Ru Emerson

Keep on the Borderlands


Autumn came late to the southern borderlands of the realm.Dry, rank patches of grass on either side of the road bore signs of frost, and meadows that a month earlier were hock-deep in fragrant clover and wildflowers had been turned into a grayish waste. North of the road, scrubby brush edged a burned-out forest. South, a distant copse of trees marked a source of water-mostlikely a stream. A few bright red or yellow leaves fluttered in the light breeze, but most were gone, leaving pale branches to stand out sharply against the clear morning sky or the thick fir-woods beyond them.

The sun, barely risen, cast long shadows and shone straight in the eyes of the small company of armed men who rode guard on three covered carts. The six horsemen wore mail and swords, and strung bows lay across several saddlebows. Early light glinted red on a sheaf of iron-tipped boar spears clutched by a gray-bearded man seated next to the driver of the lead cart. He, like the riders, gazed all around, his eyes never still, keeping tense watch. Keen-eyed guards rode behind the last wagon and the four saddled and bridled horses tied to it.

Aside from the clop of hooves on the dusty road, the occasional creak of leather or wheels, it was very quiet.

The lead horseman swore under his breath as sun struck him full in the eyes. He adjusted the brim of his leather cap and edged his mount nearer his companion-a man much younger but like enough to be his brother.

“Hand me that bow, Blorys, and fix your hat,” he orderedtersely. “Rotten watch you’ll keep, with your eyes full of sun-fire.”

Blorys nodded and complied with the order, shoving loose bits of red-gold hair off his brow and under the chain-mail coif. He reached for the bow, then froze.

The leader held his breath, listened intently, but heard nothing except horses and wagons.

“Gone quiet out there, Jerdren,” the youth murmured. “Tooquiet. And there was a hawk took flight from that dead tree yonder, near the bend. I don’t think we’re what startled it.”

Jerdren nodded and glanced around. Nothing and no one visible.

“Ambush, you think?” He kept his voice low.

The horses slowed to a walk and the wagon drivers eased back to stay in place behind them. The four mercenaries Jerdren had hired days earlier were right where they belonged-two flanking the wagons, two at the rear.

“Not much of any place to hide along the road this near theKeep,” Blorys replied.

He glanced at the blackened trunks and fallen trees to his left. The Keep’s men kept trees and brush cleared back from the road. South,there was no cover this side of the distant stream.

“There-” he indicated ahead with his chin-“I’m thinking,just around the bend ahead.”

“True. Big rocks up there, as I remember. I smell a trap,Blor. You back down and pass the word. Casual and quiet like. No sense tipping our hand, is there?”

His brother gave him a sardonic grin. “I know how it’s done,Jers. But I’m staying right with you unless you swear not to charge out on yourown.”

“Hah.” Jerdren grinned. “You think I’m damned fool enough toride into a horde of thieves by myself?” The younger man rolled his eyes.“Anyway, this near the Keep, it’s more like your hawk’s found something to-”

A resonant hum interrupted him. He threw himself sideways, flat against the horse’s neck, as a long, black- fletched arrow whined throughthe air and buried itself in the first wagon. The driver shouted in surprise and dragged back hard on the reins, pulling the horses and the cart off balance briefly. His companion readied one of his thick- hafted spears for throwing and came partway upright.

“Stay down!” Blorys ordered sharply. He fitted an arrow tohis string and shook the quiver resting by his knee, making certain the other shafts would slip out easily. “Nice of ’em to warn us!” he said.

“Nice? Stupid, I’d say!” Jerdren said tersely and slid hissword under his leg, leaving both hands free for his bow. “Let’s hope our hidemerchants remember what I told ’em to do if we’re jumped.”

He urged his bay gelding forward at a trot, and Blorys on the dapple mare came with him.

It was quiet once more. One lone maverick up there, or an over-excited fool in a company waiting to take the caravan as it passed? Jerdren wondered. He wagered the latter. A quick glance showed him the wagons were close together, their hired men taking up positions along the left flank and behind the last cart.

He and his brother came around the bend, holding the right side of the road-as far from the rubble of boulders and hillock as they couldget. The silence held, and even with the early sun hard on the boulders, he couldn’t see anything but stone, dirt, and a few scrubby bushes. Jerdren slowedto a walk.

“No one there,” he murmured and sent his eyes ahead to thenext possible danger-a low, bald ridge marking the path of a dry creek. Hecaught his breath sharply. Something metal flashed in the sun, then dropped out of sight on the far side of the ridge, maybe four strides back from the road.

“Saw it,” Blorys said quietly.

“Nice and easy,” Jerdren replied. His face was grim.

A clatter of hooves broke the silence. Six men on dark hill ponies broke cover some distance ahead, fanned out across the road, and at a sharp command spurred forward, howling and bellowing. Each carried a heavy-bladed short sword high, ready to hack. Behind them, another six rough men on foot piled out of the brush, bows and javelins in hand, and behind the ridge, others were shouting threats and curses.

Jerdren had to shout at his brother to be heard. “Thinkthey’re trying to distract us?”

Blorys shook his head grimly, tucked the reins in his belt and drew back on his bowstring. “Trying to scare us into surrendering, morelike!”

Jerdren laughed at that. “Picked the wrong caravan then,didn’t they?”

His first arrow barely missed one of the horsemen, falling just short of the men on foot, who, for the moment, were staying put. One of the riders-a bull of a man with a wild black beard and long hair spilling from undera metal cap-shouted another order. The horsemen split, three to each side of theroad as their footmen launched a volley of arrows, then closed ranks again. One knocked Blorys back as it slammed into his shoulder, but it fell to the road, foiled by his hardened leather vest.

The riders stopped at a sign from black-beard-close enough tobe clearly heard but out of reach except for a very good, or very lucky, arrow shot.

The mercenary leader stood in his stirrups and shouted, “Giveup your wagons, you men, and we’ll spare your lives!”

Jerdren bared his teeth in a humorless grin as the footmen came up behind the riders, stopping several horse-lengths back. “Come and take’em, why don’t you?”

“Don’t be fools. There ain’t enough of you to even slow us!”

“Twelve men? Twenty, even?” Jerdren laughed. “Bad odds foryou, I’d say!”

He turned partway in the saddle and drew down on the nearest rider. The arrow went low and right, hitting the man’s upper arm with a metallicclank. The fellow snatched at the wobbling shaft and threw it aside.

“Armor!” Jerdren hissed at Blorys as the riders startedforward again.

The younger man nodded once, then loosed his own arrow. It hit metal and flew wide, but he had another already to the string. Jerdren drew a steadying breath and took quick aim. He might have time for a second shot before shifting to his sword. The first arrow creased the leader’s horse,sending it rearing and plunging as the man swore and tried to get it under control. The second shot slammed deep into a bandit’s unprotected throat. Bloodspurted, and the sturdy hill pony panicked, half-turned, and threw his dying rider. The man next to him veered

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