Venzene Duchy of Kovalun
County Jižní Pochod
Barony of Haluzfeld Haluz Věže
Gerstesykli 3 days prior to the Red Storm at Westsong
He stood on the high balcony, looking out over the moon-painted forest some two hundred feet below. Naked, he leaned upon the broad stone railing, forearms taking most of his weight. Calling the little lick of stone that adjoined his bed-chamber, a balcony was perhaps fanciful. There was barely room for two to stand atop it—and only then if they were in one another’s arms. Still, he was in a fanciful mood just now.
He smiled a touch wistfully as he mused over the strange and somehow charmed path his life had taken. Of course, it was revisionist nonsense to say it was fortunate happenstance or predestination that led him to this rarified state of being. He’d worked his mind and body to the very rim of ruin to gain—to earn all that he had, and he knew it. Even so, looking down at the prewinter’s beauty of his land made lulling himself into thoughts of serendipity a tempting thing.
“Luck the common man’s whipping boy,” he murmured to no one in particular. “A windfall is good luck, a misery is bad—a misfortune. It’s all ignorance and shadows.”
As if to chastise him for his dismissal of destiny, the wind rushed suddenly up at him. Despite the brisk air of late autumn, it amused him to find the wind warm and clean. As it did its best to tangle his greying golden hair, he heard Vašík‘s movement behind him in the bed. His smile broadened.
“Do you know I’ll be fifty?” He didn’t turn, opting instead to raise his tenor voice, so it carried into the room behind him. He found he was in an almost playful mood now well, as close as he ever got to such childishness, at any rate. He hadn’t been a child quite long enough to master whimsy. Not that that bothered him overmuch. He’d even made that serve him well over the years. “You’ll officially be half my age, then. I suspect you’ll trade me in for a much younger steed before too terribly long.”
“I may, but I shouldn’t let it worry you,” Vašík’s voice wore the combined finery of playful arrogance and drowsy youth. His slight features and slender frame prevented his voice from displaying any genuine authority. “Who else would keep me in such splendor? Your Excellency?”
“Now, now,” he made a tsking sound with his tongue against the roof of his mouth, “I know you’re only here for the coin, comfort, and social currency I can offer, but do at least pretend there’s more between us.”
He had once prized this youth for his excellent mind and sharp wit as much as his vigor, fine features, and supple body, but such japes seemed somehow not only to have grown less witty but far less welcome of late. His lover was only teasing, but it didn’t much matter. It’d stung anyway. He had no intention of letting it show, mind, but he felt the unmeaning cruelty all the same.
He knew he was in a far better state of health than many men of both his age and station. Hells, he was more active than many men of title closer to Vašík’s age. For all that, an end to youth and glory was creeping toward him, gaining ground with each passing day, and no strategy or tactic would defeat such a foe. His own skin had slowly degenerated into laugh lines. All too soon, those would transform into fully-fledged wrinkles.
He felt rather than heard Vašík rise and come up behind him. A moment later, arms slipped around his waist as the younger man pressed his cheek to Aedelt’s back. “I am sorry,” his voice sounded earnest, “…but truly, if you’re going to toss such absurd noise into the air, even blind men will eventually crack bat to ball.”
Aedelt knew two things. The first was that Vašík was right. He’d been seeking sympathy with such absurd remarks. The second was that in a matter of moments, his lover would attempt to make him forget such pitiful pangs.
After a delicate interval of silence, his prediction came true. It began with slow kisses along his back, then gently busy hands sliding down below where his belt would be, were he clothed. His body still did the old trick, all right. It happily reacted, which was a thing that many men his age could no longer claim. He was just about to turn and leave his long and playfully self-pitying thoughts for warmer, more instinctual ones when something intruded, pawing at his mind.
“Stop,” his voice came out more in a sigh than with the urgency now creeping over him. Alarm was racing through his head, but he could not for his life place the cause or source.
Taking it for a signal, kisses rained down more rapidly and insistently. He felt hands starting to turn him away from the window, and while he wished very much to give in to those hands, he knew better.
“Vašík! Stop, I say!” His voice was a sudden clarion.
What is it?”
“I don’t…” He never finished that sentence. He suddenly smelled smoke, heard what might at first have been mistaken for birdsong morph and shift in his ears as the wind carried the sound the fartoo-warm wind. Not birds—screams. Women, children, even men all screamed below him.
“My Lord!” Rapid thudding on the door, “Baron Vagiaedelt, waken!”
He turned from the window and strode toward the door, ignoring Vašík as if his lover weren’t there.
“I’m awake, Lajos, I assure you.” Aedelt’s voice had taken on a knife’s edge. It had lost all of its usual playfulness and its recent softness. He threw open the door heedless of his nudity and looked at the young, sweaty faced squire who stood before him. He waited a moment as the youth stared, then spoke with a sharpness made keen by what he was certain he’d heard below. “Dammit boy, you can admire my birthright when things are not so pressing! Report! Now!”
Lajos blinked, flushed with embarrassment and perhaps a touch of rage, and wrenched his eyes upward to meet his Lord’s. “Excellency, we are attacked!”
“Yes, I can hear that. Now tell me something of use!”
“My Lord, they came from nowhere.”
“That’s a lie. Nothing comes from nowhere. You simply haven’t determined where they came from yet.”
Vašík snorted at this from his perch.
“I,” the squire began, then shook his head before attempting to correct himself. “We think they may have come from the woods based on what we’ve seen of their gear. They’re ragtag and ununiformed, but…” He trailed off, uncertain how to finish.
But what, damn you, boy? They attacked without substantive gear of war. Are they looters? Is that what you mean to say? Havoc’s Horn, Lajos! Why did Bolek send you, of all people? You’re a freehold farmer’s son without so much as a wit to wield—a well-meaning, well-muscled oaf of a boy who should be back at his father’s farm, not stood here making me drag a report out of him while my barony burns!
Aedelt did his best to keep his tone cold and fearful. His anger would only serve to make the already flustered youth impossible to get anything useful out of. “Bandits? Perhaps an organized revolt of peasants? What is it you’re saying to me, Lajos?”
“There are too many. Too many by scores.” He shook his head. “We couldn’t count them all. There were so many! We’ve sealed the main gates, stationed archers on the wall-walk, and done all we can to withstand them, but there are so many…”
This was absurd. An uprising of rabble like this was put down, not hidden from behind stone and wooden walls. That showed weakness, not strength. It allowed the wretches to take their prize and go, rather than punishing them for their transgressions.
Aedelt did his best to re-summon his oft-vaunted calm. He drew in a deep breath, battling to make himself hold it for a five-count. He managed only three beats before rage found a tiny handhold. Grabbing Lajos by his shoulders, he shook the youth. “Listen to me now.” His voice was a surprisingly full growl. “You will go inform the captain of the guard to prepare a sortie. I shall attend him as soon as I am properly arrayed for battle.”
“ Y—Yes, Excellency!” The youth sounded breathy and distant.
Aedelt released his grip on the witless boy’s shoulders, allowing a small, wolfish smile to Bloom on his face. “Ensure that my horse is saddled and barded. We shall mass in the courtyard and ride out of Haluz Věže together, rolling over them as if we were a landslide from on-high. Before the hour is out, we shall drive them from our lands. Now go.” The edge in his voice winked out.
Even as he turned away, Aedelt felt his blood pumping, heart racing in anticipation of the battle to come. It was so rare that he could draw his blade these days for anything other than sparring. This- this was why he continued. This was why he persisted. This was why he took increasingly younger lovers. He refused every day to give in to the ravages of age, and thus far, he had won nearly every battle against it. Moments like this were proof that he was still on the righteous path. Even now, his sword-arm begged the familiar violence of battle. Even now, his skin longed to feel the welcome weight of his hauberk, his chausses, his gauntlets. After casting about for a moment, he moved to dress.
“But…” Lajos was stammering now. “But, your Excellency My Lord…”
Aedelt resisted the urge to glare or to strike the youth. He drew himself up, pulled air into the hollow of his chest to expand it, and turned to look down his nose at the squire. It was, he knew, a stance that made others intimidated if not outright afraid of him. He’d used it to cow many an opponent, but he used it as infrequently as he could.
“My Lord,” Lajos gulped rather comically, “their numbers are endless. We cannot ride out to meet them.”
“There you are correct. We,” he pointed between himself and the squire, “cannot ride out to meet them. You haven’t the strength or stomach for it. That much is clear. Fortunately for you, Captain Bolek is made of sterner stuff. Your betters will ride out and defeat this rabble and have done with it.
Now, obey me and inform the captain.”
“Excellency…” The youth started to speak, but for a moment couldn’t. As Aedelt draw breath to rebuke him once more, he finally found his voice. “It’s the captain who sent me. He says we are surrounded and besieged.”
Aedelt froze in the act of pulling his britches up. This defied reason. “Impossible. We cannot be besieged. Beyond the forest below is nothing save open country. We would have seen an army on the march toward us, and it would take an army to come anywhere near the size required to besiege this keep!” He was getting angry now. His voice was becoming steely, approaching shrillness.
To Aedelt’s right, Vašík spoke from what passed for the balcony. His voice was empty, somehow—vacant, as if he were dreaming and spoke in his sleep.
“…I can see them Hundreds, maybe thousands of torches below us.”
Aedelt finished yanking up his pants and strode over to see for himself. His stomach lurched. The forest of ash and pine beneath him now looked as if it were growing out of a mass of writhing earthspew. The firelights were so numerous, so dense that it appeared a sea of deep, tumultuous red now surrounded the collection of towers that made up his keep.
He’d just about processed this insanity when a fresh horror made its presence known. He heard drums—dozens, perhaps hundreds of them in the distance. Their break-neck rhythm was insistent but too ordered and deliberate to be accounted frenetic. The sound made it clear that they were growing closer, and at speed.
Looking past the tree line and into the wide farmland and pasture beyond, he saw an enormous column of horses dragging multiple siege engines in its train. The night was clear, and his eyes still worked better than they had any right to. He could see catapults, rams, and even what looked like a cart full of wood, which must contain ladders, surely.
We’re done, he thought. He was both awed and impressed. Fear wouldn’t be long in coming, but for now, the war-wise tactician that lived inside him was racing to confirm what his under-mind had already concluded. I don’t know how it’s possible, how we didn’t see them coming with enough time to do something — anything other than fight and die — but we’re done.
“Hells look at them all,” said Vašík. “At least I shall finally get to see you in your element Excellency.” He was smiling—teasing. Aedelt largely ignored him. At this moment, his lover was little more than a chirping bird, a pretty thing too, sadly, be ignored.
To hide an army of such size? Even taking Sorcery into account, it seems impossible. They’re prepared, no doubt provisioned, and the time to call for aid is long past. With no warning, unless peasants escaped the sword and ran for aid, there’s no way to get word from here to any nearby baron, nor to Edmund. We have enough food to last a month? Perhaps two? But I don’t think we’ll need it. Given their gear, this won’t become a protracted siege. They’ll breach our walls, or the gate, and with their numbers
“Where…” Aedelt turned to face the soon-to-be-dead boy who delivered Bolek’s message. He heard his own voice. It sounded brittle and scared, altogether nothing like him. Taking a moment to swallow and compose himself, he tried again. “Where is Aetanis? Where is my son?”
Lajos blinked, clearly confused by the sudden change in subject. Blessedly, he managed to pick up the thread before Aedelt found the need to ask again. “He left this morning, Excellency. He took his personal guard to rendezvous with the Count’s men.”
Personal guard? Aetanis is sixteen. His so-called personal guard comprises a pair of grooms his own age, chosen more for the way they look, or the way they make him look stood next to them. A decade of plenty has made us—made me soft-headed. I’ve let my guard down, and now Well, he sighed, at least he’s safe for now.
His son’s first actual battle as a leader might go well and might go ill, but however it befell, he would almost certainly be returning to test what skills he’d learned in order to retake what remained of Haluzfeld. He wondered idly if anything would remain of Haluz Věže itself.
He left the window and returned to the act of dressing. Speaking with a calm and authority he did not at this precise moment feel, he addressed Lajos again. “Tell the captain I am dressing and armoring and will be down directly. Tell him he is to do everything in his power to minimize the casualties within the walls until I arrive, and we can make a plan and set a stratagem. Am I understood?”
“Yes, my Lord,” He straightened, clearly affected by the reassurance he must have thought he’d heard in Aedelt’s voice. He bowed and charged back down the stairs.
“You don’t think we’re going to survive, do you?”
Aedelt slid on his right boot, completing the set, and stood to don his padded gambeson. As he turned it in his hands to ensure that it was facing the correct direction before lifting it to draw down over his chest and shoulders, he thought about what answer to give. Finally, despite the fact that he wanted to do anything else, he spoke the truth.
“No, we won’t. Not unless they take slaves. I don’t know who they are, but given the drums, I suspect they’re from Eoden—Eoalun, I mean.”
Aedelt felt the younger man’s eyes on him as he continued armoring up, attaching his chain skirt before donning his breastplate.
For a long moment, Vašík made no reply. Finally, he found his voice. “I’ll kill them before I let them take you, Aedelt.”
He was pleased that his back was to the window. Aedelt was touched, amused, fearful, and taken aback, all at a go.
“I’m serious. No horse-humping, orc-bedding, raiding, pillaging lout will take you away from me, will take this away from us. You have my oath.”
Aedelt had never heard this tone, never seen this side of Vašík before. He was gratified, certainly, but more than a little surprised. As he tightened the last few straps of his carapace, he nodded, turning to rake his eyes over the still nude form by the window. Vašík had apparently turned to face into the room as he’d delivered his pronouncement. Aedelt couldn’t decide if the young man’s nakedness undercut or underpinned the weight of his words. Finally, he shrugged, turning back to remove his helm from his armor stand, placing it on the bed.
When he spoke in answer, his tone was dry but warm. “Then, brave Vašík, might I recommend you find some armor and a sword made of something other than pork?”
“Believe me, I intend—“
There was a sudden thump followed by two more from somewhere outside. Aedelt stiffened, knowing the sound for what it was—knowing there was no time to do anything about it. An instant later, nearly drowning out the third thump, the world filled with the muscular, crunching sound of a boulder as it shattered his former balcony. Its force sent the wall crumbling down, crushing the young man where he stood. Catapults.
He managed to close his eyes before the stone struck, doing his best to burn the image of his now former lover into his mind’s eye.
When the dust cleared, after a brief coughing fit had subsided, he surveyed the remnants of his once lovely bed-chamber.
A few candles beside his only exit flickered in the dusty air, but it was enough light to see by. Nothing remained unaffected. The boulder had sent debris to all points. Its grey waste covered every surface.
His armor stand — an exquisite thing carven to look like a man from head to knee, not unlike a dressmaker’s false form — wobbled as he watched, spinning slightly on its round metal base turning as if to regard him with its blank, empty gaze.
His eyes fell upon the wreck of his outer wall—of his other life. There was nothing left of his oncelover. He saw no hand, no foot, no flesh peeking out beneath the mass of raw and rendered rubble but no. There was something.
As the stand continued to wobble, fighting bravely to resist Skolf’s pull and remain upright, he saw a red trail of blood run out from beneath the shattered stones. He steeled himself, nostrils flaring as he fought to keep control.
“No time I have no time for the dead. The living still need me.” He squared his jaw and forced his eyes away.
As if in response to his decision, the armor stand, at last, succumbed to the world’s overwhelming force. It fell to the ground and rolled away from him, coming to rest with its head far too near the trickle of blood.
The first to fall, that I know of. Was he weeping? Well, never fear, pretty boy, I shan’t be long. I expect we’ll all be right behind you.
“I know,” he said aloud. “Still, I breathe. I live, and while I live…”
How they’d set their engines so swiftly, let alone how they’d known which room in which tower had been his were mysteries he doubted he’d live long enough to solve, but time would tell.
He belted on his sword, threw his gloves and gauntlets into his helm, and bolted from the room and its gruesome scene.
Venzene Duchy of Kovalun
County Jižní Pochod
Barony of Hartscross Západní Hlídka
Gerstesykli 2 days prior to the Red Storm at Westsong
The man gave a light cough running a hand through his hair as he considered the scene stretched out before him. He’d kept the rich brown crop left to him fairly short since it’d begun to run away from his face. As if to aid him, the wind blew wisps of smoke up from the valley below.
Looking sidelong at the boy, who sat within easy reach to his right cross-legged atop a boulder, he stifled a smirk. That same wind had done its best to knock his small hood back, though he brought a hand up to keep it in place.
“Do you know their names?” The boy broke the protracted silence, no longer willing, or perhaps no longer able to simply sit in wonder, staring at the three settlements that lay smoking in the twilit valley below. His voice was respectful and soft, despite the slight, scratched growl that always pervaded it. After a moment during which only the wind spoke, he amended, “Or would it be better to ask do you know what their names were?”
The man seemed content to allow the silence to play out a little longer, which was his nature. Before too long, however, he shook his head. “Nooo,” he said. “They’ll be back. All three of them will rebuild. They’ve been raided, not razed to the ground.”
“But,” the boy shook his head, face pinched as he tried to understand, “But all three villages are on fire, or at least but lately were. They’re still smoking!”
He was amused, as always, at the look of intense focus the boy wore. That look, coupled with the coarse dark brown — nearly black — length of his hair, the pale green of his skin, and the small lower tusks that jutted just over his upper lip, would’ve combined to make him look predatory and dangerous were he older. On a boy his age, however, it looked like adorable mimicry, not aggressive malice.
“Nothing,” said the man. He tried to keep his voice mild and fought down a grin with admirable success.
“No, not nothing. I see the way you mark me from the side of your eye.” The man’s dark brows lifted for a moment, but he continued to say nothing. “Well?”
“Fa-therrrr…” His voice was a study in amused frustration.
He watched his son try to maintain his look of fierce concentration—working to turn it into one of annoyance or even anger. He suspected the boy wouldn’t be able to resist the fit of laughter bubbling up inside of him for much longer. He opted to help the process along.
“Laaa-kriiid…” He dragged the boy’s name out, mimicking the way he’d said father, wrestling his normal raven’s-crow tones into something more playful.
It turned the trick. Several bursts of laughter escaped from Lakkrid. Judging by the look on his face, he hadn’t so much given into laughter as he’d been ambushed by it. It was as if the act were a source of embarrassment.
After each bout of giggles, he tried to regain his composure with limited success. This made each little eruption of mirth increasingly more hysterical and uncontrolled than the last.
Both the laughter and the accompanying look of comical self-recrimination plastered onto the boy’s face forced his father’s own laughter a single, loud caw, followed by a slow, rolling baritone rumble.
When the boy’s hysterics subsided, at last, the man finally answered his question.
“All right,” said he, “The peasants and serfs here build out of rough, stacked stones, not wood and thatch like Eoden or Lesalun, nor wattle and daub like Gerstealun. Raids hurt, of course, especially if there’s bravery involved, as it usually means someone dies. I doubt there’ll have been enough damage or burning to make them give up on their settlements altogether.”
“And stone doesn’t fear fire,” Lakkrid mused. “So, what is it that’s burning, then? What did the raiders set fire to?” He wore a transported expression. Lessons like this always seemed to draw him in.
“Stone doesn’t like heights. Once you take it out of the mountain’s arms or pluck it up from the ground, it’s always in a rush to find Skolf again.” He caught the boy’s grin at this imagery and allowed himself a small smile of his own. His son had a hungry mind, to be sure.
“So,” Lakkrid sounded thoughtful, “if stone’s eager to fall roofs!” The triumph in his voice was evident. “They’d have to build their roofs out of something they could brace—something longer! They’d use timber?... Fashioned into planks?”
Lakkrid seemed to draw himself up, almond eyes going to half-mast as he beamed. After a long moment of silence, he recalled his other, still unanswered question. “And their names? Do you know them?”
“This one’s Železné Oko. There, on the left? That one’s Bílá Vidlička. The farthest one, back and to the right? That’s Píseň Borovic or Borovicová Hudba—I can’t recall which. Iron eye, White Fork, and Pine Song or Pine Music.” He pointed to each one a second time as he translated. He saw Lakkrid stiffen slightly. He’d heard the footsteps, too, then. Keeping the same mild tone, he concluded,
“Kovalun’s mother tongue has always sounded beautiful, even when it’s butchered.”
“Awh, ee don’ know about that.” This new voice was carried on air that sounded as if it’d gusted up from a barrel-chest. “Een da mouth off-an outziderr, it sounds more like a drunken baladeerr.” He rolled his Rs on the words outsider, more, and drunken. The newcomer sounded jovial enough, but there was a tone of mingled greed and authority carried along in the air.
As they turned to face the owner of that voice, he put his left hand on Lakkrid’s right shoulder.
“My name’s Eobum, friend.”
A forest of pines and yew trees loomed up as they turned, filling the world with green shadows. Four men stood along the tree line, a dozen strides of bare rock separating them from Eobum and Lakkrid.
He’d expected the speaker to have a beard just slightly thicker than his accent, and he wasn’t disappointed. The four of them were all coal-maned and bearded, pale-skinned, and broad-shouldered.
Hard times appeared to have made them lean beneath their furs and layered burlap clothing.
“My son and I were just going to set about making supper.” He paused for a moment, as if considering, then shrugged his brows as if to say what the hells. “You and yours are welcome to share our fire. We haven’t a duke’s feast in tow, but we do have meat a pair of hoppers caught this morning.
I can stretch that out into a stew that should feed the lot of us...”
All four men licked their lips at this offer. They clearly weren’t hunters of even a child’s skill. Small game was plentiful here, after all. That wasn’t the only tale their body language told.
They held no formation to speak of—stood in a loose and untidy clump at the edge of the makeshift campsite. Their leader — or perhaps he was only their mouthpiece, time would tell — stood with his three fellows more or less surrounding him. While this proximity made their collective look like a milling pack of hunting predators, Eobum suspected it was as much for their own comfort as for any such cultivated imagery. Certainly, it would intimidate the average serf or peasant, but no fighting man or woman would be cowed.
“Yindrich.” This was the same voice that had originally spoken.
When he didn’t bother to introduce his comrades, Eobum concluded that yes, he must account himself their leader, and they his loyal servants. He expected they were the same men who’d been on a spree here in southern Kovalun, burning and looting wherever they found something worth risking their necks to take.
Four men acting even in loose concert could intimidate most villages into giving up the sweat of their collective brow. Of course, these men might have been part of a larger, more well-organized group—they were awfully lean, which meant they might be under the thumb of another. Eobum hoped that wasn’t the case, but again, time would tell that tale.
“Your son?” Yindrich’s delighted smile as Lakkrid lifted his face to gaze upon the newcomers was accompanied by a look of dark satisfaction. His voice became a rumbling croon. “Ee’ll break bread and take tribute from any Orc raper, aye boys?” He continued to roll his Rs and broke the word aye into two syllables ay-yuh.
Eobum felt Lakkrid’s shoulder tense beneath his left hand but was pleased to see that the boy’s face still showed calm and not-quite idle curiosity toward the newcomers.
“No tribute,” Eobum said in a mild, thoughtful tone. “These are free lands for camping and small game, far as I’ve heard. Volně přístupné pozemky vévody, není-liž pravda?” In the Trader’s Tongue, this ran as Duchy free, right? “Still,” he paused, sliding his hand down from his son’s shoulder, along the boy’s right arm, “our offer to share the fire, food, and fellowship holds,” a pause during which Eobum looked down at his son, then swiftly up to meet Yindrich’s gaze, “ even after you call my son a bastard and me a raper.”
Yindrich’s eyes widened, then narrowed. Here, at last, was the danger Eobum had first sensed behind the man’s false jocularity.
“You’re Eodenth…” Yindrich’s voice came out in a growl of mingled disgust and excitement.
Eobum knew that look—could almost read the run of the man’s thoughts. Food was good, tribute and respect were better, but violence was best of all. Violence usually led to food, tribute, respect, and much, much more.
To his men, Yindrich said, “You know, lads, Gerstealun men busya themselves with the sheep when it’s cold and lonely. Eodenth men get bred by the horses till they learn to outrun them.” He grinned, showing a mouth full of ruined teeth—gray and chipped. As his men laughed at his witticism, he met Eobum’s eye and continued, “They’re often getting kicked in the head by their four-legged masters. When they finally do learn that they’re meant to ride the horses, not the other way ‘round, they’re so addled that they can’t tell Orc women from Eodenth.”
At this, his men roared with the hearty tones of folk too afraid of reprisal to do anything else.
Eobum doubted his son could squint his ears tightly enough to have translated Yindrich’s accent into the Trade Tongue, which was just as well. One normally didn’t squint with anything other than eyes, but he couldn’t think of a better word for the act required to sort through the man’s speech.
Hells, even he’d had difficulty by the end. Yindrich had replaced nearly all the TH sounds with Zs or buzzing Ss, and rolled his Rs with such abandon that Eobum would’ve had an easier time understanding the man if he’d just spoken in Kovalunth and had done with it.
Yindrich turned his predator’s eyes on Lakkrid. He adopted a near avuncular tone as he concluded. “Anda now, boy, you knowa the truth about your father. Heeza fast on his feet, ee’ve no doubt, and too blind to tell tusk from tree-tart.”
Eobum inwardly thanked all the gods that ever were that he hadn’t taught the boy much
Kovalunth yet. Still, your foes usually showed you their throats when their confidence was high, and Yindrich had been no exception.
He made a show of gripping at the leather vambrace Lakkrid wore—a soft thing he’d made for him a few seasons back. As he did so, he spoke to Yindrich in a voice that began with a snort and ended with a calculated note of mockery. “Yindrich Říká dvojí krve.” (Yindrich a halfbreed talking.)
The chorus of derisive laughter froze before it could further pollute the air. Yindrich’s henchmen looked on with faces that expected bloodshed to follow. They were right, of course.
“What? What do you say to me?!” Yindrich’s voice was sudden thunder.
Eobum shrugged, supremely unconcerned. This effect, however, was somewhat spoiled as he continued fiddling with the part of Lakkrid’s vambrace Yindrich couldn’t directly see. He would see the fidgeting, not-quite-nervous movement, of course, but not the specifics of what Eobum was actually doing. “Měli o Vás pravdu, Yindrichu dvojí krve.” He nodded, face and tone seeming helpful rather than antagonistic. “Napůl hrite, napůl šílenec.” (They were right about you, Yindrich the halfbreed. Half shit, half a fool.)
Yindrich roared his outrage and drew either a very long knife or a very short sword from somewhere on the back of his belt—drew it inverted, in fact, so that the blade depended from the bottom of his clenched fist.
“Nikdo se mnou takhlenmeluvi!” (Nobody speaks to me like that!) He half-ran, half-lumbered toward Eobum, weapon held high over his right shoulder blade pointed forward, ready to stab.
Eobum saw Yindrich’s eyes flit to where he was still fiddling with the inside of Lakkrid’s right forearm. While it gave him some satisfaction to see the brigand had fallen for both his baiting jibe and his physical ruse, it paled in comparison to the sense of savage pride that flared up within him over Lakkrid’s reaction. He could feel the boy tense up, obviously and justifiably afraid. He was coiled, preparing to move, but that reaction wasn’t on open display.
Time for pride and praise later, Eobum thought. He raised his voice and spoke a single word in a high, clear tone. “Eranoric!”
Four thuds came in rapid succession. The first three accompanied a trio of azhkasts — short spears slightly heavier than javelins — as they pierced Yindrich in his left thigh, left shoulder, and right forearm. They’d struck with such vigor that they’d sunk into the flesh, bouncing and wobbling as he took a final two strides. The fourth thud came as Yindrich fell face-first gasping and howling to the ground, perhaps a yard in front of where Eobum and Lakkrid still stood and sat, respectively.
“Throw down,” Eobum said to the others. His voice was even and undramatic, though it held no room for further discussion.
He watched as the three remaining brigands, highwaymen, or however it was, they styled themselves, looked about. They saw no attackers. There was the man and his boy. There was the forest of pines, oaks, and firs they themselves had come through, now full of pools of shadow too innumerable to count. There was their chieftain, full of wounds and Eodenth spears. All of this, they could see. They simply couldn’t count or size up the threat.
“Run, and you’ll only die tired,” Eobum said. “It’s no great matter to me, mind you.”
They looked at one another, then at Yindrich, then did as they’d been bidden. Two daggers, a gnarled yew club, and from the leanest and shortest among them, a crude bag full of sharp stones were all tossed in the place where a fire had once been destined to burn.
“Damned shrewdies,” a voice came from the tree line. A moment later, saw a youngish man with a bone-deep tan and ribbons of black hair streaming back from his brow, walking toward them. “I’d hoped they’d run.”
Eobum grunted, cleared his throat, and crouched down in front of Yindrich.
“Don’t leave us just yet, Yindrich. His Excellency, Syr Edmund of Hartscross, will want the pleasure of your company and that of your men, and I aim to see that he gets it.”
Yindrich tried to spit but couldn’t manage it. Instead, he sprayed a muddy curd of spittle and dust over his own bearded chin, a few droplets landing near Eobum’s feet.
Eobum pulled a thick piece of what would have served for kindling had they lit the evening’s fire, holding it out parallel to Yindrich’s mouth. “Bite down. I’m going to pull out the spears.”
Yindrich glared but did as bidden. A moment later and he’d cracked the stick between his gritted teeth as Eobum did his work.
The newcomer quirked a brow—with a grin to match. “Gonna let him live after what he said?”
“You’re the one who let him live, Adric. You hit his forearm when you could have hit his neck or side.” Eobum grinned up at the younger man.
“Aye, well, Eranoric insisted we wanted ‘em ‘live.” Adric’s grin showed a yellow picket of teeth.
Eobum nodded, looking up briefly toward the tree line where the remaining nine members of his band had emerged from their hiding places. The grey-templed Eranoric slowed his pace to stalk in their wake. Eobum was unsurprised to see the man’s head swiveling this way and that, on guard for trouble, he doubted was on the come. True, it was better to be careful than to be a corpse, but Eobum was as certain as may be that these four were the sum total of Yindrich’s raiding party.
The man had spoken of tribute. Normally larger groups of raiders acted as if they were a kind of shadow-nobility. They claimed a territory and wanted all settlers and all travelers to know it. Yindrich hadn’t followed that unspoken rule. He hadn’t even claimed the lands as his own. He’d just demanded tribute.
All things concerned, Eobum thought things had gone off about as well as hope could hazard.
Adric spoke as if reading his thoughts.
“Aye, worked a treat, I’d say. You called it, right enough.” Eobum grinned as he saw Yindrich’s eyes widen.
“Been tracking you for three days,” he said as he removed the final spear from the prostrate man’s thigh. “Your raiding’s done.”
Yindrich’s disbelief was evident, but it didn’t stay stamped on his face for very long. The blood loss as he pulled each azhkast free, had finally taken its toll. Even as Eobum staunched the wound he’d just reopened, his patient lapsed into unconsciousness.
“Ahh, they look so sweet when they’re asleep, don’ they?” Adric’s tone was that of a doting mother looking over a sleeping infant. “Makes it, so you almost don’t want ‘em to wake up ever.”
Eobum ignored him. He produced a length of cloth from his pouch and tied it around the man’s leg, then bound his hands behind him before rolling him onto his back.
“Bind the others,” he said, finally looking up at Adric. “Best we get them ready to move sooner, rather than later.”
Adric nodded, moving to see to it when a voice stopped him.
Eobum looked over his shoulder to where Lakkrid still sat on the boulder. Adric followed suit. “Does this mean we won’t be getting stew tonight?