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All the Heavens - Title

Chapter 7

After meeting at the Smiling Waif they’d left the city and headed north. Two leagues outside the city walls was the place where they were supposed to wait for the caravan. They’d received many odd looks from passers-by as they waited. Adventuring groups such as they obviously were, didn’t hang around at road stops for nothing – people wondered what they were up to.

Eventually, the caravan arrived and Old Tom assigned each of them a horse and position. The moment they were in place the caravan took off again. It wasn’t until evening they’d had a chance to examine their new companions or talk to them.

It started badly and went downhill from there.

The name of their group was the first thing to be questioned by the other guards. “The Knights of Gaia?” growled Iggy, a grizzled Dalesman, from the Dale lands far to the east. “What in blazes kinda name is that?”

“Yeah,” added another. “How come you name yerselves after the whole world? ‘At don’t make no sense.”

“It’s a goal. We decided we wanted a name that would challenge us,” Elric volunteered. “A name that will–”

“What do you mean a goal?” demanded yet another, interrupting him. “How can a name be a goal?”

“Earl’s right. A name is just a name.”

Elric melted before the onslaught. “Well, yeah I know, but . . .”

“Then why’d ya say it was a goal?” Earl pressed him.

Jon stepped in. “It’s a goal because we need to become worthy of that grand of a name. That’s what he meant.”

Elric sighed with relief and faded into the background.

Iggy glowered thoughtfully at him. “To become worthy of?”

Jon nodded proudly. “That’s right. And to become worthy of that kind of name means that we’ll have to stretch ourselves, take risks, and push it to the limit.”

“Then ya admit ya ain’t worthy of it now?” inquired one of the guards.

“Well, not now, no, but –”

“Then ya shouldn’t use it,” he spat.

Jon struggled to get through to them. “No, it’s a goal, something to strive for.”

“Ya got it all wrong kiddies, staying alive is something to strive for.”

Coarse laughter greeted this remark.

Horace whipped out his sword. “Take that back,” he snarled.

“Whoa! Look out, Earl. The puppy has teeth,” one of them laughed.

Horace reddened. “I’ll show you teeth,” he muttered and lunged for the speaker. He swung his sword up and then felt something around his ankles. Before he could look to see what it was, his feet went out from under him and he went down with a crash.

Two guardsmen threw their weight on the noose around his feet and drug him around in a great circle, the plates in his armor digging up huge clods of dirt and fouling the joints. The other guards broke up in gales of laughter.

Jon’s hand flew to his boot and yanked out the dagger it found there. He drew back to throw it – and froze.

The guardsman whose sword was at his neck plucked the dagger from his hand with a snicker. “Better luck next time,” he chortled.

The rest of the little group started forward to rescue their friends. Weapons came out and grim expressions settled on their features.


Everyone stopped.

Old Tom stepped out from behind the chuck wagon and joined them. “Put your weapons away,” he ordered everyone. “We’ve things to do and no time for this. Iggy, get the horses unhitched. Earl, you have first watch tonight so get some sleep. Marin, show the newbies how to set up my tent. The rest of you, get to work!” he finished with a shout.

*     *     *     *     *

He’d been as fair about it as anyone could reasonably ask, Aaren reflected. Bodily injuries were out of the question, but little indignities were a different matter. There were literally thousands of opportunities for the experienced guardsmen to torment them. Dust in their food, ropes that accidentally let their bedrolls spill out all over the road, dozens of little tricks that made their lives miserable.

But Elric suffered the worst.

Even Horace, for all of his complaining, had tremendous confidence in himself, as did the rest of them. But confidence was Elric’s weakest point. His parents had made it clear they considered him a failure when they kicked him off the farm by apprenticing him to Zorn. In turn, that worthy had done nothing for years except criticize and belittle him. The end result was that he was easily humiliated and tormented. The guards, in the way of bullies everywhere, had zeroed in on him almost immediately and he’d gotten the brunt of their attentions.

The rest of them did the best they could to shield him, but twice they caught him just as he was getting ready to sneak out of camp and never come back. Both times it had taken several hours to talk him into staying.

It wasn’t until noon of the third day, in the Mügard Pass, that things changed.

They were riding in their usual place at the rear of the caravan, eating dust, when it happened. One minute the air hung heavy with dust, heat, and the creaking of the wagon wheels, the next there were screams and shouts from all directions. A ripping sound in the air alerted them to an incoming flight of arrows and they threw themselves flat on their horse’s necks.


They looked up to see a wave of bandits riding down on them from a steep hill by the road. Another flight of arrows arched over the bandit’s heads and fell on the hapless caravan. Confusion reigned amid shouted commands. A horse’s scream split the air, followed a moment later by hoarse shouts.

Aaren cast a glance at the front of the caravan and caught a glimpse of tangled horses and men. Movement caught his eye and he swung around.

“Close with them!” yelled Horace, waving his sword. “Get close so the archers can’t pick us off!” He wheeled his horse around, bumping Elric’s horse, and charged up the hill. Elric’s horse saw the running rump of the horse before him and followed blindly, bearing Elric helplessly along with him.

Aaren saw two of their members suddenly committed to a suicidal charge and swore violently. He unlimbered his war hammer, kicked his horse savagely, and pounded after them, praying fervently for help. The others hesitated for a moment, then shrugged and charged after him.

A cry of surprise went up from the bandits as they saw the six friends charging up the hill toward them, and they slowed their horses uncertainly. What kind of idiots would attack when they were outnumbered five to one? Uphill at that? The obvious implication was that they were more powerful than they looked. The bandit charge slowed even more.

Elric’s horse, not having to contend with the weight of a fully armored rider, drew ahead of the rest. Realizing his predicament Elric struggled to ready his staff but it got caught awkwardly in front of the saddle horn, leaving half of it sticking out on either side of him as his horse plunged into the bandit ranks at full speed. There was a solid, double “thunk” as the bandits on either side of him took the end of the staff right in their stomachs. The impact lifted both bandits out of their saddles, dumping them backward on the ground.

The staff sprang out from under the saddle horn and Elric grabbed desperately to keep from losing it. He caught it with an unintended flourish that made the whole maneuver look deliberate. His horse snorted, took the bit in his teeth, and kept going. Startled bandits sheared away from this “demon fighter” and he plunged on up the hill toward the line of archers.

Horace let out a whoop of joy at this and brought his greatsword around in a vast, two-handed sweep, the sheer power of his mighty thews cleaving one of the bandits nearly in half. The force of the blow hurled the corpse out the saddle directly into the path of another bandit. His horse stumbled on the body, screamed shrilly, and went down with a sickening crunch.

Mira tore into the bandits, her sword a glittering arc in the air. From the corner of her eye, she saw one of Jon’s daggers spinning through the air to bury itself in a bandit’s throat. Katrina and Aaren hurled themselves into the breach with a ringing crash of steel. A wild melee was joined.

There was a timeless moment of dusty, blood-soaked chaos, rent with screams of pain and victory. Steel rang against steel under the blazing heat of the sun. From somewhere above them a sheet of flame rolled across the hill and the stench of burnt hair filled the air as Elric cast Art against their enemies.

Then. . .

Caravan guards were arriving, joining the battle.

And. . .

Bandits were dying in all directions, their ambush ruined, their archers slapping frantically at the flames on their clothes. A bugle sounded and abruptly the bandits were in full retreat.

The Knights pulled up, breathing heavily, and watched their enemies stumbling away.

“Think we should follow them?” Katrina wondered aloud, slapping the blood-soaked blade of her sword against her leg.

Jon shook his head numbly. “Why bother?” He waved a hand around at the pile of corpses at their feet. “I think we’ve earned our keep for the day.”

A murmur of agreement escaped from the guardsmen around them. “Boy if that ain’t the truth,” one of them muttered. “Ain’t never seen anyone charge up a hill before.”

Elric reined in beside them. “Ain’t never wanted to charge up a hill before,” he quipped.

There was a general round of weary laughter.

“What about the bodies?” Aaren asked vaguely.

Old Tom slid his sword back into its sheath. “The Knights of Gaia have the first pick of the loot,” he said, using their chosen name for the first time.

Horace’s eyes lit up. “Loot?” he asked eagerly.

“Yeah. Coins, gems, weapons, or whatever.”

“Alright!” He threw himself off his horse and began searching through the pockets of the dead bandits. After a moment the rest of the Knights joined him with mounting enthusiasm. After all, to the victors go the spoils.

The take was meager. About fifty gold pieces and a small ruby worth maybe ten. Still, it was more than they’d all earned so far. They danced a small victory jig.

“Ouch!” Jon winced as he tried to swing Katrina around. He looked down and saw a rent in his sleeve, blood running down his arm. “Whoa! I got stabbed! I didn’t even know it until just now.”

Aaren left off celebrating and came over to take a look. He pushed the sleeve up and leaned over the wound, probing gently. “Hmm, not too bad. Somebody get me some water.”

“You ought to try it from my end.”

“No thanks.” Horace handed him an open canteen and he poured water over the wound, washing it out. He stoppered the canteen and set it aside. He held up his holy symbol in the sun. “Hold still.”

There was a moment of silence. The priest muttered something indistinct and then gripped Jon’s arm, covering the wound with his hand. Golden light flared softly under his palm. He moved his hand and stood up. “There you are.”

“There I’m what?” Jon asked in confusion.

“All healed up, as good as new,” Aaren told him patiently as if explaining to a child.

They all looked at Jon’s arm. Except for the blood on his sleeve, it didn’t look as if he’d ever been wounded at all.

Katrina whistled softly. “He healed the hurtin’ man, with a touch of his han’.”

Elric winced. “That was awful,” he protested. “Couldn’t you have come up with something a little–”

*     *     *     *     *

“Hey, Aaren! You gonna eat or not?”

Startled out of his reverie, Aaren looked up at Horace and smiled warmly. “Sure. I was just waiting for you guys to finish your race.” He bounced to his feet. “Who won?”

Horace glowered at him. “Never mind, but just wait,” he glanced around conspiratorially, “until you see what I’ve got planned for tomorrow!”

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