The Stand: Part 2
He may have been in a deep sleep, but Stefan was an old campaigner, ready to wake at a moment’s notice, and his training didn’t fail him now. He rolled out of his bed as a knife struck downwards to where his chest would have been. He lashed out with a leg and struck his attacker in the thigh. No damage done but it pushed the enemy off balance for a moment, giving him the time to grab his own sword.
Adesh had been forced to back up towards the wall, his sword held point towards his enemy. The man lunged forward, slapping Adesh’s blade aside and driving his knife forward, straight at Adesh’s chest. It was a good move, a sign that the man knew what he was doing, but so did Adesh and he was wise to the move. He grabbed the knifeman’s wrist and rather than block it he pushed it to one side, forcing the man to turn, and slammed his forehead down on the man’s nose. The crunch of cartilage was audible, and the man grunted in pain. Using the attacker’s distraction, Adesh dropped his sword from his right hand and grabbed it out of the air with his left. He whipped his sword up, pommel first, into the man’s jaw, driving the attacker back and then thrust his sword into the knifeman’s chest.
Stefan had his arm around his attacker’s neck and was slowly suffocating him. The man had already stopped fighting, but Stefan liked to be sure that someone was actually incapacitated rather than faking it. A minute or so later he let go and his attacker dropped bonelessly to the floor. Already, they could hear other people in the inn shouting. So the two men dressed as quickly as they could.
“What do you think that was about?” Adesh asked, as he pulled his tunic over his head.
“Damned if I know. The only person we pissed off was Prasad and he’s not this stupid.”
“Are you sure?”
“No.” Stefan replied grimly as he belted on his sword. “We should go find out.”
The innkeeper was less than pleased with the damage to the room, but some extra coins from Adesh calmed him down. Some more coins and the innkeeper promised to take care of the dead man. What ever that meant.
Meanwhile, Stefan had dragged the unconscious assassin down the stairs, with a distinct lack of care, and tied him to a chair in the tap room despite the innkeeper’s protests. A solid slap to the face roused the man, and a bucket of filthy water poured over him brought the assassin back to his senses. More or less. He looked around him and assessed the situation.
“Fuck.” The assassin spat.
Stefan dragged a chair over and sat directly in front of the man. “That sums things up nicely.” He confirmed.
Adesh stood beside Stefan and glared at the assassin. “Why did you try to kill us?”
The assassin shrugged as best he could. “It was just a job. Nothing personal, like.”
“Who hired you? Why?” Adesh demanded, balling up his fists.
Stefan sat back in his chair and watched the assassin carefully.
The assassin glanced at Adesh and dismissed him, instead focusing on Stefan.
“How much?” He asked flatly.
Adesh took a step forward and glared at the assassin. “I asked you a question!”
“And I ignored it.” The man replied before looking back to Stefan. “How much do you want?”
Adesh stepped forward again, moving closer to the assassin, his eyes full of anger. Stefan held out his arm, stopping Adesh from moving closer.
“How much for what?” Stefan asked carefully.
“How much to let me go and forget all about this?” The man answered confidently.
Stefan nodded thoughtfully before lunging forward and driving his fist into the assassin’s chin. The chair rocked back on its legs and fell backwards on the floor, the man still tied securely but now unconscious again.
“Why’d you do that?” Adesh asked curiously.
Stefan reached down to the assassin and pulled him, and the chair, back upright.
“I missed something.” He replied.
“He was baiting you, he wanted you closer.”
Stefan shrugged. “Easy enough to spot when you’re not the one being baited I guess.”
Stefan felt up and down the arms of the assassin for the second time in under twenty minutes and checked the man’s legs. Everywhere he could think of but couldn’t find anything. Adesh was watching carefully out of Stefan’s way. He’d never had to do this before, so it was a valuable experience as far as he was concerned.
“I can’t find anything on him.” Stefan announced, puzzled. “But he definitely had a plan.”
Adesh looked at the assassin, eyeing him up from head to toe before spotting something odd.
“You didn’t happen to hit him in the throat did you?”
“What?” Stefan asked. “His throat? No. Why?”
“Looks a little swollen on the side.” The young captain observed.
Stefan held the assassin’s head to one side and examined his neck, making a thoughtful sound. He turned the assassin’s head again and held open the man’s mouth, taking a quick look inside.
“Bring a candle over here will you?” He asked.
Adesh grabbed a candle and held it where Stefan indicated.
“Maybe.” Stefan allowed. “Actually yeah. I found his little trick. He’s got a venom sac in his throat. He can spit poison at you, if you’re close enough.”
“How in Fritan’s cold hell, do you get that?”
Stefan shrugged. “No idea. Only heard of it once before. I thought it was just another taproom tale.”
“So what now?”
Stefan pulled out a small dagger and let the tip slice softly into the swelling on the man’s neck as he replied coldly. “Now we start again.”
Another bucket of water roused the assassin again, this one cleaner than the last. The man spat water and glared sullenly at Stefan.
“Let’s start again.” Stefan suggested coolly, taking a seat again in front of the assassin.
“Let’s not.” The assassin muttered. “That hurt. Any more of that and I might take it personal, like.”
“Take it what ever way you want.” Stefan advised, leaning forward. “But know that you won’t be poisoning anyone anymore.”
The assassin’s eyes widened and his arms jerked as he tried to free them from the chair. Stefan sat back and smiled, satisfied.
“That’s more like it. You just needed to know how things stood.”
“Fuck you!” The assassin spat.
“You can walk out of here, or you can die on the chair. All I want is answers. Who hired you?”
“Suit yourself.” Stefan shrugged, showing the assassin the long knife in his hand.
“You think your threats mean anything to me?” The assassin laughed. “Either cut my throat or fuck off.”
Stefan smiled. “I have all day to work on you. I’m going to break your fingers first, then your toes. One at a time. Maybe you’ll talk then.”
“Do your worst. I can wait.” The assassin spat defiantly.
Stefan held out a hand and Adesh handed him a large wooden mallet, just like they’d rehearsed. He examined the mallet, making sure the assassin got a good look at it.
“Not what I’d prefer to use, but the innkeeper didn’t have anything better.” The older man commented, watching their prisoner closely.
“Just get on with – “ The assassin began.
Stefan, without warning, slammed the mallet down on the assassin’s nearest finger, where it rested on the arm of the chair. The assassin’s eyes bulged as he bit back a scream. Behind him, Adesh swore and turned away, his face turning green.
“Listen, you little bastard.” Stefan hissed as he raised the mallet again. “You tried to kill me. That’s more than personal enough for me, so I’m quite happy to do as I promised. One finger at a time, one toe at a time. If you’re not talking after that, then I’ll move to wrists and ankles, then knees and elbows. If you still refuse to talk, I’ll take my knife and cut your stones off. So answer my fucking question and save us all some time. Who hired you?”
The assassin took a deep breath and smiled. A fleck of bloody foam appeared at the corner of his mouth, followed by more, and more.
“Fuck off.” The man choked out before he slumped forward in the chair.
“Shit.” Stefan swore as he dropped the mallet and stood up.
“What happened?” Adesh asked as he wiped his mouth.
The old warrior shrugged. “Looks like he had one last trick left.”
“So what now?” Adesh asked Stefan, as the stableman dragged the dead assassin out of the inn.
“That’s up to you, isn’t it?”
The young captain grimaced. “I’m a little out of my depth with this. Running a camp, I can do, commanding a unit in a fight, I can do. But assassins? No one taught me anything about them.”
Stefan clapped Adesh on the shoulder. “That’s the burden of command. Look, the way I see it, you don’t have to worry about assassins, they’re just another weapon, and with any weapon, it’s the person using it you need to concern yourself with.”
“That’s all well and good, but we don’t know who sent them. Or why.”
Stefan scratched his head. “Fair point. It’s certainly a problem. I’m glad I’m not the one in command.”
“You’re no bloody help. Get the horses saddled and I’ll deal with the innkeeper. We’re going to be around for a while, so we might as well keep him happy.”
“Back to the fort then, I take it.” Stefan grinned.
“Seeing as Prasad is the only person we’ve pissed off since we arrived, we’ll start with him.”
“Well shit.” Stefan swore loudly as he stood in Prasad’s quarters.
“Yeah.” Adesh agreed.
Prasad’s quarters were gloomy and dark, the shutters didn’t look like they’d been opened in years and were most likely swollen shut. The coppery smell in the air was new though, as was the blood soaking the bed that Prasad and his woman occupied. Both had clearly been dead for several hours, their throats cut cleanly.
“Well there’s fuck all to be done now but clear it all out.”
“This does tell us one important thing.” Adesh observed thoughtfully.
“It can’t be a coincidence that we were attacked on the same night. Whatever this is all about, it came about because we’re here.”
Stefan stroked his chin, thinking it through before replying. “It could be a coincidence, but probably not; even odds says you’re right.”
“Keep your eyes open. We don’t know any of these men, or if the only people here involved were the assassins who tried to kill us. I have a job to do here and I’m going to do it.”
“Done. I’ll get someone to clear these quarters out and have them aired as I’m at it.”
“And find out who was acting as Prasad’s second, send him to me. Maybe he knows something. I’ll wait in the longhouse.”
A short, stocky woman showed up less than a half hour later as Adesh was chewing on a dry piece of bread, a mug of water in front of him.
“You the new captain?” The woman asked.
“I am.” Adesh confirmed as he dropped the bread on to his plate and dusted off his hands. “Who’re you?”
“Sabina Jindrova. I ran things for Prasad. You kill him?”
Adesh sat up straighter in his chair and looked over the woman again, liking what he saw. Though her tunic and trousers were worn, they were neat and more or less clean.
“You’re direct. That works for me. No, I didn’t, I was back in the village with Stefan, getting drunk.”
Sabina snorted. “This place will do that to you. Stefan. He the big lummox outside? All arm no brain?”
Adesh laughed. “He’s smarter than he looks.”
“He’d have to be.” The woman observed.
“You were Prasad’s second. Where were you yesterday?
“Home. My father is sick and I was helping my brothers out a bit. I’d still be there but I heard there was something going on here. Look captain, what’s going on? I get back here and Prasad’s dead and you’re digging around.”
Adesh shrugged. “I was sent here to replace Prasad, not kill him. I need to know where to start.”
Sabina snorted. “Clean? The only thing you can do here is burn it all down and start again somewhere else.”
“Worse. There’s bandits, smugglers, and pirates all along the coast, sometimes we get raided by one of the fucking herder tribes.”
“How did Prasad deal with it?”
Sabina hesitated. “It’s not right to speak ill of the dead captain.”
“Maybe not. I need to start working this mess out though. It might be easier to burn it all down, but the High Lord wouldn’t be very happy about it, not to mention the villagers. What would they do without us here to keep them safe?”
“Safe?” Sabina scoffed bitterly. “Prasad made sure that smugglers could come and go as they pleased. We only turned out for bandits and herder raids, and late at that.”
“Are you saying that Prasad took money from the smugglers?”
“Money, drugs, women, whatever they offered.” Sabina spat. “Why do you think everyone here is so miserable? We’re all from around here and Prasad punished anyone who tried to stop the smugglers.”
Adesh drank off the rest of his water. “That’s going to change. You’ll stay in charge of the men. They know you, but you’ll report to Stefan and he’ll report to me.”
“So I won’t remain as second?”
“It’s nothing personal Sabina. Stefan will be the fort’s second, but I’ll make sure that you keep your pay.”
“Thank you, Captain.”
“What can you tell me about the men? Any obvious trouble makers? Anyone who should get booted out now that Prasad is gone?”
“The men are rough around the edges, I know Captain, but they’re solid. They’re just frustrated that they can’t do what they’re supposed to. What we need is better equipment. We haven’t had anything like proper armour in years, we need new spears, shields, swords...”
Adesh waved away Sabina’s concerns. “I already thought of that before I left Galis. I requested a blacksmith to join the fort, and an engineer. They’ll be here within the week, with supplies.”
Sabina looked like a weight had been lifted from her shoulders as she heard the news.
“All of it. I want you to spread word to the men.” Adesh continued, noting the woman’s relief. “We’re only at half strength so any young men or women who want to join us are welcome. They’ll get basic pay, food, quarters here in the fort, training and equipment.”
“I don’t know if we’ll get any recruits.” Sabina admitted sourly. “We’re not very popular with the rest of the villagers. Most of us don’t go home very often. It makes trouble for our families.”
“Just let it be known that we’re recruiting. In time, I’m sure everything will work out.” Adesh told her confidently.
Adesh woke to someone banging on his bedroom door. He rolled naked out of bed and grabbed his sword. He bared the blade as his door burst open and stood ready. Stefan stomped into the room and glanced at the younger man.
“Good, you’re awake. Come on, we have a problem.” Stefan announced.
Adesh blinked; and lowered his blade uncertainly. “What?”
“Weren’t you listening? We have a problem. Get dressed. Quickly.”
Adesh frowned but tossed his sword onto his bed and started pulling on his clothes.
“What’s happened?” Adesh asked, as he pulled on a pair of warm, woollen trousers.
“Someone attacked the supply caravan.” Stefan replied, gravely. “One of the men managed to get away. It’s a wonder he got this far, Fritan herself must have decided that it wasn’t his time.”
“Did he give any details? Where? Who?” Adesh asked, as he grabbed his boots.
“A few hours out of the village. Bandits, he said.”
Adesh grunted and stood up. He grabbed his sword and sheathed it. “Get Sabina, tell her I want to see her immediately in the longhouse.”
Stefan nodded and ran out of the room. The younger man sighed and secured his sword belt before kicking the leg of his bed in annoyance. Nothing was going as it was supposed to. When he’d first been told he was being sent to Wayr, he had imagined a well-run, if aging, bastion against raiders and smugglers. He had expected that he would be greeted cordially by the commander in place. He had expected to find a well-trained, well equipped garrison. Why shouldn’t he expect these things? Wayr might be remote, but it was a frontier garrison. Instead he had found a fort beset by rot and decay, manned by warriors who had turned to drink to manage their frustrations. He had expected that the garrison would need modernising, that the soldiers would need fresh equipment and horses. He couldn’t have known how badly these things were needed. Was this how it was going to be out here? Disappointment stacked upon more disappointment? He kicked the leg of the bed again.
“Not if I have anything to say about it!” He muttered under his breath as he left his room, banging the door closed behind him.
Sabina was waiting for him in the longhouse, supping from a bowl of soup in her hands. A large kettle of soup bubbled merrily over the fire nearest her and filled the longhouse with a rich, meaty smell. Adesh grabbed a clean bowl from a nearby table and dipped a ladle into the soup, filling his bowl.
He glanced at her as he poured. “Tell me about the bandits.” He ordered curtly.
“We don’t know where they base themselves.” She reported. “They’ve been around for the last ten years or so, but they don’t raid regularly, and never from the same quarter. They attacked the village a few years ago, and that’s the last we heard of them, ‘till now.”
Adesh pulled a chunk of bread from a nearby loaf and dipped it in his soup.
“Why has nothing ever been done about them?”
“Captain Hannano’s decision. We all wanted to go after them, especially after they attacked the village, but he said no. A few of the men went looking for them anyway, but none of them ever returned.”
“Does anyone have any idea where they might be hiding?”
Sabin shook her head. “No one knows.”
“Alright. Do we have any trackers among the men? Any hunters?”
“Is he sober?”
Sabina shrugged. “Sober enough, I guess.”
“Get him geared up and get him a horse. I’ll send Stefan out with him. I want him to go to where the caravan was raided and track those bastards down.”
Sabina finished off her soup and nodded. “I’ll see it done.”
As much as Adesh would have liked to sit around and wait for Stefan to return with Oleg, there was plenty of work that needed to be done around the fort, as well as Adesh’s daily duties. For the rest of the day, and the next, he worked the men hard, keeping everyone busy. The walls of the fort were slowly being repaired, as much as they could be. He was no engineer and the men were not skilled at dressing stone properly. The walls were at least looking cleaner. He’d had the men off duty cleaning off the weeds and grass as they went. A few of parts of the battlements had to be cordoned off until such a time as they could be made safe. Sabina had organised one of the villagers to come and oversee the thatch being replaced on the longhouse. Winter was only a few months away and Adesh really wanted most of the work to be done by then. Come spring he hoped to have a solid plan to return wooden shingles to the buildings, as they were originally designed to have.
The young captain climbed the new steps up to the gatehouse for what seemed like the hundredth time that day. He couldn’t see that far, a fog had risen during the morning and as was normal here, wouldn’t burn off until around midday. A day and a half had now passed since Stefan and Oleg had ridden out. He was worried but trying to hide it. Sabina had stopped trying to reassure him after the last time he had snapped at her. He’d apologised, but she’d been staying out of his way since. Carrying out her duties as though nothing was wrong.
A shout from one of the guard towers brought him out of his reverie. He leaned forward, resting his hands on the edges of the battlements, and stared up the track. Two men on foot were hurrying out of the fog towards the fort. As he watched, the figure bringing up the rear stopped and turned around, loosing an arrow at something Adesh couldn’t see. He shouted down to the nearest of the fort’s warriors to fetch Sabina and to pass the word, every man was to get into what ever armour they had.
Sabina appeared moments later, already wearing her much-mended gambeson and carrying her captain’s gambeson and breastplate.
“What’s happening?” She asked, as she climbed up into the gatehouse.
“Thanks.” He said gratefully as he took his armour from her. He pointed back up the track towards the approaching men. “Close the gates and have everyone ready for an attack.”
Sabina nodded and dropped back down the steps, shouting at every warrior she could see, to get ready.