A matter of honor
“What say we drop a goat carcass in the trail behind us?” Vorel suggested. It was by now clear that the dogs, or hounds, had caught the scent of the party with its five remaining game carcasses.
“Aye,” affirmed Bardic, “we can do without one of the goats.”
“Oh, won’t you miss it?” Celo enquired innocently. As Bardic’s frowning glance turned his way, he continued, “I mean, it’s good eating. I’m sure what we hear about Cimmerians and goats isn’t true…”
“You are treading on thin ice, Celo,” warned the Cimmerian.
The carcass duly dropped, the trek continued. After a short interval, the sound of canine squabbling could be heard.
“We still have a couple of goats,” Edric pointed out, glancing back anxiously. Behind him, Vorel and Alleto and four pack nags trailed.
“But Bardic would miss them,” yukked Celo.
“Haw! Those playful goats,” laughed Vorel.
“It’s not the smell, it’s the texture,” Celo continued, heedless.
“Celo… you have been warned once!” Bardic growled, as even Vorel snickered from behind him. He drew up his horse, and behind him, the other five rearranged pack-nags so that the goat-toting ones were at the end.
“Someone ought to slip back to check how our delaying tactic worked,” suggested Morath.
“I’ll go,” volunteered Alleto, “it’s going to take a good rider if they are getting close.” He began nosing his horse around and slipping the pack nags’ lead ropes off.
Celo returned to his ragging:
“Say, Bardic, smell any goat?”
“A third warning I give you, Celo,” Bardic responded balefully, red lights beginning to glimmer in his eyes.
“Oh, I’ll go,” Vorel exclaimed, tiring of the slight delay from Alleto. But as his mount drew level and nosed past the Zingaran, Alleto’s blade slid from its scabbard and in one fluid motion, slammed into Vorel’s shoulder!
“If I have not my honor I have nothing!” snarled the Zingaran, mustaches bristling out. As Vorel reeled as much in shock as in pain, Morath slid his own blade out and attempted to turn his own horse around.
“You’re new here, Alleto, so I’ll make allowances,” he threatened coldly. “But if you ever attack one of us again I will gut you where you stand!”
“I understand,” Alleto acknowledged briefly, and sliding his sword back in its scabbard, resumed his course out along their back-trail. Once he vanished from sight, Morath re-scabbarded his short sword and turned to the others, now distracted from their sport of baiting the barbarian.
“He’s a liability: we should be rid of him!”
“Not so hasty, Morath,” Bardic responded, “We needed his blade against those friars in Newtral.”
Edric clamped his fingers over the gash in Vorel’s shoulder and murmured a prayer. The gash mended swiftly, leaving but a throbbing line.
“Thanks, Edric!” Vorel muttered, ruefully fingering the rent in his reinforced hide byrnie. “I can’t account for Alleto’s reaction!”
“But – Vorel – when you first brought him along, it was you who warned us about Zingarans and their touchy pride!” Bardic pointed out. He certainly understood: in fact, for him the insult of being dismissed as unworthy of scouting the back-trail might have called for a mortal resolution.
Further discussion was interrupted by the gallop of hooves as Alleto urged his mount at top speed back through the pack nags:
Running with the Hounds
In some confusion, Vorel reined his mount around and by then, Alleto was already past, and the others kicking their horses into a gallop. The next few seconds were hectic. Most of the horses, spooked, were kept in hand, and Alleto guided his mount expertly among the fleeing pack nags to cut Morath and Edric free of the lead reins that would otherwise become snarled in the light woods. All seemed well, though not far behind Vorel, large, wolf-like shapes bounded! Then disaster! Edric, no horseman, attempted an incantation and crashed out of his saddle, landing on his back winded and stunned!
The others reined in and jumped off as best they could, running back to help their fallen comrade, as about a dozen wolf-dogs, excited to frenzy by their chase, attacked! The battle was sharp but once Edric was out of danger, not in any real doubt. After it, the odd gash and graze was tended, and two downed horses raised to stand three-legged and lame.
“Can you help these horses, Edric?” Bardic asked anxiously. “I’d rather ride than walk, and I’d hate to lose so good a beast as Blest.” Edric mused on his cult lore and recalled a rather fanciful tale of a brother friar who laid hands of healing on his horse in a time of dire need. Mentally bracing himself for the wrath of Mitra, Edric attempted it, and was relieved to find that the feat of healing worked! Vorel and Bardic mounted and headed out to round up any surviving horses.
Smoke without fire
The loose mounts and three surviving nags had not run very far: the light-to-moderate woodlands had hindered them so that all were found cropping the odd little clearing within an hour and a half’s radius. Partway through the retrieval, Vorel spotted a patch of sun on a clearing: a couple of fallen spars suggested something unusual.
As Bardic and he scouted the ground, Vorel realized that sure enough, this was no lightning-strike. The ground for some yards across was riven as though by a titanic struggle. Saplings had been snapped off at the base, not split from above. Bardic ran his fingers over a patch of earth, then spanned his hand across it: swore a barbaric oath, and placed his foot next to the mark: it was a footprint, though weathered to be sure: and at least half again as large of the rangy Cimmerian’s foot! He straightened up and glanced at Vorel:
“I guess we’re on the right trail!”
Returning to their comrades, Bardic and Vorel learned that Celo had espied a low shape that did not look natural, not far from their resting place. The scouting resumed, revealing a smoke-house, built of turf and poles, used and abandoned within the past week or two. Again, a large footprint was detected.
It was the second watch. Edric shook the others quietly awake. Luminescence like witch-fire had spring from tree to tree then pooled on the ground, a short bow-shot from their camp. Celo slid into hiding:
“Where’s Celo? The spirits have snatched him!”
“He’s right over there!” Morath breathed, sliding into cover himself as he pointed out the young Aquilonian’s position. He silently felt his way towards what appeared to be a camp of traders and their guards, seated around a pale yellow fire. Laughter and chat drifted back from it to the five tensely-poised comrades. To Morath’s eyes, they seemed to wear somewhat out-dated attire.
As Bardic, Edric, Vorel and Alleto muttered to one another and gathered weapons and the like ready to hand, one of the traders rose and beckoned with an expansive gesture:
“Ho! Travelers, come share the fire, and welcome!”
An uneasy pause ensued. Morath scarce breathed. Behind him at his own camp, Edric tried to recollect any scrap of lore that might shed light upon the situation. “Those are ghosts,” Alleto declared bluntly. His fierce Zingaran pride forbade him flee, but Vorel was of no such stuff: leaping to his feet with a screech, he fled! Bardic and Celo, though superstitious terrors held them in thrall, stirred not.
The trader turned back to his comrades, a slightly haunted look on his face:
“Ishtar! This mist is playing tricks! I swear I saw and heard late travelers!”
As chat around the pale yellow fire resumed, a shadow fell across the company, as if something huge had blocked out the moon. The faces of the traders and guards turned up, and the screaming began: as some invisible force smote and rent them asunder!
The carnage over, the fire flickered once and died, leaving the comrades in darkness.
It was the sixth day since leaving the main road. The day was cooling, and a few birds were returning to their leaf-bounded homes. The woods were thicker than most the lost road they followed offered, with more undergrowth. The rich scents of various bushes carried to all, not to Bardic’s keen nose alone, adding to the more pungent tree-scents.
Many of the trees had rub-marks on the lower trunk, about two feet off the ground. So it was no surprise to Vorel, once more in the lead, when the horse-train startled a sounder of boar. Plump, shaggy creatures, they held themselves aggressively… then, disaster! From behind the party came the squeal of a piglet: and the matriarch of the sounder charged, sounding her challenge!
Several of the sows of the herd were easily big enough to fell a horse or gut a man! The six riders swung their horses and fled!