Trouble in Proteshi: Part 3
The ground rushed up towards me faster than I could have believed, but I managed to just about arrest my fall. I crouched in the shadow of the wall, at the edge of a wide street. I could see part of the large square that lay before the castle gates south of me and knew that the street to the harbour was close by.
“Father.” I cast. “I’ve escaped the castle.”
“Good. Get to the ship as quickly as you can, I suspect the first thing they’ll do once they’ve noticed you’ve escaped will be to close the harbour gates.”
“That was my thought too. I’m on my way.”
An alley lay across the street from me and deciding that a run up Harbour Street was probably not the best of ideas, I ran across the street and dived into the dark alleyway. I dodged small piles of refuse and small pools of what I hoped was mud as I ran its length. Overhead the eaves closed out almost all the light and any windows were firmly shuttered. I emerged from the alley, on a small street that by my estimation, ran parallel to Harbour Street. Several people glanced at me as I ran past them, but none cried out. The street led to the square before the harbour gates. I wove between the market stalls that crowded the square, working my way through the market until I could see the gates. I stopped beside one of the stalls and swore. There were more guards that I had seen in one place before, clustered around the gate. A quick scan of the wall on either side of the gate showed more guards patrolling the walls. I thought about creating some sort of diversion, a fire maybe, but no sooner had I begun thinking about it, another patrol of guards, on horseback, cantered through the square towards the gate. Time for a new plan.
“I won’t make it to the ship. There are too many guards.” I informed Sidi.
“Are you certain?”
“Yes father. I’ll have to go in a direction they won’t expect.”
“You’re going to try to get to the mainland then.”
“If I can make it there, I can steal a horse and go overland to Febros.”
“I understand my son. I’ll have Uksem meet you in Ballin.”
“Thank you father.”
“Go now Taril, and be careful.”
With a last regretful glance at the harbour gates I turned and crossed through the market, keeping as many stalls as possible between the gates and me. So close! So fucking close! I managed to slip across Harbour Street without being seen and entered the other side of the market. Stalls were even thicker on this side of the street, not that I saw much difference in the wares on display. I left the square behind and made my way down a narrow street with several chandlery shops. Some distance down the street, I cut through an alley and found myself on another street that I hoped ran close to the main street, to the island gates. The Royal Causeway, I’d been told it was called, and it consisted of a long, wide street stretching from the mainland and across the two islands that made up the city to the royal castle. Between me, and the mainland, lay four gates without any way around them short of throwing myself into the river and attempting to swim ashore. I was never more than a mediocre swimmer, and, in any case, anyone seen attempting the swim would surely draw attention. My only hope was to walk through the gates as though I had every reason to be there.
I quickened my step and made my way to the end of the street. A turn to the right and the gates lay ahead of me. I strode towards the gate and made as if I was gazing at the walls and the massive gates. Four guards were on duty at the gate and while they didn’t seem to be stopping anyone, they did seem to be paying attention to everyone that passed through. I turned to walk through the gates and one of the guards moved forward to stop me.
“You!” the guard ordered. “Stop.”
I drew a breath and hoped my ancestors were watching over me and turned towards the approaching guard.
“Me?” I asked innocently.
“Yeah, you.” The guard confirmed, sourly. “What business do you have leaving the Royal Island? Weren’t you lot confined to your ship?”
“No, we were told not to cause trouble. I just wanted to see the city.” I chanced, hoping that I was right. Sidi had seemed to think that Uksem would not have any problems getting to the western village outside the gates.
One of the other guards wandered over.
“Trouble?” the second guard asked the first.
“No, just a filthy Oerigathian wandering around.”
I tensed. It sounded like this was about to turn nasty. The last thing I wanted was them to decide that I was a problem.
“Let him alone so.” The second guard told the first. “They have the one they want in the castle, no one told us to stop any of the rest wandering around.”
The first guard shrugged and pushed me away. “On your way.” He said roughly.
I nodded towards the second guard by way of thanks. He deserved that much at least. I stepped through the gates and passed out onto the bridge that crossed between the two islands. One gate down, another three to go.
I got through the next gate, at the end of the bridge, without any problems, and found myself in the poorer area of the city. The houses here were built closer together, and from what I saw, with the exception of the Royal Causeway, the streets and alleys were much narrower and much darker. I stayed away from the darkest alleys, as I cut through the island and before too long, found myself at the gate that led off the island. I expected this to be more difficult than the first gate, but the guards just saw another Oerigathian savage and left me through without bothering to question why I was there.
I crossed the final bridge and walked through the last gate and found myself on the mainland. There was a small market between Ballin and the Island Gate. Figuring that it’d be the best place to wait for Uksem, and to watch for anyone else hunting for me, I strolled through the market. Most of the stalls sold food of one kind or another, but there were several stalls that sold livestock. Obviously they didn’t have the animals at the stall, but I was assured that they were nearby in pens. Cows and goats I had no interest in, but I was going to need a horse. About an hour later, as the stalls were beginning to close up I spotted Uksem walking through the Island Gate, a pack on his back and carrying a glaive. Finally. He angled towards the market and as he passed between the stalls I fell in beside him.
“It’s good to see you alive.” He greeted me, clasping my arm.
“It’s good to be free.” I replied.
“Your father told me to stay with you.” He informed me. “He gave me some gold and I grabbed some clothes for you and your spare glaive of course.”
I took my weapon from him gratefully and once again felt whole. I hated being without a proper weapon.
I led Uksem back to the horse trader I’d spoken to and he took us to see the horses he had. They weren’t great, and I let the man know in no uncertain terms. He knew us for Oerigathian though and so we cut a deal with him. Gold changed hands and we found ourselves in possession of two horses and their tack. The saddles were worn, but still serviceable, as were the saddlebags we purchased. On the whole I felt we were fleeced, but beggars can’t be choosers as the saying goes.
“What way do we go?” Uksem asked as soon as we rode away from the horse trader.
I sighed. I’d been thinking about this ever since I told Sidi that I wasn’t going to be able to get to the ship.
“I’m not sure.” I replied. “I saw a map Sidi had in his cabin, and from what I remember of it we have a few choices, none of them easy.”
Uksem grunted. “When are they ever?”
“Maybe the most straightforward would be to head south to Febros. From what I remember, it’s at least a week’s riding, maybe double that. I’ve no idea what the terrain is like and there was little on the map to indicate anything like villages between there and here except for a town a day or two north of Febros.”
“Lots of unknowns there.” Uksem pointed out.
“Not to mention that it’s the way they’ll expect me to go, once they figure out I’ve left the city.”
“That won’t take them much longer. There was something going on as I left the harbour, extra guards about, asking questions.”
“I’m more inclined to think that we should take a riverboat upriver. I remember Sidi telling me that there’s plenty of trade up and down the river. We get off somewhere upriver and make our way to Febros from there. It’ll take longer but it might be easier, and it won’t be expected.”
“You said a few options.” Uksem pointed out. “What else have you got?”
“The least likely.” I offered. “Some of those riverboats go all the way into Semar, maybe as far as Rech. It’s only a day or two’s ride across the boarder from there to Ovil.”
“And the best part of a month’s ride from Ovil across the plains to home. That’s a ball breaker of a journey.”
I nodded. “Yeah. That’s why I said least likely. I don’t know what the border between here and Semar is like, but it might be tough crossing into Oerigath. I read a report last year that the new Semarian High Lord has started rebuilding all their border forts.”
“So we head upriver then, and head to Febros from a likely spot.”
“I figure that’s the best way.”
“Alright. Where do we get a boat from?”
“The next town or village upriver.” I decided. We can’t stay around here.”
Uksem grunted. “At least it’s warm.”
I grinned at him. “Getting too old for roughing it?”
“Not bloody likely. I’ll outlive you yet!”
We spent the night in a stand of trees, about an hour’s ride out of Ballin along the river. To be honest, it wasn’t the most uncomfortable night’s sleep I’ve had. We broke our fast the next morning as the sun rose, on hard cheese and bread, with water to wash it all down. We rode out, passing the occasional small village. At midday, we stopped to rest the horses and get some food in a place called Cear’s Crossing, a village slightly larger than those we had passed. A short conversation with a friendly tavern keeper was all it took to discover that the riverboats rarely stopped in the villages. The nearest likely place was a small town called Ernas, at least another day’s ride away.
“Easiest thing would be to cross here and then make your way along the River Road.” The tavern keeper explained. “’Tis a bit longer I hear, but easier than following the track on this side as you have been.”
“We’ve found it easy enough going so far.” I observed, glancing across the table at Uksem.
“Ah well, ‘tis easy enough this far, no doubt.” The tavern keeper replied. “A few miles further on the ground gets proper marshy though. Goes on for miles.”
“That’s good to know.” I thanked the man and rolled a coin across the table to him.
“’Tis no bother at all, really.” He said, as he made the coin disappear into an apron pocket with a smile. “My sister’s husband owns the ferry, so I’m keeping it in the family, if you know what I mean.”
I smiled back at him and nodded.
A sudden commotion outside pulled the man’s eyes away from us.
“Now what could that be?” He muttered.
The door to the tavern was kicked open and four Cheuten warriors poured in. The first through the door scanned the tavern and stopped when he spotted us.
“You!” He shouted, pointing to our table. “Stay where you are.”
The tavern keeper backed away from the table, his hands held out.
“I don’t want any trouble.” He quaked.
Uksem sprang to his feet, grabbing his sabre from the table. I gathered my will, gestured, and threw a nearby chair into the four warriors, before standing up and grabbing my glaive.
One of the four warriors was on the ground, a deep gash in his forehead from the chair, while another was leaning against the door frame, cradling an arm. The other two had drawn their long swords and were stalking towards us. Uksem gestured left and so I went right.
I didn’t have room to make full use of the glaive, but I had long ago become used to fighting in places that imposed restrictions. The warrior moving cautiously towards me kept his two-handed blade close to his body. He looked like he knew what he was doing, but I wasn’t particularly worried. I thrust my blade forward, aiming the blade towards his right shoulder, forcing him to try and block me. I pulled the blade back as fast as I’d thrust it forward and gestured with one hand. Another nearby chair slammed into his side as he turned to meet my next logical line of attack. He went down, and I kicked him in the head for good measure.
I turned to check on Uksem and found him wiping his blade clean on the other warrior’s tunic.
“Time to go I’d say.” He offered.
I dropped two heavy coins on the nearest table for the damage and we ran outside.
Several horses were tied up beside ours, their owners were no doubt on the floor of the tavern. I cast a careful eye over them and found them to be of much better quality than our own. Uksem had evidently come to the same conclusion and was transferring his saddlebags. I quickly followed suit.
“Four.” Uksem commented as he secured his bags.
“Where’s the fifth?” I asked, as I threw my bags over my new horse and set about securing them.
“Right.” Uksem replied. “Probably on his way back to the nearest garrison.”
“Probably back to Proteshi. It’ll take him a few hours to get there, an hour or so maybe to organise a squad and a few hours back here. I figure, earliest they’ll be here will be tonight.”
“Unless there’s a squad close by and they were scouting.” Uksem pointed out.
“That seems more likely.” I allowed. “We can take a spare horse each and ride fast, alternate until we get to Ernas.”
Uksem nodded. “Not sure the horses will be good for much once we get there though.”
I shrugged. “Only thing for it.”
With little other choice, we mounted up, each of us leading a second horse, and rode for the ferry.
The ferry crossing was uneventful, despite the owner casting considering looks over our horses. If the man knew that they were stolen, he said nothing about it. I gave the man a few extra coins as we left his craft on the far bank.
Just as the tavern keeper had assured us, the river road was easier going than the trail from Proteshi had been and we made good time, pushing the horses as much as we dared and switching mounts regularly. We rode well into the evening and camped that night well off the road, in a small clearing beside a stream. The horses were tired, but thankfully none had as yet come up lame. Uksem checked them over, lamenting that they were nowhere near as good as our own breeds, while I made something that could almost be called dinner.
The following morning, we were up again before the sun. A quick breakfast of cold dinner leftovers and we headed out. We kept a constant eye out behind us for any sign of pursuit, but we saw no sign. Just before midday, we found ourselves just outside the small town of Ernas.
“Do you think they could have gotten a message here ahead of us?” Uksem asked, as we sat on our horses, on a small hill, a mile or so outside of town
“I don’t know.” I replied. “Is there even a garrison here?”
“A small one, maybe.”
“I’m going to take a look around.” I decided.
“It should be me.” Uksem argued. “I’m not the one that supposedly killed the King.”
“You’re going to circle the town with the horses and be ready to meet me on the other side.”
“Why do you get all the fun?” Uksem groused.
“Because, I can drop a building on anyone who gets in my way.” I replied shortly. “And because you follow orders.”
Uksem grumbled to himself as he gathered the reins of the spare horses.
“Mind yourself.” I cautioned him. “With a little luck, we’ll be on a riverboat before the evening is out.”
“Try not to get yourself killed.” Uksem returned.
I rolled my eyes at that and shook my head. “I’ll be careful.”
“So you say.” Uksem replied unhappily.
I shrugged my shoulders and started down the trail, keeping my tired horse at a walking pace.
I passed a few houses as I rode into the busy town square. I asked a few people about passing riverboats and was directed to a small hut beside the dock. I tied the horse to a hitching post and knocked on the door.
The door opened and a short, grizzled old man opened the door.
“What?” The old man demanded.
“I need transport upriver.”
“Nothing today. Maybe tomorrow.” The man replied and slammed the door shut.
I was more than a little annoyed at the old man and knocked on the door again. Hard.
“What?” The old man demanded again.
“I told you.” I answered shortly. “I need transport upriver. Me, another man and four horses.”
“Why didn’t you say so in the first place?” the old man asked.
“I did!” I shouted, angry at this annoying, disrespectful little man.
“You never mentioned no other man, or other horses! I’d remember that.”
“Fine! As I said. It’ll be me, my friend and four horses!”
“Isn’t worth my while for just one horse and one man.” The old man grumbled as he pulled a flag out of a box beside the door.
He limped slowly over to a pole leaning against the hut and attached the flag to the top of it. Lifting the pole onto his shoulder, he limped down to the end of the dock and attached the pole to some sort of holder, which allowed the flag to be seen from the river. He limped back slowly towards the hut.
“Nothing today.” He repeated as he passed me and entered his hut. “Try again tomorrow.”
Then he slammed the door on my face.
I stalked back to my horse in anger, untied him and rode back to the village square, meaning to meet up with Uksem. As I entered the square, a squad of horsemen entered from east. Behind one of the riders, with a rope around his neck, stumbled Uksem. He was bleeding, bruised and his arms were tied behind his back. I noted two riderless horse with the squad, as well as the horses we had stolen.
The warrior leading the squad glanced in my direction and his gaze froze on me. Several different expressions crossed his face, surprise, anger, outrage. His horse skittered as the warrior suddenly pointed in my direction.
“Bring that man to me!” he shouted.
Uksem looked up in surprise and shame. “Run Taril!” He shouted. “Get out of here!”
I groaned internally and jumped from the horse. It didn’t have the energy to run far, even if I had somewhere to go. Six of the ten warriors rode in my direction, swords drawn. I grinned at them. Advantage, me.
I stood easy, my glaive resting over my shoulder, and eyed my surroundings. Not much to work with, but I’d had worse. The warriors were across the square in a matter of seconds, spreading out to surround me. I let them come closer before springing in to action.
A flick of my hand and a heavy crate flew through the air, slamming into the nearest rider. The crate smashed the man to the ground, leaving him broken and bleeding. The five remaining warriors drew their reins in horror, halting their charge. Seeing as the crate was still more or less in one piece, I flicked it again and smashed the next warrior out of his saddle.
Of the four remaining warriors, the furthest away had the coolest head. While the others had panicked, he had pulled a short bow from a case by his saddlebags. I looked at him as he drew the nocked arrow to his cheek and with another flick of my hand, he shot backwards out of his saddle. I’ll give the man some credit, he managed to release the arrow a bare moment before I threw him. My ancestors were still smiling on me though and the arrow missed, barely. Three down and three to go.
Or not. The warrior leading the squad wasn’t blind. When he saw the first man go down he left one man to watch Uksem and charged straight at me with the other two warriors. Three down, five to go. I focused and with another flick of my hand, I sent out a pulse of solid thought. The pulse was knee high to the charging horses and as it hit them, the horses fell hard, throwing their riders like stones from a sling.
I staggered from the effort of it, sweat was beading on my forehead now and I was tiring. I couldn’t keep this up for much longer. The three warriors still mounted, from the initial six, had pulled themselves together, and instead of duplicating their leader’s mistake, they separated out and rode towards me at a careful walk. I was going to have to make this quick. I darted to the right and ducked under the swinging blade of the closest warrior and thrust my glaive into his exposed armpit. I continued moving forward, pulling my blade out of the wounded, soon to be dead warrior and turned, ready for the next threat. The middle warrior was almost upon me, his blade already slicing down at me. I danced aside, choosing not to engage. Right behind him the other warrior closed in on me. Instead of attacking me though, he went around me and leapt to the ground, quickly followed by the other warrior.
The two warriors unlimbered the shields they had strapped to their backs in practiced movements and had them on their arms before I could engage either of them. With their swords constantly moving they approached me, spreading to give each other room, but not so far that they couldn’t support each other. They looked and acted like seasoned campaigners. Just my luck. I slid from one guard to another as they closed with me, moving first in one direction, then another, searching for openings. Both men worked as one, or as close as they could, their swords slicing out, searching for any weaknesses in my defence. There was no let up and I couldn’t spare the time to focus my thoughts to use against them.
I grunted as I felt a blade slide against a rib, just a nick, no major damage. I jumped back a few feet from another assault and forced myself forward again, my glaive whirling and thrusting. My arms were starting to feel leaden and my legs were weary. I pushed through the tiredness and managed to clip the righthand warrior’s head with the steel shod butt. The man stumbled and for a moment left his companion vulnerable. I saw the chance and took it. A quick feint and my blade sliced deep into the closest man’s thigh. He stumbled as I withdrew and fell, blood pulsing from the wound. The final warrior, who I’d clipped on the head, saw an opening of his own and charged me. I only just managed to block the blade, not even a decent parry. Just one warrior to go, then the one guarding Uksem and then back on the run. Freedom beckoned. I went all out. I was tired, and I wanted this done with. The remaining warrior was skilful, as he’d already shown, but he was also now afraid. He knew he was going to die.
So it came as a complete surprise when something slammed into my back, then the ground rose up and hit me in the face. I spat dirt from my mouth and groped beside me for my glaive. A boot kicked my weapon away from me and then kicked me in the chin.