The Right-hand Army
The bandit captain is easy to track. We merely follow the sound of his wheezing. Unfortunately, the thick blanket of smoke distorts the sound, so I’m under the impression that we’re still a few metres away when I creep around the corner of a tent and crash right into the back of him. I bounce off his buoyant buttocks, rebounding into Kayla, who ends up on the floor with me on top of her.
The bandit captain turns and glares at us, then windmills his arms furiously in a series of incomprehensible gestures. His lackeys watch with mystified expressions on their faces. Finally, his patience cracks. “Snuff them, you nitwits!” he squeaks, pointing towards us.
A chorale of piercing shrieks splits the air from somewhere behind him.
“Idiots!” yells the bandit captain, clapping his hands over his ears. “This is the reason we had to stay silent!”
The bandits look recalcitrant but they nevertheless draw weapons then fan out, moving purposefully towards Kayla and me. She and I scramble to our feet. I draw out my longest knives and stand ready, locking eyes with the nearest bandit. He’s wielding a cutlass and is apparently partly deaf because the wailing screams don’t seem to be making any impression on him. He leaps forward, swinging his weapon at an angle designed to catch me at the neck. I duck, letting the blade swish over me. He carries on the swing in a bid to hit Kayla, but she spots it coming and it glances off her sword. I drop one of the long knives I’m holding, pull out a smaller one and throw it, getting the guy right in the heart. He drops, gurgling.
Kayla’s already facing off with another attacker while two more men are heading towards me. In one smooth movement, I snatch my first blade from the floor and dive forwards as if I’m planning to go between them. They both bring their weapons down to stop me, meanwhile I roll through the legs of the one on the right. Before they can react, I leap to my feet and plunge my knives into their unguarded backs.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see movement coming my way. I’m forced to relinquish both knives in the dying men and fling myself sideways to avoid the next man’s attack. As I recover my footing, I get a better look at him through the drifting smoke. This is the guy who captured my hair not so many hours ago! I’m going to enjoy killing him.
He’s wielding a club and, with chilling speed, retrieves it from the cratered ground where he’d missed me and swings in my direction once more. I leap towards him and duck under his arm, wrenching at the knife hilt in the nearest body. It’s stuck and doesn’t come free. Darn! I roll to my feet without it. I’ve only got a couple more throwing knives up my sleeves. I’ll have to make them count.
The club-wielding man is coming at me again, holding his weapon in readiness. I can see from the glint in his eye that he remembers me too. I flick a hand exaggeratedly, making it look as if I’ve thrown one of my remaining knives. His eyes flit over to follow the imaginary blade’s path and that’s when I actually throw the knife hidden up my other sleeve. It gets him in the gut. Serves him right for falling for a where’s-the-ball trick!
He bellows in pain and drops his club, clutching at the wound, but stays on his feet. It’s clear he’s far from defeated. I could throw my one remaining knife to finish him off, but then I’d have no weapons left. That’s usually the moment when you find out that your assailant had friends. Angry ones.
By this time, the shrieking from the prisoners has died down to more bearable levels and is harmonised by the bass groaning of the man I’ve wounded. I shuffle sideways, keeping one eye on him, and tug again at the knife in the nearest body. It’s well and truly stuck in there. What sort of weird rib arrangement does this corpse have? Glancing over, I see that Kayla is manoeuvring around a body lying on the floor next to her and seems to be holding her own against the last remaining bandit.
At least, he’s the last one if you don’t count the one I’ve wounded. And the bandit chief.
Where is old fatso anyway?
“Alright, freeze!” The shrill voice cuts through the scene, accompanied by gasping sobs. A stray breath of wind clears the haze a little, revealing the bandit leader with his pudgy arm grasped around one of the princess’s ladies. His other hand is holding a short sword to her neck. “Any tricks and this fine lady becomes a leaky sack.”
“Shit,” says Kayla for what must be the third time. I’m going to have to have a word with her about her language.
The bandit leader glares at us all and makes a big show of pressing the sword against his prisoner’s neck. She wails obligingly. Sighing, I make a big show of dropping the knife I’m holding. At the same time, I surreptitiously edge towards the nearest body. It’s the first guy I killed. A knife hilt protrudes from between his fingers. All I have to do is grab it and throw it so it’ll get the fat man in the eye. Of course, I have to wait until there’s a clear shot.
The ground begins to shake.
How annoying. I won’t be able to throw properly while there’s an earthquake going on.
The tremors get bigger and a wind picks up. The shaking gets so bad that I can’t keep my footing. I drop into a crouch, holding onto the ground for support. But since the ground is shaking, it doesn’t help very much. A couple of nearby tents collapse, sending puffs of ash into the air that are swiftly borne away on the growing breeze.
In another couple of seconds, the fog of smoke has rolled entirely away, and that’s when we see the stampede. A mob of hairy, horned animals. Not horses. Not bulls,
Mouths foaming, spiky heads tossing, sturdy bodies jostling, it’s a river, an avalanche of goats. They come charging through the camp, snorting and bellowing, crowding and bulldozing through everything in their path.
I survive only by shimmying up the nearest flagpole. The bandit leader is knocked flying in the very first wave of the stampede. The woman he’s holding falls to the ground and seems likely to meet her end. Except at the last second a hairy arm reaches out from the mass of heaving bodies, snags the back of her dress and swings her onto the back of the nearest buck. Screeching wildly, she flings her arms around its neck and is carried away into the mess of galloping goats.
The hairy arm pauses to straighten a set of horns attached to what I realise is a goatskin hat, perched on the head of a man wearing a mottled furred coat and carrying a three-horned staff. Goat Man!
“Hey,” I yell, waving my arms from the top of the pole. “Up here!”
“And before him shall be gathered all creatures,” he bellows. “And he will separate them one from another…”
“What?” My head is spinning in tempo with the galloping rush.
“…as a goatherd divideth his goats from the sheep.”
“Hey,” I call again, still waving madly. “Can you get the goats out of here? There are prisoners…”
Goat Man raises his free hand. At first I think it’s in answer to my wave but, to my surprise, he ignores me, stretching his fingers towards the sky then lowering them until they skim the backs of the heaving goat horde dashing past him. “And he shall set the goats on his right hand, but the non-goats on the left!” he crows.
“Can you at least calm them down or something?!” I shriek.
He looks up at me and cups a hand behind his ear to show he hasn’t heard.
“CALM THE GOATS DOWN!” I scream.
He beams and waves good-naturedly. “Don’t go worryin’ about them,” he calls, “They likes running.”
With this final droplet of wisdom safely dispensed. Goat Man moves on, wading through his herd. The glimpse of him is soon lost in the pitching throng of rusty bodies.
A few seconds later the goats are gone, leaving nothing but a cloud of dust and a trampled sea of carnage in their wake. Below me, a lone figure stands, sword in hand, surveying the wrecked camp. Kayla! By some miracle, she was left untouched.
I slide down the flagpole and hurry over to her. “Kayla, you’re not dead!”
“No, but he is.” She gestures with the point of her sword to a hump of rags representing what might once have been a corpse.
“Where did all those goats come from?” I ask in bewilderment.
Kayla sighs and shakes her head. “I was afraid of this. It was an accident just waiting to happen.”
She grimaces. “All these decades, royal wedding parties have been bringing small herds of goats to Zair with them so they can follow the ‘wedding tradition’.”
“The problem is, there are no records of any goats being brought back to Druinberg.”
I stare at her wonderingly. “They just abandon the goats here?”
“So they’ve basically been building a goat army without realising?”
“Yep. The latest lot must have come across their long-lost cousins and decided to have a stampede party.”
Now that the smoke has been swept away and all the tents have been trampled, it’s easy to see the prisoner enclosure. The stout fence has withstood even the recent goat hurricane. Kayla and I get to work pulling down the pickets and letting free the prisoners. Soon, the camp is full of dazed people wandering back and forth.
We search the camp, but fail to find Fell or Spindral anywhere. What we do find is a rather scorched patch of ground containing the remains of a few ex-tents. Scattered across the dirt lie a fine selection of cheeses. In the lee of a particularly large Gorgonzola, we unearth a contented family of mice.
So much for natural enemies.