TG Universes & Series:
Yod's desperate plan to seize or neutralize Garia goes into action as her party rides south on the road to the city of Palarand and home. The battle is fierce and bloody and many are killed or wounded by the new weapons. Who will survive the determined attack?
Somewhere Else Entirely
by Penny Lane
100 - Blood on the Road
Disclaimer: The original characters and plot of this story are the property of the author. No infringement of pre-existing copyright is intended. This story is copyright (c) 2011-2014 Penny Lane. All rights reserved.
Merizel sighed. "It's almost over, isn't it? Now we're back over the Sirrel the adventure is nearly finished. Don't you think so?"
"Well, almost," Garia agreed. "There's still two days travel before we get back to the palace, remember."
"Looking forward to getting back?"
"To my suite, yes. I never thought I'd hear myself speak these words, but I'm getting fed up wearing the same clothes over and over again. It will be nice to have a rifle through my rails looking for something different to wear." Garia's expression darkened. "On the other hand, you know what waits for us when we get back. That part of it I'm definitely not looking forward to."
"Aye. That could be a difficult meeting, especially for Keren. This is one time I am glad I am no member of the royal family."
"That's easy for you to say," Garia said, but her tone was light.
"As you say." Merizel hesitated. "You haven't heard anything more from, um, you know, those... beings of yours?"
"Not lately, no. All I know is that what we want is at least possible by their reckoning. Of course, they don't mention how possible." Garia hesitated. "Or, thinking about it, if that's what they want." She glanced to either side. "Look, we probably ought not discuss this in public. Let's just enjoy the view."
The caravan consisted of six wagons with all the riders who had originally set out from Dekarran all those weeks previously. The only people missing were Sukhana and Durko, for different and obvious reasons. There were ten extra men, plus a File Leader, sent by Gilbanar to beef up their escort. These were presently in a bunch at the rear of the procession.
Garia and Merizel rode between the second and third wagons with Jenet keeping station behind them. At the moment Keren and Feteran were between the third and fourth wagons, discussing something of a military nature. Jasinet and Lanilla were riding a wagon, Garia was not sure which. Most of their own men, including Tanon's men, were ranging either side of the wagons, keeping close eye on whatever was happening in their surroundings.
Their surroundings were presently the flat countryside along the main trade highway south from South Slip. As had been the case north of the Sirrel there were people in the fields, doing winter tasks, but mostly the fields had already been prepared for the next season's crop. A wide and deep ditch ran either side of the road, the bottom of each still filled with about a stride's depth of water. The sky had remained overcast but the visibility was reasonable. Because of the cloud cover it was not cold enough for frost but there was still steam on their breath when they spoke.
"Enjoy the view, she tells me. What view?"
"It has its own charm," Garia replied. "So I am told. So, you prefer mountains, I take it?"
"As a Valley girl born and bred I never thought I'd say this but, aye, I think I do. Oh, I know the scenery will be different the further south we go but there's something about mountains that gladdens the eye. Don't you agree?"
"I do! I can't wait until next spring when we can go back to Blackstone."
"It will all be changed by then," Merizel warned. "If the letters I'm getting tell a true story then I doubt either of us will recognize the place."
Garia sighed. "That's the price of progress, I'm afraid. I just hope we have made sure enough of the original is left for people to enjoy."
"As you say. It was a good idea of Uncle Gil to make the forest into a preserve and give it to you. That way, at least something will stay the way it was before we came."
"We'll still have to cut a railroad route through it, and a new road section to avoid the hill on the Chaarn road. But I agree. At least we can save something. I've been thinking about that place we originally camped, by the waterfall. I wonder if we could -"
"What's that mean?"
Brazan, who had been riding at Garia's other side, leaned in to make himself heard over the rumble of wagon wheels.
"Traffic coming up behind, milady. We'll nudge the wagons over to the verge to let them pass."
"Stop, you mean?"
"We'll keep going, milady, just a little slower than usual."
Already Garia could see the wagon in front moving toward the grassed verge, making room for the faster traffic to get past the convoy. Soon the patter of frayen feet and the jingle of harness indicated that riders were coming past on the other side. Garia turned her head and watched a line of brown-clad riders file past at the canter.
"I don't recognize those colors," Brazan muttered. His eyes suddenly widened as he realized what he was seeing and he grabbed for the bugle at his waist. "It's an attack!"
As he put the bugle to his lips another blast came from the rear, a different signal. This was almost immediately cut off as the wielder suffered a fatal injury. Brazan repeated the signal but the wagons were already halting, the men already turning to face the enemy.
Brazan dropped his bugle and drew his sword, saying, "Make way, milady!" before shouldering his frayen through the riders and into the attackers. The armsman behind him had a lance, which he lowered and aimed at one of the brown-clad riders before driving his own mount forward. This caught the rider in the stomach and simply pushed him off the back of his mount onto the verge, from where he rolled into the ditch.
Garia's brain was still trying to process what had happened when there was a scream from ahead and she saw the lead wagon slew from the road and rumble down the bank into the near ditch. At the same time the brown-clad riders had slowed to match the wagons and were engaging the convoy and its escort. Brazan returned, his sword glistening with blood. He gestured with the sword.
"Ladies! Go, hide 'neath the wagons!"
Jenet had already dismounted, her frayen between herself and the attackers. As Merizel was dismounting Garia received a hard thump to the ribs and she only remained seated because Snep rebalanced her. She looked down to find a crossbow bolt had struck her in the lower chest, at an angle. It had torn the fabric of her tabard, bounced off the hidden plating and become lodged between her arm and her side. She pulled the bolt out and flung it away.
Behind her, the wagoneer fired his own crossbow and took Garia's attacker in the chest. Other whirring sounds showed that the defenders were returning fire, some more accurately than others. Soon there were a number of bodies on the pavement and far verge while their mounts began wandering loose in the road. Brazan turned to find Merizel standing so he looked at Garia, about to issue instructions, when an interruption came from the rear of the convoy.
Bang! There was no doubt from the flattened sound that the attackers had brought guns with them. Could they use them in this kind of battle? They apparently thought so, for another explosion soon followed. Brazan's eyes widened as he took in the threat.
Garia had never practiced this before, and it seemed an unorthodox manouver, but she had been told that it was the procedure the troops used when faced by massed crossbows. She slid from Snep's back with the ease of experience. Once down she grasped the two handles of the saddle and pulled, downwards, while commanding, "Down!"
Snep settled onto his elbows and heels and then onto his belly. Once he was almost down Garia pushed the saddle with both hands so that he rolled on his side, feet towards her. There was a certain amount of thrashing of legs as lying on his side, still harnessed and saddled, could not have been comfortable for the beast. Once down he tucked his neck in and Garia crouched between his legs, her head down. She reached out a comforting hand to his neck.
Not a moment too soon, for a gun was fired very close to Garia's position. The sound was extremely loud and flattened in a way that those at her previous battle had not been. She felt the wind as the shot went over her and Snep yipped as one or more caught the thickest part of his hide, his back. Something whanged off Garia's Roman-style helmet and she gave thanks that she had decided to wear that one today.
Instantly she was up and running into a cloud of filthy smoke, Brazan struggling to keep up with her. Her swords came out and she plunged them into the chest of the gunner who was momentarily deafened and blinded by the discharge of his weapon. Brazan raised his sword but stopped when he saw the bolt sticking out of the throat of the gunner's mate.
Lowering his sword, Brazan said, "Milady -"
"No time! Grab that ammo bag!"
She pointed with her own swords, which she then dropped on the ground. Stooping she lifted the heavy gun, noticing that it was, in fact, different than those they had faced before. The barrel was warm and filthy with residue but that didn't stop her swinging it around and launching it at the ditch. It hit the water with a splash and a sizzle as she recovered her swords.
Brazan had snagged the bag from the dying gunner's mate and looked at Garia for instructions.
"Give it to Merizel. Merry, get under a wagon, will you?"
He threw the bag to Merizel, who caught it and then scrambled under the nearest wagon to join Jenet. He turned to Garia, who returned his gaze.
I bet I know what you're thinking. Get under the wagon, fool girl, and let those who have given their oaths to defend you do their jobs! How can we protect you if you insist on joining the fight?
My answer is, I can probably look after myself at least as well as you can and you know it. Besides, they have weapons we haven't faced before and I may have to use some of what I know. My swords are already out and I know how to use them!
Brazan realized that he was not going to get his way so gave her a brief nod of acceptance before turning to face future attacks.
Further down the convoy Keren was fighting his own battle. They, too, had driven off the initial strike by mounted men armed with sword, spear and crossbow. They, too, had heard the initial gunfire and grounded their frayen. But here another factor came into play, since Stott and Briswin had been riding behind Keren and Feteran. Stott rose from behind his mount and killed the gunner with an arrow to the chest before he could fire. Briswin's strike was not so sure but just as fatal, since the gunner's mate had been leaning forward and the arrow had taken him in the neck, driving down into his chest.
Keren saw an opportunity, since there were others both mounted and on foot following the gunmen.
"Fet! The gun! The GUN!"
The gun was lying on the ground, already loaded and primed, fallen where the dying gunner had dropped it. Feteran scrambled to his feet and rushed to get it, followed by Keren. There was no time to discuss tactics, the gun was turned and the stock jammed into Feteran's shoulder as four mounted attackers came at them, swords leveled. Keren snatched up the slowmatch and came to Feteran's side.
"Do it, Highness, just do it!"
Keren touched the end of the smoldering rope to the end of the fuse and it sputtered for a moment. There was a heartbeat when he thought that the fuse had been damaged in some way as the gun had been dropped but then it fired with a brief whoosh before the bang. The noise was deafening, there was a flash which was swallowed by a cloud of acrid smoke and Feteran was flung backwards onto the ground. Keren saw with horror as the smoke cleared that the four men and their frayen had been dissolved into ground meat. Behind them several men who had been on foot screamed in agony as they writhed on the ground.
He reached down a hand to help Feteran up but the man shook his head.
"Not that side, Highness. Throw the gun in the ditch first."
Keren threw the still smoking weapon into the water and then came back to find Feteran climbing carefully to his feet.
"My shoulder is going to hurt," he explained, holding it with his left hand. "Grab the ammo bag."
They made their way back to join Stott and Briswin behind their barrier of prone frayen. The gunshot had momentarily cleared their area of enemies.
"You hurt, sir?"
Feteran moved his shoulder, swung his arm experimentally.
"It'll bruise, but I think I can still use a sword," he muttered. "Throw the bag to the women, there. I see they already have one."
Keren tossed the bag in the general direction of the next wagon then turned to vomit into the near ditch. The others merely looked at one another, though Briswin's color had a distinctly greenish tinge.
A wagon away Garia handed her left sword to Brazan. He looked at the bloodied blade with interest.
"This went through boiled leather very easily," he noted.
"Yes," Garia said. "Because the blade is so thin all the force is concentrated right at the point. It's so sharp and hard it goes right in. Problem is," she continued, "because it's so thin it could buckle easily. Master Haflin did a good job of hardening and tempering."
As she spoke she reached behind with her left hand, finding a tab that came from under her sash. She gave this a hard tug and her riding skirt dropped free around her feet. Stepping out, she used the toe of one boot to flick the garment in the direction of the wagon under which Jenet was hiding.
None too soon, as one of the other men hissed, "Here they come!"
Brazan gave Garia her sword back and inspected her. There appeared to be no fear, but he knew that might be an illusion. He knew from their training sessions that the continual practice would enable her to fight whatever she felt inside, like any seasoned warrior. The absence of her skirt and her short haircut made her look less like a girl and more like a young boy, which Brazan hoped would make her less of a target. The exposed breeches looked unusual, but then nothing about this battle so far had been normal.
The enemy came running toward them on foot, brandishing spears, swords and axes. These foot troops were dressed strangely compared to normal Valley practice. They each wore a short-sleeved smock of two-tone brown over which patches had been randomly sewn in greens, yellows and reds. Under the mid-thigh smocks were trousers, again in brown and patched as the tops were. Each man had a boiled-leather cap on his head but otherwise they did not appear to be armored.
The first problem revealed itself when two of the men loosed their crossbows at point-blank range with seemingly no effect. The bolts simply caught in the loose smock material and this soaked up the energy required to penetrate the wearer. There were short oaths and then it was time for sword work.
Garia's first assailant swung an axe which she caught in the X of her swords. She swung to the left, disengaged her right sword and plunged it into the man's side. With little effect! Before she could do much more he had recovered and swung his axe again, forcing her to step back to avoid injury.
Time slowed then for Garia, as it sometimes does for those in battle. Those smocks baffle sword thrusts, she thought, but I thought I felt something hard when I touched his body.
They have leather armor under their smocks! Okay, let's try something different.
Again he swung and again she made her X. This time, she pulled back hard, snagging the axe head against her blade and pulling the man closer to her. Releasing her free blade she flicked the tip across his throat, opening it instantly. He folded with a gurgle as she stepped back.
"Armor under the smocks!" she gasped. "Go above or below!"
The small group of men with her immediately changed their defensive tactics and went for the exposed parts of their opponents. This approach met with instant success and their opponents fell, but there were more coming.
Suddenly there was a whoop and five frayen thundered into the melee, their riders bearing lances or swords. One lance impaled an attacker, the shock so hard that the pole snapped. The rider pushed the splintered end into the face of another enemy. The attack was soon over, the lead rider returning and saluting Garia.
"No enemies live behind us, My Lady," he reported. "How do you want us?"
This request made Garia realize that the situation had materially changed. The mounted men were the remains of the 'head patrol' who had been on the road ahead of the wagon train. With enemies only one side, that meant they could make some kind of defensive position, rather than being scattered the length of the caravan. And what about Keren?
"On foot, I think," she replied, looking at Brazan for confirmation. He nodded so she added, "Get the frayen to the front so they are out of the way. Then we can form a line across the road and go help the Prince."
The man banged his fist and immediately signaled the others to dismount.
"Aye, My Lady. What of the draft beasts?"
Garia suddenly realized that, all through the fighting so far, the dranakhs had been standing in the wagon shafts, patiently waiting for something to be done for them. As this occurred to her Joolen came around the side of the wagon.
"If I may, milady."
He leaned over the shafts and pulled a cord which lifted two pins out of the harness. The dranakh immediately stepped free and turned, ambling for the near ditch and trotting down the slope before turning north. Garia pointed to the wagon south of her.
"Do that one as well. If the dranakhs hold the ditches then the enemy will have to use the road." She turned, looking under the wagon. "Jenet! Merry! Go back there, start a fire, boil some water."
Brazan could barely believe his ears at this last command. Weren't they safer where they were? Then he realized, Garia's way was better. If they could stop the enemy coming past them, then the wagons further on would be safe. The women would be occupied, out of danger and treatment of the wounded could begin earlier. If they were overrun by the enemy, it wouldn't matter where the women were. Briefly, he wondered where the two younger maids were.
Joolen left with Jenet and Merry for the south end of the caravan as one of the men called out that more were coming.
"Let's go!" Garia ordered. "His Highness will need our help."
They only had to run the length of a wagon but the fighting was already fierce when they arrived. The instant thickening of the defenders' ranks had an immediate effect, pushing the attackers back and halting their momentum. As one swordsman took a nick on the arm and fell back, she took his place and found herself next to Keren.
Keren grimaced as he parried a sword stroke. "I've had better days. You?"
Garia made an X, swept her opponent's sword to the left and slid her right blade into his side. He collapsed with a gasp. "Yes. They have armor, go above or below."
"Aye, found that out the hard way."
Now, with the defenders forming a solid line from ditch to ditch, the battle took on a more orthodox form. Every man's side was covered and they could all support each other. It was possible for men to withdraw momentarily from the fray to knot a strip of cloth over a wound, take a sip of water and a few deep breaths, before returning to the line. In the main the fighting was carried out in complete silence apart from the ring of steel.
Garia found she had less to do. This was not because the men either side were shielding her but because the enemy had no answer for her unusual sword technique. The dead and dying were mounting in front of her, the enemy simply could not reach her in enough numbers to force her to make an error.
There came an inevitable slackening in the offense and the line moved forward to envelop another wagon. The dranakh of the rearmost wagon was released and it immediately went for the far ditch. The defenders drew a well-earned breath.
"Maker! How many more of them do we have to face?"
"This was well-planned, Keren. They won't have left anything to chance."
Keren groaned. "Where's that ptuvil when you need it?"
"I think we're going to have to do this one the hard way. Look! They're coming from that farmhouse over there. They must run out of bodies soon, surely?"
"Aye. We just hope they run out before we do."
Garia turned and realized that most of those men still in the line had bandages, mostly around an arm or a thigh. Several were leaning against the wagon, exhausted, while others were being carried back along the wagon line to the improvised first aid station. Of the fifty-odd men who had set out from South Slip that morning around twenty were still able to fight. Of the Dekarran detachment that had set out with the caravan she could see only two men. They had been riding at the rear of the caravan and had taken the brunt of the surprise attack and of the gunfire.
"I hadn't realized... shit. Here they come again."
The brown figures swarmed either side of the rearmost wagon and set upon the defenders once more. Some tried to go down the banks to get around the end of the defenders' line but loud bellows soon forced them back. Garia tangled with someone who could only have been a peasant, his grip on his sword was so bad, but it was easy to stab him in the sword arm and he stumbled away, cursing.
Her next opponent was a different proposition. Although he wore a smock like the others he wore tights and riding boots instead of trousers and ankle boots. His helmet looked more elaborate than the basic issue the others had been wearing and his sword had a better guard. She formed an X and swept his sword down to the right, but he pulled back before she could lean forward and skewer him. Two more attempts followed, the second of which had her jumping back to avoid being stuck herself. As it was, his sword point slid along the hidden plates in her tabard before hitting air.
The third attempt saw him bring his sword up under Garia's X. She immediately slid her swords together until his blade locked inside the curl of her finger guard, then she twisted the hilt and pulled the whole sword bodily out of the astonished man's grasp. It was awkward to turn with the third blade dangling from one of hers but she did so, lunging forward to deliver the fatal blow.
Her heart was pounding, her legs had begun to turn to jelly and her eyesight was becoming blotchy.
He gave her a swift glance before turning back to his opponent.
"Go. You've done enough. There are enough of us here to hold."
She pulled out of the line and her place was immediately taken by a guardsman with a bandage around his leg. She stumbled back along the side of the wagon, the back of one hand rubbing the wood for guidance. She had taken two steps across the gap between the wagons when an arm, encased in rough brown cloth, wrapped itself around her neck and lifted her bodily from her feet.
He made a fist of his free hand and punched her hands, forcing her to drop her swords before she could find some way to make use of them. She struggled but his grip on her neck only became tighter.
"Not so brave, are you, when you don't have your toys any more."
Her vision was becoming red, she was losing consciousness. Attempts to use her elbows were fruitless, her legs kicked against muscle-hardened thighs. She couldn't twist because of the scabbards on her back.
"Those men will stop fighting when they see I have you. They'll have no choice, even that Princeling of yours."
Her consciousness had almost gone when her thrashing hand touched a boot, and with it came a memory. Frantically she lifted her right leg and found the boot again and with despairing fingers released the loop retaining her riding knife. Pulling it out, so the blade came out the back of her hand, she convulsively stabbed backward with the last of her resources. The blade sank to the hilt in the man's thigh.
His grip around her throat loosened, just enough so that she could gasp some air. The knife flashed again and this time she twisted the blade in the thick muscle to widen the damaged area. He dropped her and she slumped to her knees.
"Aagh! What have you done, you little tramp?"
When Garia stood and turned, she saw that the man was clutching his leg with both hands. He was looking down with an expression of horror at the blood welling through his fingers.
The man, known to some as Sopo and to others as Fikt, never saw the kick that broke his neck.
Garia sank to her knees again, her breath coming in hard gasps. This fight had taken very nearly the last of her strength. When her head had begun to clear she rose and cleaned the knife blade against the man's tunic. Tunic, because she now saw he was dressed as the earlier riders had been. Somehow he had concealed himself under a wagon during the earlier fighting and waited his moment.
Standing again, she used the knife to cut the straps holding her scabbards. The leather strips would be easy to replace and she would have to ask Haflin for some kind of quick release device. The scabbards she tossed by a wagon for safe-keeping. She resheathed the knife and collected her swords, her hands aching from the bruising the man had given them.
Which way? Back to the fighting or down to join Jenet and get herself a drink?
Before she had a chance to choose there was a bang and the world went mad. There was first an unearthly silence and then a loud roar which could probably have been heard in Dekarran. There was a brief quiet and then panicky noises, shouts and screams of terror receding into the distance. That decided Garia. Despite the fatigue she felt in every pore she gripped her swords tightly and hurried back to where the others had been fighting. She discovered that the action had ceased and the surviving attackers were standing with their arms raised.
"They shot a dranakh," Keren replied, tiredly. "Fools. The other four went crazy."
"Oh. That was them, chasing the enemy away?"
"Yes and no," he replied with a tired grimace. "Chasing them, yes, but simply to run them down. Dranakhs don't take prisoners."
"No," she agreed slowly, "but we do. Keren, we need these prisoners."
"Aye. What happened to you?" Keren asked, looking at her appearance properly for the first time.
"I got ambushed when I went round the wagon," she explained. "He must have hidden himself underneath one when we were fighting back there."
"Shit. I should have sent someone back with you. Hurt?"
"I'll have a bruised throat, and my hands were battered. Other than that, only my pride. I should have been more careful."
The remaining men were collecting weapons and prisoners and herding them to one side. Keren gestured north.
"We ought to go and see if there are any more out there. I'd hate to be surprised, just when we thought it was over."
Feteran looked at them both. He had a bandage around his head.
"Is that wise, Highness? There are so few of us."
"That wagon," Keren pointed to the vehicle blocking their view, "means we have a blind spot. If we have to establish another defensive line I would rather it was up there than let these people use it to their advantage."
Those who could made their way forward to clear the last wagon. Ahead, the highway was strewn with bodies in various states of disarray. Frowning, Garia realized that there were no frayen among the fallen, only humans and the gray bulk of a single dranakh. The few riding animals she could see were contentedly cropping the grass on the verges, ignoring the surrounding destruction.
She looked at the farmhouse someone had pointed out earlier, but there was no movement there now. Only a beaten path through the plowed fields which showed where the rampaging dranakh had pursued the murderers of their kind. There were bodies along that path, too.
"Look! There's someone getting away!"
Someone had spotted a movement near one of the grazing frayen and as they watched, a small figure broke away from it and began running along the highway, away from the battlefield. Instantly Stott nocked an arrow to his bow and aimed it at the fleeing figure. Garia looked, there was something wrong, something about the way the fellow ran...
"No! Don't shoot!"
But it was too late. The arrow soared through the air and unerringly found its mark in the man's back. He was slammed to the ground by the force of the blow. Garia began running. Bewildered, the others followed as best they could.
He was still alive when she reached him, although it was apparent that this would only be a temporary reprieve. The arrow had gone right through his chest and there was already blood on his lips. Although she knew that it would probably hasten his death, she lifted him and pulled the barbless arrow out so that she could turn him over. He gasped and looked up at her as she cradled him on her lap.
"I'm so, so sorry," she said, tears streaming down her face. "We didn't know. We thought you were one of them, running away."
He coughed, more blood coming out from his mouth.
"Non," she replied automatically. "Americain." She switched to English. "I mean, American. You are French?"
"Oui," he said gasping. "Yes. Les Boches sont..." He coughed again, then smiled weakly. "A girl. The Boche are defeated by a girl. Bon!"
"I am Garia," she said, as the others gathered around silently. "What's your name?"
"Yves. Yves Perriard. I am -"
He coughed again, but then it was too late. His eyes filmed over and his head rolled to one side. Garia sobbed over his body. So near!
Keren knelt down, a knife in his hand. With it, he cut the leather strap which had bound the wrists of the young Frenchman.
"He is gone, Garia," he told her softly. His other hand rested gently on her shoulder. "We will treat him with all respect."
He rose and turned to the silent group around him.
"Bear his body with respect and honor," he instructed. "He has fought the hardest battle of us all."
Keren led Garia back to the wagons as the men improvised a stretcher from materials near to hand. In the distance the dranakhs, their fury sated, were slowly making their way back to join the caravan. It was only when they reached the last wagon that Feteran asked a troubling question.
"Milady, where are your maids?"
Garia roused from her depression. "Why, Jenet is with Merizel -"
She stopped. Where were Jasinet and Lanilla? She had not seen them since they had all set out that morning from South Slip. She knew they were riding a wagon, but she had no idea which. There had been no obvious evidence of their bodies among the wagons as she had fought, but then her attention had been on more pressing matters. Had they been killed or captured somehow?
"No idea where the other two are," she said shortly. "We have to find them. Check every wagon!"
"Check the ditches," Keren added, "they may have fallen or attempted to hide."
It was only when she reached the front of the caravan, to find Jenet, Merizel and Senidet boiling linen strips and cleaning and bandaging wounds, that she remembered that the first wagon had been driven from the road. She ran to the roadside and plunged down the slope, stopping before she reached the water in the bottom of the ditch.
The wagon lay canted against the far bank. Still in the shafts, half under water and trapped because of the angle was a dranakh. On the far bank was a body she identified as Helen, two crossbow bolts through his chest. Floating face down in the water was Jasinet. Two men immediately splashed down into the waist-deep water to recover the body, shaking their heads as they reached it. It was clear from their expressions that she had not survived.
Jaxen, his arm in a sling, crouched down beside Garia at the water's edge.
"I'm sorry, milady," he said. "This must be hard for you to bear."
"Thank you, Jaxen," she said, the tears running down her cheeks. "I'm sorry you had to lose Helen. He was a good driver."
"He isn't the only one, milady. We lost Samir as well, and we may lose Keet if his wounds do not heal."
"Oh, shit. I'm sorry, Jaxen. This isn't my fault, but the caravan wouldn't have been attacked if I hadn't been with it."
"Milady, we are all honored to ride at your side. We watched you fight, it was astonishing. We are paid to take these risks, though I deem no-one expected guns when we left Dekarran all those weeks ago." He ruminated, then muttered, "Why does not the dranakh break free? It is strong enough to do so if it wanted."
"I thought you had to use those quick-release pins to let them go."
"Aye, milady, but that is only to save the harness and shafts. The dranakh are more considerate of our property than -" Jaxen's eyes narrowed. "She does not move because she will not. There is someone trapped under the wagon, I deem."
He rose instantly, issuing instructions. Men splashed across the water, lengths of timber in hand to lever the wagon away from the far bank. The dranakh, half submerged, bleated as they approached. There was a shout.
"Your other maid is alive, milady," Jaxen reported, "though she is badly injured."
Carefully they lifted the wagon off Lanilla and pulled her out from underneath the side, where she had been pinned against the bank. Once she was free the wagon was lowered and a man reached into the water and released the great draft beast, who clambered out onto the bank and began placidly grazing. Another stretcher was improvised and Lanilla was brought across the ditch and up to the aid station. Garia and Jaxen followed.
A mug of pel was passed to Garia, who looked up.
"Jenet, thank you. How is Lanilla?"
"A broken arm, milady, that is certain. There may be broken ribs, but we need a proper Healer for such judgements. There is heavy bruising on both legs but we do not know if any bones are broken. She is suffering from the cold - what you told us was called shock."
"She's not about to die, I take it? I don't think I could stand another death right now."
"She lives, milady, and providing we can keep her warm she will prosper."
Garia took a deep draft of her drink and immediately felt better. She looked around and realized that most of those around the two fires were bandaged, but there were still more who needed attention.
"Do you need my help?"
"It should not be so, milady, but if you desire to help us your assistance would be appreciated."
So Garia cleaned, bandaged and in some cases sewed until Keren made her stop.
"That's enough, Garia. You're exhausted." He grimaced. "As are we all. But your body is the smallest, you have not the reserves, you must rest awhile."
Feteran came and saluted. "Highness, milady, we have a problem. I would like to send to South Slip for help but we are too few. Those who are able-bodied must guard our prisoners, the others who can are keeping watch and tidying the camp. There is no-one I can send."
Keren gave a tired smile. "I could go myself if you wished." Feteran's expression showed what he thought of that idea. Keren grinned as he turned to Garia. "What about that frayen of yours? You can do most things with him, perhaps you could send him for help."
Garia returned a wan smile. "I don't think so. Snep may be a good companion and willing to do what I ask but I don't think he could take on a task like that." Her expression became serious. "On the other hand, I know someone else who might."
As the others looked on, puzzled, she turned to the bank and called, "Beth." The dranakh ambled up from the ditch and stood on the roadway, eyeing her with interest. Garia turned to Keren and said, "Give me your sash." At the same time she unwound her own sash from around her waist. Taking Keren's, she knotted both sashes through Beth's harness before turning to Keren and Feteran.
"Both these have blood on them, though fortunately not ours. What do you think will happen when Beth turns up at the Guard Post in South Slip with these sashes?"
She turned and rested her hand on the top of Beth's head, closing her eyes. In her mind, she visualized the Guard Post and Beth arriving there. When she opened her eyes Beth regarded her solemnly and then gave a bleat worthy of Chewbacca before heading up the road. As she cleared the last wagon she was already trotting, then a canter and almost immediately a full gallop, receding into the distance with frightening speed. The other four dranakh, clustered around the last wagon, regarded Garia with astonishment.
"Sit," Keren commanded. "You've done more than enough today."
"No buts. Maker! I'm so tired myself."
They sat side by side, mugs of pel in hand, their backs against a wagon wheel. Keren put an arm around Garia.
"Garia," he said, the tiredness evident in his voice, "don't leave my side, will you?"
"My Prince," she replied, "I'm not going anywhere."
"That's not what I meant," he said. "I have decided. When I'm on the throne, I want you by my side. Will you do that?"
"My Prince," she repeated, tears streaming down her face, "like I said, I'm not going anywhere."
* * *
Feteran came to tell them that he had sighted a relief column arriving from South Slip and found them both asleep, his arm around her, her head on his chest. He could not suppress a smile as he remembered a previous occasion when he had found them thus asleep, following the battle at the head of Blackstone Vale.
"Highness, My Lady."
"Hmm?" Keren opened an eye, then sighed. "Feteran. What news?"
"Troops approach from South Slip, Highness."
The men were wearing Dekarran colors and there were eighteen of them. Their leader, a Quadrant, looked around him with disbelief.
"Highness, so many bodies! How did so few best so many?"
"Desperation, mostly," Keren replied. "They would have overwhelmed us at the end, though, had they not killed a dranakh."
The man blanched. "Maker! I am glad I was not here to see that." His expression warmed. "I am glad I was there when the dranakh came into South Slip bearing your colors. We had never seen such a thing before, and it was obvious what we must do. Who thought of such a thing, Highness? It was a clever idea."
"Milady Garia had the idea, Quadrant. There was no-one else we could send. We are barely enough to hold the position, as you can see."
"As you say, Highness."
The man gave instructions and his men set up guard posts at each end of the caravan, allowing everyone else to relax slightly. Others began to tend the long line of frayen picketed to the south of the wagon line, breaking open forage blocks and, in some cases, tending to wounds the beasts had accumulated.
"We could not bring all our men, Highness," the Quadrant said over a mug of pel, "We deemed there might be an attack on South Slip itself. It seems that these men came downriver overnight and took Sheldane at dawn, unloading these troops who then made their way across country to intercept you. Unsure of their object, we could not leave any town undefended."
"How do you know all this?" Garia asked. "You can't have worked this out from the appearance of a single dranakh."
"My Lady, we are in constant touch with Dekarran, through the new semaphore. They have... telescopes?.. on the King's Tower which saw most of that I have described to you. Lord Gilbanar himself wished to bring troops across the river immediately but the tide was against him when we left. I doubt not he will appear soon enough."
Jaxen appeared, a fresh bandage supporting his arm. He addressed Garia.
"Milady, there is a man dead between the wagons I think I have seen before." He frowned. "From the injuries I believe he was the man you fought? He had a thigh wound and his neck appears broken."
"That's him," Garia confirmed. "You recognize him? From where?"
"From the miner's camp in Blackstone," came the surprising reply. "I am not certain but I believe he was one of the wagoneers contracted by the Miner's Guild to transport their men and belongings. We exchanged the odd word from time to time, but I had little to do with him otherwise."
Keren was intent. "Garia, did you recognize him?"
"How could I? He came from behind, all I saw was his arm until the end. Then I killed him and it was all I could do not to lose it completely. Then the dranakh was shot -"
"Aye, I understand. Jaxen, we'll keep that body with us, if we may. It may be possible for others to give him a name."
"As you wish, Highness." He hesitated. "Uh, we have a number of bodies to transport, Highness, not to mention the wounded. The wagons are all fully loaded, as you know."
"Aye. We'll buy or borrow carts from these nearby farms, I think." He gestured at the line of frayen. "We have enough beasts to pull them, after all."
* * *
Gilbanar arrived, eventually, with fifty more troops and several of the castle healers as well. He was not the jovial, friendly man Garia had known but an extremely angry Duke whose country had been invaded.
"Keren, Garia! Thank the Maker you are both safe!"
"Aye, uncle. We managed."
Gilbanar eyed the pair. "You will not forget this battle soon. For two so young, such an experience can be difficult to bear."
"Aye, uncle, but this is our second battle, as you must know. I do not plan to invite myself to any other battles and I think Garia is of the same mind."
"Well said, my boy." Gilbanar's face hardened. "This means war, of course. A little kidnapping, an assassination attempt or two, that is one thing, but this is a full-scale invasion. We must give answer to this insult to our lands."
Garia sighed. "Uncle Gil, you're absolutely right. But we may have had a break, although it is something I wish had never happened."
"What's that, Garia?"
"They had a boy from Earth, as we all guessed."
"Aye, Garia." Gilbanar glanced around, seeing if anyone was overhearing their conversation. After all, what Garia was talking about was private speculation, wasn't it? "This boy, he was feeding them information, as you were giving it to us."
"That's right, but they brought him with them to the battle. I guess they thought that if I saw him, it would make me surrender to prevent them hurting him."
Gilbanar nodded. "It is a strategem sometimes used in the past with hostages, I recall. Wait, you said they had the boy? What happened? Did you capture him?"
"We killed him, Uncle Gil," Keren said tiredly. "It was an accident, right at the end of the battle. He was running away and we thought he was one of their troops. Only Garia realized he wasn't, but by then it was too late."
"He lived long enough to tell us his name and the country on Earth he came from," Garia added. "I wish we had saved him, but at least Yod will no longer be able to squeeze information out of him."
Gilbanar was silent a moment, then muttered, "I have heard that there is only one thing worse than defeat in battle, and that is victory in the same battle. Rest you all now, I will organize this mess. You do know you have completely blocked the King's Highway?"
The two looked at each other.
"That's true, uncle. Where is everybody?"
Gilbanar grunted. "You don't think anyone is fool enough to bring a trade caravan through the middle of a battlefield, do you? I think you'll find they are all waiting at the nearest roadhouse to discover when it is safe again to travel. I will send a patrol of my men south, to find out if there is anywhere you and your wounded can be made comfortable. Leave it all to me."
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