introduced themselves by the names they had chosen. Bardic joined the mounted heavy foot as “Bear,” and found them tough, uncomplaining and uncomplicated. Most used a war-spear and a bastard sword as main weapons, and were armored in stout scale hauberk or corselet. They prided themselves on being the real, up-the-guts fighters while the “kings on the wings” rode around the battle. Morath introduced himself as Mawdryn and Celo, himself as Jed, to the light foot archers. They were the poorest paid, though all owned a horse. The pair found their new comrades prided themselves on being a cut above the Shemite horse, for once dismounted and in action they would not retreat. Or so they said. They were led by a sub-altern named Sergius, he whose voice they had heard sternly reminding his troops about loot shares.
Vorel however, with his lance, Hyrkanian bow, and warhorse, was given the chance to join the cavalry, a mix of Kothians like Valkoli, lords of the battlefield’s flanks; and bow-armed Shemites, scouting and pursuit detail. He perforce had to introduce himself as Vorel, for the simple reason that he had already been recognized.
“Captain – I hardly recognized you with your hair dyed – I can’t believe my eyes” – Coran the Pict
“It’s not dyed, I was cured of, ehrm, anyway it grew back out how it used to be” – Vorel
“That must have been a long time ago, it’s been silver the whole time I knew you” – Coran
“Anyway what brings you here?” – Vorel, changing the topic
“After we got outlawed, I said I’d strike south and look for work, remember? I missed you in Corinthia and heard you’d headed to Koth. Now here I am, footloose and fancy free” – Coran
“So no woman huh?” – Vorel
“No, can’t afford one on my pay” – Coran
Each set about portraying themselves as someone that would fit the mercenary life.
Bear [Bardic]: Joining the rough-housing and japing around the campfires, Bear proved fond of a joke, but any prank was sure to be paid back, with interest. As to menial chores, Bear made sure the camp-followers were on top of those.
Jed [Celo]: Like most of the ‘lights’ Jed was a willing worker, fetching wood and tending the campfire. He soon proved to have a sinister side, for any prank would be paid back with interest and Jed’s resulting laughter was disturbing to hear.
Mawdryn [Morath]: Mawdryn soon proved a more companionable sort than Jed, as his hearty laughter around the campfire seemed unforced and he was every bit as willing to help with chores or repay a prank. (The other three found this unnerving.)
Vorel: Like the other lords of the battlefield Vorel seemed content to point chores out to lesser men. He repaid any prank with interest, and his laughter was chilling. Not surprisingly he made no friends.
Though some of his behavior was off-putting, Jed put his social skills to work, subtly encouraging camp gossip. The others did likewise within their limitations. Bear (the least socially able) kept his eyes and ears open, particularly looking for evidence of child slavery or sacrifice. It had not taken him long to connect the name Xaphur, an educated Nomad who knew some alchemy, with the man of the same name from borderland Poitain, where children had been stolen and shipped south.
|Main rumor||Subsidiary or counter-rumor|
|“There’s some new holy order wandering around snooping for the White Ring”||“I heard it was Keth Alkaran”|
|“Some bigwig is coming to meet Xaphur soon”||“I heard Xaphur is planning to break the bigwig out”|
|“True! Up in Ophir’s royal prison is what I heard”|
|“A rich caravan is bound north out of Akbitana, guarded by Shemites. I hear that’s we’re going after next”||“Alleto of Valladolid was guarding one of King Strabonus’ convoys – wouldn’t want to run into him!”|
|“I heard it was some Barachan named Streboso or some such”|
|“Cala Atenoel teamed up with Kayan Haduk and a small group of others to guide or find something – out near Yanaidar or something like that”||“I thought Cala has been the one helping King Khossus or the old Ophirean Queen just recently”|
|“I heard Cala is one of Ophir’s Queens”|
It was hard to place any faith in these rumors but they weighed them up as they came to hand, and kept listening for any word of their true objective: the whereabouts of Queen Aasiyeh Hotep.
Willing or Unwilling
A good day’s ride clear of camp, Escorus addressed his force or “battle:” the full squadron of horse and sections of foot, less any that had foolishly gambled away their mounts. He reminded them all that the battle to free Eastern Koth was by no means over and that mercy was a quality none could afford. He reminded them that Xaphur was generous to those doing their duty and merciless to those that failed to do it.
The force broke once more into individual pennons and separated, taking a number of trails. At length, Valkoli called the halt and addressed his own men. Escorus had assigned him the honor of taking the lead in two tasks, and he in turn was expecting veterans to lead the two. One task was the ambush of a caravan bound west. One of its passengers was a smith bound for the King’s court.
“And there’s some slave girls bound for the King’s harem – we’ll take those too!” – Valkoli
Valkoli had already picked up on Bear’s military experience. As the most powerful of the heavies and one of the few that still had a horse, Bear was allowed to suggest the kind of ambush country he favored. Vorel found himself assigned to a “chase” troop of Shemites. Valkoli’s few spare lancers would follow up the initial “block” of the heavies.
The other task was of different water. Not far to the east lay a town named Tantasium, above a lake. And in the lake was a prison fortress. Valkoli showed Mawdryn, Jed and the few others that either were expert with a bow or knew the locality a picture-sketch of a bearded man, laughing.
“This is Balatro, the Jester. Xaphur wants him out and unharmed. Tell me what you need done and what forces you need” – Valkoli
It seemed that Valkoli himself would stay well away, since riders would be obvious to the prison watchtower, and an alarm would be sounded. The mounted force would stay hidden but within earshot, so as to provide an escort once the prisoner was clear.
Ambush the caravan
Whether Vorel mused that he was now in the opposite role to that taken months ago when they had first met the Queen is unknown. He waved his Shemites forward and they sky-lined themselves on the cliff overlooking the caravan trail. It had the desired effect: calculating that a small band of riders could be best dealt with by distance, the caravan increased its speed. As they began walking their horses down the cliff paths, most of Vorel’s Shemites opened hostilities, loosing their shafts at range that was effectively random. Vorel was impressed at their accuracy nonetheless: born with bow in hand each Shemite thought little of ranges that a Bossonian would consider extreme.
A determined flurry of arrows showered back from the caravan guards as they gained the plain and pursued. Now it was the foot archers that had an advantage, though each time they paused, the horsemen gained many yards on them. Vorel’s Shemites drew rein, and he realized that they were content to stay at maximum range and avoid danger. But if that were the case, the caravan might well stop to deal with them. Muttering a curse he kneed his horse to the canter and notched an arrow.
Now the arrows of the defenders were all for him! Weaving among the half-dozen shafts, Vorel was struck by one that penetrated his mail and drew blood from his shoulder. In reply, he loosed twice in quick succession, and his shafts had the desired effect: the guards scampered on, leaving him to the horsed caravan master who had dropped back.
Ahead of the caravan’s direction, Bear rose and swung into the saddle. His fellow-heavies followed suit. They formed a rough line on him – no great horsemen – and together they trotted around the concealing summit to face down to the caravan’s head. Now, the caravan’s drivers could only escape by cutting the angle between pursuit and block: and that was up a rise.
The caravan guards formed a rough line and arrows greeted the heavies. A horsed caravan captain encouraged them on. As the heavies dismounted alongside Bardic, he glanced up along the caravan’s length: the pursuit team was well in arrears, save for Vorel who was charging a lone horseman. Raising their shields if they had them, the heavies jogged forward. Switching to scimitar the archers prepared for the onset. Bardic increased his pace and shouted encouragement to the others even as he slipped into a barbaric fury: in response, the defending wagon captain yelled something in an unknown language and flung himself off the saddle at Bardic, froth riming his screaming mouth!
As Vorel sought to use his mount’s speed to race past the caravan master’s horse and bring him down, the latter muttered something and the short chain he was swinging suddenly extended to wrap itself around Vorel’s steed’s forelegs! With a scream of panic the horse rolled neck-foremost and Vorel threw himself clear in a masterful dismount, keeping hold of his bow and handful of arrows. Without breaking speed he calmly sank a shaft into the master’s chest. The man grunted and stroked a gleaming ring, muttering again. Scalp tingling with rising fear, Vorel sank the remaining shafts home: it was enough! With a choking groan the master slumped and then fell from his saddle.
At the other end of the now-halted caravan Bear regained his cool and the familiar feeling of fatigued washed through him. The wagon captain had been tough and wily – his trick with a sharpened steel shield had been hard to spot – but no match for the veteran Cimmerian. Looking up from the gory mess left of his opponent Bear noted that the rest of the heavies had all but finished the guards and that a very powerfully built, bald-headed man, dressed in practical workman’s attire, was glaring along from beside a wagon at them, and clutching a massive smith’s hammer.
“He’s not to be harmed – that’s what we’ve come for!” – Bear, yelling in trade-talk
“And the horse you rode in on!” – Gil Barterson, yelling in Corinthian
As mercenaries closed in eagerly on the abandoned wagons Bear strode swiftly along the line. Frightened cries came from one wagon. Six slave-girls, lightly chained, were seated in the one enclosed wagon, and now at the mercy of the villainous crew that had captured them. The girls were clothed but in silks so attenuated that if all were stitched together, there was not fabric enough to make one modest garment. They seemed a wide variety of races, though Bear could easily spot at least a couple of likely Brythunians. Bear swung on the villains grinning and licking their lips.
“Hands off these girls – common loot pool – or you answer to me!” – Bear, spending a fate point and rerolling Intimidate
Rescue the insane killer
A single raised path or jetty ran from the lakeshore to the prison fortress. In configuration, the fortress was of a high square-section donjon, supported on opposite corners by square keeps. It seemed that the central path ran between a keep and up the side of the donjon. Only true stealth would prevent keep guards from spotting an approach.
Mawdryn and Jed had chosen night as their ally and had stationed skilled archers in an arc around the lakeside, concealed from casual observation from the town. Now, faces smeared with mud, the two crept along the path, patiently waiting until a spell of real darkness allowed them to sneak past the first keep and up the donjon. Reaching the circuit-path that connected the donjon to the two keeps, they rested their bows and quivers and climbed silently up. Jed tested the door. Mawdryn counted the sentry-steps and peeked around. Only one man was bothering to walk the beat, while two others were dicing or gossiping in the arch of the further keep’s gate.
Mawdryn stole up behind the sentry and dealt with him silently, then clapped the man’s helm on his own head and swung the cloak around his own shoulders. Casually he walked around the beat and down to the arch where two guards failed to realize their danger…
Rising from checking their corpses, Mawdryn walked back up to the beat path, then realized a fourth man had walked up from the first keep! Then a thrown knife took the man in the throat, and he realized Jed had that side covered. The man fell, his helm clanging on the path then away down into the lake. The two waited, but it seemed that no alarm had been raised.
Jed easily dealt with the simple alarm on the donjon gate, and opened it. Unsurprisingly the chamber beyond was unadorned and barren of anything but a stone stair leading up from one side. Enough light came from above to reassure the two that they would not need to carry a torch. Retrieving their bows, they began working their way silently up, checking for any alarm or trap as they did.
The off-duty guards next level up were taking their ease, and dealt with in seconds. Mawdryn raced in as Jed shot one, then rolled past them and slew a second and Jed dealt with the third – all before the guards could do more than goggle in surprise. The room was plainly furnished, but three large military chests were packed along the wall. They delayed not. Jed took the purse of the one well-dressed man, and they stole up the next flight of steps.
Near the top of the donjon, the sound of a man laughing and singing came faint but clear. Perhaps this explained why the four guards outside that chamber were armored and tense. Nonetheless they lasted little longer than their off-duty brothers! Again, Jed removed their purses, then turned his attention to the lock on the door. It was a simple padlock, but had the effect of making it impossible for someone inside the room to open the door without smashing it. Jed soon had it open.
They were faced by a strongly-built, vivid-featured man, holding an older fellow-prisoner in front of him as a human shield. His other hand menaced the hostage with a shard of pottery.
“Hahahaha! Hahaha! SO, WHAT you want, comrades?” – Balatro
Mawdryn gazed calmly at the man and mentally checked off the list:
“You can kill that man. We don’t care. We are here to free you” – Mawdryn
“SO!!! Hahahaha! WHO wants to FREEEEEE Me! Ahahaha!” – Balatro, killing his hostage but not letting him fall
“Xaphur sends us. We’ll take you to him” – Jed, wondering why the hostage was waving in protest
“OK YES!!! Hahahaha! Xaphur is OK in my book! Ahahahaha!!! We go! But, after you, comrades dear!” – Balatro
Getting Balatro down, and quietly, took longer than they expected. He wanted to raise the alarm then kill all the guards. Then he wanted to loot all of the chests. Grudgingly Jed opened one, and they removed a good stack of gold coin, presumably used for pay for the local troops. But they drew the line there and disguising Balatro with the old helm-and-cloak effect got him away over the jetty and into the cover Valkoli was ready to provide.
A new face, and new talk
The loot earned in the two strikes was excellent, and just as importantly, the four comrades had earned the place their evident abilities had tentatively set for them. Their fellow-mercenaries obviously felt reassured by seeing them in action. In the absence of Escorus’ battle, a few new faces had appeared in camp. Including a Leech. He was robed in homespun, wore a white mantle over it, and bore a Quarterstaff. They soon learned that this was a Kothian named Marc Al’panth. Vorel tried to engage the man in conversation but his need to portray himself as a callous, chilling mercenary worked against him. They suspected he was more than a humble healer: the calluses on his hands from working the Quarterstaff suggested the fighter rather than the healer.
With Balatro added to the force, a level of unease pervaded the camp. His burning need to kill and kill seemed to lead to quarrels among mercenaries that might previously have let things ride. Terror stalked the countryside, for Balatro sought any reason to kill during a raid. Bear was thankful that at least the slave-girls did not appear destined to fuel the man’s insanity, nor as sacrifices for some foul pact Asmidi was concluding. He had taken the trouble to take part of his share of the loot in kind, adding Hyacinth, a young Khorajian, to his personal belongings. A shapely 15-year-old, Hyacinth seemed the most in need of a protector, no matter how rough his manner.
Speculation grew along with the unease. It became an open secret that the reason Xaphur had recruited Balatro was that he had the secret to Ophir’s royal fortress-prison in his head.
Me on the inside, you on the outside
It was not entirely by chance that Mawdryn found himself nursing a wine-goblet in a tavern well to the north, perhaps even on the border with Ophir. Escorus seemed to be clearing or securing villages between the camp and the border. In this case, the heavies were out of the way fussing about the local baron’s force. The lights had taken a welcome break from foraging. And a dark-dressed stranger rode into town.
He was accompanied by a soberly-dressed servant, and the saddlebags of his horse were broad. Mawdryn looked to see if they could conceal a heavy crossbow or two, and decided they could. The man entered the tavern, looked around carefully, and approached the bar. At first, the taverner was unwilling to serve him, seemingly scared of offending the current occupiers.
“Let him drink” – Mawdryn
Keros nodded his thanks and drew Mawdryn aside.
“I thought I might find you here. I have a proposition to put to you” – Keros
“I’m listening” – Mawdryn
“Balatro has been sprung from a Kothian fortress. There’s a price on his head in Ophir. And I have a personal reason for wanting to kill him. But he’s protected by Xaphur and all of his mercenaries. So for this to work, it’s a two-man job. They know me, but they don’t know who you are” – Keros
“Me on the inside, you on the outside” – Mawdryn