That night was a time for quiet reflection for almost all of us. Drazar was happy to talk to me, but other than a brief conversation with Brand, kept to his own company. We spoke on a few matters; he thanked me for rushing to his defense, but I was quick to point out that I would do that for anyone in our traveling party. Still having him think well of me was a good thing, I just wished that everyone else was willing to think the same way about everyone else. We still had a hell of a road ahead of us, and without knowing exactly what faced us, I was still expecting more trouble on the road and keeping everyone from each others throats was essential.
He also confirmed my suspicions that he was of half Daemon stock, and that was why he wore the mask. I thought to myself that the more sensible course of action would be to get his arse the hell away from Pelosia, but he must have his own reasons for staying so close to their border. As we spoke I tried my best to remove the wards that prevented him from entering the hospice. Using my dagger for a purpose it very much wasn’t intended for, I pried away a paint covered board from each side of the doorway, but he was still unable to make his way past the boundary. “Thank you for the effort, but the wards remain and I am not sure it would be safe for me to try to cross. If you would be so kind as to bring some food out for me?” I nodded and patted him on the shoulder as Valerius stomped his way back into the hospice.
I was still happy to avoid him so let him pass without word, but before I had even gotten to the food pot, he was stomping his way back out, carrying the helmet of Fedenzo towards the hole that him and Brand had been digging. As I was making my way from the pot, Skuza’s man Geru was making his own towards it. Usually such a thing wouldn’t even be worth drawing attention to, but he had clearly been told what had happened. “Pardon me”, he says, talking slightly louder than required and occasionally bumping into things, “for my hearing is not what it once was. Also my eyesight has deteriorated considerably this evening, so I haven’t been able to see or hear anything interesting at all for several hours now”. I smiled at his antics, making a point to speak up myself when replying and then taking the time to steer him away from tables he seemed determined to walk into to prove his sightlessness.
I was half convinced that Skuza had coached him to behave as he did, but even if he had made the decision on his own, I couldn’t rightly blame him. I wasn’t too happy about executing witnesses, but even the hour or so since the fight had ended had cooled my head down on the subject and I was beginning to see the sense in it. I’m not sure if I would have done the deed myself, but it was getting harder to stay angry at Valerius for doing what had needed to be done.
With a nice big bowl of broth filled I made my way back outside to see them bringing the bodies down from where they had been hanged. I would have liked to have helped at this point; the poor women had done nothing to deserve what had happened to them. Valerius was taking control of the operation however, and had taken the time to seek help from the New Raphelian, but had not even spoken to me. Maybe he saw this as an act of penance for himself, or just didn’t want to be anywhere near me. Either way, I again steered clear of him.
Knowing that Drazar would be unable to pass into the hospice to sleep in a bed, I made up a fire by the wagons and sat with him as we watched the men work. As we did, Catranasia came out from within the hospice. She was wearing a rough woolen cloak, but was carrying a sack’s worth of stuff in it as she stumbled into the darkness. She had made her way to the Nun’s chambers looking for medical supplies and had apparently hit the mother lode. Caderyn had seen her too, and was quite happy to lend a hand and get all the goodies loaded into the back of a wagon. If they saw the massive mace that was in there, neither commented or drew Valerius’ attention to it in case he decided to bury that with the dead knight too. Slightly mercenary I know, but I needed a big pay day after this job, and that mace would be worth a small fortune if sold to the right buyer.
It was at this time that Drazar sat and spoke to the Yerwian. I only caught a few words here and there, but from what I could discern they were talking about things Daemonic. I wasn’t sure why Drazar had thought that Brand would know more than he did about his condition, but they spoke for some time, so I guess he knew more than he let on.
With watches set – I remember taking the time to remind everyone when they were expected to be awake and whom they were to rouse before returning to bed as a few of us would be bedding down under the stars – I made my way back outside to the wagons and the fire, and curled up beneath one of the wagons. I kept my steel inches from my hand as I slept. I wasn’t so much expecting trouble from outside, but still hadn’t quite shaken the feeling that Valerius had one more body that might might like to throw into the hastily dug grave.
* * *
A shout woke me some time later, but since I was still an hour or so from ready for my shift to start I wasn’t awake enough to take in what was said. I just grabbed the hilt of my Basaedo and rolled out of my blanket toward the noise.
I could just about make out the darkened shadow of Caderyn running towards the stables. It wasn’t far from where the wagons had been arranged into a crescent so I quickly made it to my feet and began to run after him. Valerius was by the door, holding onto a length of rope keeping it closed. The Dummonii had covered the ground quicker than I, so I missed the start of the conversation, but it seemed there was someone in there, and Valerius suspected it was another nun.
The furthest I had even gone into the hospice was the ground floor, but the Pelosian had apparently taken the time to explore more thoroughly and had noted more beds than hanging bodies. As the two of us were there now as back up, he let go of the door so that it could be opened and shouted into the building, “Come out now, there’s nothing to be scared of”, but the only reply was the noise of the tether kicking up a fuss. Walking slowly towards it, I raised my left hand and placed it above the beast’s snout, making soothing noises, and within a few seconds it had stilled. Turning away – with my hand still in place – I looked up to see the grubby face of a young lady leaning over the the loft space and staring down at us.
“Please, come down”, said Valerius, in the closest he seems to have to a soothing voice, “We are not your enemies, and we will not treat you as such. You must be cold and hungry, we have food and a warm fire. Tell us your story”.
It was very much as we expected. Fedenzo has arrived with injured men, and had executed the nuns after they had admitted under torture that they offered aid to the Dummonii. They hadn’t needed to be tortured to give up such information, but it seemed the knight had wanted more, and had suspected them of performing dark rituals. After who knew how long, they were dragged outside and hanged until dead. The young woman had been out of the hospice when they arrived and as such had managed to stay hidden.
I don’t know if Valerius had convinced himself that this was all still some sort of misunderstanding, but hearing it from the girl was surely the proof he needed we had done, I had done, the right thing by putting an end to Fedenzo. Either way, by the time morning broke he had seemed to have lost his bitter edge somewhat.
Before that though, I had my own watch to stand, but rather than drifting off into a half sleep like I had done in the past, I decided to spend my time on something useful. Up until a few years back I was still in possession of my early notes for the Di Gregori Distracting Refraction, but I was made an offer it made no sense to refuse. It was the first time anyone else had been taught the most important aspect of casting the rune, and my handwriting stated it, if not exactly clearly: cast & step. I kept that bit to myself for many a year as I wanted to keep the advantage if I ever faced off against someone else who had learnt it. These days though, it doesn’t make that much difference.
I had roped in Brand to help me, and equipped him with a long thin branch that he could use to swing at me. Or at least where he thought I was. I cast it several times, making sure that I was aware of the angle that the light refracted at so my own blows would hit their mark. That morning I was still far from certain, swinging wide almost as much as Brand did, but the practice was well taken. I also realised that there was a pleasing side effect.
The rune was supposed to centre on me, creating an oval disk slightly bigger than a tower shield that would turn the light away, making it appear as though I had moved, hopefully causing an enemy to strike at empty air while I attacked from a position of surprise. Because I had centered it on myself though, on my aura apparently, it had fully encircled me.
This would mean that even people standing behind me would think I was standing where no one was, giving me even better protection. The practice casting ate up most of our watch, but still allowed Brand the time to prepare for his morning rituals. By now, we were all used to the wailing and gnashing of teeth, but we had an extra body with us, and Valerius was tasked with calming the poor thing down after her sleep was so rudely interrupted.
After breakfast we began getting the beasts of burden ready for another day’s travel, and I was more than happy to help. Geru did his best, but whenever he noticed anyone watching him, would be sure to stumble and occasionally take the time to walk into something he could plainly see. I don’t hold it against him that he was worried we’d kill him in his sleep, but it was taking up valuable time.
Skuza seemed like even he had hurried that morning. He had clearly not taken the time to bathe or even shave himself before we made our way out of the hospice. He looked more ill than I had ever seen him, and not the coughs of shakes of a nobleman away from his home comforts, but like he was actually sick. His skin was grey, and the eyes sunk into his face in dark pools. He walked slowly, with Vitus on his arm and a thick looking winter cloak wrapped tightly around him in spite of the already warm morning.
His wagon master seemed like the night’s sleep and some time to reflect on the previous evening’s action had been just what he needed. He wasn’t exactly ready to smile and offer us a drink, but he said a lot without ever opening his mouth by nodding to each of us as he led Skuza to the relative safety of his carriage. Maybe not an acceptance of what had happened, but at least an understanding of its necessity.
With everything squared away we were good to go, but there was still the matter of the young girl and the remaining injured soldiers. She seemed happy to stick around and try to offer help to those who needed it. Hopefully she would be able to survive without all the medicine that Catranasia had stolen, and with Pelo on her side, anything was possible. It seemed that his blessing hadn’t extended to the men though, as most had passed during the night. Of the few that remained, the old chap who lost his eyes seemed happy to stay too, to help administer to the fallen and maybe even don the grey cloaks of this order. Good luck to them, thinks I, but I was pleased to put the damned place behind me.
* * *
The air was so warm that morning that the muddy ground around us was steaming as the water evaporated. The track was rutted and uneven, and on occasion Caderyn and I had to slow our pace for the wagons as we trekked back the way we came to the fork in road before making our way to Maidens Play. The water vapour rising from the ground quickly mixed with the thickening fog, and before long we were lucky to see more than a dozen or so yards ahead of us. It carried on this way for a while, until we started to close in on the swollen river.
What we saw cutting slowly through the mist was enough to defy belief at first. The carved wooden figurehead of a ship appeared to making its way slowly along the road some distance away from us.
As the mists parted, we saw the whole picture, ship and all. The entire thing was lifted off the ground on four gargantuan wheels, and pulled along by a small army of slaves to the beat of a deep drum. Something so crazy, so audacious, would have taken a particular kind of mind to envisage. There were few people in these parts stupid or stubborn enough to attempt such a thing, and one name was coming to my mind above all others, but I hoped I was wrong.
“Thorgrim the Difficult“, says Caderyn who had stopped at my side to take in the spectacle, and had similar thoughts to my own.
“Shit”, I agreed, “Thorgrim the bastarding Difficult. If that is him, and who the hell else could it be, we have no chance in a fight. Do we run for it, or try and make an offering”? Caderyn paused to think about this, his eyes locked on the unusual sight ahead of us. In a few seconds we had both come to the same conclusion. The knight’s huge mace was still in the back of one of the wagons, and might make a worthy offering. Of course I’d heard the stories about his usual weapon of choice.
He had once had three brothers, and they had all distrusted one another, possible down to the traditional Hutzlunr viewpoint with regard to families. Thorgrim was the biggest bastard of the lot of them though, and so had arranged for them all to be executed. Before that he had a Vytch – one of his several wives by all account – tear their souls from their bodies and had them bound to his Hutzaxe.
He spoke to it too, asked its council no less. Hell, there were even stories that he’d left the damned thing in charge of his army when he had other business. Crazy men are notoriously tricky to deal with, and this one was a head above even the worst that the Margomarissi had to offer.
Our decision was made for us though, as we could see a few tether and even a couple of chariots heading towards us at speed. They didn’t look like they were wanting a quiet chat about the weather, but luckily they were coming from a direction we could move away from and still make it to the river crossing at Maidens Play. If we were fast enough and had a good deal of luck.
As Caderyn and I ran back to the wagons and jumped up to grab some ropes to keep us in place, Fjorlief was on the ground, communing with nature to make the hormorn run like greased shit. They got moving quickly, and then Skuza’s carriage rattled up to speed following it, and Catranasia did her best to catch up, with me gripping tight to the rear wagon, trying to keep the animals focused best I could.
We weren’t far from the crossing by this point, but even with Earth Power coursing through them, the beasts were never going to outrun the tethers or the chariots. the best we could hope for was an easy run and that one of them might lose a wheel or throw a rider. They were already closing the distance though, and there was little we could do but hope.
Apart from Drazar that was. With his own Earth Power he could do something, but he would need to be on the ground. The thought had obviously occurred to him as he dropped from the wagon, probably grinning behind his mask, and landed without seeming to hurt himself too much, then quickly shrunk away in the distance as we moved on.
The ground was still harsh as we bounced our way along the road. The speed and rough terrain was surely causing some damage to our wagons, and I could only imagine the colours and quantity of vomit that must already have been covering the inside of the Boss’s carriage. I could see Valerius climbing on top of it though with his bow in hand and already strung. He must have thought he could at least get a shot off, and Caderyn wasn’t to be outdone by the Pelosian with a Dummonii bow, and was clambering with a lot less grace onto the top of the first wagon.
Behind us we could hear cursing in the Hutzlunr tongue, and see the tethers start to pull away from the chase as their riders berated them loudly. This was the half-Daemon doing what he could to help, and he wasn’t done yet. A few moments later one of the chariots had flipped over, crushing the two beasts pulling it and almost certainly crippling the driver. The other chariot wasn’t slowing down though and at least one more tether was still closing.
The men who rode with and fought alongside Thorgrim were all storied men. It might seem like a strange concept to you if the most excitement you get is a giddy little thrill at the casino once a mune, but for people who live to kill, their name is very important, and how people think about them, even more so. So to ride with Thorgrim, you needed a name with a story attached to it, a reason why people called you thus. And these stories were always bloody, always brutal, and usually true. If even the couple of them still heading our way made it and managed to climb onto a wagon, engaging us one on one, our blood would join the rain and mist, making mud of the road.
Drazar had given me an idea to even the score somewhat though, so I acted quickly, without thinking too far ahead. The two bowmen were in position, and the Pelosian was already drawing the string back, an arrow knocked and pointed at the man on the tether. That just left the other chariot, and I could do something about that. The range of my runic attacks were tiny though, and if I waited for them to close to within it and missed, the chariot would already be upon us. So I braced myself, and let go of the rope, keeping my Basaedo away from my body as I dropped and rolled clear of the wagon’s wheels and the stamping feet of the tether.
I turned and saw over my shoulder the look of confusion on Caderyn’s face. I had no Earth Power so no reason to be on the ground, and I imagine he would have been happier if the other trained swordsman was still around if the archers failed to bring down the fucker swinging a hatchet who was now very close indeed to the rear wagon.
No, I had no Earth Power, but if I wanted to be useful, I needed to be close to the animals pulling the chariot. I had one rune learnt that could bring down one of them, and after watching Drazar at work, I knew that would be enough to halt the entire thing. I moved away from the middle of the road and waited, the shape already formed in my head that I would need to carve into the air in front of me.
As it thundered towards me I got my first look at the driver. He was wearing a loose looking mail shirt and padded armour elsewhere, which gave me some hope.The Basaedo is a thrusting weapon, and the point could easily punch through the mail and into his flesh.
The rest of him gave me a moments pause; his face looked disfigured, but not from any scars. It was lumped and swollen in places, and just looked wrong. I would find out later why this was, and why my steel didn’t cut through him as easy as it should if he was only wearing loose mail armour.
The Hutzlunr Vytches brew magic potions for their men. These make them bigger and stronger, berserk and immune to pain. They also often disfigure them, and toughen the malformed skin, turning it into a form of natural armour. And he was smiling.
He had seen me, but then I wasn’t really hiding, and was angling the chariot to run me down, seemingly not caring that I was holding my ground rather than ducking into the undergrowth as he flicked the reins to increase his speed. I was happy to keep eye contact with the ugly grinning sod as my fingers formed the curved rune and I threw the phantom rope forward towards the front legs of the beast on the right. All I could do was hope that it was so fixated on keeping up its speed that it would be unable to move away from the entangling cords.
As I felt the rope make contact I kept my eyes locked on Smiler and pulled my fist back in one swift movement, tightening the rope and bringing both legs together in an instant. It fell forward as its back legs crashed into its front, and the other creature wheeled around, centered on the fulcrum that was the chariot’s yoke as they both crashed into the ground. And of course, Smiler had just sped them up hoping to crush me beneath their talonned feet and the momentum drove the chariot over them both, flinging him up and forward, smashing him into the road with a thud.
I had managed to avoid the flying vehicle, but Smiler had some luck all of his own and had managed survived the crash. He was already getting to his feet, be it slowly and gently. I don’t doubt that I could have just ran back to the wagons and left him to walk back as a failure to Thorgrim the Difficult, but Smiler had pissed me off. I walked towards him, and thrust my steel hard into his leg, hoping to keep him on the ground and retain the advantage.
The Basaedo went through the armour easily, but his toughened skin stopped it from dealing as much as damage as I would have liked. This was going to be a real fight, I thought, as he drew himself up to his full height in front of me, the movement pulling the tip of my steel free, letting blood run from the wound.
As all this was going on, the rest of the caravan weren’t doing much better. The hatchet-man was damned hard to pin with arrows, and only a couple even came close. He had managed to jump from the tether to the rear wagon by now, and by all accounts had done so with ease and style. Like I said, storied men are not to be trifled with.
While the archers carried on trying to bring him down, he had jumped onto the seat and kicked Catranasia to the dirt. She was damned lucky to avoid a serious injury, but also to find Drazar. He had somehow managed to catch up with the wagons – Earth Power no doubt – but could do little else from where he was. No, it was Vitus who saved the day on that wagon, with some help from Valerius.
He jumped off his own quickly moving tether and managed to land next to Hatchet-man and remove him as a threat. By this point he had a couple of arrow shafts in his left arm courtesy of Valerius, so all it took was a couple of solid blows from the caravan master, and down he went, shouting his hatred of archers as he fell.
That just left me and Smiler. He had pulled a length of chain from around his waist and was swinging it in tight circles as he came for me. It was lucky that I had my dagger in hand as it was, but he was too quick, and before I knew what was happening he had whipped the chain out towards my legs and the blow landed hard. Staggering backwards I just about managed to keep my feet and returned the blow as quick as I dared. I wanted to end this quickly, but after his first strike I knew I couldn’t live through many more so had to fight carefully.
I wished I had put more time into the new rune, but even casting something simple could have given him an opening here, so I just aimed low and went in again, trying for the already wounded leg. This time I felt the blow strike deep and he cried out and stepped backwards, pulling himself away from my steel. Turning my stance I readied for his counter, but the crash must have taken more of a toll than it seemed and he took two more steps backwards before falling comically onto his arse into the mud. He sat there for a second, that damned smile back on his lips as the air left his lungs for the last time.
My legs were bruised and shaking as he fell all the way back, and I knew I was in no fit state to run to catch up with the wagons. Hopefully Smiler had something about his person that would make the delay worth while.