When he looked back on the day it all started, Slan decided that the best thing to happen during it was the unexpected and violent attack of bandits that outnumbered his men four to one.
“Get to the horses!” Slan shouted, drawing his sword even as the filthy, ill-garbed men poured out of the woods and across the newly sprouted field towards them. The farmers who lived in the hamlet he’d been inspecting ran in fear, leaving Slan with only four men against twelve.
“At least they’re lousy ambushers,” Targ muttered from beside him while the other two guardsmen ran for the animals they’d tied to a fence at the edge of the hamlet.
Slan didn’t bother to answer. Their attackers must have grown impatient waiting for them to approach the woods where they’d been hiding. If they’d been willing to wait another hour, Slan and his men would have ridden to the next hamlet down a path that went straight into their ambush.
Still, even aborted and uncoordinated like this, the bandits had the advantage of numbers. There was nowhere to hide - the straw and mud houses wouldn’t stop anyone determined to get in - and they couldn’t run without leaving the farmers without any defences.
“Looks like I’ll get some of the rust off my sword,” Targ said.
“Good,” Slan replied and charged. Targ ran at his side, his boots heavy on the hard ground.
Both of them were in armour. Slan hadn’t expected a bandit attack inside the borders of Luach Lundan, but he’d been a fighting man for a very long time and he wasn’t one to take chances.
The bandits weren’t expecting their victims to attack them and Slan waited until they were close enough and bunched up enough that they wouldn’t have time to spread out before he and Targ sprinted forward. He ran in among them, bellowing a challenge of his own, and slammed his round shield in the face of one with a resounding smash while he stabbed straight forward with his sword. The bandits’ armour was haphazard and poor, and the point of his blade punched through the man’s tunic, stopping him with a shock that ran up both the blade and Slan’s arm and into his back. He pulled the sword out as the bandit started to fall, before he could take the blade with him, and swung it sideways at a second bandit who tried to block, but was too busy back-peddling and tripped over his own feet. Slan took off three fingers from his upraised hand and half his scalp.
Targ was already back to back with him, cutting at the surprised bandits with his sword and using his shield to protect his left and Slan’s right side. Slan did the same for him.
“Come on!” Targ shouted. “Cowards! Come on!”
The bandits were surprised by their attack and the deaths of two of their members - three as Targ took the leg off a man that fell screaming - but they were too close to retreat easily and too angry to consider that their inability to fight together meant their numbers weren’t a match to Slan and Targ’s skill. If they had caught them in an ambush, it would have been very different, but they hadn’t and Slan wasn’t going to forgive them their mistake.
A snarling man with both front teeth knocked out and breath like the back end of a basilisk swung a pitted sword at Slan’s head. It was easy to bring his shield up to deflect the blow and then shove it forward hard into the man’s face. The bandit reeled and Slan stabbed him in the gut before kicking him off his sword.
It had only been seconds since the fight started. Slan had dropped three men and from the sound of events behind him, Targ had taken two. That left seven men, but they hadn’t been expecting this kind of resistance and Slan suspected that one of the first he’d killed must have been their leader.
The rest of them started to pull away, running away across the field in the direction they’d come. Even those few seconds had left Slan covered in a fresh sheen of sweat and with old pain stabbing through his back. He didn’t chase them, not on foot. There was no point and they were less than a quarter of the way back to the trees when Slan’s men reached him with the horses. He grabbed the reins of his dapple gelding and pulled his aching body into the saddle with a wince.
“After them!” he called.
Younger and less battle scarred than he, Slan’s men kicked their mounts into a gallop after the fleeing bandits. He followed them, his horse snorting as it raced to catch up, steel shod hooves digging up the tender crops below it. It was better the farmers lose some of their yield than their lives, however, for the bandits were not known for being merciful to their victims. Slan just hadn’t expected them to be so arrogant as to attack openly and in broad daylight this way. Until now, Luath Lundan’s borders hadn’t been breached so deeply and the thought of what that meant was deeply disturbing.
His men ran the bandits down, their horses trampling the screaming men under them while the guardsmen laid with their swords to either side.
“Take one alive!” Slan shouted as he came up behind them, turning his horse to cut around and to the other side, just in case one of the bandits was able to break free and make another run for the woods.
None of them did. Slan drew his horse to a halt and hid the wince of pain his back gave him as he looked down at the only survivor of the bandit group. He was a measly little man, kneeling on the ground with his hands clasped behind his head. Targ stood behind him, one hand clapped on his shoulder and his sword ready.
“Mercy!” he whimpered.
Slan frowned at him. “Mercy only if you give us the information we want,” he told the man. One of the guardsmen handed him a rag and he took his time cleaning the blood off his sword.
“Are there any more of you?”
“None, my Lord,” the bandit said. Targ raised his sword. “I swear it!” he yelled, frantic. “Not here! There was just the dozen of us!”
Slan doubted the man had either the courage or the native intelligence to lie. “Why are you in Luach Lundan? I was under the impression that you haunted the eastern roads.” Which was bad enough.
The man swallowed. “We... It isn’t safe over the border.”
Targ raised an eyebrow. “Not safe for bandits? I thought all of you were so dirty the monsters in Gunsail Nam wouldn’t want to eat you. What do you have to worry about? Other bandits? Have the king’s troops come through?”
The bandit shook his head. “No, the Horseman is hunting us.”
Targ and Slan looked at each other. “That’s a name we haven’t heard in a while,” Targ said.
“No,” Slan agreed. He looked beyond them to the hills that surrounded Luach Lundan, thick with forests and wild gorges. It was a name with a lot of memories attached to it, far too many of them bad. If Daleas and Ren were in the area, it wasn’t a surprise that the bandits decided to look for new territory.
“Bring him,” he ordered and turned his dapple to ride back to the hamlet. They’d get whatever information they could out of him about any other bandit groups and where their hideout was and then they’d hang him. Slan owed protection to the people who worked his land and he was not going to shirk that responsibility, not for any warped sense of mercy for a man who’d already proven he had none.
It was hours before they were done at the hamlet. It took time to calm the vassals, who were justifiably frightened and needed reassurances, as well as the promise that Slan would send guardsmen to them to ensure there were no retaliatory attacks. He promised as well that his men would search the woods for more bandits and that was no idle promise. Slan had no confidence in any of the truths their captive purported to tell. A den of thieves, driven by the Horseman out of their usual territory along the roads that ran along the border around the wilds of Gunsail Nam and down into the valleys of Luach Lundan. A threat to his vassals instead of his trade wasn’t an improvement in Slan’s mind.
After the hours of talk, he was even more tired than the fighting made him. His back ached with a tension that wouldn’t give way and he felt dour and moody, making it an effort to keep his temper in the face of his frightened vassals. They weren’t fighters, he reminded himself. This was why they’d sworn themselves to Lords, even one come late to the title such as himself. His duty was to protect them.
They finally mounted their horses again as dusk began to fall, the vassals content, the prisoner bound and seated in the saddle of one of the horses while his rider doubled with another. Slan kept his face impassive, but Targ eyed him knowingly as he pulled himself onto the dapple.
“Back?” he asked.
Slan looked at him. It wasn’t something he wanted to admit to, but Targ had known him a long time and even if he hadn’t, he made it a point not to lie when he couldn’t avoid a question.
“Yes. I’ll live.”
Targ smiled. “I’m sure you will. But I’ll order a hot bath drawn for you when we get back to Blathgled. That’ll help.”
Slan nodded. It would, fortunately enough. Back troubles were far too frequent a complaint for him in the last few years.
They rode home at an easy canter, their horses rested and eager to return to their stable. The men were eager to get home as well. They’d won the fight without any casualties on their side, but Slan was far from the only one to realize just how lucky they’d been. In the decade since he’d come to take rulership over Luach Lundan, there hadn’t been a bandit attack on a hamlet this far inside the borders.
He supposed it was a good thing in a way, in that it at least showed that Daleas and Ren were having an effect on the bandits of Gunsail Nam, but that didn’t leave Slan feeling particularly grateful for the Horseman’s efforts.
Blathgled lay near the northern border of Luach Lundan, the great keep built at the top of a sloping hill. It was a sprawling affair, old and grey with thick walls and worn ramparts. When Slan first arrived, it had been abandoned for years, but the work of him and his people had made a home of it and a heart for their once struggling territory.
Slan rode at the head of his men up the sloping road to the gates of the keep, the prisoner awkwardly sitting his horse directly behind him with his hands tied to the saddle horn and Targ holding the reins. The other two men rode together on the last horse at the rear. By this point it was well past dark and the moon was up, but the gates were open and well lit by torches, men moving hurriedly around inside the first courtyard. For a moment, Slan thought they were waiting up for him, but something felt wrong. Something had happened in Blathgled while her master was absent and tension sent pain shooting down through abused muscles in his back.
Voices shouted from the ramparts, carrying the word that the Lord of Blathgled was back and the flurry of motion increased inside even more. Every man sworn to his name seemed to be there, carrying and lighting torches.
Slan reined in his dapple next to the closest group of men, just inside the gate. “What’s happened?”
Slan looked up at the sudden shout. His face was mostly in shadow, even with the intermittent light of the torches, but his dapple was distinctive and he watched his wife holding her skirts up as she hurried down the steps from the main door of the keep and ran across the courtyard towards him. Slan’s mouth went dry and he dismounted.
“Oh, Slan!” Canara ran up and threw herself into his arms, her usual poise completely gone. Her face was splotchy from crying and Slan’s gut went cold.
“What’s happened?” he asked, frantic and tempted to shake her.
“Sorith is missing!” she cried.