"Well enough, given the circumstances. We found the bandits in greater strength than we had been told, if not in numbers, at least in their capabilities."
Librohn looked up sharply. "What sort of 'capabilities'?" This touched his interests. Potential enemies within two or three days of his encamped army required detailed information.
Serj described the banditti force. Now he had the focus of everyone in the room. Dark eyes bored into his shifting ones. He could tell that this was not going well: nobody here, not even himself, would allow Kavarim enough 'capability' to frighten off Kylburians. So something in what he wasn't saying began to hang like a bad smell in the drafty, half destroyed room.
"So what you are saying," said Librohn levelly, "is that you got in over your heads and decided it wasn't worth the risk."
"I wouldn't put it that way," said Serj.
"And how would you put it, then?" Librohn stepped over to Serj until their toes were nearly touching. Their eyes were on a level. But Serj felt as if Librohn's searched his own from a superior height.
"I guess that I made a mistake in not listening to you, and in going with so few to face so many. Rather than risk the lives of the others, following my mistake, I decided to cut out before it was too late."
"I see," said the Liberator quietly, never taking his eyes from his swordsman's. "Well, you can return and finish what you started. Don't come back in my sight until you have won. If you die trying, that will solve that problem."
He went back with his officers to the perusal of their map. Serj was isolated. He might as well be a dead man already. Nobody looked at him again.
With that horrible feeling flooding his veins like ice, Serj awoke and sat up on the ground with a violent start.
Thank the gods! He was still encamped with five of the others. His abrupt movement and gasp awake had also alerted the elf, Mot'Hrah. He was looking at him, to judge by the set of his face in the starlight. The Kavar, Ah'kreemh, had not returned yet from his self-appointed scouting patrol.
Serj did not wait long, waking up the others. He got right to it:
"I've done you all a great disservice, brothers..." He paused. Then he admitted to being a persuasive man, but not a valiant one. "But that persuasion is only of value when it leads to worthy behavior." He related his dream, as a gift of the gods, confirming what had been in the back of his mind from the outset, that the life of a coward is no life. "I simply must return, and I am sure Librohn would agree to that course. I persuaded you to do the wrong thing. But now I would, if possible, persuade you to do that which we all know is right. None of you shall be thought the lesser by me for continuing on, but I cannot think right of myself should I not turn back."
Discussion followed. But it was mostly how to go about resuming the uneven battle they had quitted so precipitately. Now that they were talking about how, and not if, they were to return and take up the sword again, their countenances lightened. No man hesitated to look the others in the face. They could not, however, come up with anything but an open charge into the village and fight their enemies as they appeared, in what numbers that may happen to be. If they prevailed, so be it. If they perished, that would be the will of the gods.
As they continued to rack their brains for anything to give them an edge, Ah'kreemh returned, announcing his approach by getting his horse to whicker. Some of the other horses responded in like manner and everyone relaxed as the nomad came into view between the trees. He told them his news:
He had followed a company of the enemy to their camp. That was no difficulty, since he looked and spoke as one of them. And the warlord chieftains were always recruiting. He ate the evening meal with the banditti and heard all of their war council. "They are going to send a strong company on the morrow to occupy the village and keep the peasants to their work. While doing so, they will keep a lookout for our possible return. And they are not sure if we're not the vanguard of a larger force. They are worried about that."
"I wish we could satisfy them with what they fear," barked Serj sardonically. "We will give them a good account of ourselves. They will think that they have faced seven times seven before we are through."
So saying, they got to horse and the elf and nomad led the rest through the night back along their trail to the village.
Predawn had not started to lighten the sky when they walked their horses into the darkened streets, to the house of the leader of their employers. This man had struck each of them as the stuff of warriors; although his hard peasant's life had all but beaten it out of him. Now, perhaps, in this final hour, he would join them, and if so, persuade other of his friends to do the same.
They dismounted, securing their horses across the street in an alley. Serj knocked softly on the door. He repeated twice more. And finally the latch was lifted and the door cracked open the merest slit. Then it swung wide and the man stood in amazement with his mouth gaping for words. He didn't say anything but stepped inside and waved them in urgently. Once all of the Seven were in the rustic chamber, the man of the house, whose name was Kahvoht, lit a candle and set it down. "What does this return at the end of a very bad day, and mayhap the start of a better one, mean?"
Serj explained that they were trying for an edge. By leaving, and letting the banditti think that they had won, it was hoped that they would be careless in reentering the village and thus put themselves in their power. A good slaughter would possibly dampen the ardor of the rest. But if not, at least it would weaken them through death. "Now will you fight?"
Kahvoht looked at the floor and blew out his cheeks as he nodded with finality. Without a word, he went to a corner and lifted up the floorboards there. Reaching down he came up with a nomad composite bow and quiver of arrows, a helmet, targ and saber. He donned the arms and faced them.
"Will any of the others follow your example?" Serj asked.
"I will see. You wait here," he said to the others. "You come with me," he said to Serj. And the two of them went out. In a little less than an hour they returned with five more village men. Three had been in Librohn's camp the previous fortnight, with Kahvoht, recruiting. Two more looked round-eyed with alarm. But, they were here.
Arms Kahvoht's previous three companions had, for like Kahvoht, they had plundered the slain lying about the village and in the fields. Only Kahvoht was an archer. But helms, shields, spears and swords they had. One of the other two men had a serviceable mace and targ, the other had a polearm and a sword. Each wore a helmet and thick jack. Serj nodded and smiled at them grimly. Fear limned their features and their limbs. But their eyes burned with determination as they looked each of the Seven in the face and saw only resolve. The armed men did not hold their weapons as if they wanted to throw them away. They could all verily believe that the temporary abandonment of the previous day was part of a cunning plan to hurt the banditti sorely. (Serj, remembering his nightmare, was thinking: It could be the cunning plan of the gods, who always worked in mysterious ways.)
Kahvoht and the stalwart villagers spread out to cover the streets:
As dawn lightened the leaden sky, they took their planned places. The war council had been brief and simple. Each man knew his part. The villagers were to sally from doorways and alleys and other concealments only when the Seven had engaged the enemy. Dealing blows from flanks and rear would serve the villagers best, giving them the force multipliers that they needed not only to kill but to survive.
It was imperative that the rest of the village not know of the planned ambush. So each of the Seven was given a place to wait out of sight. The three men-at-arms held their mounts close, standing with gentle hands over muzzles, whispering, feeding them bits of straw and apple slices to keep the warhorses calm.
Serj had chosen the west side of the tavern stables.
Balen stood beside his horse down an alley and at the rear of a house.
Crohsyus the simple was going to assail the banditti from a burned out house.
Shtenchy was crouched nearby at the far side of the ruined priest's house.
Ahntohnyus with his halberd at the ready stood just inside the churchyard door.
Mot'Hrah selected his former vantage point, the ruins of the priest's house overlooking the square:
Ah'kreemh had also determined to keep his huge black mare with him where he waited in another burned out house:
The other horses were taken by the village men to the tavern stable and put inside.
From the streets, the six auxiliaries of the village kept a lookout where they could be seen, going about business that appeared innocuous enough. Should any villager approach where the Seven had hidden themselves, the nearest one of those six would distract them away. And so the first hour after dawn, and the second, passed without incident.
Along toward the middle of the morning, the anticipated "brute squad" was seen coming up the road. It appeared to be mostly a band of foot with shields and spears and side arms. A few horsemen similarly armed were in their midst. And at the head of the little column of a dozen or so men rode two of the bandit chieftains' best on half-armored horses, each Kavar bristling with weapons.
The banditti and their auxiliaries of the subjected local feudal fiefs entered the square and loudly hailed the villagers, summoning all within earshot to come here and give heed.
One of the Kavar leaders leaned in lordly fashion over his horse's armored neck and said:
"We are no longer going to give you the benefit of any doubt, not after what you've put us through. From now on, we will be keeping a close eye and ear on everything you do and say. Now, we'll take over these fine buildings right here. Bring us food and drink and be quick about it! Then, get to work. We are hungry and we'll be taking our 'share' as before. Nothing has changed!"
So saying, on his signal, the footmen moved toward the tavern, houses and church that fronted the square. They pushed peasants aside roughly.
The five mounted men sat their horses in a knot in the middle of the square, peering this way and that, and up at the second floor windows.
Right about then the trap was sprung. Shtenchy came roaring around the corner of the ruined priest's house. From the upper floor, Mot'Hrah shot the fully armored bandit next to the mouthy leader. Ahntohnyus threw the churchyard door wide and leaped with a scything motion into the first spearman that he encountered. In the first few seconds, three of the "brute squad" were down in their gore.
The rest broke in all directions, to be met by Serj charging into the square through the tavern archway:
Balen came from the opposite side as peasants scattered out of his way:
Crohsyus the simple charged into the square from the east:
Ah'kreemh rode in from the southeast, crossed the square and shot down a routing feudal sergeant who had made it as far as the end of the street. Mot'Hrah put an arrow into his back at the same time. The leader of the bandit company was already lying on the cobbles, having also been slain by one of the elf's arrows.
All five of Kahvoht's comrades joined in the killing. But he was off to one side trying to fit a new string to his bow.
Somehow in his inexpertness and haste he had managed to slice most of the way through his bow string with the first arrow's head that he had loaded, and the compromised string had snapped at the first draw (snake eyes, the first roll of the game, gratis of yours truly: perversely, the next three rolls were box cars, which resulted in the above described rapid slaying!).
The last horseman to go down was about to bolt out of the square to the west, but he was slammed into by Serj's warhorse and bowled over, then speared where he lay. Balen went after the sole surviving footman and caught him quickly enough. Execution was instantaneous.
Not one member of the "brute squad" had survived. The villagers were ecstatic in their praises. Their men who had supported the Seven heroes were given no less praise. Their esteem mounted to the treetops. It would soon reach the sky.
For three days nothing was heard from the banditti. The time was used to make the village as presentable and peaceful looking as possible. The blood was cleaned away with sand. The bodies were all taken and dumped into the marshy places, in the flooded ruined houses there. Then they waited.
Another group came trotting up the road and it was all Kavarim, led by the second warlord chieftain, whose name was Ohrmekho. He and his comrade in banditry, Selkunday, had had words about what to do next, and Selkunday had won: Ohrmekho was to lead a company to the village and find out why their men had not returned. When they had news, he was to send a rider back and inform the band.
This was an unwise move. A better move would have been to descend upon the village en masse, so said Ohrmekho. But he was the sub commander here (and reasonable, player-requested Charisma and Intelligence tests, which fail, do mess with the GM's plans!), and so off he went with great trepidation. Including himself, there were eight Kavarim. They too entered the square and were met by a sort of deputation of village men.
"Where are the men we sent here three days ago?" Ohrmekho said loudly. He had an arrow on his bow string, leveled at the spokesman.
"What men would those be, my lords?" he said meekly. Something about his shifty eyes touched the Kavar chieftain where his uneasiness lay like spoiling milk in his stomach. He rose in his stirrups and shot the man.
He pointed another arrow with his bow half drawn at the next man, who nevertheless spoke rapidly and convincingly enough that Ohrmekho could not quite disbelieve him. So instead he turned to the next villager to his left and thus shot one of Kahvoht's men through the body. Then Ohrmekho looked back to the peasant spokesman to see what reaction the man gave for that. Before he could fathom anything at all, Ohrmekho felt two arrows strike him almost simultaneously, one from above and the left, and one from directly behind. In great pain he doubled in the saddle. Kahvoht and Mot'Hrah had scored and avenged the fallen villagers. From all sides came the others, and in far less time than the larger group of three days before, this band of unworthies were all sent to the seven hells to join them.
"The square of death!" exulted an excited peasant at the renewed sight of carnage deftly carried out. And so it was renamed.
Six days followed before the final attempt by the lone warlord and his remaining elites was made. Eight heavily armed horsearchers came slowly across the west fields out of bowshot. They circled the town entirely, searching every window, street head and alley, every fence and rick, but did not search the marshes, so they did not solve the mystery of what had happened to their men.
As they moved again beyond the west side of the town, Ahntohnyus managed to drop his halberd and as he bent to retrieve it the Kavarim spotted him. Several armed peasants had also not stayed enough out of sight. Now the banditti knew that armed men were in there. Selkunday pulled his men out of bowshot across the west fields and they sat their horses in a loose crescent. The warlord was at a loss what to do. Suggestions ranged from an all out charge with lances into the town square and out the other side, just to see how that would go; to lighting the whole place on fire a building at a time; and even going back home to the steppes was proposed, and quitting this stupid empire of dung eaters.
Serj had an idea to lure them inside. He dressed himself in the arms of Ohrmekho, fetched the dead man's horse, and went out. Half a bowshot away the eight Kavarim watched him walk the white horse to the edge of the fields and stop. He called to them: "Come inside! We have the place mostly secured. A few armed men remain, but they will surely give up when our forces are joined together."
"Eh?" said Selkunday blearily. He had imbibed heavily before setting forth on this investigative patrol. "Something isn't right about this," he said to his men. "Ride closer. Load arrows." The line of eight heavy cavalry started to walk across the fields steadily narrowing the distance. Two more horsemen came out of the town and flanked Serj. On his right was Crohsyus the simple, dressed in the heavy arms of a dead Kavar elite. On Serj's left stood Ah'kreemh, who needed no disguising. The three of them waited for the banditti to come in attack range.
Selkunday's eyes widened in anger and alarm. "Those are not ours! At them!" He spurred forward and shot an arrow at Ah'kreemh. It penetrated the Kavar freebooter's light arms and wounded him sorely, even as Ah'kreemh rode his huge black mare into the smaller mount of the bandit before him and bore both horse and man to the earth. At the same instant several more Kavarim arrows plunked into armor, and Crohsyus was also wounded. Nevertheless he pressed on and threw down first one and then instantly after a second nomad. Serj defeated the man in front of him but took an arrow as well.
Boiling out of the village came the others across the open ground.
Mot'Hrah shot but did not do more than lodge an arrow or two in armor. Before Shtenchy, Balen and the others could arrive within weapon stroke, Selkunday withdrew the half of his men left.
The mounted heroes, despite their wounds, continued on. Both Crohsyus and Serj vanquished a Kavar.
Selkunday wheeled to the right and fled. The warlord chieftain did not escape his lighter armed enemies, who overtook him swiftly. One last arrow he shot in haste at Ah'kreemh, and missed. The Kavar youth did not miss. His arrow drove the hapless and inebriated Selkunday from the saddle, and Serj speared him where he lay.
Over on the north end of the field, the last survivor of the banditti turned and rode away along the stream. Mot'Hrah and Kahvoht loosed at him from long range, and the village archer was braced beyond description to see his own shot come within a hairsbreadth of striking the fleeing Kavar, while the Elf's arrow missed by a wide margin, for whatever reason.
Crohsyus the simple lived up to his moniker and nearly died for it, as the fleeing bandit sent an arrow at close range through his borrowed Kavar armor. Almost he continued the chase, but something like prudence, and definite pain, made him pull up and let the last bandit go.
There was outlandish rejoicing for days after this final deliverance of their village, though not much in the way of food or drink was on hand, of course. What was lacking in victuals was made up for with delirious relief.
Finally, serious consideration of their situation was discussed. And Serj persuaded the peasants to abandon their sorely damaged town and join Librohn the Liberator. With no further danger from banditti on their road, and with their own men now well armed from looted dead Kavarim and feudal auxiliaries, the population of the town felt able to meet any mischief they might encounter. In fact, there was none, and several days later, exhausted yet enthusiastic, the entire company entered Librohn's camp and joined his army.