150. In the Blue River Valley
“Bron saw them over there.” Acwel Penda and Bully Wedmor had reined up their horses on a rocky hill south of a lake. General Ridere and the riders with him were two days north of Hyacintho Flumen, heading for Inter Lucus. Penda pointed northwest across the water to a rock outcropping. The western side of the lake lapped against tall, splintered cliffs. One of those cliffs had fallen in the past, damming Blue River and creating the lake. Close on their left the pooled water flowed over a stone lip, making a waterfall.
Bully frowned. “Where? There’s no room between the lake and the rocks.”
“Up higher. On the top there. Two riders, pretty easy to see against the sky.”
“Stonebridge scouts?” Bully chewed his lip.
“We can’t know, but we have to assume they were.”
“And we have to assume they saw you.” Bully looked at the lake. Half a mile of mirror flat water lay between them and the northern shore.
Penda pointed. “The old road ran alongside the river here, but it’s been blocked since the landslide. Horses could swim across, but we’re carrying swords, shields, and mail. No sense drowning.” He turned his horse east. “The longer, safer route takes us round to the east. The water extends a long way, especially in the spring. I’ll tell the men to spread out, ten or fifteen yards apart. You, Gifre and Godric stay with General Ridere a good bit behind me. That way, you’ll have plenty of warning if we see anyone.”
“Godric, Gifre and me? The general needs better guards than that!”
Penda chuckled. “Aye. Aye. Bron, Wylie, and Stepan will stick close to Ridere too. Ned and I will stay out front.”
With no clear track through shallow marsh, the Herminian riders picked their way carefully in a wide course around the lake: east, then north, and back west. The horses waded in water that reached to their knees, sometimes to the riders’ knees. Vines hung from trees, clingy water plants hindered the horses, and the bottom of the marsh was an uncertain mixture of mud and stone. Buzzing and stinging insects flew around them, appearing and disappearing in the shadows of silvery-leafed trees. As Captain Penda had directed, Bully and Gifre rode on either side of Eudes Ridere, with Godric Measy, Bron Kenton, Wylie Durwin, and Stepan Dell close by. Ned Wyne, Acwel Penda and twenty-three other scouts were spread out in all directions, like a loose sack enclosing a treasure.
There was very little talk. The men slapped at mosquitoes and flies, exchanged hand signals with the riders near them, and watched diligently for any sign of Stonebridge men. Every one of them regarded the marsh with misgivings. It was unfamiliar territory, with far too many places for enemies to hide. After a while, even the gentle plop of a frog slipping into the water or the buzzing of flies seemed ominous. The scouts maintained alert vigilance for six weary hours as the squadron passed through the swamp. At last, in late afternoon, they emerged onto dry ground on the north shore of the lake. They climbed a gentle slope under tall conifers overlooking the place where Blue River flowed into the lake. The squadron halted in the shade, and men took turns relieving themselves in the woods. After stretching their legs, the company remounted. They regained the road, and the riders formed into a double column, riding north now through a mature forest on the east bank of Blue River. Great tree trunks held their branches far above. Fir and pine needles blanketed the ground between the trees.
Every man felt relief, having passed the danger of the marsh. The late afternoon shade felt wonderful, the air less close and clingy. The men wanted camp and rest. Penda told Ridere that he and his men knew of a good campsite two miles north of the lake, close to the river. More than one man thought a drink of cold river water would be welcome indeed. The squadron quickened its pace to a trot.
They came out from under the tall conifers to a place where great blackened stumps told the story of a fire in the past. Between the stumps a new forest was growing; the trees were younger and denser, with much more undergrowth. Dogwoods and willows competed with young pines and firs. Ivy vines and prickly berry vines clung to the trees, making a kind of thick green screen on either side. They heard Blue River close by on their left; the swift spring water splashed rocks on the near bank. The encroaching greenery narrowed the road so much that the riders brushed against one another. Bron Kenton, who was riding next to Bully, said the campsite was just a little way further.
A shout came from the front of the double column, followed a second later by cries from the hindmost riders. Sudden chaos struck the squadron. The horses in front of Bully were rearing and crashing into each other, and the men were frantically trying to stay in the saddle and draw swords. Several horses leapt east to escape the road and avoid the river, but they were quickly tangled in the underbrush or tripped by uneven footing. One rider veered left, toward the river, but his horse stumbled on rocks; the rider fell from the saddle and was stabbed before he could get to his feet.
The attackers came from both sides, springing like magic wraiths from hiding places in the dense foliage. They had no armor, nor swords; they struck with double-edged daggers, honed to razor sharpness. For a few seconds the knife fighters seemed intent on crippling the squadron’s horses, chopping at the animals’ legs. Many of the poor creatures panicked, screamed their terror, and kicked wildly. Some of the riders were thrown against trees or tumbled into prickly vines; others struggled to draw swords and get at the attackers.
The Herminian riders shouted warnings and curses, cried out in pain, and generally added to the confusion. The knife fighters went about their business wordlessly.
With amazing speed the knife fighters leapt forward and back and from side to side, slashing at horses and riders while escaping most of the Herminians’ frantic swings. In truth, the horses’ terrified kicking and rearing hurt the attackers more than the Herminians’ swords. Bully saw one knife fighter felled instantly by a hoof to the head. But that was the exception, not the rule. Bully saw Godric Measy trapped against an old stump as his horse died under him; Godric waved his sword uselessly as a knife fighter stabbed him in the back, just under his leather jerkin. The dagger plunged in and out so quickly that Bully could have doubted he saw it, except for the blood that spurted out.
Horses and riders succumbed at the front and rear of the double column. Those who plunged into the mass of trees and undergrowth on the right found themselves practically immobilized and vulnerable. The knife fighters had chosen their ambush site well. They clearly intended that no one escape.
“Protect the general!” Someone shouted. Gifre? “Protect the general!” The voice came from behind Bully.
Bron Kenton managed to dismount with sword in hand. He slapped his horse’s butt to urge it forward, thus creating a space in which to stand and fight. Bully tried to mimic Bron, but his horse reared at just the wrong moment, throwing him into a nest of vines while at the same time twisting his left ankle. He was on the ground with no weapon. One of the attackers slashed at him, opening a wound high on his left arm. The next blow would have finished him, but Bron’s sword took off the knife fighter’s arm at the elbow. The attacker’s forearm and dagger landed on Bully’s chest.
Bully leapt up, at the same time freeing the knife fighter’s dagger from his arm. An arm, severed from its body, yet still warm with life. The attacker looked on in astonishment as Bully stabbed him with his own weapon.
Eudes Ridere and two other Herminians were on foot, fighting attackers from the rear end of the column. Bron Kenton and Wylie Durwin faced the attackers from the north, the front of the column. Alone of all the riders, Gifre Toeni was still in saddle and on the road, probably because his horse was by far the smallest in the squadron, hardly more than a pony. An attacker emerged from the wood, and Gifre reined the horse up so the beast’s front legs threatened the man. For a moment, the knife fighter was distracted, and Bully swung wildly at him. Sweat and blood clouded Bully’s vision, but he must have hit something, for the fighter collapsed in a heap.
“Gifre!” Bully seized the horse’s bridle. “This way!”
On west side of the road, the limbs of two young pine trees interlaced, but a narrow opening showed Blue River a few paces away. Bully pulled the little horse between the trees, pine branches brushing the horse and its rider. Gifre leaned forward on the animal’s neck.
“By the gods, Bully! What’re you doing?”
Bully jerked the horse’s head near, bringing Gifre’s face close. “Warn the army! Down the river, swim the lake, warn Archard! Warn them!”
Gifre understood in an instant, both that Bully was saving his life and giving him a heavy responsibility. No word, but his face said enough. He spurred the little horse into Blue River.
Bully crashed back through the trees to the battle, except that it was over. Bron Kenton and Wylie Durwin stood back-to-back with General Ridere and another Herminian, facing knife fighters who refrained from attacking. Their element of surprise gone, the attackers hesitated to challenge skillful swordsmen. Bully slipped in between Bron and Wylie.
“Back a pace, Bully.” Bron kept his eyes on the enemy, but his muttered command brooked no debate. Bully stepped back, giving Bron and Wylie room to maneuver.
In such a confined space, the carnage of the battle was horrible. Two dozen Herminians had been killed. Their bodies, and those of almost all the squadron’s horses, lay bleeding and contorted along fifty yards of roadway, or littered in the woods nearby to the east. In some places Herminians (and a few knife fighters) lay partially crushed and hidden under dead horses. Other bodies draped over fallen mounts. Not far from Bully’s feet, the final writhing of his mount had crushed Godric Measy’s torso; Godric’s eyes stared unseeing at Bully.
One of the attackers on the north side, facing Bron, called out to the knife fighters in the south group. “One gone! Lad on horse!” They were the first words Bully remembered from any of the enemy. The man pointed the way Gifre had escaped. On the south side, two knife fighters disappeared into the trees and brush toward the river. Indistinct shouts came from that direction, followed by curses, which raised Bully’s hope that Gifre might get away.
On the north side of the trap, a badly wounded horse struggled to rise from where it had fallen, but it collapsed, grunting loudly. A very tall bare-chested man with red hair, smeared with blood on his arms and chest, slashed the horse’s neck and more blood spurted onto his arm. The red-haired man pointed his dagger at the five remaining Herminians. “Is one of you the general? I heard somebody shout about a general.”
Eudes Ridere, sword drawn, was facing south. He inched backward toward Bully, and Bully slipped around him, taking his place. Ridere then turned to face the Stonebridge leader. “I’m General Ridere,” he said.
The red-haired giant nodded his head appreciatively. “Eudes Ridere. I’ve heard of you.” He lowered his dagger and stepped around another dead horse, coming almost close enough for Bron or Wylie to strike. “I don’t want to kill you, General. I will if I must, but I don’t want to. I promise you now that if your men put down their swords, we will deliver you all alive to our destination.”
“And who are you that I should believe you?”
“Ifing Redhair, captain in the Stonebridge army.” The bloodstained man dipped his head. “You have my word. I will deliver you safely to General Mortane.”
“General Mortane? Really?” Ridere’s voice seemed almost lighthearted. “The same general who has given me his word—repeatedly—that the army of Stonebridge did not come into the field to rescue Hyacintho Flumen or attack my men? Yet my men lie dead all around me. It seems that Stonebridge men are not to be trusted when they give their word.”
Ifing Redhair was not offended. “Everybody lies, General. At least now and then. Right now I am telling the truth. I will not kill you. I intend to take you alive to General Mortane. However, if necessary, I will kill the men with you. You can save their lives by ordering them to lay down their swords.”
“I don’t believe you, Captain Redhair.”
“Have it your way.” Redhair made a signal with his left hand. At the southern end of the trap, the two knife fighters facing Bully and the armsman at his right stepped aside, allowing two others room to throw something—short-bladed knives. The throwers moved so quickly, and the distance was so short—about ten feet—Bully had no time to move. The knife embedded itself in his upper right thigh, just below the protection of his jerkin. Bully staggered and fell sideways into his comrade. The knife thrown at this man also struck its target, thrown with such force that it penetrated boiled leather and pierced his heart.
Ridere threw his hand in the air. “Yield! Yield!”
No more knives flew. Redhair held his left fist up in signal. Ridere whispered to Bron Kenton and Wylie Durwin; Ridere, Bron and Wylie all dropped their swords. Stonebridgers came forward, stepping around fallen bodies of men and horses. They tied the prisoners’ hands behind their backs. When they came to Bully, Redhair said, “This fellow can’t walk, and we can’t carry him.”
Eudes Ridere protested, “He’s alive! Let him be.”
Redhair shook his head. “Curious mercy you show, General, to let your man bleed to death alone.”
The man leaning over Bully raised his dagger, but Redhair stayed the executioner’s arm when another Stonebridge man called out: “Captain, we caught a horse!” Redhair commanded two men standing close by: “Bandage him up, and tie him on the horse. Who knows? Maybe he’ll live.”
Gifre Toeni clung to his horse’s neck after the plunge into Blue River. A late spring torrent carried them quickly downstream. Gifre heard shouts and curses briefly, but paid them no mind. He was moving too fast and the water was cold. He realized that the horse, which was trying desperately to swim, could easily break one of her legs if she crashed into some submerged rock. He looped his arm around her neck and extended his legs in front of him so that he rode the current of the river like a boy sliding down a snow bank. He watched for waves in the water ahead that might indicate obstacles.
“Good girl. Good girl. This way, girl.” Gifre spoke calmly in the horse’s ear and guided her away from rocks. Her breathing became more regular. Perhaps the poor creature’s terror was subsiding.
Blue River widened and slowed as they went south. After a mile it widened very quickly. They had reached the lake. Bully began swimming, pushing the horse toward the western shore, where they emerged on a gravelly bank. Man and horse both shivered violently. First moon, a crescent moon, had risen over the eastern horizon; its light, reflecting across the lake, would have struck Gifre’s sister Edita with its beauty. But for Gifre its chief virtue was to illuminate the western shore of the lake. Stony cliffs loomed over the water on that side; the beach where he and his mount climbed out was the last safe spot on the western side. Further south, water poured over the lake’s outlet. Even if Gifre and his horse could traverse the western shore, they would run up against the waterfall.
He eyed the flat surface of the lake. On a hot day in summer, Gifre could swim it. But now? He feared the cold for both him and his horse. But what other choice did he have? To go east would mean crossing the river where it flowed into the lake and circling through the marsh in the dark, a much longer route with perils of its own.
Gifre stripped to his bare skin and wrung water out of his undergarments. The night air wasn’t cold once he dried off. He brushed his horse vigorously, which helped them both feel warmer. He considered the task ahead. I’m not going to win through by fighting. He wrapped his sword and scabbard in his jerkin and hid the bundle behind a fallen boulder. He loosened the horse’s girth, took the saddle off her, and threw it into the lake. Saddle blanket—Gifre retrieved his sword, scabbard, and jerkin, wrapped the whole with the saddle blanket, and hid it again, this time burying the bundle with small rocks.
He brushed his horse until her hair was dry. He pulled on his tunic, belted it around his waist, and tied his boots to his mount’s bridle on the back of her neck. He hoped the boots would ride high so they wouldn’t fill with water and weigh her down. Then he led her into the water.
Copyright © 2015 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved. International copyright secured.