SideQuest Adventures No.1(The Foreworld Saga)(10)
Author:Mark Teppo


    The next hurdle was convincing the imperial guard and the other ambassadors to cross to the western shore of the Rhine. He had anticipated more discourse concerning his suggested route, but the other ambassadors were in such shock at the idea of sabotage that they eagerly agreed to his levelheaded proposal. The western route was less traveled, he argued. They could move quickly and would not be slowed by other caravans and crowded towns. Look at what had happened at Wesel, he said, it was so very difficult to guard their cargo when surrounded by so many people.

    Of course, it was actually easier for them to be ambushed along the western route, especially when the French did not have to cross the Rhine in order to attack them. They could commandeer the wagons and be in Leige before the emperor even knew his treasure had been stolen.

    In Leige, he would take his share of the treasure and hire an expensive carriage to convey him and his wealth to Paris, where the king of France would personally thank him for providing the coin to finance an invasion of England.

    It was such a lovely thought, and it made him inordinately happy during the tedious days following the accident at Wesel. First, they couldn’t find enough wagons, and then there were problems with the oxen. Throughout the continued delays, Willahelm maintained a calm mien and a steady perseverance that the other ambassadors found comforting.

    If only they knew, he thought.

    Mid-afternoon on the fourth day after leaving Wesel, a shout went up the line, and Willahelm sat up in his saddle, peering ahead at the rider charging at them along the dusty road. It was one of their forward scouts, and his surcoat was stained with blood.

    “Ambush!” The cry spread through the caravan, and all around him, the imperial guard galvanized into defensive action. The drovers on the wagons began to whip their oxen harder, but they did not know where they were actually going, and in the following minutes, the wagon caravan descended into chaos as the oxen tried to flee and the imperial guard tried to drive the wagons into a more defensible unit.

    And then the ambushers were among them.

    Willahelm caught sight of men wearing blue-and-white surcoats. The drover on the wagon beside him screamed as two arrows struck him, and he tumbled off the plank of his wagon. The oxen, unaware they had lost their master, charged onward, and the wagon jounced as the wheels on the near side went over the fallen wagoner. Barrels shifted in the back, and one spilled out of the wagon, breaking as it hit the road. Silver scattered across the road, glittering in the afternoon light like a spray of water.

    Willahelm was dazzled by the silver, and he didn’t realize he had been struck by an arrow until he coughed and felt something wet spatter from his lips. He looked down at the shaft protruding from his chest, pawing at it lightly as if it were not real. He heard a roaring noise, like thunder, and he glanced up in time to see something coming at his face. A small bird, he thought, wondering what it was doing flying in the midst of the battlefield, and then his vision splintered into a spray of glittering water.

    My silver, he thought. It was slipping away from him. Falling out of his unresponsive fingers…





    SIX





    The road wound along the base of a narrow bluff, edged with pink-and-gray stone. A scraggly forest of pine and oak blanketed the northern end of the bluff, and individual trees poked defiantly out of the slope. On the eastern side of the road, fields that had been farmland a generation ago were being reclaimed by wild grasses and the isolated groupings of young saplings, eager to spread their branches without being hemmed in by older trees. A haze of dust lay over the valley.

    Domarus had spotted the silver caravan earlier, hurrying back to alert the rest of the Shield-Brethren company. When they had spotted the rising dust, they had spurred their horses into a gallop, hoping they were not too late.

    Feronantus rode in the second rank, behind the lancers. His helmet and the men in front of him limited his field of vision, and he was nearly upon the caravan of wagons before he could see the confusion into which they were riding. The wagons were in disarray; several were off the road entirely, moving in haphazard directions as their oxen teams wandered without drovers to direct them. One wagon was overturned, its team slaughtered. Scattered groups of men—some wearing blue-and-white surcoats, some wearing imperial colors—fought with one another. It seemed there were more men in blue and white.

    “Alalazu!” The cry rose around him as the Shield-Brethren host engaged the caravan attackers. The rank of lancers, forming into a wedge, burst through the cluster of riders at the front of the caravan. Feronantus, with Rutger on his left, clashed with the few riders who had not been unhorsed by the lancers.

    Guiding his horse with his knees, he slashed with his sword, cutting through the surcoat of a man holding a mace. He felt the tip of his sword rattle off maille, and he raised his shield as the mace-wielder retaliated, slamming the heavy head of his weapon against Feronantus’s shield. He grunted, feeling the impact through his arm, but it was better to take the hit on his shield than anywhere else. His maille might protect him against swords and arrows, but a crushing blow from a blunt weapon like the mace would easily break bones.

    Feronantus peered over the edge of his shield. As his opponent raised the mace for another blow, Feronantus leaned forward, thrusting with his sword, and the tip of the blade caught the other man just below the jaw. He flicked his hand to the side and felt his sword slice through flesh, catching for just a second as it cut through the leather strap of his opponent’s helmet. As Feronantus’s horse jostled the other horse, the mace-wielder tumbled out of his saddle, blood spurting from his throat.

    Out of the corner of his eye, Feronantus sensed another man coming from his left, and he drummed his heels against his horse as he ducked behind his shield. As his horse surged forward, he swept his shield outward, and he felt a sword scrape across the surface. He lowered his shield, twisting his body to the left so as to bring his sword to bear against his new opponent, but there was no need. The man had been concentrating on hitting Feronantus and had failed to notice Rutger, whose sword caught him in the side of the head, cleaving through the leather of his helm as well as his skull beneath.

    He had no time to thank Rutger, though, as a crossbow bolt punched through Feronantus’s shield, the bolt piercing his surcoat and lodging in his maille. He didn’t think it had gone all the way through, but he knew that he might not even realize how badly he had been struck until after the battle. He caught sight of the crossbowman and directed his horse at the man. If he succeeded in reloading the weapon, Feronantus might not be as lucky a second time.

    The crossbowman knew he was in race for his life, and he struggled to pull back the heavy string and get another bolt loaded. The man tried to not look up as Feronantus drove his horse at him; his hands shook as he fumbled with the bolt, trying to lay it down on the stock of the crossbow. He pulled the trigger before he had even raised the weapon all the way to his shoulder, and he looked up in time to see Feronantus’s sword arc toward his face.

    Feronantus felt the shock of his sword hitting bone at the same instant he felt his horse stumble. The animal collapsed, and he leaped out of the saddle. His sword was wrenched from his hand, but he held on to his shield. The ground rushed at him, and for a moment, he was back in the darkness underneath Petraathen. The cold water rushing around him, the weight of the aspis pulling him under the surface. Never let go, his oplo had instructed him. Never let go of your shield.

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