Sunday, March 6, 2016

Battle Through the Pass

Xoniuqé, Myrdagyn and Ahnxst made final preparations to depart Klyph. To the wizard's satisfaction, even joy, Bruno his dog handler appeared with three large war hounds on the leash and a backpack of provisions for himself. His account of escape from the hills above Tarn Chasm was laconic in the extreme: He had regained consciousness in a welter of his own blood, surrounded by the corpses of dismembered foegim and dogs. He had managed to staunch his wounds and drag himself down from the heights. A peasant hunter had found him and taken him to his hut, where the good woman of the hunter had seen to Bruno's injuries with rough competence. He had healed quickly and returned to Klyph. The acquisition of a trio of large hounds had occupied a small investment of time and service to someone, but Bruno didn't bother to explain. As the party set forth, the handler was training his new charges as they went.

Myrdagyn led them into the mountains northwest of the city and they camped. Morning saw them well into the highlands. And soon enough one of the Knights of Mytros, riding well to the rear as a scout, caught them up and informed everyone that a pursuit was on their trail: a very large mixed band of thuggish types and men in full armor, bearing halberds. Warriors!

Myrdagyn increased the pace. But their foes gained steadily on them throughout the day.

They arrived at the summit, on the east side of a marshy pond which drained out to the southwest, the stream increasing in depth and swiftness as it went through the pass ahead and dropped by descending twists and falls to the wild plains of the Masterless Quarter.

A quick decision was made and the party bent their course around the north end of the pond. Bruno and the dogs scouted ahead. Xoniuqé kept a close watch on their progress a short distance behind. The infantry, mounted Knights and men-at-arms and baggage followed. Bruno came up short and pointed at the mouth of the pass. There could be seen squat, powerful shapes emerging from the rocks and lining up in the opening between the north cliffs and the stream to the south. The way was blocked.

Nouvzé spurred his horse further to the north and went up into the hills to scout the trail that all could see that ran above the main pass. He was met at the top by a pair of thugs who quickly sent him back down. Their position was a strong one and the young swordsman did not fancy a battle against two to one odds on that ground. Myrdagyn said that he would lead the company of sturdy axmen up there and clear the way.

Meanwhile, the Knights and men-at-arms, with Horgand in the lead, formed a column and trotted along the north bank of the stream toward the waiting enemy: a clot of Urtukim and a supporting band of thugs coming forward from the rocks where they had been keeping themselves from sight.

Xoniuqé rode Cinderfoot alongside Ahnxst and his two companion Drulathim, The girl Sehlinah was on his other side, and together they all followed the half dozen swordsmen and four crossbows in the wizard's employ.

The cavalry spurred into the waiting, howling Urtukim. Horgand tried to ride down the Urtuk in front of him. But this fellow simply fell to one side and got up again to face the rest of the oncoming cavalry. As Horgand rode on he was met by another Urtuk and several thugs, who thronged him on three sides. His position was suddenly desperate and he tried to ride down the Urtuk before him. But this foe stood his ground and Horgand's horse balked. Forward progress was stopped and in a brief exchange of blows, the hero was unhorsed and left bleeding for dead on the ground.

 The cavalry charge was stymied by flank attacks. Soon both Knights were down and a man-at-arms routed back past the wizard and his men. He urged them forward and soon a stiff little melee filled the pass from stream to cliffs. Casting a worried glance back the way they had come, his fears were confirmed: their pursuers were close! Thuggish types were splashing through the marsh, and Warriors were taking the same path around it that the adventurers had chosen.

When two of his hired swordsmen broke toward him in a panic before the ferocious Urtukim, Xoniuqé cast a spell over himself again, augmenting voice and appearance to fill his men with confidence. Those already fleeing turned about, and everyone renewed their efforts to break through the pass. Even the girl Sehlinah threw herself into the fight and brought down a thug after much cut and thrust.
On the heights, Myrdagyn and his axmen pushed hard up the trail against the thugs plugging the narrows. An axman died and Myrdagyn risked pushing into the midst of three at once, and was momentarily beset and hard pressed when he fell down on the loose rocks. He struggled to defend himself and struck at legs and upward at the bodies of his foes. One fell back dying on his feet. The rest ran away with axmen in pursuit. The closest thugs were cut down. The two or three that were fleet of foot escaped. Myrdagyn regained his feet, marveling at his bad luck
Across the stream more Urtukim could be seen coming down from the rocks and the hills. The nearest ones already were exploring the edge of the water for a passage across. Nouvzé trotted his horse over there and dismounted and decided that wading was doable. He started across. Two Urtukim moved toward him and stood on the bank waiting with weapons at the ready.
One of Xoniuqé's swordsmen was down in his gore. But most of the dying was on the other side. Suddenly fortune shifted and the mounting casualties amongst the defenders of the pass caused the thugs to turn about and flee. In an instant the remaining Urtukim also panicked, and then the rest on the far side of the stream turned to flee as well. Nouvzé sloshed ashore and beheaded the two who had a moment before been waiting for him. He pursued his way into the hills but no foes stood for him. He forded the stream again and got on his horse. That was when he first learned of the fate of his father.

Xoniuqé saw Ahnxst bending over the fallen Horgand. Swiftly the Drulath raised the father of Nouvzé up and threw him over the wizard's saddle. Horgand hung unconscious and still bleeding heavily, his arms and legs hanging draped over Xoniuqé's knees. As he rode, the retired physician of the imperial court checked the man's wounds the best he could. The bleeding he could arrest for the main part. The rest would have to wait. Their pursuers were very close.

He looked behind and saw the main body of their foes a mere bowshot away, now fully across the marsh and stream and having skirted around it as well. More of their enemies were emerging from the trees, more slouching Urtukim.

Ahead of Xoniuqé and his swordsmen and crossbows, the cavalry ran down more fleeing Urtukim and thugs. Then the few survivors had escaped into the rocks on either hand. There was no time to keep at them. Myrdagyn and his axmen came down on the far side of the pass and the united party wended their way down ahead of their enemies. The cavalry, and now a remounted Nouvzé with them, remained in the rear, showing fight with lowered spears and lances. Their pursuers slowed down in the face of the threat. On the narrow trail, the horses would have all the advantage, with no chance to be outflanked.

And so the two groups proceeded down to the lower ground of the Masterless Quarter. Out across the plain the adventurers went and angled northward, paralleling the mountains on their right. Their pursuers could now fan out and bring their full strength to bear. They hastened their pace. Hardly bestead in their armor, both parties were breathing hard and near exhaustion.

Then, coming over a low rise, Xoniuqé and Myrdagyn saw an unlooked for thing: a compact town inside walls of dressed stone. They looked at each other, the same puzzlement mirrored in both faces. No towns graced the Masterless Quarter. This place would be on no maps. But if they did not try for it, and the unlooked for safety that the walls offered, they would soon be caught by their foes and brought to battle against heavy odds.

The gate was open. The high houses seen above the battlements had laundry strung between. And the homely sight of a light traffic passing through the gateway heralded a small scale market day. Myrdagyn saw a woman empty a bucket of slop from an upper window. Somehow the commonality of that gesture was reassuring.

As the party of adventurers drew nearer, the townspeople saw them and their pursuers and shortly an alarm of horns rang out. The gates began to move outward. Myrdagyn was the first to arrive and planted himself squarely before a slowly closing door and blocked it with his body. Ahnxst followed suit. Nouvzé and the other two Drulathim blocked the other door and the party swiftly filed through the portal and into the street behind. Then Myrdagyn and the others stepped in behind them and the gates boomed shut.

Outside, the pursuers pulled up and swiftly retreated out of bowshot. From the walls they could be seen talking together. And soon they were making camp. It looked as if they were preparing to beleaguer the place.

Myrdagyn came down from the battlements, ignoring the slight guard of townsmen that observed the newly arrived strangers in silence, holding their weapons ready. He went over to where Xoniuqé was bending over his work to minister to Horgand. Soon the physician to the imperial court (retired) stood up, a satisfied set to his face. "He will live," he said.

Horgand was fully awake and slowly got to his feet, swaying. He seemed more bemused than wounded and kept shaking his head. The last memory he had of being struck from the back of his horse hardly suited his return to the land of the living inside a walled town. He felt fey.

Xoniuqé took stock of their surroundings for the first time. The townspeople were oddly subdued, considering the abrupt interruption to their daily lives that had just occurred. The wizard's suspicions were instantly piqued. He surreptitiously extended his willpower and probed their immediate surroundings. And then he recoiled. Probably his face blanched, because Myrdagyn said: "What is it? Is something amiss?"

The wizard swallowed hard before answering: "From frying pan to the fire, my friend. We are in the bowels of the beast...."


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