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 hopes to give him a proper welcome!
I wonder what Creigal shall make of the north, though I hope he has little chance to see it. I do not need his spies snooping about the hinterlands and seeing things they should not see.
Our work continues apace. Praise Rauthmaug!
Gred duReb, King of the Saot
Haddelton suffered as he tried to sleep. Something poked about the back of his head, some thought, some connection that promised to be significant, but still needed to time to bake and set. It'd been a long day in the saddle, and he'd already did a fair deal of thinking. Now all he wanted was sleep. But as he lay there, half puzzling over his day, and half begging for dreams, Haddleton slipped the horizon of this waking world – only to be poked by an urgency and stirred awake once more. The shadowy hazard rattled about his brain and lingered in the air. This weighty thing cast a pall over everything as it promised to come true.
Though he knew not what it was, Haddelton knew it had everything to do with his good friend, Baet. Two nights ago, Baet thrashed in his sleep so much so that he woke Haddelton. As he rubbed his eyes, Haddelton realized Baet murmured as he tossed and turned. Wide awake, and curious to know what bothered his fellow guard, Haddelton edged close to Baet's bed, and began to question 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 coin from another man's pocket," Baet confessed. "But his son is also murdered, and I am accused of the killing! I have not committed this crime, I swear it!"
With a frown, Haddelton continued. "Tell them the truth, tell them you did not do it."
Baet whimpered. "They do not believe, for I have lied about the coin!"
Haddelton shrugged. "Fight 'em," he suggested.
"There are far too many!" Baet cried. "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 dare threaten a child?!"
Baet didn't have a kid, nor did he have a wife. Haddelton was sure it was nothing more than a nightmare. With a shrug, he decided to needle his friend instead. "Maybe you deserve to hang," he smirked. "Maybe you are the villain after all."
Baet woke. Before Haddelton could do anything, he found himself staring down the barrel of Baet's fancy musket, Thunder Maker. For too long, Baet glared 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?" He finally spoke. His word broke the spell.
Baet blinked and lowered the gun. "You fool! What are you off about!?" He snapped in a harsh whisper as he lowered the musket.
"You were having a nightmare and it woke me," Haddelton answered.
Baet lay 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 up to his own mortality in such a rude manner. With a frown, he said, "Nothing. You made no sense."
The episode disturbed Haddelton, and made him suspicious of his friend. For half of the next day, he glared at Baet surreptitiously. As he made faces at his friend, Haddelton noticed a strange thing. He noticed some of the other men also glared when Baet turned his back. Worst of all, he saw Duke Creigal berDuvante glare at Baet – if only for a split second.
Haddelton thought, that damned fool almost shot me! Deader than dead! He deserves what he gets! He did not mention the suspicion of the others, though he had the grace to stop staring at his friend behind his back. Instead of studying Baet, he began to study the others. They were suspicious of Baet. He'd either done something, or they believed he'd done something. Haddelton assumed that as Baet's best friend, the duke and his captain were likely suspicious of him too.
That really irked Haddelton. He thought to go to Carringten, the captain of Creigal's guard, and confess he was no party to Baet's actions – whatever they might be. He thought he might argue for his friend. But he realized this might make the captain more suspicious. Twice, he thought to pull Baet aside and have it out of him. But he could not get the man alone, lost his gumption, and let it fester instead. Finally, he thought to do nothing until he had more of the story. Now, as he hovered at the edge of sleep, he felt he was missing something vital. Something terrible drifted in the night air, something bigger than Baet, but somehow obscured by him. It was there in the glances between the other men, and although Haddelton told himself he'd get to the bottom of it tomorrow, his suspicions tried to convince him tomorrow would be too late.
But that was the way with suspicions – tomorrow was always too late.
Frustrated, Haddelton opened his eyes. A strange thing happened. A face materialized out of the shadow, up side down, as it grinned above him. He knew the face. It was the face of the royal attendant: Banifourd. Haddelton frowned and began to sit up as something looped about his neck and yanked him back. The air was crushed from his throat. He kicked and wrestled – he tried to scream and free himself – to no avail.
Terror gripped his heart as Haddelton fought against the garrote. Blood soaked his bedding as he tried to kick back into his attacker. Slowly, his strength waned as his lungs burned. The searing pain of the garrote was just a dull ache now, and Haddelton lost his will to struggle. Images of his wife and kid roared passed his eyes in a flurry, and he knew his wife would be so upset. For a moment, he clung to the memory of his lover and begged her forgiveness. Then, there was nothing.
Unable to solve his observations, Haddelton was doomed. But for his brother-in-arms, Baetolamew, fate intervened. As chance would have it – or maybe the angels above – a meteor dropped out of the sky. Fiery from its decent, and now in three pieces, the tiny rocks clicked, clacked, and banged against the roof of the very cabin that sheltered Haddelton and Baet. Shocked awake by the noise, Baet opened his eyes and was surprised to see several shadows moving about his room! Two struggled with Haddelton across the way, while two more rushed at Baet with weapons in hand!
Surprised, but not unprepared, Baet grabbed at the musket under his pillow. He gripped its barrel and swung the weapon as he'd use a cudgel. The stone handle of Thunder Maker smashed the closest attacker's knee. He lurched from the impact of the blow and gave an "Ooof!" as he buckled.
The second assassin tried to get around his floundering friend. Baet sat up and flipped his musket about in one fluid motion. He leveled Thunder Maker at his new opponent and fired. Light, sound, and smoke invaded the room. Everything was illuminated and the scene lay plain – if only for a split second. Blood exploded from the most immediate attacker as the musket ball smashed his chest. Another attacker floundered at his feet and covered himself from the deafening boom as he cradled his knee. A third attacker with bow and arrow was blinded as he stared from across the room. The fourth attacker, the one that strangled the life out of Haddelton, 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. An arrow whistled overhead and Baet cursed. The archer may be shooting blind, but he was doing an awful good job of it! The arrow would have skewered Baet if he hadn't reached for his belongings.
Wearing nothing but his small clothes, 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 the glass bit into his foot. Dogs barked and whined as Baet half hobbled and half ran from the cabin. In his boots, Baet had his other musket, a small sack of shot, powder, wad, his hunting knife, coin, several dice, and a pair of day old socks. After half a dozen quick steps, Baet dropped to the ground and pulled Cloud Breaker from among his belongings and aimed it at the window. Banifourd peered out. He saw the musket and dodged back into the cabin before Baet could fire.
"Banifourd, you bastard!" Baet yelled. With a huff, he turned and ran away, so he could reload and consider what had happened.
Baet hobbled into the night with a stream of muttered curses. He crouched behind a carriage near the stables and reloaded Thunder Maker as he glanced nervously about the corners. He pulled the most offensive shards of glass from his foot, though several fragments remained. He put on his socks and boots, and stared at the stables. Which of the duke's men was set to watch the horses and supplies? He wondered which other men might be traitors as he thought of his dead friend. Why would Banifourd kill Haddelton?
Baet explored the stables and realized 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 – and there were at least twenty extra mounts about the barn! "Balls," Baet cursed as he realized Banifourd must be after the duke. There would be much more blood before the night was over – if there wasn't already!
For a split second, Baet thought he should put on some proper clothing, but then, he already had his boots tied and time was wasting! Baet 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 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 the Old Mother Moon. 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 waiting for him at home – a friend as guiltless and guileless as they come! Baet wondered, what sort of justice guides this world?
Baet's foot was aflame with bits of glass. He half hobbled and half stalked among the various cabins. He did his best to stay in the shadows.
As he approached the Duke's cabin, he noticed the door was shut and there was no light in the window. There were no sounds except a couple excited dogs that continued to bay in the distance. Thunder Maker must have woke everyone about the inn, and yet, nothing happened. Baet felt tension in the air and could tell the fighting was far from over. 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.
As Baet searched the dark night, a fight erupted somewhere in the distance. Shouts and 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 Baet's right. He realized there was a fifth attacker just to his side! Indeed, he stood right next to the man! Baet abandoned his spear and grabbed for his short 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. Blood splashed over Baet, and the hot taste of metal got in his mouth. The form of his enemy went limp. Baet wiped his face though it only smeared the blood about.
Meanwhile, the other attackers kicked in the door of the Duke's cabin and rushed inside. "Have at you!" Creigal berDuvante roared at the intruders. The flash and boom of a musket followed. Metal rang against metal. Screams flowed from the small building.
"Balls," Baet swore, sheathed his knife, and took up his spear. He charged for the Duke's cabin despite the pain in his foot 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 and a smug look crept across his face. Baet realized it was Willem in the doorway – another ball-sucking traitor!
"Yargh!" Baet yelled as he lunged at Willem with his spear. He succeeded in breaking Willem's aim, but he overextended and exposed himself in the effort. Surprised but well-trained, Willem turned on Baet and sidestepped the hasty attack. He grabbed the spear about halfway up the shaft and gave it a solid yank. Off-balance, Baet careened forward. He flew past the archer and sprawled into a patch of flowers. With dirt in his mouth, Baet realized he would die for his effort.
Willem backpedaled, nocked an arrow, and turned toward the downed guard. Before he could put the 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. The arrow struck next to Baet's head. Baet stared at it as he heard blood gurgle from Willem's mouth.
Willem crumbled to the dirt. He made a sound similar to Haddelton, and Baet shuddered to remember it. He rolled over and stared up at Carringten. With a grim look on his face, Carringten helped Baet off the ground. "Well met," Carringten gave an approving nod as he gently brushed at the mess of blood and dirt that covered Baet. There was concern on his face. "Is any of that yours?" he asked.
Baet looked down and noted the dark stains all over his underwear. He shook his head.
Creigal berDuvante, Duke of Gaurring, stepped from the cabin: as old and regal as the name implies. "Tell me what you know," he ordered.
Baet snapped to attention. "Haddelton and I were attacked in our room. I killed two: one in my cabin, and one over there. I don't know either of 'em. The attackers all wear blue and white. Banifourd is also a ball-sucking traitor," Baet kicked at the dead form of Willem.
"These are the uniforms of Wibbeley," Carringten noted. "These others are either Count Drefford's men, or they pretend to be. What do you think of his lordship?" Carringten turned to the duke.
"I would not be shocked if these are indeed the count's men," Creigal frowned. He turned back to Baet. "Where is Haddelton?"
Baet shook his head and lowered his eyes. "I barely saved myself."
Creigal frowned and gave a nod. "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 compromised too. Baet sucked in his breath. He didn't care a wit about Bence – who seemed a bit of a coward and far too fond of his liquor – but Garf was an incredibly dangerous and talented asshole. Baet would rather face Bence wielding any and every weapon than face a Garf with nothing but his dick to swing...
As they approached the sound of struggle, Vearing's voice became intelligible. "My brothers!" He lamented, "I will avenge you, my dear brothers!" His words were punctuated by the clang of swordplay.
Vearing was a giant of a man. He squared off against three men in blue and white and used the great reach of his claymore to keep them all at bay. He 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 found nothing. Indeed, it was Vearing that found the next opportunity. With a neat shift of his balance 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 countered but were turned aside as Vearing dodged away on light feet and whipped his massive sword around once more. He turned back to his remaining enemies. A wicked grin split his lips as he stared them down. "Come at me dogs, I thirst for blood," Vearing bragged.
Neither enemy approached although neither broke and ran. For several seconds, the three circled.
"My brothers! I will avenge you!" Vearing bellowed as he closed in on his enemies once more. With a violence, metal rang against metal. Vearing pushed the Count's men back as they were forced to take a defensive position.
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.
Suddenly, Vearing stopped in his press and stared down at his chest. An arrow protruded dangerously close to his heart. "Huurr..." Vearing croaked as he pressed forward and tried desperately to get at his immediate enemies. He wobbled as blood dripped from his mouth. Another arrow sang out of the night and struck the giant man, inches from the first. Vearing dropped to his knees. The two men that stood against Vearing leapt forward, knocked aside his massive claymore, and struck him again and again. Without another sound, Vearing slumped 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. There was blood on their weapons. From the other direction, Banifourd and two other men stepped into the light.
Baet muttered a curse and raised his 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 and put a light hand on Thunder Maker. The captain 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, tortured, or murdered. It was the possibility of losing the duke weighed against the life of some ruffians, and a mere esquire. Baet knew the score. The captain was right. With a sigh, he sheathed his muskets, and the three survivors slipped into deeper shadows.
"My men," Creigal whispered, his voice filled with sorrow as he turned from the fallen form of Vearing.
"There are still some missing," Baet noted, though he had his doubts.
Carringten shook his head. "There is a lot of blood on those swords. I have little hope for the others."
Baet realized there was nothing more to do, excepting escape. He remembered the stables and the fact that someone had prepared the horses. "We can leave! The horses are ready!" Baet began in a whisper. "When I was first attacked, I retreated to the stables! The horses were saddled and loaded, and there was no one about," Baet continued. "I can only assume Banifourd or one of his cronies had the middle guard! They mean to rob us after they murder us!"
Carringten blinked but followed as Baet led them away. "Bence had the middle guard," Carringten stated.
Baet shrugged. "He was not there."
"If Bence is there now, the devil take him," Creigal snarled.
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 fire 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 to boot.
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." With that, Carringten slipped from the stables.
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," Baet 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. There were still several good saddles, but he'd cut the majority.
"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 ran out with him.
Baet mounted his own horse and pressed the mare forward. The supply horses followed with the rest of the animals close behind. Baet 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, but most had nothing but swords and were too late to cut off Creigal or Baet. Yet two had bows, and they aimed at Creigal. The duke rode low in his saddle, a small target indeed – but Baet knew a dozen men that would thrill at the shot, and half of them might make it! With a curse, Baet ripped his dual muskets from their holsters. He stood high in his saddle that he might get a better shot and fired Cloud Breaker.
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. Instead, it struck the saddle of Carringten's mount.
The two archers turned on Baet and nocked arrows. Baet recognized Banifourd. He glared as he aimed Thunder Maker at Banifourd and Cloud Breaker at the other man, though it was spent and still smoking. The archers fired a hasty shot at Baet and scrambled to either side. The arrows missed, but not by much. Thunder Maker roared and fire leapt from the barrel. Dirt exploded just past Banifourd's head – a miss of mere inches.
Banifourd turned and nocked another arrow as Baet charged away in his blood-stained underwear. Baet expected a shot and pulled his horse hard to the left. He hugged close to his mount as arrows sang past on his right. Banifourd'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 form of a man in blue and white. A shadow broke from the wall. Carringten rushed to the spare horse and snapped the arrow from its saddle. He was happy to see there was no blood and quickly mounted the horse.
Baet stormed past Carringten and Creigal as he continued down the road with their supply horses in tow. Creigal and Carringten charged after him.
Banifourd and his companion continued to fire arrows, though none of them was much closer than a prayer. 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. Banifourd 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.
"He's still a long way from home," Garf said to his friend as he wiped blood from his sword.