Chapter Five

Slim was tired, large shadows under her eyes. 

She had spent the night in the arms of Duinglas, the most comfortable and warm in bed, she also derived comfort from nestling into his massive frame. And he was always kind. 

Yet sleep had eluded her, she had found it hard to relax, the sense of impending loss racked her. 

She finally dragged herself out of bed, feeling stiff and groggy, and sighed. And the prospect of sitting on a horse for the next few days was far from appealing.

A lovely morning had dawned, however, with not a cloud in the sky, and it promised to be hot. 

The Sisterhood packed up camp. They discarded the chest and divided up the loot, concealing it among the supplies carried by the ponies and in their own saddlebags.

The evening before they had shared a feeling of triumph, but that had been replaced by realism, the job was as yet half done. There was still the long bottom-numbing four-day ride to Tarthesius. All through the settled and “civilised” lands of the Fenigruin Empire, but the local soldiery, and especially the Sanctorum Police, were notoriously unpredictable and avaricious. 

If they arrived at the bank at Tarthesius unmolested, then they would be lucky. They had done well to earn the gold, and they were determined that whatever happened they would retain it, no matter how prudent and vigilant that required them to be.

The Sisterhood saddled up, seven sturdy and shaggy ponies and one massive black stallion, which was bare backed and was restive and fiery and glared at them. Slim wandered over to the horse and it nuzzled her, nickering. 

As Viksgald approached his own pony, the stallion manoeuvred its hind quarters and lashed out at him. Viksgald scrambled out of the way and fell over, sprawling in the undergrowth.

The others laughed.

‘You’re a good lad, Breakheart,’ whispered Slim into the horse’s ear. She climbed unaided onto the horse. The others kept their distance until they were on their own ponies.

They cut across country west and south, soon arriving back at the road. Sibil and Viksgald rode ahead, and then the rest of the Sisterhood, with Chaegurd some way behind. There was little conversation and no merriment, the miles slowly passed through the oak woods and spruce forests of Fen. 

They made good time and reached Fenmarch just after midday. They had met messengers and traders on the way, but nobody else. Fenmarch was a small city, built on both sides of the Merse River, wealthy but rustic, and they took the ferry across without incident and then set off for the north and west.

By nightfall they were a few miles from the great city of Deargos, the main settlement of the rich province of the same name. The woods and copses had given way to fields and pastures, many peasants and slaves worked in the valleys, clouds of sheep grazed the upper slopes. The lands were rich, studded with prosperous farms and villas, and they passed many wayside hostelries.

They would have preferred a campsite in the open, but could find nowhere suitable, so they chose a quiet inn on a minor route from the town of Lostmount, taking three rooms. The inn was not an especially good establishment, but the chambers were clean and the food was hot, they had certainly frequented worse. Half the Sisterhood went down to the common room for a few hours to appear sociable, but they drank little and retired early, while the others guarded the gold.

Although they had taken three chambers, they all shared just one, with two on watch for two hours each. The watches ground past slowly, but nothing happened that night. They had an early breakfast, retrieved their ponies and Slim’s horse from the stable, setting off as soon as light enough.

Again it dawned fair, but there was little traffic at that early hour. A few miles away, Deargos was a great city with thousands of townsfolk, the walls flushed red in the morning sun. Above the roof of the city was a large castle, built on bare rock, with many tall towers, flags fluttering. But dominating the city were the three tall towers and pointed spires of the great cathedral. The cathedral was built of marble in coloured stripes, white and dark green and blood red, often reckoned one of the wonders of Eastern Empire.

Finding cart ways and tracks, they made their way around the city to the south and re-joined the main road some miles to the east of its gates. This took until midmorning. The road had been busy but those they met were friendly or wary or both, and left them alone, they did the same.

That evening found them many miles to the north and west. They had come out of the rich town lands into higher pastures to cross a wide expanse of moorland, a wild lonely place, more so because of the settled lands about it. There were many sheep, but few birds and even fewer people. 

The moorland ran out and the road dropped down towards the town of Dokdarr, where there was a meeting of roads, routes coming in from the south, west and east, and from the north-west and north-east. But they were still a couple of hours travel from the place, and night was coming. 

There were woodlands not far from the road, so they made for these. The camp was cheerless and damp, sited in the narrow ravine of a fast-flowing stream, though hidden from the road. The site was too wet for a fire, although Slim again made herself comfortable next to the warming bulk of Duinglas.

The next morning they decided to go through Dokdarr rather than round it. From their vantage point, and their memory of the place, there did not appear to be any way to avoid the town. In the distance, it could be seen smoking in the early morning sun, a walled settlement with a substantial keep towering darkly above the roofs. 

Gathering the horses together, they set off and, after an hour of steady riding, came to the gates. The company was admitted without comment. Chaegurd and Brimsaga bought fresh food at the market and some flowers for Slim, which her horse ate, and they set off again, leaving the town by the north-west gate.

They trudged along all that day, weary and saddle-sore. The land about them was now flat and hardly seemed to change, except that the hills and moors behind them slowly receded. Here and there were villages and hamlets, but their inhabitants hardly noted the passing of the Sisterhood, the peasants and slaves were disinterested and dispirited. Every so often they chanced upon other people on the road, merchant caravans, travellers, carts with produce from local farms going to market, horsemen who galloped past. Slim remembered little of the trip except the pain in her buttocks and groin and legs, and the tedium. At least the weather was fine.

That night they spent in the open, again some distance from the road in a patch of dense woodland. They risked lighting a fire, Chaegurd caught some fish. The camp was at least dry. Slim slept better, glad that they were reaching the end of the journey. 

Their main camp was near Hargranok, which was only a couple of hours away, but they had decided to make directly for the city of Tarthesius, with its famous golden dome and many spires and towers — and, of course, the bank — still half a day’s ride to the west.

The sun rose again into a sky empty of clouds, the light spread up from the horizon. A merrier company headed out that morning. Before lunch they had passed the outskirts of Hargranok and rode on eagerly through the wide and fertile town lands. 

The farms became larger, until extensive villas were peppered on the higher lands, looking out over the road. The route ran along a raised causeway, heading directly towards Tarthesius, and was straight for miles, indeed as far as the eye could see. Columns of trees on either side marked the way, beyond fields of corn and oats and roots and vegetables and other crops in every direction, a flat land with low horizons and a vast dome of blue sky. The city could just be guessed in the distance, a glint of gold and a silver haze of smoke, on the edge of sight.

Then about halfway between the town and Tarthesius, Chaegurd came galloping back.

‘There are troops coming,’ he said. ‘Twenty-one cavalry including a captain. Armed with swords and spears. Dressed in the livery of Helmund, not Tarthesius.’

‘What the hell are they doing here?’ muttered Zala. Chaegurd shrugged.

She looked around, but there was nowhere to hide, no other route to take. Besides if they made off across country it would look suspicious.

Brimsaga sighed, Duinglas loosened his axe.

‘Slim,’ ordered Foldric. ‘Get off that bugger of a horse and wait by the roadside.’

Slim knew better than to argue, although her expression was sour she did as she was told, dismounting and leading her fierce horse into a wood. She looked after them, both anxious and angry.

No word was spoken — no word needed to be spoken — if they were challenged, or a search was attempted, they would fight. Sixteen-hundred gold pieces was a fortune that would ensure their future, they would do anything to keep it.

On they went, while Chaegurd rode away east to fetch Viksgald and Sibil, who were scouting at the rear.

In a while Duinglas could see the soldiers coming, but he plodded on towards them, seemingly without haste or care, Brimsaga, Zala and Foldric in a line behind him with the baggage ponies. The troops approached, two lines of ten horsemen, their leader, in a plumed helmet, before them. 

Any hope of being left alone was soon dashed.

The leader of the horsemen blocked their way. He was clad in the eagle of Helmund, he and his men were holy knights of that port and city, possibly the last warriors in the whole of the Fenigruin empire that Duinglas would have wanted to confront just then. The knights of Helmund were renowned for their piety, but even more so for their thieving ways, justified, they claimed, because they gave it all to the church, or their church anyway. These men looked very young, however, perhaps even raw recruits, and Duinglas counted on their lack of experience in a hard fight. Besides, they would not be expecting trouble so near to Tarthesius.

‘Greetings,’ said Duinglas respectfully. ‘How may I help you, sir?’

‘Greetings,’ replied the knight. ‘Who are you, and where are you headed?’

‘I am Dervag, a man of Midmirr,’ said Duinglas, and then went on to give false names for his companions. ‘We are travelling to Tarthesius, where we have business.’

‘What sort of business?’ asked the man, peering at them down his nose, but not bothering to introduce himself. ‘And what do you carry on these ponies?’

‘We are hoping to join the garrison of that city,’ replied Duinglas easily. ‘And we have nought but supplies for our journey. We are newly come from Duindrax, where we were in the service of Lord Melkor of the Draggans. That campaign being over we now seek new work.’

‘I see,’ said the knight. ‘Yet your beasts look a little heavily burdened for mere supplies. Perhaps you are smugglers, trying to avoid paying taxes to the Empire. If you are law-abiding citizens of Tarthesius then you would not mind if we searched the ponies and yourselves.’

‘But, lord,’ protested Duinglas mildly, ‘we have already been, ah, checked over by a patrol from Tarthesius, they who wear the lion on the chests. We have, ah, paid our dues, they took what little we had. All we have left are provisions, as I have said.’

‘That is no matter,’ said the man.

‘I thought we were in the domain of Tarthesius…’

‘We are knights of the Fenigruin Empire,’ replied the knight haughtily. ‘Do you question my authority?’

‘Of course not, lord,’ said Duinglas, ‘I was just thinking that, as fellow travellers on the road, it would be more sensible if you left us alone. Good of you to do that. For the sake of all these nice young men…’

‘What! Who do you think you are, you outlander dog? Down before me, or I will have you thrown into the dungeons!’

Duinglas bowed his head and gave way before him. The old warrior lighted from his horse, as did the others of the Sisterhood, they stood back to let the ponies be searched.

‘I apologise profusely if I have offended you, lord,’ said Duinglas, humbly.

The knights looked at each other and grinned.

Duinglas and his companions were apparently not going to put up a fight.

The knights also dismounted, relaxed and unwary, hopeful of easy booty.

Their leader approached Duinglas’s pony, opened his saddlebag, searched inside. He removed his hand and looked between his fingers. His eyes opened wide when he saw the many gold pieces. Raising his gaze, his eyes opened wider as he saw Duinglas’s axe whistle towards him. 

There was a soggy thwump and his head bounced off across the road, having been detached from its body. Zala whipped out her sword and slew two more before they could react, Brimsaga fought furiously, slashing left and right, Foldric hacking away at his side. The ponies panicked and bolted, the knights’ horses whinnied.

The knights were inexperienced, caught by surprise, but some drew out their own weapons, while others hesitated. Duinglas heard hooves, and then suddenly Chae, Viksgald and Sibil charged into the battle, riding down two knights and butchering more.

The rest of the battle was fierce and brutal, the knights of Helmund were slaughtered, they were just no match for the Sisterhood. Had there been twice their number they would still have all died. Not one of the Sisterhood had even the smallest injury.

One knight lay unnoticed among the dead, but then suddenly leapt to his feet, sprang onto his horse before he could be stopped. He galloped along the road towards the west. Chaegurd chased after him, but his own pony was no match in pace for the knight’s steed, Chaegurd sent a dagger spinning after the knight but it struck his armoured shoulder, glanced off harmlessly.

‘Fuck!’ spat Chaegurd. ‘Fuck, fuck, fuck!’

The knight tore down the road.

Then Slim stepped out into the middle of the road, right into his path.

The young knight spurred his horse on, straight at her.

The horse thundered down on Slim.

‘No,’ said Viksgald, as Duinglas swore.

On the knight came. At the last possible moment, Slim stood aside, jumped up and plunged her dagger into the young knight’s inner thigh, turning the blade as she did so, then ripping it out. The flank of the horse struck her, she was knocked tumbling into the side of the road.

She lay still.

The rider cried out and there was a spray of bright red blood from his leg. He clamped his hands over it, letting go of the reins, but the blood bubbled between his fingers. The horse veered slightly, the knight tumbled from the saddle, bouncing broken along the road. He twitched once then lay still.

Chae and Viksgald ran to where Slim lay, while Sibil and Duinglas ensured all the knights were dead, by beheading them, the others retrieved their ponies. 

Chae took Slim in his arms, she stirred and opened her eyes for a moment, but then went limp and moaned. 

‘We’ve got to get out of here,’ muttered Viksgald. ‘We’re done for if anyone else should come along now. Some of the field slaves are taking an interest.’

Zala said, looking around: ‘Slaves won’t care if we’ve butchered some of their masters. But you’re right, we really should go.’

‘Slim,’ said Chaegurd urgently, ‘can you hear me?’

She mumbled something.

‘Can you stand?’

But she did not reply this time.

Viksgald said: ‘I don’t think anything is broken. She may be concussed. Or injured from the fall. But we’ve got to get out of here. Now!’

They raised her to her feet, and then half carried her, half dragged her back to the others, leading her horse. The great beast whinnied, tried to nuzzle her.

Chaegurd got onto his own pony, Viksgald lifted Slim into the saddle before him. The eight of them rode off to the west, and after a while left the main road and headed down a narrow track into the countryside. The slaughter would not remain undetected for long, they would be hunted. 

They turned to the south, heading for thickets and more broken ground. Though early in the afternoon they needed to find cover and go to ground before dark, but fields stretched away in every direction, the only slight cover was the occasional shelter belt or a wood of coppiced trees.

They continued south and west for several hours, and then came to a main road, the Tarthesius road that led down to Helmund. They travelled along this new way for only a short distance, before leaving it and going south again, back onto rough tracks and meandering paths. In front of them were gentle tree-clad rolling hills, they made for these.

The sun was sinking to their right when they stopped for the night. They had wandered into the hills and found a ruined villa on the side of a wide river valley. The building had no roof, but the weather was still warm and fine, so they made camp in a large chamber with a shattered mosaic floor. Sibil and Brimsaga took watch, while Chaegurd and Viksgald tended Slim. The others made camp and lit a fire, ensuring it could not be seen beyond the walls.

‘How is she doing?’ asked Duinglas.

‘I think she is all right,’ said Chaegurd. ‘She took a blow on the back of the head and has been wandering in and out of consciousness.’ He sighed. ‘I can’t keep her awake, though. The bleeding has stopped but there is a huge lump, her arm and side are also bruised.’

‘She took a terrible chance,’ said Viksgald angrily. ‘She could have been killed!’

‘If that knight had escaped,’ said Duinglas, ‘it would have caused us no end of trouble, we could not have showed our faces in Tarthesius again. Slim did what she had to.’

‘I know,’ said Viksgald. ‘But I still say she shouldn’t come. The rest of us are warriors and know the risks. For her own safety.’

‘Try and stop her next time,’ sighed Chaegurd, ‘if you think you are tough enough.’ He kissed Slim on the forehead. At least she was warm and her breathing was gentle and regular.

‘I’ll watch her for a while,’ said Viksgald, sitting down beside her. 

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