The Stand: Part 3
“The men are ready.” Sabina advised, as she climbed back into the gatehouse. “At least, as ready as they can be.”
Adesh nodded, watching as the two men ran towards the fort. “Let’s hope that this is as far as it goes. We have three archers?” “Two, Julian and Alina. Oleg is the third.”
“Make sure they’re ready on the wall, one each side of the gate house, I don’t want them too close to each other.”
Sabina turned and dropped down the steps from the gatehouse, leaving Adesh on his own. He wiped the sweat from his forehead and mentally urged Stefan and Oleg on. He had no idea who was chasing them or how many, and having only a limited number of warriors, he couldn’t just rush out to them. They were on their own until they got to the gate.
They were almost home safe now. Adesh peeled his eyes, searching behind the two men for any sign of the enemy. And then he saw them. A small group, they looked to be well armed, just standing at swirling edges of the fog bank, no more than half a mile distant. They were just standing now, watching. Adesh kept his eyes on them as Stefan and Oleg, reached the gate.
A quick gesture from Adesh, and Sabina ordered the gates to be opened enough to let the two men inside. The group of warriors, turned around as they saw the gates opening and marched away, the fog swallowing them in minutes. Adesh breathed a sigh of relief and climbed down out
of the gate house.
The two men were leaning against the closed gate when Adesh arrived. One of the warriors ran past Adesh and handed Stefan a water skin. He pulled the stopper out of it and drank deeply before handing it to Oleg who accepted it gratefully.
“They’re well-armed for bandits.” Stefan reported to the young captain. “Very well armed.” “Did you find where they’re raiding from?”
“Oleg found them.” Stefan reported. “I’d never have gotten close, but the man has Equola’s own eyes. He found sign where I couldn’t see a thing. They’re on an island, a mile or two up-river from the village, in the swamp.” “Elanglas.” Oleg interrupted. “They’re on Elanglas island.”
Sabina frowned. “Nobody goes there, at least nobody with half a mind.”
“Why not?” Adesh asked.
“I think there’s a colony of Aoshee there.” Sabina answered. “I’ve never seen any, but I’ve never been to the island. Supposedly, they get downright hostile if anyone tries to spend any time there.” “Aoshee?” Stefan asked. “Surely they’re too small to bother anyone. I hear they’re more pest than threat.” Sabina shrugged. “I’ve never seen one, but the older villagers say they’re dangerous and easy to underestimate.”
“Those little pests aside.” Adesh cut in. “The island sounds perfect for them. It’s hard to get to and no one stays there.” “Now they know that we know where they are, they surely won’t stay there.” Sabina added.
“Probably not.” Adesh allowed. “But it’ll probably take them a little time to move. Did either of you get an idea of their numbers?”
“To be honest, I was too busy with getting out of there.” Stefan admitted, uncomfortably.
“Maybe twelve or so.” Oleg spoke up, confidently. “Two or three less now, I suppose.”
“Well, we have them in numbers.” Adesh said thoughtfully. “If only just.”
“They have better equipment.” Stefan reminded his younger friend. “No real archers though.” Oleg countered. “Me an’ Julian, an’ Alina could take care of them, no problem.” “Except for them being on an island that’s heavy with bushes and trees.” Stefan reminded Oleg. “What ever we decide.” Adesh interrupted. “We’ll have to do it fast, before they move. Oleg, go grab yourself some food. Sabina, get the men to stand down. Back to normal duties and then come find me, I might have something figured out by then.”
Stefan eyed the longhouse. “Any chance of food for me?”
“Grab something and meet me in my quarters. I want a proper report of what you found.”
Stefan settled into the chair, a plate of meat and gravy in front of him, and slid a plate of cheese and bread across the table to Adesh.
“Figured you wouldn’t be wanting anything heavy yet.” The older man commented.
“Thanks.” Adesh replied, taking the plate. “So, tell me everything that happened after leaving here.”
“Well, we went through the village at a fair clip. Oleg really moves when he wants to. We crossed the bridge and kept on going ‘till we found what was left of the wagons.”
“Was there anything left?” Adesh asked, taking a bite of cheese. “Nothing. They cleared out what they could and burnt everything they couldn’t carry. The horses were gone, the wagons broken and burnt, the weapons were all gone, as was all the armour and food.”
“Fuck!” The young captain sighed. “Go on.”
“Oleg found tracks from the bandits. They weren’t hard to find, even I could have followed them, at least for a short ways. They started to fade away, but Oleg said he could still follow them. He said they were heading for the swamp. Beats me why, you can’t move fast in there, but Oleg was certain.”
“So, you followed them to this island, Elanglas, Oleg called it.”
“Not right away, no. The trail led through the swamp, a couple of miles upriver, beyond the island. I didn’t even know there was an island there then, we weren’t close enough to the river to see it.”
“How did you find them on the island?”
“Thanks to Oleg, that’s how. We fetched up at the river bank, a few miles up river of the island, like I said. Oleg saw marks on the bank and said that they’d got on a boat there. I was ready to give up then. How were we going to track a boat on water? But Oleg, you wouldn’t think it, but he’s a canny bastard. He says that the river upstream of us shallows out for a fair bit and they’d never get a boat up there. Then he mentions the island. So we leave the horses there and start making our way back down the river.”
“Seeing as you were on foot when you came back, I suppose the horses are still there?” Stefan shook his head. “Sorry Adesh, they’re dead. There’s at least one or two good archers with those bandits.”
“Something else to add to the tally.” Adesh lamented. “We can’t afford those kind of losses.”
“Sorry Adesh. Nothing we could have done.”
Adesh waved away the apology. “Can’t change what’s already done. Keep going, when were you spotted?”
“Well we found the island, right where Oleg said it’d be, but there wasn’t much to see. There’s a lot of trees growing there, very old trees by the look. Oleg says that he thinks there might be a clearing on the other side of the island. He saw the far side of the island once when he was a boy. So we crossed the river, and worked our way down along the bank, carefully, and sure enough, there was a small clearing and a few boats.”
“Let me guess.” Adesh interrupted. “At least one of those boats had a mast that could be taken down when needed.”
“Just one.” Stefan confirmed.
“Not bandits then.” Adesh said with certainty. “Smugglers.” Stefan shrugged. “Oleg didn’t say anything about smugglers. We lit out of there once we found them, but someone must have spotted us. We were chased all the way back to our horses, but someone had got there ahead of us. If Oleg hadn’t pulled me out of the saddle I’d be dead. We spent the night in that fucking swamp, staying quiet and hiding while they searched for us. Managed to get past them sometime before dawn and spent the next few hours trying to stay ahead of them.”
“Stay there.” Adesh ordered Stefan and walked to the door. He stuck his head out and whistled at a passing warrior.
“Tell Oleg I want to see him.” He told the warrior.
The man nodded and ran off.
Stefan looked at him askance when he sat back down.
“Just wait.” Adesh said, as he popped another piece of cheese into his mouth.
Oleg knocked on the door a few minutes later and entered.
“Captain?” He asked.
“Is there anything grown around here that would interest smugglers?”
“I don’t know as to that, Captain. I’m no farmer.”
“You’re from the village, though.”
“Uh, yes Captain. I don’t see what that has to do with anything, though.”
Adesh leant forward on his desk and stared at the tracker. “Try again Oleg. Is there something grown here, that would interest smugglers?”
Oleg slowly wilted under Adesh’s glare. “Mushrooms, Captain.”
“Mushrooms? What kind of mushrooms?”
“Why on Saraphi’s earthly realm, would smugglers be interested in mushrooms?”
Oleg shrugged. “Don’t know. Can’t eat them, they’re poisonous.”
Stefan slapped his hand down on the desk. “Pas!”
“Hmm?” Adesh asked, puzzled by Stefan’s outburst.
“Pas, Adesh! Fucking Pas! Someone once told me that Pas is made from Blue Caps. I didn’t know Blue Caps were mushrooms.”
“So, the smugglers take the mushrooms and ship them out from the island, probably to a larger ship offshore. No wonder they hide on an island no one wants to go near, in the middle of a swamp that no one bothers with. They’re probably making a small fortune.”
“Which explains why they attacked the caravan. They can’t have the fort here, fully manned again, we’d spot the boat going down river and have the numbers to take it.” Stefan remarked thoughtfully.
“And men enough to track them and hunt them down.” Adesh added.
A sudden knock on the door interrupted Adesh. The door opened, and Sabina entered the room in a rush.
“There looks to be a fire in the village.” She reported.
“I’m sure the villagers have it in hand.” Adesh replied calmly. “By the time we get there, it’ll be out.”
“It looks like it’s the entire village!” Sabina exclaimed. “The fog is starting to fade, but you can see the cloud of smoke easily. It’s huge.”
Stefan looked at Adesh. “The smugglers?”
Adesh returned Stefan’s look. “Who else? Sabina, I want half the warriors as armed and armoured as we can get them. The best of what we have. I don’t care what you have to do, just get it done.”
Sabina left the room in a rush to get the men ready.
“Stefan, you’ll stay here with the rest of the men. Lock the gates and keep a constant watch until we’re back. I don’t like how this smells.”
“Where will you be?” Stefan asked, already knowing the answer.
“I’ll be at the village. If I see any of the smugglers, I mean to engage them. Hopefully they’ll break and run, but if not, I’m going to try and draw them back here.”
“Short of trying to attack them on an island with no easy way to cross, I’ve little choice.”
“Alright, we’ll be ready.”
The two men stood and clasped wrists.
“Stay safe.” Stefan urged Adesh. “Your father will never forgive me if anything happens to you.”
Adesh laughed. “It’s my mother you should be wary of. She’s the one with connections.”
The two men looked at each other, suddenly serious.
“Any last words of advice?” Adesh asked with a smile. “You’ll do fine. Keep your head clear, and don’t let them goad you. Just like I taught you.”
Adesh sat on his horse, just outside the village. Sabina had been right. Most of the village was aflame. Villagers were drawing water from a well and had formed a bucket line, but he could see that it was a futile gesture. The fires had spread too far.
Sabina, on foot, trotted up beside him. Her mouth dropped open at the level of destruction.
“We have to help them!” She urged her captain.
“We can’t.” Adesh replied tersely. “The smugglers are out there somewhere, waiting. I know it.”
“But the villagers!”
“They can wait. What help will they have if we’re all killed?”
“My parents could be in there!” Sabina protested.
“I know Sabina, but you’re a warrior. Act like it!”
Sabina’s back straightened sharply, and she glared at the young Captain. “What do you want me to do?”
“Send Oleg around north of the village and Alina south. I want them to find those bastards. As soon as they do, they’re to report back. If they get to the far side of the village without finding anything they’re to come back. Understood?”
Sabina nodded and turned back down the track to where the warriors were waiting.
Adesh sighed and returned to his vigil, watching the village slowly consumed by fire. He hated waiting for action. The slow tightening of nerves, the sweating, the trembling, the sick feeling in the pit of his stomach, watching for anything that signalled an end to the waiting. He hawked up some phlegm and spat on the ground. Already he could feel a headache starting as the tension built tighter and tighter. Not that he felt much better after a fight. At least during the action he could forget everything but what was going on at that very moment. He longed to go back and wait with his warriors just down the road, but the villagers deserved to be helped. He couldn’t give them what they needed, so instead he punished himself by watching. It was the least they deserved. He was so wrapped up in his vigil that he almost didn’t notice Sabina returning some time later. The fires were burning even more furiously now.
“How can you stand to watch?” Sabina asked coldly. “Are the lives of the Clanless worth so little?”
“I’m watching because it’s all I can do.” Adesh replied. “I’ll remember this for as long as I live and hate myself because there was nothing to be done but watch.”
“Easy to say.” Sabina commented under her breath not quite silently enough.
“Yes. Easy to say Sabina.” Adesh replied coolly. “I could have stayed at the fort, as would have been my right as Captain, I could have sent Stefan in my place. I chose to be here, knowing that there would be no help we could offer the villagers. I chose to sit here and watch the village burn, but you can rest assured that as soon as we located the smugglers I will destroy them for what they’ve done.”
Sabina shrugged. “We’ll see.”
The young Captain eyed the woman, with no small amount of irritation.
“Go back to the men!”
“I’m staying to watch Captain. These are my people. If one of the high and mighty Clansmen says that all we can do for now is watch, then that’s what I’ll do.”
Adesh rolled his neck, trying to ease some of the tension before replying.
“Fine. If that’s what you need to do. Just shut your fucking mouth.”
Adesh lost track of time as he watched, waiting for his scouts to report back. Thirst brought him back to himself and he grabbed his small canteen. He swallowed a quick mouthful of the warm, brackish water, and then a second, trying to clear the taste of the smoke from his mouth. Sabina suddenly threw herself at Adesh and pulled him out of the saddle. An arrow flashed through the space just vacated by the young Captain as he crashed to the ground.
Adesh jumped to his feet, dropping his canteen as he drew his sword.
“Looks like they got tired of waiting for us.” He commented, wryly.
“Seems like.” Sabina replied, as she turned to look back the trail.
She whistled and the few warriors, less the two scouts, drew their well-worn swords. The warriors stayed low, and spread out, trying to avoid the attention of the enemy archers.
Both Sabina and Adesh made their way back to the warriors, staying low. This was the most defensive part of the trail, on either side lay the swamp. If they moved forward the trail widened too much.
“They’re coming.” One of the men said, pointing with his sword.
Adesh turned to look and saw twelve warriors bearing down on them at a run. Adesh examined them coolly. They were all men save one, a slender, one armed woman, carrying a long-bladed sword with a fancy guard. They carried a variety of swords, some two handers, some single hand, their equipment looked expensive but there was no uniformity. Tightening his grip on his shield, he turned to his men.
“Lock shields! I have the centre!” He shouted and turned back to face the oncoming smugglers.
Sabina stood to his left, overlapping her shield with his, with two more warriors to her left, while the three remaining warriors took their places to Adesh’s right.
“Hold those shields!” Adesh shouted. “Keep your heads down and watch your damn legs!”
The warriors beat their shields in response, shouting wordlessly as the smugglers closed with them. Adesh’s heart pounded, fear and pride fighting within. These were his warriors. Their equipment might have been old and battered, and certainly they had been left to rot with their former captain, but they were ready and able.
“Aratu, lord of the host, and warrior supreme, guide my sword.” Adesh prayed silently.
And then the smugglers crashed into them. All around him, men grunted and swore, swords hammered off shields and somewhere, off to one side, someone was dying noisily. Adesh raised his shield slightly and intercepted a sword that would have decapitated the man to his right. Moments later the man returned the favour. A quick glance showed the smugglers trying to get around his right flank.
“Ware right!” He shouted. “Ware right!”
A smuggler with a two hander swung his long blade at Adesh. Sabina this time blocked the blow with her shield. The one-handed swordswoman was beside the man with the two-hander and saw her chance. Sweeping forward she thrust her sword into Sabina. The man to Sabina’s left tried to protect her with his shield, but wasn’t fast enough, only managing to divert the blade enough to cause Sabina a serious wound, rather than a mortal one.
Adesh saw the woman curse as and pull back her blood wet blade and saw Sabina stagger. The woman ran forward and jumped, driving her feet into the warrior beside Sabina’s shield, forcing the man to take a step back. As she landed she stabbed the next warrior down in the side and then pulled back.
Adesh cursed hotly. Sabina was still on her feet, but reeling, covered by the warrior to her left, the other warrior was dead. His left flank was wide open. The smugglers were taking casualties too though, four of them were either wounded or dead. That still left them with eight to his six.
“Hold!” Adesh shouted. “Aratu watches us!”
Adesh’s warriors shouted wordlessly as they continued to hold back the smugglers. The young captain blocked another blade aimed at Sabina, who growled, and stabbed the smuggler before he could recover from Adesh’s block. The smuggler fell and tripped the man behind him. Adesh kicked the fallen man in the jaw, feeling teeth crunch as his boot made contact. Adesh grinned as he blocked and swung. Now it was a fair fight. They had a chance. The smugglers were beginning to look behind them, as the fight began to turn against them.
The swordswoman shouted in anger and attacked the last man on Adesh’s right flank, smashing the man’s shield aside and gutting him with vicious slash, before turning on the next warrior, stabbing him in the side, as he defended against another smuggler. He, too, fell, opening the next warrior to attack. It was to Sabina’s credit, wounded as she was, that she saw what had happened. She grabbed the warrior to her left and pulled him close, as Adesh pulled the warrior to his right out of the swordswoman’s line of attack.
The smugglers, who had been on the verge of running away moments earlier, cheered and rushed the four remaining warriors.
This was it. Adesh realised. A last stand that his father, and even his mother, could be proud of. Certainly, they were only smugglers and not enemy warriors, but a fight was a fight and he stayed with his men.
“Back to back!” Adesh shouted, knowing that it was a futile gesture and would only serve to delay the end.
Six smugglers against his four warriors, and one of them wounded badly. Long odds. His shield set, he braced himself and set about making sure that the smugglers paid dearly. He worked his sword and shield with all the skill he could muster, thankful for the years he spent learning the ways of the blade and the shield from his father and Stefan. He killed another smuggler but felt the warrior behind him fall, almost tripping him. He danced away from the fallen man, but only managed to separate himself from Sabina and the last standing warrior and found himself facing the swordswoman.
She almost killed him a second later as her sword lanced over the top of his shield. Her blade skidded off the shoulder plates atop his breastplate. Without a moment’s pause, Adesh angled his shield and thrust forward, driving the steel rimmed edge into the woman’s chest. She skidded back and grimaced. Adesh pushed forward again, refusing to give the swordswoman a chance to recover. Even still, she managed to parry his cuts and thrusts and Adesh knew that without his shield, he’d be dead. She was incredible, even lacking an arm, her balance was perfect, and her cuts and thrusts were controlled and economical. The young captain had never fought anyone using her style before, but he adapted as best he could. They traded cuts and thrusts, back and forth for several minutes, inflicting small cuts on each other, evidence of their ability to, almost but not quite, land a killing blow.
Adesh shouted as he kept the pressure on the woman, keeping his blood up, but his arms were tiring, his legs felt heavy. It wouldn’t be long now. The woman shouted back at him and swept his blade attack aside. Suddenly, her eyes widened and she stumbled. A feathered arrow jutted from her offside shoulder. Adesh drove himself forward and attempted to slam his shield into her face, sweeping his blade low to gut her. The woman threw her self backwards, falling to the ground. Without a moment’s pause, she rolled to the side as the young captain kicked out at her. The woman used her momentum to regain her feet and again knocked Adesh’s blade aside. Her face had turned pale, as the act of rolling aside from Adesh’s kick had snapped the shaft of the arrow in her shoulder.
Another arrow slammed into the dirt of the track beside the woman’s feet.
“Drop your sword.” Adesh ordered harshly. “It’s over.”
The woman spat at the young Captain and turned and ran. Another arrow shot split the air beside Adesh, aimed at the fleeing woman but somehow, she managed to dodge at the right moment. Adesh’s horse had wandered off the trail a little and the woman had seen it. She leapt into the saddle and drove her heels into the horse’s sides as another arrow whistled past her. And then she was gone, hugging the horse’s neck as more arrows sliced through the air around her.
Adesh turned to look for Sabina and his last warrior, and found them only a few paces away, the warrior standing over Sabina, two dead smugglers at his feet and another kneeling on the ground, sword thrown to his feet. He looked around and spotted Oleg wading through the swamp from a small hillock little wider than the archer himself.
A quick check on Sabina showed that while the wound was serious enough, if the Gods were kind, it wouldn’t kill her. She’d taken the flat of a blade to the head, leaving a long shallow cut. The final warrior had himself taken several wounds, but nothing too deep or serious.
A few minutes later, Oleg pulled himself back onto the trail and lay on his back on the ground, panting.
“Are you alright?” Adesh asked concerned.
“Fucking tip top, captain. Lost my damned boots in there somewhere.”
“Dead.” Oleg said, with regret. “She tumbled onto two of their archers. I saw it happen. They did for her, but I did for them. Sorry I wasn’t here sooner.”
“Don’t worry about it. What’s done is done and can’t be changed.”
Oleg grunted. “Fair point.”
“Come on.” Adesh sighed. “We need to get something from the village to make a litter. Sabina needs help before she bleeds out.”
Oleg grunted again. “Looks like the villagers are turning out to help. What’s left of ‘em.”
Adesh turned to look back at the village, and sure enough, several of the locals, blackened from fire and smoke, were heading towards them. It took him two tries to sheath his sword, and he sighed as he sat down beside the archer.
Adesh walked along the battlements of the fort. It was several days since the burning of Wayr and the fight with the smugglers. He could still feel the stiffness in his muscles and the soreness from every one of his cuts and bruises but it felt good to be alive. He’d lost all but three of his warriors in the engagement, they’d not made it easy and the smugglers had paid in blood. The village had been all but burnt to the ground, the only building left standing being the shrine to Saraphi. A miracle some were calling it. Adesh had snorted when he’d heard that. It was more likely that the building survived intact because it was separated from the rest of the village. He turned to look over the wall, out over the cliffs to the ocean beyond.
“Enjoying the view?” Stefan asked as he walked along the battlements and stood beside his young Captain.
“It’s better than looking the other way.”
“I heard the villagers are asking if they can rebuild around the fort.”
“I agreed to their request. No reason not to. We’ll mark out a boundary line and dig a ditch around the fort. What did you find on the island?”
“Not much. Oleg covered me from the bank while I swam over and snagged a boat. The place was cleared out pretty well. Nothing left but a bunch of very pissed off Aoshee.”
Adesh glanced at Stefan and smiled. “I hope they didn’t hurt you too much.”
Stefan rolled his eyes. “I’ve got scratches and bite marks in places no self-respecting warrior should have, ‘cept if there was a woman involved.”
“You’ll get over it.”
Stefan grinned. “Anyone asks, I’ll just say I tumbled a village girl. Who’s to know different?”
Adesh pulled a sealed letter from a pocket and handed it to the older man.
Stefan turned it over in his hands. “What’s this?”
“A letter. I want you to take it to Galis, to my father. We need more warriors here, to make up for what we lost, and then some.”
Stefan nodded slowly and slid the letter under his breast plate. “Do you want me to pass any message onto your mother?”
Adesh shrugged. “The usual. She’ll know anyway.”
“But she’ll want to hear it.” Stefan added. “How’s Sabina?”
“Healing. She was hobbling around this morning shouting at Julian for something. I had to order her to go back to bed and rest.”
“Remarkable woman.” Stefan commented.
“She is that.” Adesh agreed. “Why don’t you go make sure she’s still resting, as she’s supposed to be?”