“We’re past the border now, lads. Look sharp,” Marin, one of the wiser guards, announced.
The Knights looked questioningly at him. “What are you talking about?” Katrina asked him. “We just left the Mügard Pass, we’re still a long way from the border.”
Marin laughed kindly at her. “Aye, the official border. But every guardsman knows the King’s patrols are few and far between this far from Thorginbelt. We’re on our own, so for all practical purposes, we’re past the border.”
Horace looked around at the rocky terrain the caravan was passing through as they dropped down from the Mügard Pass. “I thought the King had extended the borders as far north as Taeljurm.”
Iggy rode his horse closer to them. “Mebbe he did and mebbe he didn’t, but Taeljurm don’t know it.”
“What’s it like?” Jon asked him.
Iggy spat in the dust at his horse’s feet. “Pretty much like any other place really.”
“The Upper city,” Marin pointed out.
“The what?” asked Jon.
Iggy shrugged. “The Upper city is the rich section. Taeljurm is built on two different levels see, and the upper level is for the nobles and such.”
“Does that mean we can’t go up there?” Elric wanted to know.
More guardsmen were drifting near to listen to the conversation.
Several of them laughed at Elric’s question. “Sure,” one of them said, “you can go up there if ya got the money.”
Horace frowned at him. “How much?”
“Figure about ten times more than normal, and that’s for the cheap places.”
Katrina whistled silently. Marin saw her and nodded agreement, “It’s steep alright. But I’ve seen prices go as high as ten gold pieces per room.”
Katrina stared at him in shock. “You mean for a single night?”
“Maybe, maybe not. It depends on how much money you’re lugging around. If you’ve only got a few coppers, it’s crazy. If you’ve got a dragon’s hoard on your back . . .” He shrugged. “It’s a different story.”
Horace grinned hugely at her. “If you don’t believe him, just ask my grandfather. He had part of a giant’s hoard.”
Mira slapped him playfully. “Yeah, we know. That’s why we put up with you. We keep hoping the old man will kick off and leave it all to you. Then we’ll all sponge off you for the rest of our lives.”
“The only sponge you’ll get is for scrubbing,” Horace told her.
“Just for that, you get a double helping of ice water at bath time tonight.”
“You wouldn’t dare!”
They glared at each other for a moment then broke into laughter, but Horace’s sounded a bit strained. The ice water threat had really gotten to him.
Aaren drifted over to ride beside Old Tom in the lead wagon. He gestured at the plains ahead of them. “What can we expect out there?”
The old man’s piercing eyes threw a sharp glance at him. “I thought the Lord of Light looked after his servants in battle?” The question was plain to hear in his voice.
Aaren shrugged. “He does, but that doesn’t mean we have to be stupid about it.”
The answer seemed to satisfy him. “Well, let’s see,” he pursed his lips for a moment, “mostly there’s bandits like the ones we fought a few days ago. Now and then we’ve run into some goblins or kobolds. And I remember once when we fought some hill giants. During the winter there’s wolves.”
“Just the ordinary stuff, eh?” Aaren grinned at him.
“Being ordinary don’t mean it ain’t dangerous. The Akhu Plains are a beautiful place, but you can git yourself killed in a big hurry if ya ain’t careful,” Tom cautioned him.
Aaren nodded and started to say something when he was interrupted.
Tom dismissed him with a flick of his hand and stood up on the wagon seat. “Where?” he shouted.
The left flanker pointed off towards his normal position. “I spotted ‘em about ten minutes ago. They ain’t coming closer or going away and they ain’t flying no colors.”
The guardsmen shifted uncomfortably in their saddles and eyed the distant shapes. Riders who refused to identify themselves were either afraid or malevolent. But were they intent on looting the caravan or merely on their way somewhere else? There was a general loosening of weapons in their sheaths, and several who had bows quietly strung them.
Aaren quickly re-joined his friends.
“Another chance for battle,” Horace was gloating. “Just what we need to start building a reputation for ourselves.” He gingerly tested his sword on the ball of his thumb in eager anticipation.
Elric swallowed hard. “Well, I’m glad somebody’s happy because I’m not!”
“Nonsense,” Horace exclaimed, slapping him on the back so hard he almost knocked him out of the saddle. “A man who can take out two bandits at a single stroke doesn’t have anything to fear.”
“That was pure luck and you know it.”
“Sure it was,” Horace agreed. “Lady Luck was looking out for you.”
“There’s no such thing as Lady Luck,” Elric protested.
“Don’t sneer at luck, young mage,” Iggy added. “Sometimes it’s all you’ve got.”
“But I pray to the Lord of Light,” Elric protested again.
“And I pray to the woman in the mirror,” Katrina told him. “So what? If Lady Luck decides to smile on me I’m not going to spurn her favor. Certainly not in battle!”
Elric started to reply but a shout from the flanker interrupted him.
“Ho! They come!” The guard pointed at the distant shapes, now growing rapidly closer.
“Behind the wagons!”
“Look sharp, lads!”
A flurry of orders flew as the guards hurriedly readied themselves for the onslaught. The flanker wheeled his horse and spurred for the greater safety of the circling wagons. Behind him, one of the distant riders leaned forward and waggled his fingers purposefully. Three slender, glowing, arrow-like shapes sprang out and flew hissing to slam into the retreating flanker’s back. He screamed shrilly and tumbled to the ground accompanied by the sharp crack of breaking bone. He came to rest, his head at an unnatural angle.
Jon sucked in his breath at the sight. “A wizard!” he said sharply.
“And more powerful than I am,” Elric added, his brow creased in a worried frown.
Horace glanced sideways at him. “How do you know?”
Elric shook his head, “I’ll explain later.” He turned to Mira. “Can you hit him at this distance?” he asked, gesturing at her bow.
Mira shook her head but began stringing her bow anyway. “I need to wait until they’re closer.”
A murmur of agreement from the bowmen among the guards sounded behind her. “The young lass has the right of it, I’ll warrant,” one them said.
The thunder of pounding hooves began to rattle the wagons.
Aaren glanced around at their location. They were out in the middle of a flat, empty plain that stretched away to the north for miles. Protective cover was nil. He shook his head. Elric was right; the so-called Goddess of Luck was a myth. They needed real protection. He began a quick chant, calling down the blessing of the Lord of Light on them.
No sooner had he finished his prayer than the twang of bowstrings sounded all around him. A flight of arrows arched toward the enemy mage. Most fell short or off to the side but three almost struck him when they suddenly bounced aside as if they had struck an invisible shield.
“Uh oh,” Elric shook his head. “I was afraid of that. We’re in trouble.”
Now the enemy was almost on top of them.
Mira dropped her bow and pulled out her sword. “Well let’s give them some trouble!” she cried fiercely.
“Starting now!” Jon yelled and brought his arm forward with a quick jerk, his sling releasing a small, iron ball that whistled through the air.
Then the bandits were upon them.
The onslaught was sudden and fierce. Horace rose with a glad roar, his armored figure shining in the sun, laying about him with great, sweeping blows. Mira sprang up as well, putting her back to his. Jon crouched low, darting out with a well-timed dagger blow at the enemy’s legs or rolling under a horse to lay open their unprotected belly. When he had the chance, he unleashed a vicious strike with his sling at anyone in range.
Aaren planted himself in front of Elric, trying to protect him while he readied his spells to do combat with the enemy mage. Katrina stood next to him, her sword finishing those that Aaren’s hammer only wounded.
Kneeling between the cleric and the bard, Elric frantically searched for the bandit mage. There was no way he could win a magical duel, but perhaps he could use his magic to defeat the enemy in a physical duel. All he had to do was find him in the dusty swirl of violence ringing around him. He peered this way and that. Where was he? He had to be here someplac . . .
Aaren and Katrina gasped involuntarily at the huge ball of flame that erupted at the head of the caravan, the lead wagon turning into a raging inferno. They shrank back from the waves of heat rolling over them. Before they could fully comprehend what had happened they saw Elric spring out from between them and hurtle 40 cubits through the air. He slammed into the enemy spell caster and they fell heavily to the ground.
An indistinct shout sounded and was repeated around them several times but there was no time to pay attention to it.
Katrina goggled at the 40 cubit leap Elric had made. What in the world? A sword glittered in front of her and she barely parried in time. She’d find out later, she thought, fighting her new opponent grimly.
Mira slashed at the bandit in front of her, breathing heavily. She was bleeding from half a dozen small wounds; it was starting to tell on her. The bandit sensed her condition and pressed the attack, grinning with anticipation. She parried his sword with hers and the shock nearly tore the hilt from her hand. She stumbled backward into Horace. He braced himself without looking and heaved backward, throwing her toward the bandit. She twisted to avoid his reaching sword and suddenly she was behind him for a split second. Before he could turn she spun on her heel, swinging her sword with eye blurring speed at his side. It bit deep and he fell with a despairing shriek. Another bandit approached and she lifted her sword woodenly, waiting for his attack.
The fireball had startled Horace for a moment, but he recovered quickly. He saw Elric flying through the air to bear the enemy down to the ground. He laughed wildly and swung around to find another enemy to kill. Already the ground at his feet was littered with bodies and he was eager to add to the pile. Thundering hooves caught his attention and he saw a mounted bandit bearing down on him, a spear held out like a lance. He braced himself and swung his sword up and to the side, slicing the spear in half. Something crashed into him from behind and he shrugged it off, lunged for the rider, and missed. He cursed and started after him, then staggered as a mace slammed into him from the side. He bellowed in pain and swung viciously at his tormentor. His sword skittered across mail links and they were joined in battle.
Jon saw Elric hit the enemy mage and drive him into the ground with a heart-stopping thud. Horace and Mira were suddenly gone and he darted across the battlefield to Elric’s side. Elric was wheezing painfully, tangled up with the other mage. Jon’s dagger flashed in the sun, burying itself in the man’s throat.
Elric nodded weakly at him. “Thanks,” he croaked. “I wasn’t sure if I had any strength left to fight him with.”
Jon pulled him out from under the body. “Are you alright? What happened?”
“That spell is great for jumping, not so much for landing,” Elric laughed. “I just had the wind knocked out of me . . . watch it!” he suddenly shouted across the battlefield to Mira.
She heard his bellow just in time and ducked as Horace’s sword swept over her.
“Sheeesh!” Jon muttered. “He’s almost as dangerous as the enemy.”
Elric looked around. “Hmm. Speaking of which, there don’t seem to be quite as many of them anymore.” He struggled to his feet.
Jon stood up beside him. “I think you’re right.”
They stood and watched the fighting around them for a moment more then Jon clapped his companion on the shoulder, “You wait here. I’ll be back in a minute.” He turned and sprinted towards the man fighting Horace and leapt full on his back. They went down in a noisy heap.
Elric smiled and shook his head. He seemed to be in the eye of the storm right at the moment so he took the opportunity to search the dead mage’s body. He found a ring, a small sack of coins, a book, and a dagger. He’d just finished putting his finds in his pockets when movement in the corner of his eye caught his attention. He jerked up and spun around. A bandit in leather armor was advancing, sword at the ready. He gripped the dead man’s dagger and backed away slowly.
“Where are you going mageling?” the man sneered. “Think you can just kill Rimon like that and get away with it? Unh uh, not a chance.”
Elric glanced around frantically. All of his companions were busy with their own fights, he was on his own. He’d used up the only spell he’d had prepared and now all he had was a dagger against a sword. He swallowed hard. The bandit swung suddenly and he brought the dagger up clumsily to parry. It turned in his hand and his clumsy move became graceful. The bandit’s sword rang against the dagger and fell back. An eerie blue light seemed to dance around the blade of the dagger for a moment, then it disappeared. Elric’s heart leapt as he turned on his Sight, a magic dagger! Maybe he had a chance after all! He crouched in a fighting stance and brought the blade up in front of him, waiting for the bandit’s next attack.
Aaren’s foe slumped to the ground and he peered around the battle. Dozens of bodies lay scattered on the ground and some of the bandits were beginning to retreat. Katrina finished her opponent and came to stand beside him. Her breath was ragged. “Are we winning?” she asked.
“I think so,” he replied. “But I see a lot of our people on the ground. It doesn’t look so good.”
“That looks even worse,” she said, pointing to where Elric stood facing a swordsman with only a dagger to defend himself.
“What say we help him?”
“Took the words right out of my mouth.”
But before they could move, the bandit lunged at their friend. Elric slipped aside with unexpected grace, turned, and drove the dagger into the bandit’s side. The man stiffened, tottered, and fell. The two of them exchanged a surprised look.
“Well, well, well.” Katrina lifted a delicate eyebrow. “Elric’s turning into quite the fighter these days.” Without waiting for a reply she trotted over to brush him off carefully.
Aaren lifted a quizzical eyebrow at her show of affection and turned his attention back to the battle. It seemed to be ending. There was no sudden retreat like the last time; it was a slow, ebbing sort of thing. Here and there some bandits were still fighting, but they were being overwhelmed. The rest were slowly backing away, weapons at the ready.
He joined Horace and Jon. “Not quite the same as the last one is it?” he asked them.
Horace shook his head. “We’d better keep an eye on them,” he said warily, pointing at the retreating enemy. “They know we’ve been hurt pretty bad. They might be back during the night.”
Jon looked up at him in surprise. “What do you mean we’ve been hurt? We’re doing great!”
“Not the six of us,” Horace corrected him, “them!” He pointed at the rest of the guards.