The Riders of the King's Own

Week Fifteen
Kul Nimay

If it were up to me, I’d have all three of them gelded at the next tin-pot village we come across, especially Mongrel. I’m General; can’t I make them geld their animals? Aeia-damned males, sympathetic about their horses’… bits.

Oh look, I’m doing it again. Sorry.

Anyway, mission. Finally we’re back on horseback, as Nol’s already said. I’m not entirely sure whether the tactic was successful or not. We did root out a number of the smaller bandit groups, but we also lost everything we were carrying at the time bar weapons. Still, we accomplished what we set out to do, and we’ve since replenished on lost supplies, so I’m going to call it a success and leave it at that. It does mean we won’t be able to afford so many nights indoors on the way back through Kazin, since we had the horses stabled for so long, but we’ll live. It’s all downhill from here, so presumably it’ll only get warmer. We hope.

Ashburn and the other mares seem to have welcomed Coconut into the ranks with no fuss. They’re all protecting the poor girl from the stallions when we tie them up overnight. What’s the appeal of owning a stallion, anyway? Even Dizzy, Gylepi’s horse, has his ugly moments, and he’s the best behaved of the three of them.

But yes, obviously we have some business to attend to before we can head back to Raykin. We passed them three days ago, so with any luck we’ll find them again early tomorrow morning. It had better not be foggy. Rain and sleet I can handle; you can see through rain and sleet. Fog just hangs around, not letting you see more than a few paces in front of you.

Mmm, hail.

I’m sure you’ve picked up by now that our habitual way of dealing with people with weapons is to sit tight and wait until they come to us, while the archers and blade archers pick off as many as possible before they reach us. This mob, however, we would have to tackle differently, since they were going to run in the opposite direction when they saw us.

This time, the plan was that the archers would shoot the people on horseback, and the rest of us would go for the slower and easier-to-catch-up-with people on foot. The archers seemed to be revelling in the prospect, since that’s pretty much what they’ve been training for out at the cliffs in Ni-Yana. I’d never have a hope of doing that. I couldn’t shoot if my life depended on it, especially from the back of a horse going at full pelt. But that’s not what I’m here for, so we’re okay.

Another difference was that inevitably, some of them were going to get away. There were forty of them, presumably all running into the forest in different directions, so there was no way we’d be able to get every one of them. That means leaving at least one alive, so we could interrogate them and find out where the rest would have gone.

I’m not ashamed to admit that we aim to kill. We’re not specialists in deliberately leaving survivors. In the heat of the moment, when your life is on the line, your brain kind of switches off. There’s no time for thinking about how to counter the next sword swipe or flying arrow, because by the time you’ve thought of the best plan of attack or defence, they’re already two or three sword swings ahead.

It turns almost entirely to instinct and reflexes, which is something that can’t be taught by anyone but yourself. That’s why some people who complete army training only end up in Sixth or Seventh Company, while others end up with the Own. Daily training is absolutely vital, otherwise, even if you have potential to get into the Own, there’s no way you’ll get that first blood draw from the torso that you need from us.

In this kind of situation, our first instinct is to go for the jugular, but this time we had to go for somewhere that would leave them alive but unable to escape. I don’t think I’ve ever had to do that before. Training at the barracks in Ni-Yana we try not to hit each other at all. In Kazin, obviously, the idea is to kill anyone who tries to kill me, but if they run off then so much the better. Even getting into the Own it was a single scratch that did it, which is hardly going to inhibit anyone.

In the end I didn’t get to hit anyone. These Kazinians were very good at escaping. They’d disappeared into the trees almost as soon as we appeared, and the forest here is far too thick to run through it on a horse.

The archers shot two each, the blade archers one each, and Melraan, on the fastest horse, was the only swordie to even get a chance. So in all, eleven of the forty fell, and at a glance, it would appear that all eleven of them were well and truly dead. Melraan had somehow managed to kill someone with just the flat of his blade, and everyone else had what looked like a fatal arrow or dagger implanted somewhere on their person.

While Nol and Melraan were arguing over how to not kill someone with the flat of the blade, and the rest of the guys were resting against trees cleaning their blades of mud splatter, I began scanning the wreckage for someone who we could interrogate.

I did manage to find someone, a woman brandishing what could only have been a broken broomstick, and with one of Garuk’s arrows in her side. She was pulling off a pretty convincing dead look, but her face was far too tense and in pain for her not to be.

Soon enough she opened her eyes and grinned up at me sheepishly, knowing she was done for. I think it was only Garuk’s slackened bow that saved her—only the head of the arrow had gone in, so no vital organs would have been pierced. If Garuk had had his full strength, she would have survived at best for an hour or two, but as it stood it was just a flesh wound. I can’t help but notice a sense of irony in that.

“Are you going to kill me now?” Definitely just a flesh wound. Her voice and glare was far too strong for it to be anything fatal.

I shook my head and carefully drew the arrow out of her side. She was obviously trying to show she wasn’t in pain, setting her jaw firmly and looking me straight in the eye as I did it. Whoever they are, there’s something to admire in that kind of determination.

She pulled herself into a sitting position, cringing in a way that was barely perceptible, and slowly glaring at each of the guys in turn, focusing especially on Inel, Garuk and Ulkar, who she’d met and robbed before. “I’m not telling you where they are.”

“Oh, I think you will.” Nol, obviously.

“Or what, you’ll kill me?” She snorted derisively.

“No.” Gylepi this time. “We’ll leave you alive, take you with us to Ni-Yana where you can live out your days in the dungeon.” There was a hint of realisation in her eyes by this point. Not quite the ignorant Raykinians she’d originally taken us for, apparently.

“And if I give away our hideout, then I go free?” That was obviously a plea. She knew by now what was coming, but was hoping to turn it around. I slowly shook my head at her.

“You help us, we kill you.” Gylepi again. “Nice and honourable.”

At least you can’t call us dishonest.

She mulled this over, weighing up which would be the most honourable way to die—growing old in a Raykinian dungeon, or ratting out her companions to the Raykinian army. Eventually she nodded to herself, confirming her decision.

We tied her hands behind her back, climbed back in the saddle and got her to lead us onward.

How she knew the way I’ll never know. We trekked for a good hour through the scrub, with no discernable landmarks, and certainly no path. Just a lot of very dense, low branched trees. We had to dismount a number of times and lead the horses through.

When we did arrive at the camp, it was easy to see why they’d chosen the place, even if it was a fair hike to the road. There was underbrush everywhere, making it impossible to sneak up on them, there was a small stream with fresh water, but not big enough for there to be any substantial settlements along it to interrupt them. There were tents scattered around the area, and the whole place had a look that it had only recently been established—the earth around the fire pit hadn’t yet been flattened to hard soil. This group must have been made up of the last remaining smaller groups in the region, rather than just a massive group we’d missed entirely.

We tied our horses to the trees, since they’d just be awkward in this kind of situation, and came forward.

The bandits evidently felt more confident on their home soil. Instead of fleeing as soon as we appeared, they grabbed weapons and hid behind trees. Trees make life awkward for everyone. We need a miniature forest somewhere in or near Ni-Yana so we can practice tree fighting better, figure out how to properly manoeuvre around them. I hate trees. I like being able to see the horizon all around me; trees make me claustrophobic.

From the outset, it was clear what they were trying to do—protect the tent to the rear of the camp, where they undoubtedly kept their hoard. There was no way they’d let that tent get out of eyeshot. If we ran away further than that, so much the better.

That was their vital flaw though. It meant we were able to surround them and slowly close in, and even if they were protected by a tree from one side, they were left completely open on the other.

There was of course the matter of the black horse rider, but he was immediately obvious, since his arrows were tipped with polished steel, instead of the more traditional iron or flint. He was also the first to fire into the trees at us, or more specifically, me. Maybe he figured I was the best of the fifteen of us because I ride a black horse. Whatever the reason, he fired straight at my throat, which is about the hardest point at which to deflect an arrow with a sword. Oh yes, he was definitely their black horseman.

His shot triggered a volley from the other archers around him, in a fan out towards our guys, as well as a volley of four arrows from all sides aimed at his own throat. He managed to dodge two and catch one on his bow, (more out of luck than skill, I’d imagine), but one hit soundly, and that was the end of our greatest threat. We found out later that the one that hit was Gylepi’s, who’s doubtless not going to shut his mouth about it for months to come.

Once their best fighter had fallen, a noticeable tenseness fell over the bandits, but their leader forced them on with no discernable fear in her voice.

Soon enough, our own archers had eliminated the majority of theirs, so it was safe to move in on them. Deflecting arrows in this kind of a situation is harder than on the road—there were still about twenty archers, they were scattered around so there was no fixed point from where the arrows would be coming, and I couldn’t see all the archers anyway—so it would have been silly to give up my position behind the tree until there were no archers left.

After our archers had done their bit it was just a matter of ratting everyone out from behind their trees. Pitchforks, spades and broken broomsticks aren’t the most devastating of weapons. Pitchforks and spades have the potential to do damage, and look quite threatening, but they’re far too heavy and awkward to be dangerous. Swords are much more difficult to dodge.

When they realised they were beaten, the remaining bandits abandoned their post by the tent and tried running, but that obviously failed. The only survivor was their leader. We questioned her briefly in much the same way as the other woman, but she was adamant that there were no other bandit groups she knew of. She’d gathered up everyone she could find, and unless any had escaped our massacre, then there were none left in southern Silrona.

Which means the practical part of our mission is complete! Finally! After three months, two of them in Kazin, we’re essentially finished. True, we won’t be back in Raykin for another two or three weeks yet, and it’s still another six or seven back to Ni-Yana, but the better part of the mission is over.

Winter Solstice tomorrow, and neither the desert nor any palm leaves are in sight. The Ra-Lin’s somewhere off to the east, so we might be able to meet back up with it by tomorrow evening. Not that it really bothers me, but most of the guys in the Own are religious enough to want to do something for the Winter Solstice, so we may as well.

Yes, I’m well aware that finding a way out of this forest is pretty much impossible, but that’s what desert magic is for. Everyone else has completely lost their sense of direction and can’t tell north from south, but yours truly will save us.

Happy Winter Solstice! That is undoubtedly the coldest Solstice I’ve ever been involved in. I’ve never had one outside Raykin, let alone in the kind of country that is the absolute epitome of Winter. Fog, rain, sleet, hail, gale-force winds, the whole bit. I almost expected it to start snowing at some point, but that doesn’t usually start for another month or so.

Apologies to the scribe charged with transcribing my bit; I can’t actually feel my fingers at present, so you’re just going to have to make do. It’s so cold.

We made it to the Ra-Lin late in the evening, when the light was really fading. Daylight does last longer the further north you go, but the cloud cover means it never gets half as bright as in Raykin.

The Ra-Lin’s so small at this point. If it wasn’t so frigid, it would be possible to wade across without the water going up past your waist. Hard to believe the monster it grows into by the time it reaches the ocean.

We had to improvise a bit on the traditions—Lin got pine branches instead of palm fronds thrown into her river, and Aeia got smooth, dripping rocks from the riverbed placed at the base of an equally drippy pine tree, instead of bone-dry desert rocks placed at a bone-dry desert shrine, but we did our best given the circumstances.

I never want to spend another Winter Solstice in Kazin again.

I knew this Winter was colder than normal. It snowed briefly last night. I only know this because I woke up halfway through the night from cold and couldn’t get back to sleep. Out of the door flap of my tent I could just see flakes falling in what miniscule moon and starlight was getting through the clouds. It had all gone by morning though.

It’s not supposed to start snowing for a month yet. I hate snow. It tries to make you think it’s lovely and peaceful, but once it’s settled, it turns to ice and slush, so it’s just impossible to walk on, horseback or otherwise. I’d hoped we’d be out of Kazin by the time it started snowing, but apparently not.

That’s it. We’re sleeping at inns at every possible opportunity, and we’re going to be riding well into the night. I want to be back in sunlight as soon as possible. A week, how about that? I want to see those white skulls in a week.

If I tell them all a week, we’ll be there in nine or ten days. Same principal as for the mission brief. And you wonder how I made General.

Week 14      Week 16