It didn’t take long for the Company to bed down. They had been asleep for several hours, when they were awakened by a man running into the camp. The watch and four others jumped up and surrounded him. He pointed to the fire. “Put that out and keep silent!” he implored. They did. Sam reached for his flashlight. He cupped his hand over it and switched it on. He held the muffled glow to the man’s face.
Hannegelt stepped in. “Who are you?” he asked in hush tones.
The stranger was frightened by the ‘magic’ light and went to his knees. “I am Dextmann of Enverra Hold,” he answered obediently.
“Why are you running, and from whom?” Hannegelt demanded.
“I, uh, am a thief,” he said nervously. The men muttered various comments to each other. “I run from a band of Were-women, whom I have stolen from.
Kemann interrupted, “They are close.”
“And they are Styric-folk,” the thief added.
“They are Styric-folk headed this way from Enverra. Am I correct then that Enverra has fallen?”
“Yes, Captain,” Dextmann answered. “You fight Styric—good, good.”
“Yes, and you shall join us, Sir Thief, if you wish to live. How many Were-women were in the pack?”
“Six in all, I think.”
“Scarcely a pack,” Sam commented.
“They are fierce, Skadiver,” Beamann remarked.
“And in the dark, they have the advantage over us,” Axemann added as he gazed out into the darkness.
“Get your bows ready,” Sam said. “When they get close, I’ll use the light. They’ll be stunned for a moment, and we’ll shoot.”
It seemed like a good enough plan, and the Company made ready. Sam found himself waiting next to Dannhelm in the darkness. “Is he telling the truth?”
“I believe he is, but what he has stolen from them has more meaning than he says,” Dannhelm replied.
They couldn’t hear anything definitive, but there was a wisp of grass on the outskirts of the camp site. Sam waited for his ‘best guess’ and switched on the flashlight directly in the direction that Dextmann had run in from. As he had hoped, several of the creatures were stilled with the light for a moment and were cut down with arrows. Instantly, the sounds of the grass flanked the group on the other two sides. The others were obviously coming in fast.
Kemann, standing in the center of the Company, who had formed a ring, let loose a bright pulse of light which lingered. It was enough for the group to make out the other were-women’s shapes above the grass. The archers let no time pass before taking their shots. Screams from the two sides split the night as the arrows cut into the beasts, but not fatally. One had an arrow through her arm broke into the open and went straight for Dextmann. Fortunately for him, he was standing next to Genie whose quick sword took the Were-woman’s head nearly off. The resulting reflexive convulsions of the body were horrifying.
Sam shined his light around to see the carnage. The greenish, scaly bodies were hideous and even worse in the harsh light. The bodies reeked of musk and dirt. Upon closer examination, Sam could see that, although they had major reptilian attributes, there were also patches of hair on top of their heads and shoulders. They did have shapely bodies of women, but with fangs, claws, and short tails that had been bobbed and decorated. Two of them were still alive and lashed out when approached, but Beamann and Axemann finished them. As the heads were severed, the bodies writhed about like animals in their death throes.
Sam turned to Dextmann. “So, what exactly did you steal from them?”
The Company closed in around him, and he reached into his satchel to produce a parchment map and a piece of jewelry. The map was not broad enough to discern its location. The writing on it was in some ancient, unknown language, which Sam thought looked Arabic. At the top of the parchment was a crooked line with a dragon symbol pointing to the top of one of the crests.
The amulet was a polished metal; it was round and convex with two posts coming from its curve. Its back had a raised ‘X’ on it.
“So, what are they?” Hannegelt asked.
“As you see, Captain,” Dextmann answered. “But they must have thought they were worth something. They killed a lot of good folk to get them.”
Sam looked over at Dannhelm, who nodded to signify that he spoke the truth. Hannegelt decided to let the matter rest until they could find out more. “Kemann will examine these objects to see if they will yield anything useful. We shall return them to you after that.”
“Fair enough, Captain.”
“I am Prince Hannegelt of Gilden Hold, Dextmann. Not ‘Captain’.”
“Begging your pardon, my lord,” Dextmann said with a bow.
“It is given. Now, let’s try to get some rest before the first light,” Hannegelt ordered.
The rest of the night was calm, but Sam could not get back to sleep. He got up and wandered over to Sanndin, the watch, and relieved him. Grateful, Sanndin collapsed onto his bed roll. Sam gazed up at the stars and wondered where this place was in the cosmos. He searched the sky to see if there were any constellations he knew, so he could begin to place Hordann. But the stars were totally unfamiliar. He wondered if one of the points of light he could see was the Sun, with the Earth busily spinning around it—without him.
A breeze stirred the meadow, and a sweet scent was in the air. Morning was coming. Sam sipped a little wine and patiently waited for the glow to grow over the mountains. He didn’t have to wait long, and the soft light was enough to get the Company up for more of the crusty nosh to start their day. Surprisingly, Dextmann was still there.
Sam went to check on Genie, and she woke with a frown. “If we had to land on another world, it might have at least been one with horses,” she griped.
Sam got out his coffee supplies and assured her that the next other world they landed on would surely have something to ride. He wasn’t looking forward to the next four days of walking either. Sam drank his coffee, ate a little and soon after, the Company moved on. They planned on bypassing Enverra Hold to the north and make their way over the Sanguin Mountains.
As they approached the wooded foothills, just north of Enverra, Kemann and Hannegelt came over to Sam.
“Samuel,” Hannegelt said. “Kemann sees a group nearby. Styric-folk.”
“Four men and a neutral woman,” Kemann clarified.
“We think we should just pass through and stay clear of them.”
“You say the woman is neutral?” Sam asked as Genie came up behind him.
“What of it?” Hannegelt asked.
“I think they are probably holding her,” Sam postulated.
“What do you mean?”
“Against her will. She may have tried to escape Enverra, and these men have recovered her,” Sam explained. “We should find out.”
“My father warned us about keeping to Gilden ways out here. We have the quest to consider. Enverra has fallen.”
“Kemann, can you see her?” Genie asked.
He concentrated for a few moments. “She is bound.”
“Do we rescue her?” Genie asked with a nudge.
Hannegelt sighed. “As you wish, but we don’t need to take the whole Company.”
“No, only four, I think,” Sam said. “Genevieve, me, Beamann, and our noble thief.” He had deliberately omitted the obstinate Hannegelt, who looked a little insulted.
The four slipped through the tall blond grass. At the top of the rise, they lay and looked through the waist-high blades to the clearing beyond, at the edge of the wood. There were the four men sitting on logs and stumps opposite each other, the woman lying on her side at the edge of their circle. Her rich robes were tattered and torn, and they draped around her where she had fallen. The men were eating. They were well-armored, but their helmets were off. One of the men got up to go use the woods.
“That’s it, we can’t approach from this direction without being noticed. We move around to the woods side and enter the clearing from there. Dextmann, can you take care of the one in the woods quietly?”
“Aye,” answered the thief.
“We only have bare heads as targets, so if one of us misses, be ready for some action,” Sam said. “Let’s go.”
They stealthily moved into position. They could see Dextmann drawing his knife from its sheath on his back, and his moving in on the ‘occupied’ soldier, that was the signal. The three others stepped out from the trees and loosed their arrows. Two of the men fell, but Sam’s arrow missed its mark.
“Crap!” he muttered and had to unsheathe his sword. The man was not happy. He was short and thick with a sword to match.
“Keep outside,” Beamann instructed.
The two men clashed. Sam was amazed at the power of the blows he was having to block, and this guy was fast. Sam found himself backing up to stay out of the guy’s reach. He stumbled and fell to the ground. A second later, he felt the man’s blade make impact on his new armor. From the ground, he pushed up enough to land a kick in the man’s solar plexus. His mail might stop a sword, but a swift kick there could do the trick. The soldier gasped for air, but not for long was he stunned. It was, however, just enough time for Sam to pop back up and recover his calm. The next exchange was as fast as lightning, but just like saber practice Sam had been through many times. The man went for a leg shot, and quick as a flash, Sam dodged it and came down on his arm. The mail held, but the arm was fractured. Infuriated, the man charged Sam, but Sam jumped straight up. The soldier fell, but came up with a dagger in his left hand. Sam took a fencing stance, and as he thrust toward the man’s head, the dagger went for the block. But Sam’s move was a feint, and the block went too far allowing the sword to slide right into the man’s throat. It was not a nice look on his face as he died knowing he had been beaten. From his style of fighting, it didn’t look like he had ever known defeat.
“Okay, that was harder than I expected,” Sam moaned.
Genie ran up to him to check out where he had been hit. She moved her hand over the spot, but it was merely scratched. “I thought he got you,” she exclaimed.
“He did. I’m sure there’s a nice bruise under that. Felt like I got kicked by a mule.”
He looked around to see Beamann and Dextmann helping the lady to her feet. She was dirty, but they could tell she was a beauty beneath all that. She was definitely shaken, but looked at the two men and backed away as if to run. Something must have caused her to have second thoughts about it, though as Sam and Genie approached.
Dextmann stepped forward. “Samuel, Son of Sky Hold, may I present the Princess Diedra of Enverra Hold.”
“My lady,” Sam said, “our sympathies for your Hold. This is Lady Genevieve, Master Beamann, and Dextmann of…”
“Yes, Samuel of Sky Hold,” she said, “I already know the thief. He has stood before us in Enverra several times, and a frequent guest of our gaolers. When he untied me, I thought he too, might mean me ill.”
“Princess,” Dextmann said, placing his hand over his heart, “thief and scum that I be, I have never been disloyal.” The ice was broken, now, and the five felt more at ease.
“We must get back to our camp, Princess, that Hannegelt may hear your story over a cup of wine,” Sam directed.
“Sam,” Genie said, pulling his arm, “our arrows?”
Sam sighed, but went to the dead soldier and pulled out Genie’s arrow for her, which she appreciated. Then she helped Sam find his, which had missed the mark and gone twenty yards beyond in the grass. She found it. “At least yours isn’t bloody.” She called out to embarrass him.
“Be nice,” was all Sam said before they began to slowly make their way back to camp. Sam was still a little shaky from the vigorous sword fight, and the Princess was near exhaustion.
She explained that she already knew Hannegelt, having met him as kinder-folk. She and Hannegelt were roughly the same age, although she looked a little more mature than he. Perhaps it was just her condition, but she had long salt and pepper hair that made her appear a little older. Genie helped her along while the men kept close watch around them as they moved.
When they reached the top of the rise, Hannegelt and Kemann were coming up from the camp site to meet them. Hannegelt did not recognize her until they were quite close. “Diedra!” he exclaimed and bowed, quickly rising and going to her.
“And why did not you come to rescue me, Hannegelt, son of Gildenhanna?” she asked indignantly. It was apparent that the two had known each other quite well from their adolescent meeting. Hannegelt squirmed a little at the question, but Sam intervened.
“We are on a mission, and our leader could not be risked,” Sam said trying to cover for him.
“And this was Samuel’s adventure,” Hannegelt added. “Do you remember Kemann, my Wizard?” Genie was trying to get Hannegelt’s attention, motioning that the Princess was probably thirsty (you idiot). “Come, you must be thirsty. We must rest and have some wine. And we must hear your tale.”
“Lead on, Hann, before I collapse right here.”
They continued down the rise. When they got to the clearing, the Company stood up as the group entered the area. The Princess was seated on a stump, and Sanndin brought a wine skin to her. She gulped several times seeming to grow in strength with each swallow. Lowering the skin, she sighed relief.
“Ahh, Xelt, that’s good,” she said. “Have you any food?”
“Of course,” Hannegelt said and reached a piece of dried meat. Diedra looked at it. She took it unenthusiastically and began to try to bite a piece off.
Genie dug in her bag and brought out a couple of pieces of dried fruit for her. She looked at them curiously. “From your Sky Hold?” she asked, eating one.
“Yes,” Genie replied. “Apricots, they are called.”
“Delicious, thank you, Lady Genevieve,” Diedra said.
“At your service, Princess,” Genie replied, as if by habit.
Diedra looked into her eyes. “And I at yours.”
Genie realized she had just done it again, with the ‘contract’ thing, but she figured it was okay, and that the ‘Ladies’ should stick together.
Kemann had held back, letting the friends settle in, but he always needed information. “How did you come to be out here, Princess?”
She looked at Hannegelt. “The siege on Enverra lasted several days. We knew from the start that we could not prevail, so Father bade me leave through the tunnel passage with two of his Guard. We had started to make for Gilden Hold, but were tracked, and the Guard cut down. I was to be returned to the Hold as part of the spoils, I suppose.”
“Your father?” Hannegelt asked, but the Princess just shook her head. “I am sorry.”
“The men who captured me took great pleasure in taunting me about Father’s death. It was horrible.” She paused. “Until the thief liberated me during Samuel’s battle.”
That reminded Genie about the blow Sam had received in the chest, and she made him undress so she could take a look at it. Sam obeyed, grumbling. When, at last, after mail, and gambeson, he pulled up his t-shirt, she saw a bruise like a small banana that had over-ripened. Around the area, the skin was red. She pulled out her first aid kit and rubbed some soothing cream on it, but that was about all she could do for it.
With the condition of the Princess, the Company decided to remain at rest for the day. They knew that the next part of the journey over the Sanguin Mountains would be grueling. Time was even shorter than they had initially thought. With the fall of Enverra Hold, the siege forces would move to reinforce the army that stood before Gilden Hold.
Sam and Genie slipped away from the camp to lay out in the meadow alone, leaving Diedra and Hannegelt to talk about Enverra. Johamann and Bowmann were hunting dinner and scouting the area, while Axemann dozed. Kemann and Dannhelm were in hushed conversation about the Xeltic priests and other things.
Sam spread their cloaks over the grass, and they lay peacefully for hours. Once, Genie brought up the subject of their return to Alaska, but Sam silenced her on the subject, saying they were doing all that they could. For some reason, he had remembered his watch and they puzzled over the time difference for a bit. And Genie mentioned that when she had packed away the parachute gear at Gilden Hold, that the altimeter had read 6950 feet. That had changed from the 5800 feet it read when they had landed on Hordann. They agreed that it was odd, but that was where the conversation ended, and they sat silent once more, listening to the breeze through the grass.
When they finally re-joined the group, Sam was requested to use his magic fire to start some twigs burning. The hunting party had scouted out a large area, and determined that the fire would be safe. They had also killed four flieghenns, so dinner was on. Johamann cleaned the meaty birds, but somehow, Genie was put in charge of cooking them. She knew virtually nothing about cooking this particular bird on an open fire, but Dannhelm was knowledgeable on the subject and advised her constantly, at her request.
Sam joined in on the conversation between Hannegelt and Diedra. “Diedra tells me that you fight like a berserker,” Hannegelt said.
“That guy was tough, I can tell you that,” Sam replied.
“Those men were of Terea South Hold, Samuel. They are known for their excellent swordsmen. You shall tell the tale at dinner tonight, starting with how you missed your fletch,” Hannegelt said with a smirk.
“You Hordannfolk just never give a guy a break, do you?” Sam said.
Diedra looked a little confused.
“He is of Sky Hold; we must divine his speech often,” Hann told Diedra. “He does fight well, though. And the Amazon of Sky Hold is also a warrior. In her first battle, she slew two mountain barbarians coming over the wall in Gilden.”
This seemed to spark the Princess somewhat. “Sky Hold. You must tell me of your home, as I have never heard the name before,” Diedra requested.
She had a lot of questions, and Sam answered as best as he could, needing to rephrase Earth realities into terms the Hordannfolk could understand. Every time he would explain one thing, she would hit him with a barrage of other questions. Sam was beginning to feel like he was under siege himself. Genie came over and joined in the conversation between times for turning birds. That was a relief to Sam, and he was delighted when the dinner was ready, for it meant adjourning from questions.
Although it had taken a good long time to cook, the flieghenn was well worth the wait. Sam decided that it was like a small turkey and enjoyed a drumstick, while Genie carved off a slab of breast meat. It was juicy and flavorful without any gamey flavor. Johamann had also found a good portion of gutsenberries, which complimented the fleighenn very well. The Company was silent during the meal, but it didn’t take long to consume.
The after-dinner discussion turned to the Princess. One course of action was to turn around and take her to Gilden Hold. The other, was to take her along on the mission. It actually was not much of a discussion. The Princess would be an excellent addition to the Company with her knowledge of the Xeltic priests, and also to be a diplomat in Olden, their next destination. She agreed to continue on with the Company.
Axemann volunteered Sanndin for the next song. Shyly, the young bowman began to sing in a lyric tenor voice. The song was of Rent. Sam listened intently, ever curious about the hole that he and Genie had fallen through to arrive in Hordann.
“The windswept clouds behold a breath
That blows over land like icy breath.”
The lyrics put Sam to thinking, and he would have to keep in mind to ask Sanndin for the song again.
Several others of the Company volunteered to sing. Kemann sang a ballad from the Durkis Age, creating illusions above the fire to accentuate certain points in the song. Sam and Genie both thought it was like a short film, and Kemann had a good sense of showmanship. He created a castle, and a tall, strong King, beside him were his Queen and sons in armor. The castle had come under attack by the Kleds. A thousand knights rode against the oncoming horde and battled fiercely, slaying the invaders, but the good King was mortally wounded. His widow grieved at his death bed and was comforted by her sons, as the next image faded in, a seashore in early morning light. The song was over, and everyone deeply moved by the sorrow of the well-known epic.
Axemann sang a little ditty from the taverns, and everyone was amused at the gruff base voice barking out clever, ironic lyrics.
Then the Princess offered to sing too. Her pleasant, rich alto voice echoed the laments of love. Genie noticed that she glance several times at Hannegelt, establishing eye contact. It was clear—at least to Genie—that there was something going on there.
But the evening had grown late, and everyone bedded down, leaving Hannegelt and Kemann to take their turn at watch. After four hours, Dannhelm relieved them for the rest of the night. They went quickly to sleep, for the next day would be a tough march.