As the hero and his friends prepared for the looming moment of decision, a small company of harassed looking peasants came into the camp, seeking an audience with the legendary leader of the resistance. Their spokesman, hat in hand, importuned Librohn to send some of his fighters to their village.
"For many months we have been plundered by an army of bandits," he said. "They come into our town, take our women and comely lassies and lads, strip our fields and barns until we have hardly enough remaining to subsist on; and this is what they are pleased to call 'protection money'; to guard us from the imperial armies that would, they say, do far worse than merely take what is their due. We can hardly argue the point. But we face starvation by going along without resisting them. And worse when we object to what is taken from us. The foolish who could not keep a quiet tongue have had their houses burned down around their ears. But desperation has driven us to seek your help. Can you send troops to garrison our town and defend us?"
Librohn was pained to hear this tale. He needed every man he could get for the crisis facing them all. Apologetically he refused to formally grant their request. It would send the wrong message to his troops.
"But I do not refuse you," he hastened to add, as he saw the downfallen countenances of the disappointed peasants. "You may present your request to anyone in our army. We are all volunteers anyway, and if you can convince anyone to go back to your town with you, that is fine with me."
The deputation left Librohn the Liberator and wandered through the busy encampment, attracting little attention, and getting very little success in finding anyone who was disposed to listen intently to their tales of woe and appeals for help. The peasants, in truth, had nothing to offer except three solid meals a day and a roof over their heads for anyone who would defend them. Money they had not, for it was taken every few months when the "collectors" of the banditti chieftains came around, demanding their payment for the "protection" they asserted that they were providing.
Feelings in the camp ran very high. Nearly everyone was focused on the impending battle. But Serj, Librohn's second in command, expressed a genuine sympathy with the peasants' plight. His own kinsfolk hailed from the east and he knew of that town. He spoke personally to several men and convinced them individually that they would be serving the "cause" just as fully if they went with these rustics back to their town and defended it against the anarchy being spread by the banditti. But he only convinced his friends to go when he agreed to accompany them.
The band was small enough. With Serj included they numbered only seven. Balen and a halberdier named Ahntohnyus, were joined by a gambling companion of theirs, a Drulath of exceedingly coarse features and lax grooming habits that caused a fetid stench surrounding his compact body. His real name was never offered and he accepted the nickname his acquaintances had bestowed on him: "Shtenchy" (it was a pun on the common human derogatory for Drulathim, "stunty", and "stench"). Unaccountably, an elf from the White Wing's company joined the party, in spite of the odious Drulath. His name was Mot'Hrah. One genuine man-at-arms with a warhorse rounded out the tiny band. He went by the appellation "Crohsyus the simple", and a more taciturn man you would not likely meet. The seventh member of the troop, Ah'kreemh by name, was a large young man from the Sea of Grass, a mysteriously out of place fellow with the traditional arms of his people, a powerful bow, buckler and saber. He rode a fat, rough looking black mare.
"So few, so few!" the spokesman practically wailed, when the Seven were presented to him. His companions were mostly silent. But their expressions said everything: this handful of fighters could hardly be expected to stand off two full score, and more, banditti: all well armed and mounted bowmen from the steppes. And this was just the core strength by which the chieftains held sway over an expanding territory which included the eastern most reaches of the Kylburian empire, where it bordered on the desert.
Nevertheless, the deputation accepted the proffered aid of these Seven, and the next morning early the mounted troop set off. After a couple days of stiff riding, they came to the hills overlooking the open town. Serj and his companions paused to take in the layout, before riding down to be introduced to their charges.
The town was located south, and inside, of the bend of a substantial stream, upon which a mill was built to the east. To their right (where they sat their horses) stood a windmill on the heights. A modest sized open square lay toward the southwest end of the town. The stream created marshy ground to the north before escaping from the bottoms to wend its way off to the northwest, where it was lost to view as it entered the Hynblend forest. A number of houses were in ruins, burnt and collapsed; testimony to the truth of the peasants' descriptions of the punishment meted out to them for talking back to the brigands. (the pictures show the place after the defenders build their dam)
"This place is impossible," said Mot'Hrah. "It's too open on all sides."
Serj nodded but said nothing for a long moment. "We can get the townsfolk to dam up the stream over there," he pointed to the spot where the water left the bottoms. "That will turn the dammed end into a proper lake, and widen and deepen the marshes. With the north end blocked off from attack, we can concentrate the defenses to the south. No doubt the main attack will come from here, where we are standing. A guard placed on the mill bridge, and another watching the west flank, will suffice while we deal with the main force. We could build up those walls where they've fallen or been pulled down. That would make defending the west flank possible with fewer men. And with as much time as we had left we could set stakes and wattle fences where they would be most needed."
He turned to the spokesman. "How many of your people will help with the fighting?"
The man looked embarrassed. Finally he stammered: "We are not fighters. We are farmers and craftsmen. That is what we brought you back for."
"You will have to become fighters, if you want to live free. Or, you can die slowly and with difficulty," said Serj. "We will instruct you. Any of your young men who have more spine than the oldsters can accept our tutelage. Or not, depending ... We will do what we came here for, in any case.
"When are you expecting these extortionists again?"
The peasant spokesman said that if their usual movements were held to, the banditti would send a gang to the town in less than a moon's time.
"No time to waste, then," said Serj. And he led them down off the hill toward the town square, where they could all see people gathering, who were pointing up at them and talking in subdued tones.
Riding into the town square, the Seven were met with mostly silence and expressions of dismay. A community "head" of sorts stepped forward and objected at their numbers, encouraging them to go back the way they had come, since seven could hardly be expected to successfully defend anyone or anything from at least seven times their number.
"If you help us help you, it will be better," said Serj sternly. "Who is this fellow?" he asked their employers. Serj and the others were told that the "head" objector had no authority beyond being recognized as the most eminent remaining among the townsfolk, after the banditti had killed or removed the mayor, local priest and anyone else who might be considered to be a leader. "The chieftains have told us that they are our natural lords now."
So the objector and his small gang of supporters were ignored, and a watch was kept over them to make sure that no one went off to inform the banditti of the newly arrived defenders. According to Serj's word, training of several willing townsmen began immediately.
Upon closer inspection of the place, Serj modified his initial plan and decided to mine three of the four, main entrances, leaving only the south street open: that was the one, they were told, by which the "collectors" always came to the square. Sharpened stakes were sown in the bottom of the pits (which were found to be too boggy to be made very deep, because of the generally high water table of the area). The pits were covered over and planks laid across of a flimsy nature, just sturdy enough to support the weight of a man but not a horse and rider. The defenses were completed by blocking up a few of the more open spaces between buildings, and creating moveable fences which could be stood across the mouths of the streets as needed.
A final touch to the ambush was devised by Serj to hopefully take out the rear most banditti and also form a blockage to the south street. This street passed into the square through an archway, which supported the east end of the upper floor of the town inn. A scaffolding was built and stones were placed on it, as if materials made ready to repair the upper storey outer wall. A peasant was to occupy the safe end of the scaffolding: the portion not connected to the loaded scaffolding over the archway, thus completing the illusion of repair work going on. Ahntohnyus stood ready to kick the supports away, thus tipping the scaffolding and its burden into the square before the opening to the street. With their defenses and ambushments prepared, positions for each of the Seven were determined, and then they waited.
A day passed, then seven riders came up the south road (by coincidence the same number as the hired defenders: the peasants had told Serj and Company that when the banditti came "collecting", they had never numbered less than five and sometimes just over a dozen). Swiftly, Serj's Seven took up their stations. The peasants assigned to move the fences were told to ready themselves: to place the fences across the openings when given the word. The stone "mason" quivered in fear atop his scaffolding. Ahntohnyus placed his halberd in a corner under a drape of rags. His own arms (as those of the others) were hidden under borrowed peasant clothing.
Into the square came the head of the gang, riding single file. Their leader rode over to the far side of the square where the town's tribute was gathered and presented by a cluster of men and women. His men followed him and fanned out to either side. They knew the routine.
As the fifth horseman passed under the arch, Ahntohnyus decided that the moment had come and kicked aside the trigger leg. With a creak of timbers and scrunch-rumble of falling masonry, the scaffolding collapsed into the square as expected. But it was too slow in toppling and missed the last horseman.
Horses started in alarm, their riders equally startled. A quick look backward revealed an "accident", with the presumed stone mason clinging for his life to what remained of his inept scaffolding. But hardly had anger or relieved amusement been expressed by the banditti, when up popped Ah'kreemh from a balcony overlooking the square, and Mot'Hrah stepped to the edge of what remained of the upper floor to the late priest's house. The elf's arrow shot the bandit leader from his horse. Ah'kreemh shot the man beside him in the back. Cries of anger from the remaining five banditti were followed by arrows from two of them as they whipped their bows up toward the ragged end of the ruined house; but Mot'Hrah stepped back nimbly from the edge and the spent arrows lodged in the rafters instead. Ah'kreemh dropped another bandit. The riderless horses milled, adding to the confusion. The peasants of course had scattered for their lives the instant the fighting started. There were no "pushers" to move the fences and block the banditti in.
Ahntohnyus barely uncovered and seized his halberd in time to meet the attack of a mounted bandit. He was pressed into the corner and lightly wounded.
A bandit readied his horse to try for a leap and scramble across the fallen masonry blocking the archway, but before he could make the attempt, Ah'kreemh shot him down.
Balen had opened the door to the church walled courtyard where he had been waiting and laid into the nearest horseman, quickly felling the surprised bandit. Shtenchy pushed into the horseman in front of him, while to his right Serj readied his two-handed sword for a blow to the bandit's flank. Shtenchy's man turned and fled across the square on his horse and came to grief as the apparent roadway collapsed under them. Horse and man squirmed in the pit, galled by the stakes. The Drulath and Serj ran over and offered him a chance to surrender. The bandit took one look at the odious Shtenchy and immediately complied with a shudder.
Seeing his comrades all down, the bandit confronting Ahntohnyus wheeled about and bolted through the opening to the west. The pit did not collapse fast enough to trip up his horse and he stumbled across it and kicked his mount into a trot and then a full gallop to safety, Mot'Hrah's arrows singing about his ears.
From where he had concealed himself (the plan had been his, to catch any fleeing banditti), Crohsyus the Simple had ridden his horse as swiftly as he could toward the street. But so suddenly had the fight been resolved that all the man-at-arms saw was the sole survivor of the banditti gang in full career across the tilled fields. There was no chance of catching him.
So the bandit chieftains would soon know of the fate of their "collectors". No doubt retaliation would be swift and powerful.
Serj and Shtenchy interrogated the captured bandit, who blurted everything he knew as he shuddered under the amused and hideous gaze of the Drulath gambler (who appeared to be more Urtuk than Drulath to their prisoner). They learned that the original number of banditti horsearchers had been forty. And that their hideout was less than a day's ride away to the southwest.
After they were through with him, Serj let Shtenchy lop off the bandit's head. There was no luxury in taking and keeping watch over prisoners here!
"What happens to us," inquired the insightful Mot'Hrah, "if, when the scum return, they test our defenses and find us too hard a nut to crack?"
"What do you mean?" said Serj. "We win, I'm thinking."
"Consider this, then," continued the elf: "The horses can't be forced across the pits, and those are the only ways into the square that we are defending. What's to stop the scum from simply pulling off and starving us out? It shouldn't take long. They've taken all the food this place has."
"We stopped them from getting their last theft," said Serj.
"Yes. And how long will that last us? It seems that the chieftains of these rapacious men have balanced survival to a nicety. They leave barely enough to support life and limb between their 'visits'."
Serj considered the elf's words in silence. In his mind's eye, he could see them not even waiting that long. With the square and its surrounding buildings (the largest and most substantial in the town) crammed with the townsfolk and closely defended, and the rest of the town abandoned, the banditti could fire the place. What good would a burned town be to its people?
Before he could formulate a different plan, the banditti returned, spreading out left and right and sending a column of light horse up the main road toward the archway. These could see the blockage at the far end, and turned away on the side street and threaded their way through an alley behind the houses.
Serj had placed the peasants who had joined him and his Seven into concealment in the courtyards, alleys and byways between buildings. These men were dubious help, but better than nothing. As it turned out, none of them were required as yet to strike a blow and stayed quiet and mostly well out of the way.
The chieftains, leading their company of elites on half-barded horses, started down off the hill and approached the square from the east. Meanwhile, half of their forces came in from the west. The best armed formed into a column and charged the west entrance to the square. The leading horses ran afoul of the pit and stakes. Extricating themselves with the most difficulty, they managed to pull off to a safe distance.
The bow of Mot'Hrah failed him! The string was abraded by the narrow confines of the casement window from which he was stationed to shoot. By the time he got a spare string onto his bow, the enemy was out of effective range and beginning to ride around toward the north, crossing the stream below the dam.
The chieftains gingerly approached up the street and thus discovered the pit trap, and halted. Ahntohnyus was stationed at this spot and he ordered the peasants with him to move the fence and block the street. This they did.
The cavalry which had been stalled in the alley by the press of horses, also withdrew, shooting a peasant who had been pushing the moveable fence into place before the advance of the elite heavy cavalry. The rest of the peasants scattered. Ahntohnyus stood at the fence alone watching the banditti withdraw back up the street.
Once clear of the town, all the banditti made camp on the hilltop. Watch fires were lit throughout the night. But the watch was poorly kept. In their confidence they slept. Four of them did not wake up in the morning, having been sneaked up on by four of the heroes in the deepest hours of the night. Serj, Crohsyus the Simple, Mot'Hrah and Balen each got his man and took the heads and mounted them upon pikes above the nearest housetop.
Of course the chieftains could not endure this slight to their prestige and readied for an all-out assault on the place ...
(to be continued ...)