SideQuest Adventures No.1(The Foreworld Saga)(9)
Author:Mark Teppo


    “I do not have to if he can shoot like that,” she said.

    “See, Robin,” John said, “she is only interested in what you can put on the table. She does not wonder of your expertise in other domestic areas.”

    “I wonder about a great many things,” Maria said, “but right now, I am wondering if there is more to your party than the other man over there.”

    “Who? Will?” John looked over his shoulder at the third longbowman. “He’ll do, in a pinch.”

    Ignoring John, Robin asked, “How many others?” all trace of levity gone from his voice. He appeared to be quite sober suddenly, and his gaze was fierce and focused.

    “Enough to save the king of England,” she said, switching to English, ensuring that she had their attention and that no one else could understand what she was saying.





    The fire from the burning boat turned the water of the Rhine orange and yellow. Its railings and the lower third of its main mast were blackened, and tiny flowers of flame still danced around the upper portion of the thick pole. Tattered streamers of ash-streaked sail lingered near the very tip of the mast. The ship leaned to port, its hold filling slowly through the open holes in its hull. It would sink eventually, quenching the fire that slowly devoured its wooden frame. From the top of its half-burned mast, a flag bearing the imperial seal hung limply.

    The ship had been cut loose from its moorings at the Wesel docks when the fire had threatened to leap to other boats. On the dock, a line of armed men separated the swarm of locals from five other ships, flying the same flag, and a scattered mess of heavy barrels that had been rapidly off-loaded from the burning ship before it had been scuttled. The magistrates of Wesel, as well as the local militia, were attempting to maintain order, but the fear of fire about the other ships had created a smoldering panic onshore that was not dying very quickly.

    Otto Shynnagel leaned against a stone wall of a storehouse, watching the confusion. The ship that had been fired and scuttled was one of the treasure ships from England. Judging by the fury of activity that preceded the vessel being shoved back from the dock, he suspected the crew had managed to off-load the ship’s cargo, but now they were faced with having one-sixth of the imperial ransom sitting openly on the Wesel dock. Whoever was in charge of the treasure ships was certainly going to be worried that someone might discover what cargo he was transporting.

    Who knew what would happen then?

    Otto was curious as to how the fire had started. It seemed unlikely that a French spy could have gotten on board the ship. Had the fire truly been an accident? If he hadn’t been warned to watch out for such activity, he would have lamented the bad luck that had befallen the caravan, but he wouldn’t have suspected sabotage.

    He thought the imperial ambassadors would be trying to acquire another ship, and he was surprised when a wagon arrived and was ushered through the line of soldiers. Sailors began loading the cart, and when more wagons arrived, the sailors began off-loading barrels from the other boats.

    Otto didn’t understand why they weren’t going to continue by boat. Had the fire spooked them that badly? He thought about the routes they might take. They would travel along the eastern side of the Rhine. Would they cross the river at Duisburg and head for Kaarst, Bergheim, and Kerpen? It was a less-traveled route than along the path of the Rhine, but it would be quicker as the crow flew.

    It was also closer to France.

    It all started to make sense to Otto. The emperor had been right. The French were trying to steal the silver, and they had someone working for them in the imperial party. Someone making sure the caravan was heading right into an ambush.





    FIVE





    The rider met them along a muddy track outside of Cologne. His horse was covered in sweat, and the animal staggered awkwardly when the rider slid down the saddle. Feronantus eyed the horse sadly, wondering if its rider had pushed it too hard.

    The rider was a slight man named Domarus, who, unlike the rest of the company, had brought no maille with him. He wore a rough leather vest and bracers on his arms, and he carried only a bow, arrows, and a long knife. His saddle was nothing more than a leather frame and a blanket with a single strap around the horse’s barrel.

    He was a scout, and he ranged far ahead of the larger, slower-moving party.

    “They’re not on the river,” he reported to Geoffrey and the rest of the company. “I heard from several sources that there was a fire on board one of the ships when they reached Wesel. Four days ago. They unloaded and set off overland. On the other side of the river.”

    Rutger groaned and Feronantus shook his head. No wonder they hadn’t seen any sign of the imperial party. They were on the eastern side of the Rhine, while the Shield-Brethren were looking for them on the west side.

    Geoffrey remained unconcerned. “What about Koblenz and the gorge? Will they cross to this side there?”

    Feronantus did not know enough about the geography of the surrounding area, and he could only assume the Rhine passed into more mountainous terrain near a place called Koblenz. It sounded like the sort of place that would force a wagon party to make a significant detour. The question was, which direction?

    Rutger shook his head. “They wouldn’t wait that long. They’d cross earlier, or not at all. But if they didn’t, that would mean passing through Mainz and Worms.”

    “Easy to acquire more guards along that route,” Geoffrey said. “But they would also not be able to pass without scrutiny, which would slow them down.”

    “And they’d stop at Worms,” Rutger said. “The emperor has a palace there. There’d be no reason to take the ransom all the way to Speyer.”

    Geoffrey looked at Feronantus. “What do you think?” he asked. “You are the one who sees subterfuge afoot. If I were leading the wagons, I’d stick to the safe routes—more people friendly to the emperor, more men who could be called upon to join me.”

    Feronantus looked over his shoulder at the two dozen knights ranged behind them along the road. “I think it is odd that a complement of imperial guards who are all very much aware of the enormity of their cargo would lose their vessel to a fire.”

    “Accidents happen,” Geoffrey pointed out with a shrug.

    Feronantus stared at the Shield-Brethren quartermaster, trying to ascertain if the man was willfully unaware or simply testing his resolve and his ability to think carefully. It was obvious to Feronantus that the fire in Wesel had not been an accident. He knew it as clearly as he knew the sun would rise in the east. Was it the Vor that guided him, or was it just that obvious?

    “They’re on the western side of the Rhine already,” he said.

    “How can you be sure?” Geoffrey asked.

    Feronantus caught Rutger watching him carefully. “I am,” he said. It was too complicated to explain, but he could see all the pieces of his argument clearly. It made sense in his head. He had no doubt.





    In the first hour after the fire had started aboard the treasure ship, Willahelm had been concerned that someone might stumble upon the dead sailor in his cabin. But once the fire burst through the deck and began rampaging through the hold, he was no longer concerned that his part in the inferno that swept through the ship would be discovered. The sailor—one of the three navigators—had been sent by the captain, and there had been no time to learn anything more from the man. He glanced at the pile of oil-soaked blankets on the floor of Willahelm’s cabin and knew instantly what the imperial ambassador had been about to do. He tried to bolt for the door, and his cry of alarm turned into a rattling gurgle when Willahelm’s knife entered his back. Willahelm threw the man’s body on the oil-soaked pile, tossed a lit candle at the pile, and shut the door of his room as soon as he heard the growl of the oil igniting.

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