SKIRMISH AT GRONDEN PASS
The fire had died down in the hearth, casting a dim semicircle of light no more than halfway into the room, leaving the rest in shadows. Jenya sat on the floor beside the fire. There was no more wood to burn, that was nearby anyway, and she couldn't seem to muster the energy necessary to stir the ashes. Her companions seemed as lethargic as she. Ktan sat across the room, in a chair in a dark corner, with only the glint of his eye to mark his presence. He had been like that, silent and immobile, for what seemed like hours now.
Alios was lying on the floor closer to the fire. His wound had been tended, his leg bandaged, and Jenya expected he would make a full recovery, though it would be a few days before he could walk unaided. They had brought him to Ferdinand's house directly after the fight. After getting settled Saramis and Ferdinand had gone out in search of Willbrand and Merigan. That was hours ago. Night had fallen now. It was dark and quiet outside. She knew Ktan had wanted to go as well, but the Imperial Knights were everywhere. The risk of one of them recognizing him was too great.
So they had to sit here, waiting and wondering what had happened to the two young people. She couldn't believe they had just missed them like that. Ktan had been sure they'd come back, probably after nightfall. It made sense. Merigan knew they had friends here. It was the logical thing to do.
Unfortunately the Imperial Knights must realize that as well. It had been dark for quite some time now and they had heard no word. Jenya wasn't sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing.
Alios stirred, stretching stiffly and turning to face the fire. He looked at Jenya, but did not speak. He had been more talkative earlier, filling them in on all the details about how he had met Willbrand and Merigan and their subsequent adventures. Still, it was information they had needed, and at least he didn't embellish the story or his role in it the way Saramis did. He had gotten quiet, however, since Saramis left. Jenya really wasn't much for idle conversation, and she knew Ktan was even worse. Ktan was not very verbose to begin with, but hardly ever spoke at all with people he didn't know. At least he wasn't glaring at Alios with open suspicion like he normally did with strangers. She suspected Alios' role in helping the two young ones had a lot to do with that.
The fall of footsteps outside made Jenya's hand reach reflexively for her sword, but she relaxed a moment later when the door opened and Saramis and Ferdinand walked in.
Ktan, stirring for the first time since they had left, turned and looked at them.
Saramis shook his head.
"Nothing. There's no sign of them. None of our contacts have seen or heard anything. It's like they've disappeared into thin air."
For a moment they all just looked at one another. Ktan making it obvious by his expression that that wasn't what he had wanted to hear, and Saramis wished he had more.
"Where the hell could they have gone?" Ktan muttered. "They showed some sense coming here. More sense than I gave them credit for, and now they go and do something stupid?"
"We don't know if they've done anything stupid," Jenya defended them. "Give them some credit, they've made it this far. They may still be nearby, waiting for the right moment to come back."
"And just when would that be?" Ktan asked. "It's been hours."
"The place is still crawling with Imperial Knights," Saramis spoke up. "Maybe they're just being cautious."
"Cautious about what?" Ktan countered. "You're well aware of Merigan's talent at avoiding detection. She should be back here by now."
"Aren't you the one who's always telling her not to use that particular talent unless it's an emergency?" Saramis questioned.
"Yes, and I think this qualifies," Ktan retorted.
"We can argue about this all we want, it's not going to help us find them," Saramis stated.
Ktan, having no reply to that, fell silent. He sat back in his chair, as if he had no more interest in the conversation.
"There's something else," Saramis continued.
"What?" Jenya asked, seeing that Ktan was in too much of a funk to continue the line of questioning.
"A man in a crimson cape came into town this morning with a squadron of Imperial Knights," Saramis said.
The look in Ktan's eye grew sharper, but still he did not say anything. Alios, who was watching quietly, saw the look of surprise on Jenya's face.
"Are you sure?" she said after a moment.
"Quite," Saramis said. "They said he stood out because they saw him giving orders to the Knights he was with, and not many people have the authority to do that. Of course, those old enough didn't need to see that to know who he was."
Alios looked at Jenya, but she didn't say anything. It was obvious she knew what he meant though. It was also obvious the cape was significant for some reason, but it was lost on him.
"I saw such a man during the battle. Who is he?" he spoke up.
They looked at him, but no one spoke for a moment. Ferdinand stooped by the fire, adding more wood that he had gotten from the other room. Almost immediately the fire flared up again, its yellow light filling the room.
"He's a witch hunter," Ktan said.
Alios turned his attention to Ktan, but the warrior spoke no more. Jenya hesitated a moment, not sure how much to say, but Alios had told them what had happened in his meeting with Willbrand and Merigan, how he had seem them appear out of nowhere and surmised the young girl was a witch. There seemed to be little point in trying to hide it now.
"You're probably too young to remember, but after the Maiden's War there was a sort of witch hysteria that overtook the kingdom," Jenya explained. "That was when the witch hunters came into prominence. It seemed that there were certain people in the world who were immune to witches spells, for whatever reason. I don't know if it was true or not. Some of them were recruited to hunt down and bring to justice anyone suspected of being a witch. Some of them just did it for recognition or power, others actually believed in what they were doing, believed it was their mission from God. In any case, who knows how many young women died at their hands before the craze went out of fashion some years later. It was a dark time in our kingdom's history."
Alios looked thoughtful.
"I do remember hearing something about that when I was a child," he said. "But I don't remember any details."
"It's true," Ktan suddenly said.
Jenya looked his way. Had he decided to rejoin the conversation?
"That they were immune to a witches powers, or at least, the one's who weren't pretenders or fools. Merigan's 'abilities' depend on belief. The more someone questions the reality of what she does, the less likely it is to work. Some people are just naturally more skeptical, or perhaps stronger willed than others. Some people will believe anything, others take a lot of convincing, and others cannot be convinced of anything at all. Fortunately, the last group makes up only a very small percentage of the population, but Merigan's abilities would have no effect on such a person.."
Jenya saw Alios nod slowly. This was something she had never known herself.
"A lot of the witch hunters were charlatans, but a few were very good at what they did," Ktan continued. "If one of them is after Merigan, that makes it doubly important that we find her as quickly as possible."
"That's fine, but how do you propose we do it?" Saramis questioned.
Ktan didn't reply. He didn't know what to do and that fact was frustrating him. Why couldn't they have made things simple and just come back?
"There's nothing more we can do tonight," Jenya said. "We're certainly not going to find them in the dark, and there's still a chance they might show up on their own."
"She's right," Ferdinand spoke up for the first time. He was a short man with a full head of dark hair above a narrow face with keen eyes. "Saramis and I alerted the rest of our friends here in the city to be on the lookout for the two. Tomorrow, when it's light, I'm sure we'll be able to find some trace of them. You've obviously had a hard day and must be tired. Get some rest. We'll all see things clearer in the morn."
Ktan didn't look all that pleased, but that was hardly surprising. Ferdinand left the room while Sarmais and Jenya laid out their bed rolls. Alios was already on his. Ktan sat stubbornly in his chair, unmoving as the others lay down.
All was quiet but for the crackle of the fire, but even that soon faded as the new wood was quickly consumed, the fire dying down once more, soon becoming even dimmer than it had been earlier. Jenya lay staring up at the ceiling. She glanced over at Ktan every once in a while, but he did not stir. She could barely make him out in the darkness now. Alios was closer, facing the fire. His eyes were closed and he seemed to be sleeping comfortably. Saramis was a bit farther away, facing away from her, but his snoring gave away the fact that he too was asleep. Fortunately, it wasn't very loud.
When the fire had died to mere embers she looked over at the dark form of Ktan once again.
"Are you going to get some rest?" she asked.
She waited but heard only silence.
"They'll be all right," she tried.
Still no response.
She lifted her head. He hadn't moved. The fire no longer cast any light on him. Still, she could make him out dimly in the light of the moon that filtered through gaps in the shutters on the window.
"You're not going to help them any sitting there all night," she told him. "You'll just be exhausted in the morning, when we might actually need you to be alert."
Still he remained silent. She sat up, staring at him. He hadn't fallen asleep, had he?
Finally he stirred. He got up from his seat, went over to his pack and took out his own bed roll. To her surprise, he placed it down right beside her and laid down on it.
"I don't know if I can sleep," he finally spoke.
Jenya didn't reply. She really didn't know what to say except 'we'll find them'. She had already said that and she knew it was meaningless anyway. She couldn't really offer any reassurance, not any that could be taken seriously, no matter how much she felt the need to. Ktan didn't show it, but it was obvious to Jenya after all these years that the man loved Merigan as if she really were his own daughter. She was afraid what would become of him if anything happened to her.
Which made her very afraid in turn. She didn't want anything to happen to Ktan either.
She suddenly felt a strong urge to take his hand. Simple human contact could often say a lot more than words. He was right beside her; all she had to do was reach out. She had a feeling he had laid down here for that very reason, just to be near someone, to know he wasn't alone.
She turned to look at him but his head was turned away. Even if he felt that way, she knew he would never articulate it.
Her hand was right beside his. She could almost feel the warmth of it.
Given his nature it was hard to say what he was thinking. Was she reading something into this that wasn't there? Did he lie down beside her for human contact or just because it was a convenient place? She had certainly never done anything like that before. All these years they had been together, off and on, he had treated her like a trusted companion, a good friend, but never anything more than that. Ktan had always been focused on his goal, revenge for what had happened to the Maidens, to the exclusion of all else. Sometimes she thought he just considered her one of the guys, but other times, like now, she could almost believe there was more to their bond than just being fellow knights.
The last red ember faded to black in the fireplace.
She shuddered, feeling a sudden chill, then pulled her blanket closer about her. She was being childish, she knew. Ktan was right. There was too much else for them to worry about now, they didn't have time for personal relationships. Besides, after what had happened to her, she wasn't worthy of a man such as Ktan. She could never be.
She pulled her hand away, turned over on her side, facing away from him, and tried to will herself to sleep.
The first light of dawn was just peeking through the shutters when Jenya awoke. Ktan was already up, standing nearby buckling his sword belt. She was a light sleeper, a good survival trait for a fugitive, and his movements must have been what woke her up.
"Did you sleep at all?" she questioned, sitting up and wrapping her arms around her knees. The sun had barely broken the horizon.
Jenya pulled herself to her feet, stretching to work out the little kinks that were left from sleeping on the hard floor.
"Planning on going somewhere?" she said, eyeing him.
"I'm going to look for them."
His reply was no surprise.
"The Imperial Knights are still out there," she told him, even though she knew this was no news to him. "You didn't go looking yesterday because you were worried you'd be recognized."
Ktan shook his head slowly.
"I know, but I can't just sit around here any longer."
Jenya nodded without replying. She could certainly understand his feelings. She walked over to the window and pulled open the shutters. A yellow sun blazed just over the treetops outside. The room filled with light.
"Ahh! Are you trying to blind me? What is that light?"
She turned to see Saramis turning his head away while rubbing his eyes.
"It's called morning," she said dryly. "See, that's the sun," she pointed. "It starts out on the horizon and rises up into the sky every day. If you ever got up before you'd know about that."
He gave her a look.
"I see you're not wasting any time dishing out your daily dose of sarcasm," he stated.
Alios stirred, opening his eyes and looking at them.
"No sign of our young friends?"
Ktan shook his head.
"We're going to take a look around," Jenya said. Ktan glanced at her but had no comment on her inviting herself along.
"Do you really think that's wise?" Saramis asked.
"What else can we do?" Ktan said gruffly.
"They're not coming back," Saramis stated.
Jenya glared at him.
"Well, it's true," Saramis defended himself. "Let's face it; if they were coming back they'd be here already. They've either moved on or been captured, and either way we're wasting our time looking for them here."
Jenya planted her hands on her hips.
"So what do you propose we do?" she questioned. "You want us to just give up?"
"Of course not," Saramis said. "I merely want you to look at the problem logically instead of going on emotion."
Jenya looked at Ktan, but he made no comment.
"All right," she said slowly. "What do you propose we do? Logically?"
Saramis sat up, crossing his legs under him.
"If they're captured the Imperial Knights will have no reason to continue the search. They'll withdraw. So as long as they're still here we can safely assume Willbrand and Merigan are still free. Since they're not back here, they must have sought a safe haven, or someplace they consider safe, at least. If it was here in the city we'd have heard by now. We have too many friends here with their eyes open. Our only conclusion is that they've gone somewhere else."
"But where?" Jenya asked.
"That is the crucial question, isn't it?"
"Do you think she'd go to Dramon?" Alios spoke up. "It's the nearest city."
At that moment the door opened and Ferdinand stepped in.
"You're all up early," he commented.
"We've got a lot on our minds," Ktan told him. "It's possible but I doubt it," he continued. ""We don't know too many people there, and it's too close to Donelan."
"So where else would they go?" Alios asked.
"There's no way to tell for sure," Ktan replied. "North would be my guess, to either Winsor or Zalan."
"Both of them are quite a distance away," Alios observed.
"I know," Ktan said. "How well supplied were they?"
"When I met them they had almost nothing," Alios responded. "We filled their packs with some food, but only enough for a day or two. We assumed we'd be able to resupply here in Donelan."
"So they can't go too far," Jenya mused.
"They wouldn't in any case," Saramis said. "In spite of what Ktan might say, they're not stupid. They'll find someplace to hole up in and try to contact us. It's foolish to go tramping about across the country looking for them without a clue as to where they went, and if we do that we might not be here to meet their messenger."
"So you want us to just sit here and wait?" Jenya interrupted. "Is that your logical plan?"
Saramis gave her an impatient look.
"No, it's not, if you'll let me finish. There may be something we can do for them. If we can't find them we can at least attempt to help them remain concealed. We know the Imperial Knights are looking for them. Sooner or later it's going to get into even their thick skulls that Willbrand and Merigan aren't here, and then what are they going to do? Why, fan out to the nearest neighboring cities to continue the search, of course. They might come across our young friends if they do that, so it's up to us to stop them."
"And just how are we going to do that?" Jenya questioned.
"We have to provide a distraction," Saramis replied. "We have to either through some ruse make them think Willbrand and Merigan are still here or we have to do something so bold and outrageous as to take their minds off our young friends entirely."
They stood in silence for a moment digesting that. Even Jenya had to admit it made sense.
"Gregor Malack has a daughter about Merigan's age," Ferdinand volunteered. "I'm sure he'd help us if we asked."
Ktan thought that over for a minute and shook his head.
"No, it's too risky. If the Knights capture someone posing as Merigan she could be killed. I'm not going to risk someone else's daughter, even if it's to save Merigan."
"Very noble, but what else do you suggest?" Saramis asked.
"I thought you were the one with the big ideas," Jenya said. "Do you have some bold and outrageous plan that will get their attention?
"Well, no, not at the moment," Saramis admitted.
They fell silent once again, both Ktan and Jenya looking displeased.
"A lot of trade comes through the area," Alios said thoughtfully. "It's the only way by land onto the Galian peninsula. There are always trade caravans passing through on their way to the Capital. It's a valuable resource to the Kingdom; a resource I'm sure the King wouldn't want to see disrupted."
"That's a possibility," Saramis said. "But we don't know when or if one will be coming through this area soon. We can't wait, if we want to cause a distraction it has to be in the next day or two, not sometime next week."
"That shouldn't be hard to find out," Ferdinand chimed in. 'There are plenty of merchants in town knowledgeable about such things. I'm sure we can find out the schedules without too much difficulty. Those things used to be closely guarded for fear of exactly what we have in mind, but the Imperial Knights have done their job well in this respect at least. No one has attacked a trade caravan in this area in years. I'm sure we can find one that's suitable. Trade is booming these days. There's one coming through almost every day."
"It should work," Saramis said, warming to the idea. "The Kingdom depends heavily on that trade. If we successfully attack a caravan, not only will they lose that, but it will frighten off or at least give pause to other caravans in the area as well. They'll all be screaming to the King for added protection. The King will be having fits over it. It's sure to draw off the Imperial Knights, if anything will."
"That's all well and good, but you're forgetting one thing," Ktan interjected. "For the very reason that they are so important those caravans are heavily guarded. We may be skilled, but there is no way just us few could successfully attack one of them. We'd need more men."
“You have a lot of friends here in Donelan," Ferdinand pointed out.
"A lot of friends yes, but there aren't all that many who can fight," Ktan replied. "Most of them are merchants or farmers, untrained, who would be more a hindrance on the battlefield than help. Only a handful are accustomed to combat, and frankly, not all of them would be willing to take the risk. It's an interesting idea, but I'm afraid we just don't have the manpower."
Saramis looked disappointed but he couldn't argue with the logic of Ktan's words.
"Perhaps we do," Alios spoke up.
They all looked at him.
"We may have enough," he continued. "I know some people who may be willing to lend a hand, if you can get me back to Norvell Wood."
Gronden pass was a narrow trail that ran through the hills just east of Donelan. The land here was mostly forest and fields of wild flowers, the last vestige of the wild before one reached the tamed lands of the Galian peninsula. For hundreds of years the area was considered the border between the civilized world of the west and south and the dark and seemingly limitless forests to the north and east. That wasn't as true anymore. A number of large cities had since sprung up farther to the north, and the forest there now didn't seem quite as large or as dark as it had. Still, more than one traveler breathed a sigh of relief upon reaching this place, for he knew civilization and safety lay just beyond.
Lucane Savant did indeed breath a sigh of relief as the long caravan he rode near the head of wound it's way up the trial and into the pass, but not because of the fact that he now considered them out of danger, as far as he was concerned, they had never been in any danger, but instead because the pass told him they had finally reached the Galian peninsula and the end of their journey, and his boredom, was finally in sight.
They had been traveling for over a month now, having come from Kalannon, the Capital city of the closest kingdom to the south. There had been no incidents along the way for him to handle save for a few petty squabbles among the merchants he was sheparding, but the days had been hot and the trail dry and dusty. It wasn't a job he considered worthy of his skills as an Imperial Knight, but he realized how important these convoys were, and he wasn't about to question his orders. Now however, he was looking forward to reaching Galias and being done with this, not to mention finding a tavern to quench a thirst that had been building for days.
He grimaced as he saw another knight riding rapidly toward him from farther back in the caravan. Carltan Ventano was a rookie, just accepted into the order barely a month ago. This was his first mission, and he seemed determined to make an impression, which Lucane found extremely annoying.
Lucane stared at the young man blandly as approached.
"The hills close up on either side just ahead," Carltan announced, pointing forward as if Lucane was oblivious, "and the peaks are thickly wooded. Men could be hiding up there and we would never know. It's a perfect spot for an ambush. Perhaps we should send scouts up on either side to make sure the way is clear before we proceed."
Lucane gave Carltan a look that he hoped would make it plain he wasn't interested in any advice, but he knew it wouldn't help. He'd been trying to make it blatantly obvious he had no interest in Carltan's suggestions since they had started this mission but the man seemed incapable of taking the hint.
"The front elements of the caravan are nearly there," Lucane pointed out. "There seems to be no sign of trouble. In addition we're already behind schedule. Are you suggesting we halt the entire convoy and waste god knows how much time sitting here under the sun while some scouts wander around in the woods up there looking for phantoms?"
"I wouldn't exactly call a halt a waste of time," Carltan replied cautiously. "Some delays are necessary for the sake of safety. We don't know..."
"Yes we do know," Lucane cut him off. "We know we're behind schedule. We know the kingdom loses money for every day that it takes us to get to Galias. We know that there hasn't been an attack on a caravan in this region in the last five years. We know that it's hot and we know no one wants to sit around here in the sun any longer than necessary. Now I know you're just being cautious and I commend you for that. I'll be sure to give you a favorable report when we return to Galias."
Lucane looked at Carltan, hoping that would make him happy. The younger man just looked at him for a moment.
"It's not a matter of getting a good report," he said finally. "I'm just trying to look out for the safety of the caravan."
"Yes, and your vigilance has been noted," Lucane said with a distinct air of dismissal.
Carltan seemed to want to say more, but the look on Lucane's face finally seemed to get the point across. The younger man nodded his head and rode back to his position.
Lucane spurred his horse forward. He couldn't really blame the lad for being overexhuberant about his job. He could still remember how determined he was to make an impression when he had been that age. He really would give the man a good report when he got back, even if the lad was a pain in the ass.
The caravan was large, strung out over such a distance that Lucane, from his position near the front, couldn't see the back. Even so, it wasn't nearly as large as some. He had led a few that had been twice as large as this one, or more. The front elements had already almost emerged from the other side of the pass when the attack came.
At first Lucane didn't know what to make of the cloud of arrows that suddenly filled the air around him. For a moment he couldn't believe what he was seeing. He had been along this route dozens of times and had never run into any trouble, but the cries of men and horses as the arrows found their marks quickly brought him out of his momentary shock.
He pulled out his sword, though, as of yet, no enemy was in sight, and shouted a string of orders. The other knights scrambled to obey, trying to get the merchants to form into a defensive posture, but none of the merchants had ever been in a situation like this before, and it was difficult to get them to listen. Some of them broke off in a wild attempt to escape back the way they had come.
Lucane shouted for the others to get them to stop. They were right out in the open. There was no cover down here on the valley floor. The wagons were their only protection. He might have been taken by surprise but he recovered quickly. Unlike the younger troops under his command he was a veteren. Mandaria wasn't at war with anyone. Whoever these people were, they had to be a band of thieves, not an organized army. As such their equipment would be inferior to the Imperial Knights. If he could get his men together and organize a charge, if he could get up the hills in among his enemy, they would almost certainly break and run. It was his experience that thieves had no stomach to stand against a cavalry charge. Not many people did.
The knights near the back had brought most of the errant wagons to a halt, a few still continued on, heading back the way they had come. Fools, Lucane thought. If they didn't make a stand here, they'd all be picked off one by one. Their only chance was to remain with the group, but he couldn't concern himself with that now, he had bigger problems.
He quickly rode back to where most of the knights were, near the center of the caravan where the main attack seemed to be concentrated. He halted there, shouting for the men to prepare for a charge. Even as he did so he heard a shout. He looked up the slope to see that their enemy had decided to show itself. A large group of men was charging down the hill on foot almost straight at them.
Lucane looked at them with a grim smile on his face. They would have been better off staying up in the woods, in hiding. There was no cover on the slope. He saw with some satisfaction that they wore no armor and most of their weapons were short swords and only a few of them had shields. They'd be no match for mounted men in armor. They had done him a favor.
Even as he was about to call his men to charge he heard more shouts, farther back along the line. He turned around and saw yet more men coming down the hills from the opposite side, farther back where there was little protection. Unlike the other group these men were mounted. With a shock he saw that some of them even wore armor. His enemy had preempted his tactic, mounting their own charge before him.
He hesitated a moment. The men on foot were no match for his troops, but he couldn't ignore the horsemen. If they got down among the wagons it would be a slaughter. The enemy had more mounted men than he did, not even counting those on foot. He was severely outnumbered. He realized they were in deep trouble. These weren't ordinary thieves. Who were they?
He had no choice. He had to try to counter the enemy cavalry attack. The caravan would have to fend for itself against those on foot until the mounted men were dealt with.
He issued the orders, leaving a few men behind to slow down the footmen; he led the countercharge against the enemy cavalry. The enemy turned toward them when they saw Lucane's horsemen approach. He noticed they kept in tight formation staying together in mass as a disciplined squad would do. Whoever was leading them knew what he was doing.
Lucane's lips were set in a thin line. They had been taken completely by surprise by a superior force. It seemed quite likely they would not survive the day.
If they could break past the enemy horsemen, the way would be clear, they could escape, but they couldn't get the wagons out. Doing that would leave the caravan to its fate. He glanced at the men riding with him. Carltan was right beside him, the young man's face set. Lucane knew he had never been in battle before. Maybe he didn't realize just how desperate their situation was, or perhaps he did. In either case, Lucane knew he was looking to his commander to lead him, to show no fear.
Lucane grimly led his men straight at the enemy. He was a battle hardened Imperial Knight. He wasn't going to run no matter what the odds. He had faced long odds before and prevailed.
They were closing in on the enemy now; it would only be moments before they met. They were close enough that he could see individuals quite clearly. Lucane looked ahead, trying to pick out who was leading the charge. Sometimes when the commander fell, it did damage all out of proportion to taking a single life.
One man did catch his eye, near the center of the line. His white hair stood out. At first Lucane had thought he was an older man because of that, but as they approached one another he could see his enemy better and he realized the man was not that old at all. He wore no armor and he had a patch over one eye. Lucane stared at him for a moment, frowning. He had known a man like that, a long time ago...
His frown deepened. If that was indeed who he thought it was it explained a lot. Their situation was even graver then he had thought. There was a knight riding beside the man, the only enemy in full armor. He as shorter than the others. There could be no doubt.
"The man in the middle," he shouted, turning to Carltan and pointing. "See him?"
"He's the leader. We'll go at him together. Do you understand? Do not attack him until we can both reach him. You can't beat him alone. The knight beside him, the one in full armor. Be wary of her as well!"
Carltan stared at his commander, sure he had heard incorrectly.
"Her?" he questioned.
Any further conversation was cut short, however, for the enemy was upon them.
Lucane's sword rang out, striking at those around him, trying to get through to the white haired man. The ring of steel, the shouts of men, and the dust kicked up by the horses hooves all contributed to the chaos around him. People screamed and fell, horses reared up and collapsed, or turned, riderless, to escape from the fray. It was easy to get lost here, to forget about strategy, being concerned only with survival, but Lucane knew better than that. He forced his way relentlessly through the crowd until he finally stood horse to horse with his adversary.
Ktan ducked as the man's sword whistled over his head. He struck out himself, and the blade rang off the man's shield. Ktan didn't recognize Lucane, but he realized the man was the enemy commander easily enough. His sword flashed through the air, encircling Lucane in a ring of death, but the Imperial Knight Commander held off the attack, retreating slowly. Carltan was right behind him, and he fell back half on purpose, trying to lure his enemy forward so they could both engage him.
Even as Carltan came up beside him, Ktan spurred his horse, slipping onto the other side of Lucane, keeping the commander between himself and the other horseman. Lucane turned his own horse, nearing another set of horseman fighting nearby, trying to give Ktan no where to go.
Lucane felt Ktan's blade slam against the side of his leg. The sword must have found an opening in his armor, for he felt a sharp pain run through the limb. The adrenaline rush from battle prevented him from feeling much pain, his mind was too concerned with keeping himself alive. He couldn't tell how badly he was hurt. He didn't have time to think about it, and on his horse, he didn't need to use his legs for much anyway.
He drove forward, trying to push Ktan back, trying to force the man to concentrate solely on him. Hoping if he could the man's attention for just a short time, Carltan would have time to strike.
For a moment he almost thought it would work. He gave Ktan no choice; his visious attack required the man's full attention. Carltan had swung around again, quickly coming up behind Ktan. He raised his sword, but even as he did so, Lucane saw the female knight appear behind Carltan in turn.
There was no time to shout, no time to warn Carltan of the doom that was upon him. A sword flashed through the air. Carltan's shoulders pinched together, the sword suddenly falling from his hands. Lucane saw blood fly through the air, and his second in command tumbled from his horse.
Ktan drove forward once again, putting Lucane on the defensive. The commander knew it wouldn't be long now. The female was riding up beside them, and Lucane knew he was no match for both of them. They would both attack at the same time and he could do little to defend himself against it. There was no opportunity to challenge one on one in a battle such as this. This was not a fight between gentlemen. There was no honor here, only survival. That was the way it was in war. You did what you had to do to stay alive. Lucane knew that. He would do the same thing in their position. Still, he would sell his life as dearly as he could.
His assessment of the situation was accurate. Just a short time later he was dead on the ground. Ktan looked down at the man for a moment, then raised his head to see that, without their leader the Imperial Knights were being routed. Jenya, coming to a halt beside him, doffed her helm and looked around as well.
"It seems we have carried the day," she commented.
Ktan nodded. The footmen were already among the wagons, rounding up the merchants. Those they didn't resist were unharmed. They would be sent on their way, on foot, minus their goods, of course. It was only a short distance to Donelan. They should make it there by the end of the day. They would suffer an economic loss, but at least they'd escape with their lives.
Alios rode up to meet them. His leg was bandaged, and Jenya knew it still ached, but it wasn't any thing he couldn't live with.
"We've done it!" he exclaimed.
"You sound as if you had doubts," Ktan said with a grim smile.
"We couldn't have done it without you and your men," Jenya spoke up.
"The people of Norvell Wood are a hardy folk," Alios said proudly.
"Speak not of your home here," Ktan warned. "We have done a very dangerous thing. No one has attacked one of the King’s caravans in years. If you were an outlaw before you are one tenfold now. He will spare no expense to find out who did this. You never know where the enemies’ ear may be."
Alios looked around for a moment.
"There are only the dead around us here," he pointed out. "But you are right. I will not mention it again."
Ktan did not reply.
Alios looked over at the wagons.
"It looks to be quite a good haul. My people will have much to celebrate tonight. We could get use to this sort of thing."
"Don't think it will be as easy as this next time," Ktan warned.
"Well, I don't speak seriously," Alios replied. "I have no wish to be greedy, but we seem to have accomplished our mission. I take it this will get the King's attention."
"I have no doubt it will," Ktan replied.
"Good, so what do we do now?"
"Follow the plan," Ktan replied. "Have your men take whatever goods they can carry. The rest we burn. We leave nothing of value behind. Then we fade back into the hills. It's going to be up to your people to hide their tracks."
"Don't worry, they are very good at that sort of thing," Alios assured him. "We've been doing it for a long time."
"As have we," Jenya spoke up. "I see Saramis is already among the wagon. I don't doubt he'll find more than enough to keep him happy for once."
"I have no doubt," Ktan agreed. "C'mon, let’s join him and make sure he doesn't weigh down his horse too much."
They rode off to join their friend, leaving the field to the dead. A short time later a shout went up, and smoke and flame filled the air as the wagons were burned. Less than an hour later, there was nothing left but charred remains and the bodies of the dead.
Or so it seemed. One of the dead stirred. A man slowly lifted his head. His vision swam, and his back was wet with blood from the wound to his neck. By all rights he should already be dead, but somehow he was still alive. He managed to pull himself to his feet. He looked around groggily, not sure where he was, not sure what had happened. He didn't have time to think about it anyway. He knew he was in bad shape, he knew he could collapse at any moment. He looked around. There was no one here. He had to find help.
Slowly, Carltan started walking back down the trail the way he had come.