As the man’s body lay slowly cooling on the ground before me all I was thinking about was getting back to my companions. I had no idea that the death of Chains was to be the start of my own storied life, or just how much more blood would be spilled by day’s end.
I was in pain, but my wits weren’t dulled, and knowing that trouble was surely following I went quickly about my business. He was a big fellow, and the fine brass arm rings he had worn could each be sported as a crown by yours truly, such was the girth of his forearms. I took them quickly, along with his iron collar and the chain that had so very nearly shattered my thigh bone. With his coin pouch tied to my belt I took to my heels, hoping to close some distance with the others before trouble closed on me.
They would surely make it to the river crossing before I did, but would have to slow down while attempting to make their way safely to the other bank. Moving at a jog I came first across Catranasia though, looking to be in deep conservation with the one named Vraag Man. This was another storied man from Thorgrim’s mob, and by the extent of his injuries, I was sure the others had given him a hell of a thrashing. His skin was waxen and pale, with the shafts of arrows protruding from an arm that looked shattered by a mighty blow. In all honesty, I was amazed he was on his feet, but it seemed to be anger keeping him upright.
As I was moving quickly I had no chance to hide my approach, and he made certain that the lady was between us. It looked like he was in the mood to avoid another confrontation, and although I was in much better shape, I was happy to pass by without combat. He wasn’t going to just let me stroll on by though, “What’s the name of your fuckin’ tree-hugger?”, he asked, growling at me in Pelo-Margo.
Seeing the arrows that had yet to be removed from his left arm, I had assumed that Valerius had shot him once or twice, but it was a pleasant surprise to know that the Dummoni had finally had some success with his own bow. For half a second I was ready to give up a different name, but in the heat of the moment that only others that came to mind were Pelosian, and I’m certain he would have seen right through that. “Caderyn”, I answered, feeling bad for surrendering a friend’s name, but my options were limited.
“Well, I want me fuckin’ hatchet back off of him. It’s mine, and I mean to have it returned to me”, he spat with the same growl in his voice. He didn’t exactly look in the best of shape to be making demands, but I was far from my best and thought it best not to challenge him. His anger was constantly bubbling up, and although I was fairly certain which of us would fall first, I was almost as certain that I would suffer another major injury before he dropped.
“And just how the hell do you expect him to get it to you? Your mad bastard of a boss is rolling his ship in the other direction to us, and I can’t imagine my man will make the long walk to give back an axe that was lobbed at him”. All fair points, I think you’ll agree, but it seems that almost all of Thorgrim’s story men were a wee bit touched in the head, and Vraag man was no exception.
“I don’t give a fuck how, but if he don’t get it back, I’ll find ‘im and rip his fuckin’ face off with me teeth”! A charming fellow and no mistake. But I didn’t doubt him, and the Margomarissi was a dangerous enough place to travel without a blood thirsty savage looking for you with revenge in mind. Especially if he was hungry.
“You know of Maidens Play”, I asked, getting a swift nod in answer, “Go there tomorrow, and your axe will be stuck in a riverside tree, that’s the best I can do. Now, what’s your play with regards to me and the lady”?
“You’re gonna walk past us first, and when I feel like you’re not gonna pull any sneaky shit, the young lady can follow”, I nodded my agreement and began walking around him and Catranasia in a wide arc, not wanting to antagonise him if I could help it. He stalked his way around her as I moved, keeping her between us at all times until he felt comfortable. Then spoke something softly to her that I never caught, and she turned away and made to follow me. Knowing she was putting some distance between herself and the crazy sod I again broke into a jog, hearing her footsteps match my speed as we made our way onward.
* * *
We made good time back to the caravans, and got there as Caderyn was wading out into the deep and rapid water. Praying to some god of water swells or something, he seemed always an inch from being dragged away from us forever. His Gods obviously favoured him though, and he shouted back that he had found a secure crossing. I was happy to catch my breath as the first wagon made its way into the river, knowing that there’d be little I could offer in the way of help.
The first two passed through the swollen river without a problem, and when it came to the third, I tried to help keep the hormorn in line, but only succeeded in not making the crossing actually any harder. We were safe for a while though, and got everyone loaded into a wagon and began planning for the attack that was almost certain to fall on us. Drazar has spooked a few of the tethers earlier, and no mistake, but none of us were foolish enough to think that Thorgrim wouldn’t have plenty more cavalry at his disposal.
With that in mind, I headed towards Caderyn before we set off again. He was clearly injured and I wouldn’t like to say who had come off worse in the last confrontation, so did what I could before speaking, tracing a rune in the air in front of him, closing his wounds and cleaning the dirt from them. In his belt was a hatchet that matched one that Vraag Man still had about his person when we spoke. “There’s man that wants that back”, says I, pointing to his belt, “I’m not telling you that you need to give it back to him, but he warned he would hunt you down to get it, and I believe him. If you’d rather not worry about keeping an eye over your shoulder for the rest of your life, I’d embed it in the tree over there, and he can pick it up himself later”.
He looked thoughtful for a second, before nodding and looking towards the tree. In a swift move he slid the axe free and flung it with a grunt, forcing the blade to bite deep of the wood. It didn’t stay there long though; as we were preparing to move off, discussing our route, the Dummonii was once more praying to one or more Gods, and looked ready to offer up a sacrifice to the river. The hatchet must have caught his eye, still stained with his own blood as it was, and he made his decision quickly. It never even occurred to me to stop him as he wrenched it free, and with a final benediction, hurled it into the white frothing water.
Although Vraag man was still a threat, mounted troops were the only ones that would have a chance of catching us up in large numbers. And although the crossing might be enough to dissuade them, we weren’t going to stake even a tin coin on those odds. So we set about making caltrops from bent and fastened nails, with Brand even showing me how to make an actual bola, as I only had one more shot at bringing a beast down with a rune.
Maybe an hour had passed on the road when we found somewhere with terrain that might possibly be in our favour. We had for once decided on taking a Pelosian road for the current leg of our journey, knowing that the smoother surface and more direct route would see us quicker to our destination. Sadly it offered very poor cover, with only an occasional copse of trees and broken down viaducts to stop us from being surrounded by quicker mounted soldiers.
The weather was in our favour at least though, as a mist had descended as we worked, and had made it harder for the tether-men to spot our hastily constructed traps. As we set the wagons up to keep Skuza safe and to the rear, they rode forth from the mist. A dozen regular riders, and another man who had a very different bearing than the others. The regular cavalry held a distant position, keeping them from even a long shot with a bow, but the leader moved closer, being careful not to make himself too obvious a target. The mist failed to hide that the back four were struggling to keep their tethers under control though; it looked like a few of our caltrops had found their mark!
“Good day gentlemen, I pleasure to meet you all! I am an emissary of Thorgrim the Difficult, and I’m here to negotiate your safe passage through these lands. He has heard of your journey thus far; an inconsequential group of vagabonds transporting a paltry amount of cargo, yet today he has lost two of his story men! Whom here was responsible for the death of Haaken Chains?” I raised my arm, Baseado held aloft to answer him, smiling as I did so. We held eye contact for a moment, and to his credit he he showed no fear or intimidation. “And what about Vraag Man”?
Caderyn raised his own arm at the question, but I knew that when last I had seen Vraag Man, he was alive and about as well as could be expected. Thorgrim was certainly a bastard of the highest order, but I hadn’t expected him to have killed one of his own men just for losing a fight. Still, I would eventually learn that it does you no good at all to expect anything of that contrary sod.
“Very well done gentlemen, but I think your luck has run out, and now your only option is to try and placate my employer with an offering”. Valerius perked up at this, but he had been the least optimistic of us all when considering our chances of outrunning or out fighting whoever was at our heels. It was the only the realisation that they could circle the wagons whether we were moving or stationary – and he would be much more likely to land an arrow when not perched on the back of a rocking vehicle – that had him in agreement that we should stop to stand and fight.
“And just how much would Thorgrim want from us in exchange for free passage”, he asked, while the rest of us began sizing up our enemies, preparing for a charge.
“Very little really, when compared to your lives. Your wagons and the women should just about do it I think.”, he replied with a smirk that made me surprised he hadn’t spent a more significant proportion of his life getting punched in the face.
At the mention of women, Fjorlief was quick to retort, as she stood to her not inconsiderable height and bellowed across to him, “No man’s going to stick anything in me that won’t get cut off as he tries”!
After my fight against Haaken I was feeling pretty damned invincible, and that’s the only I excuse I have for what slipped from lip in reply, while the fancy horseman backed away from his insistence on taking the women. I looked over and made brief eye contact with the formidable woman and smiled, “I don’t know, give me a couple of drinks and I might be able to convince you otherwise”. Ah, the confidence of youth.
“I might be convinced to take just one wagon back with me, and for that you have my word that Thorgrim will not pursue you. He admires men of courage, and that might just be enough for him to forgive you the loss of two story men in one day. This is a good deal for you, and I advise you to take it.” Throughout his little speech, the cool demeanour dropped somewhat, but he still seemed confident that he was the one in control of the situation, “If you don’t give me a tribute, Thorgrim will hunt you down to the ends of Uma”!
“And doesn’t that sound like a hell of story to tell”, I shout, refusing to be bullied by him, just because he had us outnumbered with superior troops, and two of our front line fighters were badly injured.
He smiled at this, “It is that kind of bravery my Lord approves of, what are your names so that I might speak of you after you die here today”? We all gave our names, and were told his; Hetgar if I remember correctly.
Valerius seemed happy to continue the negotiations from there, while the rest of us spoke quietly amongst ourselves, planning an attack before he would have the chance to either take what was ours or organise his men to charge us down. Fjorlief and Drazar were talking animatedly about ley lines or some such, and assured me that they could scatter the horses, or just remove Hetgar as an obstacle.
He was surely another storied man was Hetgar, but after the day I’d had, I felt up to the fight, especially as this time I wouldn’t be going it alone. The tether-men would be a real problem though, so I asked them to do what they could to scatter them to the six winds. As I waited for them to work their will, I watched as Valerius drew from a wagon the mace I had taken as a trophy, and did my best to catch up on the conversation. He had talked the Hutzlunr down to half a wagon’s worth of quality goods, and the mace had helped.
Apparently Thorgrim had a soft spot for the nuns of the Grey Hospice who had been slain by Fedenzo, but I wasn’t quite ready to give up the weapon without a fight. Keeping my gaze fixed on Hetgar I reached down and hefted up the mace in one hand, and smiled as I pushed it back into the wagon. Valerius looked ready to shout me down for a moment, but he must have seen something in my eyes and relented.
A second later, the tethers in the distance erupted in noise and panic, scattering about and unseating a rider or two in the confusion. Hetgar looked behind him at the disturbance, but seemed unsure of what to do at first. He had held his position at range to keep him from becoming a pin cushion, but was quickly losing the backing of his cavalry. If he still had them under his control, I imagine what follows would have turned very differently for your humble narrator.
We all stood ready to receive a charge though, and he was happy to oblige mere seconds later, going it alone. Confident as I was, I was also happy to take any extra edge available to me, and as he closed on us, I opened up another Sudden Squall. With any luck, it would unseat him, removing his advantage, and giving the rest of us a much better chance of finishing him off quickly. I needn’t have worried though.
As the wind blew away from me, the tether he was charging in on simply ceased to be. It didn’t vanish as such, just stopped being a tether, and instead became a red mist with a few thick clumps of offal floating away from it. This crimson vapour was blown backwards by the gust of wing thrown up by my rune, and left a ten yard long stain on the landscape. A few of his compatriots who had managed to keep control of their chargers saw this horrendous sight and quickly turned tail and ran.
Hetgar had carried on towards us though, his momentum unimpeded by the exploding tether – a neat little trick from the Earth Power users who were very thankful indeed that we had chosen a ley line to fight on – and he landed with a thud only yards from where I stood. With my sword point angled down like a lance I rushed towards him, Valerius shouting behind me that I shouldn’t kill him. By then there was nothing to be done to arrest my charge though, and as he looked up at me I screamed, “And that’s three, mother fucker!”, as the point of my Baseado pushed easily through the soft material of his trews and tore apart his ankle.
I’d like to think it was the last thing he heard as he passed out from the pain. He would wake some time later, stripped naked, courtesy of Valerius who had a wicked streak it seemed, knowing that on that day, three of Thorgrim’s storied men had fallen beneath the blows of our group. Hell, my face was the final thing one of them would ever see, and Hetgar would have my words ringing in his ears for just as long as he was hobbled by the injury I did him.
* * *
The tether-men were still a problem though, so as Valerius relieved Hetgar of his clothing, anyone with a ranged weapon loosed arrows or bolts towards those that remained. Even I joined in, making use a stockbow that we had acquired early in our journey, but hit nothing at all. Still, we kept them from regrouping, and were soon on our way. A note was left was left on Hetgar’s unconscious form, but at the time I was unable to see what was written, hopefully Valerius had a sense of humour that wouldn’t anger Thorgim too much.
With that we were away, moving the hormorn as fast as we dared after a very eventful day, and as the evening drew in, it seemed we had left our enemies behind us. Since we had stuck to more civilised roads, we were moving through worked fields, with burnt and abandoned villas dotted around. Workers and civilians were in scant supply though, as it seemed teh partisans had done their work well hereabouts.
Ahead of us was a large secured villa with enclosed grounds. It was open, and looked abandoned like so many other Pelosian structures we had come across, and would be a great place to spend the night. True enough, as was rightly pointed out, anyone who was looking for us through the night was sure to search there. But if any of Thorgrim’s people were still hunting us down, I was a lot happier to be behind some big walls, rather than huddled under a wagon.
Even from a safe distance, Drazar was able to work his magic, and it seemed the place wasn’t quite as empty as we had thought. There were a dozen or so people in there, but none of them seemed to be in great shape. Based on what we had seen so far, I was expecting to find a family of Pelosians huddled together after a partisan raid. Valerius looked to share this suspicion, so we left everyone else with the wagons and made our way there through the darkening evening.
Although he was a Doctor by trade, his skill with a bow and ability to blend into shadows meant I was sure he had also spent some time working as a scout. What I was less sure about was which side he had been paid by, but for now such concerns were easily dismissed.
As we closed on our destination, I held back. If the place was a Pelosian refuge, they would be more comfortable with one of their own walking in first. Sadly, this was not what we were faced with. Once more the Dummonii had been here, but this time some had stayed behind to get drunk on the spoils. Five or so of the bastards were getting merrily pissed on rotgut that would make a hormorn blind, and another half dozen house servants that looked happy that their masters were no longer in charge were guzzling the poison like it was going out of fashion.
They were pissed, and although there was only two of us, Valerius was happy to get into a fight this time. Maybe after seeing everyone else spending the day kicking arse and taking names he just wanted in on the action. With so much combustible liquid knocking around, he had a plan to thin their numbers and sow some discord too.
With a bit of help from some flint and steel, a fire arrow was soon arcing into the building. Rather than just going for one of several puddles made by broken bottles, it struck and shattered one held by a drunken reveler. Suffice to say, all bloody hell broke lose in short order. The serviles were quick to gather what grog they could and disappear out a back door, but the partisans were drunk and stupid enough to charge towards us.
There was only the two of us though, so I needed to slow them down somewhat. Putting on my best Pelosian accent I shouted loudly, “There’s hardly any of them! We have this door covered, come in from the back”! Three of them ran in that direction, the others shouting out how stupid they were, but another arrow shut one of them up quite fatally.
By this time Brand was making his own way towards us, having been alerted by the fire, but Caderyn was staying put. Maybe a little bit of sympathy for his country men, or he was unwilling to again risk further injury, but luckily he wasn’t needed. By later accounts it seemed that Skuza was quite keen to rush to the fore, with only Vitus’ calming voice able to keep him alive.
As the remaining Dummonii pulled themselves together and ran towards us I was once more able to use a rune to take one down, the magical cords tightening around his legs as he fell. Admittedly, he was so pissed a stiff breeze could have done the same, but any little helps.
Brand was already amongst them as they spilled out of the door. I hadn’t seen him arrive, but a second later, there he was, in the midst of the action, sword – not aflame at present – swinging with gusto, dropping partisans with ease. It was almost too easy, and it looked like fortune would favour us all that day. She is a fickle bitch though, and just as I was ready to declare this fight over and offer terms, a brute of a Dummonii exited a side door, looking more pissed off than pissed.
Brand was engaged elsewhere and Valerius with his bow had kept some distance, so it was down to me again. I didn’t want to give him time to think so hurried towards him, swinging the point of my sword round and opening up a wound on his chest before he knew what has happening. It must have hurt, but close by it was obvious he was stone cold sober and out for blood.
He drew himself close to me, hoping to reduce the effectiveness of my long sword, and thrust a curved dagger toward my already injured legs. I felt the blade bite deep, and the white hot agony as he twisted it. A simple little trick to make it easier to pull the blade free, with the added bonus of opening a bigger wound for your opponent to bleed out of.
After taking out two better men already that day, I wasn’t about to die to some piece of shit partisan though. I pulled back and pushed the point of my Baseado under his chin and with a guttural scream pressed up and back with all my strength. With hot blood on my hands he fell backwards and a went down onto one knee. With so much action that day I had one piece of luck left, and with my final healing rune closed the wound to stop any further blood loss and looked about me.
He was the last of them. We had taken the villa.