Hyboria! H4E69 Kothic Intrigue: The New Mercenary Captain, Part Two

Across the Khorgas

Wagons, hauled by teams of mules, forged across the current, as skinners cursed and whipped them on. Teamsters – volunteer mercenaries – helped keep the wagons upright. Camels were just as hard to convince – the cold winter current was anathema to them – and only with great effort were they brought across into Central Koth. Gasping with the cold Jed jogged back alongside Asmidi’s wagons to check if he could spot anything of interest, such as where the carrier pigeons were. He withdrew hastily as one of the war-leopards in the wagon snarled at him. He waved to the three girls seated on the next wagon and wondered if he should join the general trend of slave-girl owning.

Rumor and portents of the move had been growing for weeks. First, there was general camp gossip and complaining about the canyon’s unsuitability. Then muleteers and camelteers had been sought, vigorously, along with boots fit for climbing. Predations on the region around the camp had increased if anything. Finally the mercenary army had marched out, and its women and children had been unceremoniously dumped in the nearest town of any size. Jed had surreptitiously passed them a fistful of silver coins to help.

Although it was more in Mawdryn’s (feigned) nature than his own to volunteer, they had both agreed to pitch in where they could so as to get an idea of what Asmidi was making for who. Mawdryn suspected that Asmidi must be the source for the Yellow Lotus resin that Balatro was smoking. It kept him calm, which meant that no more girls were dying… for the moment.

It had been Hyacinth that sounded the alarm, to Bear. The 15-year-old had adjusted resiliently to being the property of the grim Cimmerian, and once she realized that his own crude notion of protection meant she was safe from any rough treatment she found the camp life liberating. Able to wander almost as she liked, Hyacinth returned one day to report that one of her fellow-slaves was missing.

The girl’s body had at length been discovered covered by rocks behind Balatro’s dwelling, a combination lean-to and tent. It seemed that Xaphur was willing to feed the demented killer even valuable slaves to keep him happy.

For Balatro held the secret of the impenetrable Ophirean royal fortress in his head. And in that fortress lay something or someone that Xaphur’s plans depended on. Xaphur had told his captains and lieutenants that all would be explained once they were re-established on the Central Koth side of the Khorgas.

The going rate for slave-girls

Mawdryn had also been busy. Though against his own natural wariness, his pose of cheerful helpfulness had opened several doors. He had been able to speak to Marc Al’panth the healer; he had done a good deal of the intelligence gathering around the mercenary leadership structure; he had also been vital in spreading some choice rumors the four conspirators had decided on; and he had helped locate two more girls and assess how they were being cared for.

With the grisly secret of the girl’s death uncovered Hyacinth had asked Bear to ensure the safety of the only two whose names she knew: Kara, the alluring eastern girl, and Nephade, one of two glorious Brythunian blondes.

Bear had soon been able to reassure Hyacinth with regards to Nephade. She had been traded to Hu Alpnois, a Brythunian himself, and seemed well placed, or at least content.

Kara however had had the misfortune to fall to the lot of Thavros, the least-human of the mercenary captains under Xaphur. So en route from Eastern Koth, Bear had walked over to pay a visit to the captain’s campfire. A bit of horse-trading (so to speak) and Kara was his for the unbelievably high price of 200 silver coins.

Luckily for Bear’s dwindling finances, Vorel decided that he liked the girl’s looks and she would suit his station as a senior lance under Valkoli, so paid her full cost to Bear!

Mawdryn’s ascent to the slave-owning classes happened after spending time gossiping amongst Pareso’s light foot. Mawdryn could hardly help noticing that the captain now owned one of the slave-girls, and that in some respects she reminded him of Cala Atenoel. Well, if you’ve got money and an itch you can scratch that itch. Using his affability Mawdryn managed to gain a place in a gambling game, and won her off Pareso. The girl was named Rin (for short) and was a native of Ophir.

Captains and masters

It had been a novelty for all four battles of the army to be moving as one, albeit flung out across a fair swathe of land. It had given the four a clear picture of the nature of the commanders.

Escorus

Pareso

Quintus

Thavros

Valkoli ‘Chaff‘ Cutter Wer Jabbar Hu Alpnois Fulvius Basanio ‘Lake’ Alkos Zaibar Orsonio
Escorus seemed to be   firmly for Eastern Koth, and his officers seemed loyal to him. Pareso was hard to   make out: certainly loyal to his pay, but did that extend further? Quintus appeared to   be a disgraced noble loyal to Eastern Koth, and the same could be said for   Fulvius. Thavros and his   lieutenants were bad and wicked men and loyal only to their pay.

All four battles had much the same makeup: each lieutenant led a half-battle composed of a few lancers, at least half a dozen light horse, at least half a dozen heavy mounted foot and a few light mounted foot. Together with a few picked men around the captain, each battle numbered up to fifty men, though in combat those would usually re-combine under subalterns into units according to their function. Jed and Mawdryn for example would expect to be ordered by Sergius, their subaltern, to form up with all the other light foot.

The main reason they were so interested in finding all this out? Well, on the back of increasing tension in camp following the addition of Balatro, they began to wonder if removing Xaphur was the simplest of all courses open to them. Obviously, all mercenaries fight for money. But Escorus and Quintus were also notionally loyal to Queen Aasiyeh Hotep. And although it was hard to be sure, it seemed that their lieutenants were loyal to them rather than directly to Xaphur.

The once-rebel Prince

As the army settled into temporary camp in a somewhat run-down town in Central Koth, Ophir was the subject of much talk around the wagons. The rumors about the royal prison or fortress compounded and grew. Xaphur explained the plan further to his captains and so word passed down to the men: they were riding into an alliance with Almuric, a prince in this region of Koth. In the past, he had given aid to Timonos but at present was loyal to Strabonus – or so it would seem. In reality he was willing to give clandestine aid to the eastern loyalists. He was fabulously wealthy, as the key trail from Akbitana ran through his domain.

Outside the town, Prince Almuric welcomed Xaphur to his domain, though in guarded terms and with his army arrayed. The armies camped and with due warning not to fight and to pay for what they found, the men were allowed freedom of the town. It seemed that one more move would be required before winter set in fully, and this was the last liberty of the season.

Another cat? And what’s South?

Bear, Vorel and Mawdryn each established their own household, privacy a welcome relief after tent life. Jed continued to hang about with his friends amongst the light foot and dodge chores set by Sergius as much as he could. And keep his eyes peeled: shortly after settling into the new camp, he had spotted a cat, or possibly a small jackal, once again. The first time that had happened he had reported it but shrugged it off: it wasn’t impossible. But a second time, and after such a long distance?

And then there were the carrier pigeons. It hadn’t taken too much exploration of the canyon to figure out that they were kept by Asmidi and released out the top of his cavern. They always flew south and in such number even Vorel would have no hope of bringing them down. Return pigeons were much harder to spot and standing on watch in plain sight, bow in hand, would be obvious. Asmidi sent them south again once the camp at town was set. Who was it these pigeons were bound for? Vorel could explain to Jed and the others that south lay Shem, then Stygia, but both were huge.

Balatro’s secret

And finally the plan was revealed, in the town’s temple of Ishtar. From atop the statue of the goddess Balatro harangued the assembled mercenaries and revealed all but the final vital piece of information he held in his head. He had been imprisoned in Tantasium along with Arius, an old lag that boasted he had seen the inside of every prison between Tamar and Kuthchemes. Arius had discovered the secret of escape from the royal Ophirean fortress and in doing so had also gained the secret of re-entering it undetected by the army that guarded it.

Once, long ago, the prison-fortress had belonged to Lil’endrash, the great sorcerer that now lived atop a mountain citadel between Koth and Ophir. When he devolved control of the fortress to the crown of Ophir, the sorcerer kept active secret ways that ran between the two.

In order to evade the guarding army, infiltrators would need to scale the mountain heights, making their way through the series of climbs known as The Steeps. Those ascents were guarded, but bold lads such as they could overcome even demons! One of those ways led away through a mystical portal into the same area that held the royal fortress’ noble prisoners. And there they would find Queen Aasiyeh!

Xaphur, who had stood waiting at the idol’s flank, continued where Balatro’s rant had ended. With this bold stratagem, the queen would be set at the head of her army once again, and with finances supplied by her supporters, all of eastern and central Koth would rise and once again she would reign. As the key instruments of her freedom they could all expect vast riches. For Aasiyeh, Eastern Koth and Riches! He concluded. The hall echoed with cheers, most particularly from Escorus’ and Quintus’ battles.

More intrigue

So they knew the bare facts of the plan, and they now had a firm direction to pursue to recover Queen Aasiyeh. The fact was though that Balatro was as inviolable as ever. Unless they wanted to leave the magical portal or “way” to chance, they had to keep the maniac alive until he guided them in to the fortress. This grated, especially as it was obvious that Balatro was taking victims in the town.

The privacy afforded by separate billets allowed a fresh development. Bear’s former identity had become known. ‘Chaff’ Cutter had witnessed the duel between Bardic and Kayan Haduk in the arena at Hieratgate. It wasn’t something he was likely to forget, and he retailed it as a campfire anecdote. Whether this was passed back up to Xaphur, and what that meant to Xaphur, they did not know.

Now, two men from Almuric’s retinue came calling on Bear and the others. Their names were Pollos and Decius, two Zingarans of a number of those people serving Almuric. It seemed their leader, a minor member of the da Kova house, had lost a factional quarrel with Zapayo da Kova in Kordava some while ago, and was now exiled. Being Zingaran, intrigue and assassination were second nature to them, and they sounded out Bear, or Bardic as he once was, as to the prospects for removing Xaphur. Almuric, it seemed, thought Xaphur’s plan would be improved by excluding him from it… permanently.

Boot camp

Winter camp was made further to the south, in a village that sheltered below steep cliffs. Even before all billets had been allotted and shifts and scouting finalized, those among the army who had nominated themselves as experienced climbers were set to work organizing training. Some were better at this than others, but in terms of practical ability Bear was the best.

Equipped with boots suited to climbing, mercenaries were taken through rope drills for climbing and descending, and the most competent were taken through free climbing exercises. Accompanied by the booming encouragement of ‘my old granny could climb better than that’ the days passed and the escalade team developed its confidence and ability.

The hit on Xaphur

Xaphur was awaiting something or someone important, and pigeons were being sent south again. Tension grew, at least amongst the four conspirators and their immediate womenfolk and friends. They earnestly discussed whether to kill Balatro at this early stage but again balked at the risk inherent in having to stumble blindly around demon-haunted mountain ascents hoping to find a mystic way.

As the tension grew more frightful, they decided to take any possibility of assassinating Xaphur. And at last the hour chanced that he rode away to exercise his four war-leopards without further guards. Not far from the village, in a section of abandoned common land, lay a stone circle. Xaphur paused there, his leopards loose around him.

Suddenly from behind the nearest trilithon Bardic stepped and with one mighty swing, decapitated the black Stygian gelding Xaphur rode! At the same second Morath rolled past the falling steed and plunged his short sword into Xaphur’s side as he kicked free of the stirrups! Then the deadly Zamorian had to turn his attention to the nearest leopard, as it leaped at him.

From the other side of the circle, Vorel and Celo stepped around the stones to line Xaphur up. Their target did not stand idly waiting to be brought down! Dashing across the circle away from Bardic he brought up his Shemitish bow and a black-shafted arrow slammed into Celo. The burning agony of poison coursed through his veins! Xaphur ended his run with a standing stone at his back and within striking distance of either of the archers. They in turn shot into him then had to contend with the leopards.

Bardic cut down his leopard then charged across, taking an arrow from Xaphur but chopping the man’s head off with his reply. Morath finished his own leopard – catching it wrong-footed with a wily feint then shoving his short sword thorugh its neck – and hurried over to help finish the job.

Weak and sick and with clumsy fingers, Celo searched the corpse as swiftly as he could. He and Bardic looted it as thoroughly as they judged they had time for and at Vorel’s urging ran away back to cover and thence to Bear’s billet.

The new mercenary captain

Even as they fled, a large force travelling up the southern trail became visible. At first, they wondered if it could be Almuric, though the direction was wrong. Then, they realized that the center of the force was composed of chariots. And in the center chariot, bedecked with gilt ornament and drawn by matched grays, rode a mighty square-headed, black-bearded man. It was Prince Houmekri!

The Prince had at last arrived. What difficulties he had experienced traversing Shem, what strange bargains had been struck, they could only speculate on. Now, he was the new mercenary captain, as he proved by dumping a chest full of gold in front of the army.

There seemed to be two urgent orders of business to deal with. The first was the assassination of Xaphur. The second was the mysterious death of Asmidi, from wounds that appeared as though from nowhere. And the Prince’s strange, black, deep-set eyes traversed the army and came to rest on the four conspirators with no friendly light.

Switching camps

Their secret was out! Had the mercenaries on watch merely seen four odd silhouettes walking together and carrying some gear, perhaps nothing would have been thought of it. Running men carrying objects was a different story! Within minutes the four assassins knew they had only one choice: flight. The good offices of Marc and Coran and one or two among the other mercenaries afforded their girls shelter, and they lit out.

What hand Almuric had played in the assassination: whether the Prince had personally sent asking Xaphur to ride alone, is not known. But the fugitives reached Almuric’s protection in a very short time, which is evidence of a kind.

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