Chapter 1: Thunder Maker

To Empress Seviticah:

Your most Adoredness,

I have astonishing news: the traitor berDuvante rides to Wibbeley with no more than a dozen men! Though he believes he is unknown to us, our cousin Drefford plans to give him a most proper welcome. I wonder what Creigal shall make of our efforts in the north – though I hope he has little chance to see them. I do not need him snooping about the hinterlands and seeing things he should not see.

Our work continues apace. Praise Rauthmaug!

Gred duReb, King of the Saot

~!@#$%^&*()_+ 1.2 +_)(*&^%$#@!~

As the pursuit of the thief finished out its second week, Creigal and his posse of twelve guards camped outside of Gaetilly. They left the highland city assured that Humbert went north and west to Wibbeley, and possibly the outskirts of the Ministrian nation beyond.

Despite the hard riding, or perhaps because of it, Haddelton was sleeping rather well lately. Not that it lasted. In the middle of the night, Haddelton woke to find Baet thrashing in his sleep.

"Hey!" Haddelton called to his friend.

Baet uttered some nonsense, then turned on his side, and returned to his rest.

Suddenly wide awake, Haddelton edged close to Baetolamew's bed and questioned his unconscious friend. "What's got your goat?" he asked in a coarse whisper.

"I am caught!" Baet admitted with eyes wide shut.

"And what are you caught for?" Haddelton prodded.

"I have filched a man's coin – but he is also murdered, and I am accused of the killing too! This second thing; I swear I have not done it!"

"Well, tell them the truth," Haddelton continued with a frown.

"They do not believe me," Baet cried. "For I have lied about the coin!"

"Fight 'em," Haddelton suggested.

"There are far too many!" Baet whimpered. "They tell me if I admit my guilt, my wife and child shall live! If I do not... It is unbearable! What sort of animals threaten a child?!"

A prick stuck at the back of Haddelton's mind, for he had his own wife and child to consider... But Baet did not. He had neither child nor wife, and so Haddelton was convinced this could be nothing more than a nightmare. Weary to think of the long day behind him and the long day to come, Haddelton decided to needle his unconscious friend for ruining his own good sleep. "Maybe you deserve to hang," he smirked. "Maybe you are the villain after all."

Baet opened his eyes as a murderous glare cinched his face. Before Haddelton could do anything, he found himself staring down the barrel of Baet's fancy musket, Thunder Maker. For too long, Baet stared over the weapon with a question in his eyes. Haddelton realized his fate hung in the balance as Baet tried to make sense of what looked back at him.

"Friend?" Haddelton croaked.

His query broke the spell. Baet blinked and lowered the musket. "You fool! What are you off about!?" Baet snapped in a harsh whisper.

"It was your nightmare that woke me," Haddelton snipped back.

Baet laid back on his bed with all his weight, "I don't think I am shook of it," he complained. "What did I say?"

For a long second, Haddelton considered telling his friend that he suffered guilty dreams – but he was rather upset by the episode and did not appreciate having to face his own mortality in such a rude manner. With a frown, he said, "Nothing. You made no sense," and went back to bed.

Although he told his friend to forget it, the episode disturbed Haddelton and made him suspicious. The next day, as they rode, he surreptitiously glared at Baet. As he made faces behind Baet's back, he noticed a strange thing: several of the other guards also glared when Baet turned his back. Worst of all, the duke himself glared at Baet. It was only for a split second, but the duke certainly glared at Baet!

Twice, Haddelton thought to pull Baet aside and have it out of his fellow guard. He was quite convinced the man was guilty of something – or else, why the dream? But he could not get his friend alone, then, when a chance presented itself, he lost his gumption and let his suspicions fester instead. Why couldn't they simply chase a thief? Why must so much complication come into it?

Haddelton suffered through his second bad night of sleep. He thought, that damned fool almost shot me! He deserves what he gets! as Baet tossed in his sleep once more.

Though Haddelton had the good grace to stop glaring at his friend, Haddelton did not mention the suspicion of the others. Instead, he began to study his fellow guards. At first, he didn't know what he was seeing and hearing, but slowly he started to detect secrets among the men. For one, he noticed that too many were suspicious of his best friend, which meant that Baet was either guilty, or they believed he was guilty. Either way, it wasn't good.

Haddelton felt a rising suspicion that secrets abounded among the other men. He sensed factions and rifts he'd never noticed. Haddelton realized he was along simply because he was a good friend of Baet. He was of fairly high rank after all, but to be one of only twelve men selected to ride with the duke! But what did they suspect of Baet? Was the duke and his top guards glaring at Haddelton when he turned his back? Whether or not he was off the hook was to be determined.

They rented several cabins outside Wibbeley for the night, assured that Humbert was still in town. At least it would all be over tomorrow, Haddelton thought as he rode Mortimus through the large courtyard.

He suffered as he tried to sleep. Something more poked about the back of his head – some terrible thought – some connection that promised to be significant. But it still needed time to bake and set.

Or did it? Was it perhaps not simply fear run amok? It'd been a long day in the saddle and he'd already done a fair deal of thinking. Now he simply wanted sleep. Haddelton laid in bed, half puzzled over his day, as he begged for dreams. He closed his eyes, relaxed his mind, and slipped the horizon of this waking world – only to be poked by an urgency and stirred awake once more. This shadowy hazard rattled about his brain and lingered in the air. It cast a pall over everything as it promised to come true in some terrible fashion. The feeling would not let him go. There was some connection Haddelton was not making.

Something significant?

Something disturbing?

Something he did not want to see?

Although he told himself he'd get to the bottom of it tomorrow, his suspicions warned him tomorrow might be too late. Haddelton was sure it was simply the fear in his heart that spoke as he persisted in his efforts to sleep.

As the seconds turned into minutes and the minutes rolled into hours, time ran out for the guard. A meteor, now broken into three pieces, clicked, clacked, and banged against the roof of the cabin – a harbinger of Haddelton's doom. At the sound of the stones, Haddelton opened his eyes. A face materialized out of the shadow, upside down and grinning. It was the face of the royal attendant, Banifourd. With a frown, Haddelton sat up and realized there were traitors among the men! Whether or not Baet was guilty of any wrongdoing, the suspicion among the others drew attention and served as a distraction from traitors among the duke's men!

But it was too late. As Haddelton sat, Banifourd looped a wire around his neck and yanked him back against the headboard of his bed. The air crushed from his throat as Haddelton tried to reach for his sword. He kicked and thrashed as he attempted to wedge his fingernails under the wire that strangled the life from him.

A deafening boom and a burst of bright light filled the room. Everything plunged back into dark. Terror gripped Haddelton's heart. Blood seeped, then spilled, and ran as the garrote bit deep. His lungs burned and his strength waned. The searing pain of the wire turned to a dull ache, and Haddelton lost his ability to struggle altogether. Images of his wife and baby played before his fluttering eyes. His final thoughts were apologies to Emia. She'd be so upset that he let himself get murdered. He clung to the memory of his lover and begged her forgiveness as his spirit slipped from his body. It was now left to the others to protect his lordship.

~!@#$%^&*()_+ 1.3 +_)(*&^%$#@!~

Unable to solve his observations, Haddelton was doomed to the great beyond – but fate intervened for his good friend, Baet. The meteor dropped out of the sky, broke into three pieces, then clicked, clacked, and banged against the roof of the cabin, thus shocking both guard's awake. Baet opened his eyes and was surprised to see several shadows slinking about the room.

Surprised, but not unprepared, Baet grabbed at the musket under his pillow. He gripped it by the barrel, and as the first attacker was almost on top of him, he was forced to swing the weapon as a cudgel. He lashed out and the polished stone handle of Thunder Maker smashed at the closest attacker's leg. The attacker lurched as the musket made contact. He stabbed at Baet in a clumsy manner and gave an "ooof!" as Thunder Maker made a rude popping sound against his knee. He buckled to the floor as a searing pain shot from the joint.

A second assassin tried to get around his floundering friend. Baet sat up, flipped Thunder Maker about and caught it by the handle. He leveled the musket and fired.

Light, sound, and smoke erupted into the room. For a split second, everything was illuminated. Blood exploded from the most immediate attacker as the musket ball smashed a hole in his chest. His injured mate gripped his bum knee as he cowered from the deafening boom. A third attacker, a sentry at the door with bow and arrow, was blinded as he stared across the room at Baet. But these three did not concern Baet so much. It was the fourth attacker that sent shivers down his spine. Not only did this man strangle the life out of his best friend, Haddelton – but he looked an awful lot like Banifourd.

Banifourd, that weasel...

Darkness, deafness, and a fit of coughing set in. The light of the musket was gone as quick as it came. Baet leaned over the edge of his bed and grabbed for his boots as an arrow whistled overhead. The arrow would have skewered Baet if he hadn't bent over to retrieve his footwear and the goodies he'd stuffed inside. The archer may be shooting blind, but he was shooting well!

Shot through with fear and needing to get away. Baet snagged his boots, stood, and smashed through the window above his bed. He rolled to his feet with a wince and a curse as shards of glass bit into the sole of his bare right foot. Dogs barked and whined as Baet half hobbled and half ran from the cabin.

In his boots, Baet had his other musket, shot, powder, wad, his hunting knife, coin, several dice, a pair of day old socks... After half a dozen quick steps, he dropped to his knees and pulled his spare musket, Cloud Breaker, from his boot. Coin and dice spilled in the dirt as he turned and aimed at the window.

Banifourd peered out. He saw the musket and dodged back into the cabin before Baet could get a bead on the man.

"Banifourd, you bastard!" Baet yelled as he picked several coins out of the dirt and stuffed them back in his boot. Then he thought better of it and decided to run. With a huff, he abandoned the remaining bits and bots and one of his prettier die that went skittering away, as he turned and hobbled into the night with a stream of muttered curses to mark his trail.

Baet crouched behind a carriage near the stables and reloaded Thunder Maker as he glanced nervously about the corners. Why did Banifourd kill Haddelton? Who were the strangers with him, and why were they all in blue and white? He pulled the most offensive shards of glass from his foot as he considered these questions. He put on his socks and boots as he stared at the stables and wondered which of the duke's men was set to watch their horses and supplies.

Baet slipped inside the stables and found that he was the only one in the building. He also noticed a curious thing about the horses: they were all saddled, loaded, and ready to ride. On top of that, there were a couple dozen extra mounts gathered about the barn. "Balls," Baet cursed as he realized this wasn't about Haddelton at all. Banifourd was after the duke!

For a split second, Baet thought he should put on some proper clothing – but he already had his boots tied, and time was wasting. Instead, he took a spear from among the company's long weapons, and ran from the stables as well as he could.

Outside, a thin arc of white dots stretched across the night sky and cast a faint glow about the complex of small cabins and outbuildings that formed the inn. Baet remembered the bang of stone that stirred him from his sleep and offered his gratitude to the shattered remains of Old Mother Luna. What a wonderful gift from the gods! he thought.

And yet, the stones had not saved his good friend, Haddelton – with a child and a bride at home – a friend as guiltless and guileless as they come. As he stumbled into the night, Baet wondered what crazy justice must guide this world. He half hobbled, half stalked among the various cabins of the inn. He did his best to stay in the shadows as he approached the duke's cabin. As he rounded a corner, he could see the door to the cabin was shut and there was no light in the window. Indeed, there were no sounds about the night except a couple excited dogs that continued to bay in the distance. Thunder Maker must have woke everyone about the inn – and yet no one stirred. There was tension in the air and Baet could tell the fighting was far from over. He strained to see about the cabins and the trees between them. The killers must yet lurk in the shadows.

The window of the duke's cabin pushed open. "I can seee youuu!" Carringten called into the darkness. Baet smiled to hear his voice. Carringten was captain of the escort and Creigal's most immediate guard. He was a formidable man, not one to trifle or hesitate, and he was loyal to the hilt.

A shadow shifted to Baet's left and an arrow streaked through the open window. Several bodies shifted in the darkness and Baet counted those he could see. There were three – no – four men that lurked in the shadows nearby.

A fight erupted somewhere in the distance. Shouts, screams, and the clang of metal on metal ensued. Another musket roared to life. Emboldened, the shadows about the duke's cabin broke from their positions and rushed at the duke's door. Something shifted to Baetolamew's right. He realized there was a fifth attacker just to his side. The man was so close – indeed he was too close! Baet abandoned his spear and grabbed for his knife. He shifted to his bad foot and tackled the man, despite the sudden burst of pain. They went down in a tumble and Baet stuck his short blade into the man's side; once, twice, thrice. His enemy went limp as blood splashed Baet. He wiped his face – though it smeared the blood about.

Meanwhile, the other attackers kicked in the door of the duke's cabin and rushed inside. "Have at you!" He heard Creigal roar at the intruders. The flash and boom of a musket followed. Metal rang against metal as screams flowed from the small building.

"Balls," Baet swore. He sheathed his knife, and took up the spear once more. Despite the pain in his foot, he charged for the duke's cabin and hoped he wasn't too late to make a difference.

All of the attackers were in the cabin except for one. The last of them stood in the doorway with a bow in hand. He raised his bow with a smug look of satisfaction. As Baet approached, he recognized the archer. It was Willem – another ball-sucking traitor!

"Yargh!" Baet yelled as he made a wild lunge at Willem. The scream ruined the surprise, but it broke Willem's aim as he was forced to turn his attention to Baet. Surprised but well-trained, Willem turned and released the arrow, then side stepped Baet's hasty attack. Baet twisted as he dived forward. The arrow glanced off him.

Off-balance, Baet careened forward. Willem grabbed the spear below the tip and gave it a solid yank, then stuck out his foot and tripped Baet as he reeled on past the archer. Baet sprawled hands and face into a patch of flowers. With dirt in his mouth, he realized he would die for his effort.

Willem nocked another arrow, and turned toward the downed guard – but before Willem could put an arrow in Baet's back, Carringten jumped out of the cabin and buried a hatchet in the traitor's neck. Willem loosed the arrow, though he did not have the aim, and the arrow struck next to Baet's head. Baet stared at the arrow as the harsh gurgle of blood carried from Willem's throat. It was a sound all too similar to the one Haddelton made and Baet shuddered to hear it.

Surprised that he was still alive, Baet rolled over and stared up at Carringten. With a squint and a smile, the dark captain helped Baet off the ground. "Well met," Carringten said with an approving nod. He stared at the mess of blood and dirt that covered Baet. "Any of that yours?" he asked.

Baet looked down and noted the dark stains all over his skin and underwear. "Just a bit," he admitted as he showed his captain his injured side.

Creigal berDuvante, Duke of Gaurring, stepped from the cabin, as imposing and regal as the name implied. "Tell me what you know," he ordered.

"Haddelton and I were attacked in our room," Baet began at once. "I killed two: one in my cabin, and one over there. I don't know either of 'em, but Banifourd is also a ball-sucking traitor," he said as he kicked at the dead form of Willem. "They all wear the blue and white."

"These are the uniforms of Wibbeley," Carringten frowned. "These others are either Count Drefford's men, or they pretend to be," he said as he turned to the duke. "What do you think of his lordship?"

Creigal frowned. "I would not be surprised if these are indeed the count's men. Where is Haddelton?" Creigal asked Baet.

Baet shook his head and lowered his eyes. "I barely saved myself."

Creigal bowed his head. "Let's see to the others," he said and turned toward the sounds of conflict, now greatly diminished.

Baet considered what he knew. Banifourd tried to kill the duke, and Willem was in on it – which meant Bence and Garf were likely traitors too. Baet sucked in his breath. He didn't care a wit about Bence, who was a bit of a coward and far too fond of his liquor, but Garf was incredibly dangerous and talented. Baet would rather face Bence wielding any and every weapon than face Garf with nothing but his dick to swing.

As Creigal, Carringten, and Baet approached the sounds of struggle, Vearing yelled. "My brothers! I will avenge you, my brothers!" His words were punctuated by the clang of sword against sword. Vearing was a monstrous man, even as he squared off against three others, all in blue and white. He used the great reach of his claymore to keep his enemies at bay, and swung the weapon with a speed and dexterity that verged on the impossible. The attackers backed from the man and searched for an opening to exploit, but could find nothing. Indeed, it was Vearing that found the next opportunity. With a neat shift of his weight and a sudden change in direction, Vearing caught one of the attackers with his guard too high. He twisted his blade, dropped his strike, and cut across the man's belly. Blood and organs erupted from the man as he screamed something horrific. The other two attackers countered but were turned aside as Vearing danced away on surprisingly light feet. At a safe distance, he turned back on his remaining enemies. A wicked grin split his lips as he stared down the remaining two opponents. "Come at me dogs, I thirst for blood," he bragged.

Neither enemy approached, and to their credit, neither broke and ran. For several seconds, the three circled.

"My brothers, I will avenge you!" Vearing bellowed as he closed on his enemies once more. With a violence, he pushed the Count's men back as they were forced to take up defensive postures.

Baet rushed forward. As he ran, he noticed a trail of dead bodies. They were not all men in blue and white. Baet could see the limp form of Marik among them in a pool of far too much blood and wondered if any of the others might yet survive.

Vearing stopped in his press and stared down, surprised to see an arrow suddenly protruding from his chest, dangerously close to his heart. "Huurr..." Vearing croaked as he attempted to press forward. He wobbled as blood gathered about his lips. Another arrow sang out of the night to strike the giant man, inches from the first. Vearing dropped to his knees. The two men that stood against Vearing leaped forward, knocked aside his massive claymore, and struck him again and again. Without another sound, Vearing slumped to the ground and gave up the ghost.

Astounded to see Vearing die, Baet stopped in his tracks. Garf stepped out of the night with a bow in hand, followed by four other men with blood on their weapons. From the other direction, Banifourd stepped into the light with two other men, one that hobbled as he walked.

Baet muttered a curse and raised his twin muskets. He didn't know who he wanted to kill more, Garf or Banifourd. Still, he was a good shot. Chances were he might get 'em both.

Carringten stepped next to Baet. The captain put a light hand on Thunder Maker and shook his head. There were eight men gathered about Vearing's corpse. A pitched battle was a poor option in the captain's view. At best they'd have their revenge. At worst, Creigal would be captured or killed. It was the possibility of losing the duke weighed against the life of an esquire and a gang of hired guns. Baet knew the score. The captain was right. With a sigh, he sheathed his muskets, then followed Creigal and Carringten into deeper shadows.

"My men," Creigal whispered, his voice filled with sorrow.

"There are still some missing," Baet noted, though he had his doubts.

"There is much blood on those swords," Creigal shook his head. "I have little hope for the others."

Baet realized there was nothing more to do except escape. "We can leave!" He began in an excited whisper. "The horses are all ready!"

Creigal and Carringten both turned to the guard.

"When I was first attacked, I retreated to the stables," Baet continued. "The horses were saddled and loaded, and there was no one about. One of the traitors must have had the middle guard. They mean to rob us after they murder us."

"Bence had the middle guard," Carringten stated.

"He was not there," Baet shrugged as he began toward the stables.

"If Bence is there, the devil take him," Creigal snarled. "Lead the way."

When they arrived at the stables, everything was as Baet remembered. The horses milled about; saddled, loaded, and a bit jittery, thanks to the repeated thunder of muskets. There was still no guard. Whatever his allegiance, Bence was not to be found. Baet figured Bence was safely out of the way – and likely drunk out of his gourd.

Carringten surveyed the horses with a satisfied air. He turned to Baet, "Cut the cinches and stampede the extra horses. I go to clear the gate," he said. With that, Carringten slipped from the stables and disappeared.

Creigal tied their supply horses to Baet's mount as Baet used his short blade to cut the cinches on the extra saddles. "I christen thee Gore Tongue, as thou hast drunk a man's life," he said to his short blade. With a smile, he repeated the names of his weapons: Thunder Maker, Cloud Breaker, and now Gore Tongue. With the edge of Gore Tongue, he severed another cinch.

"You ready?" Creigal asked with his hand on the main door of the stables.

"Last one," Baet called as he slipped the blade between beast and leather.

"Time to go!" Creigal called and pushed open the stable doors. He climbed into his saddle and heeled his horse with Carringten's mount in tow. Several riderless mounts and supply horses followed after him.

Baet got on his own horse and pressed the mare forward. The supply horses followed with the rest of the animals close behind. He pressed his horse into a cantor and managed a bit of a gallop as he rode through the courtyard. A dozen horses fanned out in front of him, and a dozen more behind.

The yard was not empty. Several men stood to one side. They all wore the blue and white as they rushed forward. Most had nothing but swords and were too late to cut off Creigal or Baet – but two had bows, and they aimed at Creigal. The duke rode low in his saddle, a small target indeed. Yet, Baet knew a dozen men that would thrill at the shot, and half of them might make it. With a curse, he ripped his muskets from their holsters and stood high in his saddle. He took a hasty shot at the closer man. Though he missed, the boom of the musket was enough to spook the archers. One arrow sailed high over the duke and the other was well behind him as it struck the saddle of Carringten's mount.

The two archers turned on Baet and nocked arrows. Baet recognized Garf. He glared as he took aim. The archers fired a hasty shot and scrambled to either side. The arrows missed, but not by much. Baet returned fire. Thunder Maker roared to life, but he also missed as his target dived away.

Garf turned and nocked another arrow as Baet swore at the traitor and charged away in his blood-soaked underwear. Baet pulled his horse hard to the left, and hugged close to his mount as an arrow sang past on his right.

Garf's next shot was even worse as Baet quickly put distance between them.

Creigal slowed as he passed through the wide open front gate. He could see nothing but the lifeless bodies of three men in blue and white. Then a shadow shifted and broke from the wall. Carringten rushed to the spare horse and snapped the arrow from its saddle, happy to see there was no blood. Baet stormed past Carringten and Creigal as he continued down the road with their supply horses in tow. Creigal and Carringten charged after him.

Garf and his companion continued to fire arrows though they fell harmless to the road. There was too much distance and the range quickly increased. Other men in blue and white wrangled horses in hopes of mounting a pursuit – but the saddles slid off the animals and took the riders with them. Garf swore a blue streak as he watched Duke Creigal berDuvante ride off with two of his guards still alive. He spit on the ground and kicked at a ruined saddle as the others tried to corral their horses.

Banifourd stood next to his friend and wiped blood from his sword. "He's still a long way from home," he noted as he eyed the retreating duke.