** EXCLUSIVE TO TABLO **
A standalone short story from the Valguard series of medieval mercenary books.
© David N. Humphrey. All rights reserved.
This version updated 17 Jun 2018 v1.09
First published 13.10.17
Enjoy! All feedback welcome
Valguard ran for his life. Dodging between the thick trees he sprinted flat out over uneven ground to outrun his pursuers. His dark, untidy hair and big coat trailed almost horizontally behind him, offering glimpses of holstered short swords and other weapons concealed under his arms in an elaborate harness. His small backpack didn’t slow him down as he blurred in and out of the tree trunks, neither did the uphill slopes or downhill banks he bounced and jumped down, hurting his knees with every impact. He knew that these geographical features would not slow his pursuers down, he had seen them run before -- almost on all fours like animals. He wasn’t worried about leaving a track and couldn’t hide -- there were far too many of them. Sheer numbers meant one of them would find surely him. Behind him, he could hear the noise of dozens and dozens of crazed, animalistic tribesmen who all wanted him dead.
He stumbled into a ditch and went down awkwardly, hitting his knee before rolling back onto his feet -- more due to his velocity than skill -- and slammed hard up against a tree.
“Piss,” he muttered, vital time was lost but he couldn’t help looking back over his shoulder to try and see his pursuers. He still couldn’t, but it sounded like they were closing the distance. He could hear the noise of feet thumping on the ground, bodies rushing through leaves, smashing plants and whipping through grass, snapping twigs and even hitting trunks with fists as they chased them. They liked to make as much noise as possible to scare their prey and it was working. Sounds of indiscernible shouting and the screeching of loud war cries bounced off the wooden trunks. The Ferals, as their name suggests, were more like beasts and if he was caught, he wouldn’t be taken prisoner -- he would be ripped apart and eaten. If he was lucky, he’d not be alive for the second part.
Breathing fast and sweating now, he set off again hoping to rejoin his team who stupidly had become split up in the dense woodland. He knew they were all running roughly parallel, but not see them. Ahead, it looked like the woodland was thinning and he sped on with renewed energy as the ground flattened out.
Before the mercenary could break through the canopy of trees into the bright daylight, somebody shouted “Duck!”
A tall, female warrior from his team was pointing to a fine black line of wire across the trees at chest height so he wouldn’t run into the almost invisible filament.
Moments before, this resourceful lady knight had shot an armour piercing bolt from her crossbow into the trunk of a sycamore one hundred and fifty yards away, its tempered head splitting the wood of a younger tree and embedding the shaft into the trunk its protruding, barbed head locking it in place. The bolt had been fixed with a wire, the remaining coil of which coiled at her feet until she wrapped the line around another tree next to her a few times, pulling it taut before twisting it back around, then looping it over a branch as a makeshift knot. She had just twanged the cord proudly with a smile before she spotted Valguard approaching and gave him the warning to duck his head.
Valguard obliges her and misses the garrotte, hoping several of his followers will not be so lucky.
Lifting his head again, he burst out of the treeline into the open, grassy plain, Valguard slowed to a stop. He was looking straight into the aim of two archers wearing chunky plate mail and both holding longbows that were pointed directly at him, their strings taut.
“FUCKING MOVE!” the large man in plate armour on the left shouted at Valguard.
Doing as he was told, he got out of the way and ran towards them, closing the distance to the archers and stopping when he was between them, lungs bursting.
Behind him, two more figures exited the tree line. A lithe, soldier called Chin, whose shaved, almost completely round head with narrow slits for his eyes and mouth. Dressed in only the scantest leather armour with bare arms, he too crouched low as he ran out of the woods.
Chin was ushering the last figure to emerge from the trees who didn’t have to duck as he was a short, scruffy-looking man who’d struggled to keep up with his little legs. His running slowed and Chin grabbed him by the collar with one strong arm and carried him faster to safety behind the archers.
The female warrior, Debbie, rejoined her comrades and reloaded her crossbow. Valguard pulled out a waterskin and took a swig of tepid water and then thanking Debbie, tossed it to her and she too had a grateful drink before returning it. Chin releases the midget and grabs a handful of arrows from his quiver and sticks them in the ground for faster reloading. He notches two arrows into the same bowstring and gets ready to draw back, planning on taking two out with one release. Chin did not mess about.
Valguard had a second swig and felt a salty breeze was noticeably blowing across the side of his face. Looking around, he could just make out beyond the edge of the uneven green a slim blue/grey ribbon of horizon disappearing into the mist. They were finally at the coast! But if they were close enough to smell the sea without seeing its shore, they must be on one of the infamously high cliffs of the territory. So they had missed their rendezvous by some miles due to the panicked getaway in the woods -- they were trapped.
“Erm... You do know we’ve run out of land?” said Valguard back to the soldiers.
“On your right,” said Fawcett without turning. “We’re going to fall back to that beacon tower.”
Valguard’s eyes followed the undulating landscape until he could just about see the top of a small stone lighthouse.
The small figure of Crow saw it too. “And where do we fall back to after that?” he said in a panicked voice.
But no-one had an answer to that.
Valguard looked at his comrades; people he had not known a week ago and yet now they were fighting together for their lives.
Major FAWCETT was a massive fighter with a bushy beard but bald head who was the veteran officer in charge of the team. Covered in plate armour, he could drink vast quantities of ale, yet surprisingly, play the harp quite well. Six years ago a sudden Black Pox outbreak had made him a childless widower but despite the tragedy in his personal life, he was respected as a seasoned warrior, diplomat and a very good judge of character.
PAUL McCALLUM, on the other hand, was noticeably smaller, an ambitious career soldier but loyal to Fawcett. Good looking, with wavy blonde hair and an angular face, he spent his time in taverns deflecting advances. He was equally loyal and happily married to Laura and had two little boys who played with wooden swords and wanted to be just like their dad.
The lady knight, DEBBIE, had been initially hostile to Valguard’s presence on the team, even voting against him. To her, he was just a random mercenary forced on the team by Lord Harvison and she presumed he would not have the loyalty they needed. On the mission that followed, Valguard saved her life in a particularly scrappy encounter. Initially, she had resented it, before apologising and learning to trust the newcomer. After that, they got on and worked well together. Valguard had been impressed by her from the start, she was an outstanding warrior, lethal with a sword and bow but also had a smart tactical mind.
THE CHIN -- he was more of a puzzle. A super controlled monk, who rarely spoke and when he did was in a language no one could decipher and yet somehow he seemed to understand everyone else. At first, Valguard thought he was mute, as mostly communicated without words. He was as sharp as a tack, resourceful, inventive and when he did use it, had the biggest smile of anyone Valguard had ever met.
Lastly, CHRIS CROW, who was not part of the team but the reason they were all out here in the first place. Short, fat and horrible, he stuck out like a turd on a new carpet. Smelly, greasy, lying, cowardly -- every day brought a new reason not to like him. His wrists still showed the bindings that had to be cut in a hurry when they started running into the trees. He was slowing them down, but they were the ones who had to protect him at all costs.
A few weeks back, Valguard had been seconded into part of a team to venture south and extradite a traitor back to Alverton. They had found out the location of the turncoat relatively easily and the task had gone smoothly. They were on the way home when things went ‘tits-up’ after a diversion took them off their route and they encountered the one tribe, The Feral, who were not friendly. Crow was wanted for espionage and knew the movements of his former employer’s enemy troops and (annoyingly) had to be brought home alive for the information in his head. It would have been much easier to have killed him there and then, but their boss, Lord Harvison, was insistent which is why he put together this team of specialists. In fact, if they didn’t get Crow back, he wouldn’t be paid a penny. Two others team members had already been killed; Whitefell and Tarratin -- both good men that had been lost. In their current situation, they would just be glad to get home alive without their target.
Fawcett looks at Valguard who is the only one -- apart from the terrified Crow -- not holding a bow of some sort. He had a crossbow, but after the bolts ran out he threw it at the enemy.
“Do you have any tricks up your sleeve? Because now is the time.”
“I might be able to do something once we start firing...” he pulls out a throwing knife and weighs it in his palm, thinking.
Fawcett looks at the small blade disappointed, “Anything else?”
Slipping his backpack off his shoulders, Valguard reaches his hand into a hidden compartment and draws out a handful of sharp, twists of metal which no matter how they landed would always point sticking up.
“Caltrops!!??” Fawcett questioned, noticing the banned weapons out of the corner of his eye and giving the merc a surprised, disapproving look.
“Desperate times, desperate measures,” he shrugged in his defence.
After a pause, Fawcett said nothing more. His silence followed by grudgingly giving the tiniest of nods permitted it and returned his eye to the bow. Valguard swung his arm like a farmer sowing seed and watching a line of pyramidical spikes drop in front the archers.
Caltrops were horrific weapons that traditionally were used to injure the feet of charging horses, tearing apart the ‘frog’ part of their hooves. Valguard knew that a charging horse was just being steered towards him and wasn’t doing it because it had a grudge. In his book, it was a cowardly man who killed a horse just to unsaddle a rider. That wasn’t what Valguard used them for. They had many other uses -- they were sharp enough to pierce the sole of a soft boot, use as a throwing weapon, jam open a door -- lots of things. You could even stick one under a throne cushion if you wanted to unseat a monarch but, seeing as the Feral horde didn’t wear shoes, it might slow down a few.
“Here they come!” shouted Debbie, her mouth pressed against her bowstring.
Back at the treeline, movement caught their eyes; leaves and grasses were pushed away and then the shapes of their pursuers became visible. As predicted, they burst from the foliage in a blur of tattooed, sunburnt flesh, limbs lashing out dementedly and then, they hit the wire.
The taut line, caught the first Feral across the neck -- not decapitating him -- but the cord sliced halfway through his throat, catching on the spine and causing his running legs to swing up in front of him, dropping him backwards to the ground, his hands grabbing at his torn windpipe. The leaves on the tied trees at either end shook with the force, like startled birds flying away. Half a dozen others caught the wire; the force of which only made the wire more taught as it was pushed against the last few tree trunks in front. It cut some across the chest, slicing their muscles like a wire through cheese and bouncing them backwards.
Then the horde started missing the line, either being too far to the side or just seeing their numbers get snared, dipping extra low as they ran almost on all fours, screaming, barking clawing their way out the trees.
“Wait...” Fawcett warned the archers to his side, letting them approach into range.
In the open, you could see their foes clearly now.
The people racing toward them were human in shape but not behaviour, having been infected with a rabies-like virus that seemingly regressed them to a more primitive, violent species. Of all the times for the team to visit the land of this legendary noble and generous tribe, the Yeddah, it had to be the same month they had become crazed and psychotic animals.
Dark tufts of hair stuck randomly out of patches where their skin hadn’t been shaved. Rings, studs and piercings adorned any free lobe. Swirling tribal tattoo patterns covered the leathery tanned skin of a people who dwelled exclusively outdoors. The clothing they wore had been reduced to scraps of animal skins that just about covered genitals if not the women’s breasts. Braiding was still slung around their torsos as necklaces displayed unremarkable stones that must have once seemed important to them. Cords wrapped around wrists, necks and ankles with feathers and coloured beads. Despite their human anthropology, they moved more like animals; Like wild dogs chasing a rabbit and just like the rabbit, the group knew they were destined to be food. Tribal infighting had already resulted in them resorting to cannibalism and horrifically the first ones to die were their own children, followed by the adolescents and elders.
When the team first encountered a handful of these changed people, their physician Whitefell’s first reaction was to somehow try to heal their sickness. But they were too far gone and as no one expected them to be as dangerous, he never stood a chance. Tallantin died quickly after that before they decided to run before reinforcements arrived.
While the nearest Ferals were now crossing the grass, others behind were still getting caught by the wire, which, all credit to Debbie, had held up well.
“Waaait!” repeated Fawcett, issuing counter-intuitive instructions and staring along the arrow he was pulling tight, the gut string noisily protesting under the tension until they were in range.
Everyone loosed their arrows and bolts. They weren’t short on targets to hit but all projectiles found their marks and dropped the first line, even Chin’s double strike worked.
The rank of archers immediately snatched their next arrows, reloaded, aimed and fired again as the feral’s shouts turned to a higher pitched scream and another half dozen fall, thinning the crowd. One avoids the arrows and breaks for the group, but Chin sees him and loading quicker than the others pierces his chest just to the left of its heart and he falls, spinning to the ground. This sequence is repeated again and again; just as the enemy gets close they are cut down, spraying pumping blood and falling to the grass, lying unnaturally twisted the way only corpses do. Like the tide of water on a beach getting closer then falling back. But even so, the bodies were creeping closer -- like fingers reaching out from the trees slowly advancing to the party of soldiers making their stand.
Conventional wisdom would suggest the distance to the enemy was too great for throwing knife but nevertheless, gripping the tip of the blade Valguard drew the weapon behind his head, aimed and threw the weapon at the horde. The blade flew true then kept on going long after it should have fallen short. Valguard focused hard on the disappearing knife, using his mind to push it on faster and faster long after the velocity of his arm faded.
As the random scrambling of the horde meant that bodies came and went in front of the blade’s path, one ducked away only to reveal a figure behind who wasn’t so lucky. The blade struck its mark and the man fell instantly, blade embedded in the centre of his chest.
Then as other ferals ran past, with no intention of helping their brother, the blade twisted, wiggled and popped free from the flesh and flew across to the left into the approaching pack slicing calves, thighs and even bursting through abdomens of people charging at them, spilling blood and breakfast over the field, making patches of the green grass a sticky, dark red colour.
Minor nicks slowed them and made them falter. The more serious wounds caused them to fall at speed and tumble into the ground where they moved no more.
Surrounded by the frantic aim-fire-reload of the archers to either side, Valguard stood strangely still apart from his twitching fingers as he concentrated absolutely on the knife’s trajectory, making it zip above the grass slicing Feral after Feral like he was controlling a razor-sharp shuttle on some ‘loom of death.’
Fawcett could see in his peripheral vision what he was doing and was grateful, but he certainly didn’t understand any of it. He was a well-travelled man and had seen some odd things but true Magic was a very rare thing these days. Valguard had tried to explain it wasn’t magic but a gift, an ability, that he had had since childhood that even he didn’t really understand. It definitely wasn’t something he had learned from a wizard’s book of spells.
One of the main problems was the unknown quantity of opponents coming out the trees, but their coordinated response to the approaching tribe, was working well, keeping the attackers at bay but the Ferals just kept on coming and the number of arrows they had left to defend themselves begun to dwindle worryingly low.
Suddenly, the gradual flow of tribal attackers turned into an explosion of new figures as the main pack burst from the trees. Crow’s eyes widen and he stands there rooted to the spot, one leg of his trousers darkens below his crotch as he pisses himself with fear. Wet pants or not, he has had enough and bolts for the Tower on his own, determined to grab a head start for his little, wet legs.
The group does not have enough arrows, or indeed enough archers, to hold them back now.
“RETREAT!!” ordered Fawcett to the team, telling them what they already knew but now giving them permission to flee. The archers slung their bows over their shoulders and turned on their heels after Crow, who was already a smaller shape in the distance.
“Get to the tower!” he added.
Breaking his concentration, Valguard’s mind-controlled dagger fell lifelessly to the ground like it had been a plaything discarded by an unimpressed ghost and was immediately trampled into the soil.
Debbie and McCallum raced for the fallback position as Chin grabbed two round phials he had set out on the ground and threw each high in the air before he ran. He did not have the luxury of watching them drop and smash on the ground erupting two curtains of chemical flame either side of where Valguard had scattered the caltrops -- hopefully, this would channel the Ferals over the spikes. Valguard understood what he had done and appreciated it, giving Chin a quick grin as he too ran after the others.
But Chin wasn’t finished firing arrows yet and he turned around and jogging backwards, raised his bow and fired a couple of arrows at the nearest pursuers. Amazingly, he scored direct hits and dropped two more. It was an impressive trick thought Valguard as he glanced back. *Every little bit helps to thin them out* he thought.
Chin turned himself forward again and started sprinting to the isolated white building.
Despite Crow’s head start and the three knights’ armour, his small stature hampered his speed and his abductors caught up with him quickly and flanked him perfectly for his own protection.
“You keep up or you get left behind!” McCallum barked at the panting Crow over the clanking of his plate mail armour as the Knights ran past him becoming frustrated at his slower speed.
Valguard and Chin caught up and drew level with the massive Fawcett who was right behind Crow. Looking backwards to see where the tribe were, he saw Ferals running past the caltrops, most missing the spikes but some grabbing their torn feet and hobbling on. Others simply jumped through the flames at speed. Nothing was stopping their animalistic urge to kill. In the open of the grassy plain, Valguard was grateful that at least the ferals were in no state to be firing arrows as they had absolutely no cover as they ran for their lives.
Crow tried to run faster, too fast for his little legs and crossing a small ditch, the short traitor missteps and stumbles into the mossy rocks under the water and splashes into the ground, yelping like a wounded dog. Fawcett, who was right behind him almost tramples his prone body into the mud but dodges him and pulls up. Valguard hears him tumble and stops, looking back he sees Crow unfolding himself from the brook and struggling to his feet with help from the Major. Behind them, the crowd was getting close to them and for a moment he hesitates, panting. *Shit!* He curses to himself and runs back and to help them.
With the protective flank of knights split apart, Fawcett commands both McCallum and Debbie to keep going and Chin stays with them. Fawcett figures someone has to be first to the lighthouse’s door in case it was locked and it needed shoulder charging.
“Can’t you even run?” Fawcett laughs at Crow, pulling him up by his collar.
“I’m alright! I’m alright!” shouts Crow, “Fucking bastard ankle!” he curses, struggling to put weight on it. Luckily it’s not broken but Crow was hurting and wasn’t putting weight on one leg and Fawcett knew they would wouldn’t make it now. Valguard puts his arm around Crow and drags him away but their leader doesn’t come with them.
“Keep moving!” Fawcett shouts to Valguard.
Valguard calls back, “Come on then!”
Fawcett looked back at the horde and shook his head. “Save that useless shit,” he pointed at the little man. “Or all this is for nothing.” He nodded at Crow who gulped when he realised what the big man was about to do for him.
Valguard looked at Fawcett’s eyes and knew he meant it. There was no time to argue with his commander and he had to get moving.
Fawcett stood his ground and spoke calmly. “Go.”
He returned a brief nod of reluctant acknowledgement, then turning and taking Crow with him, he ran and didn’t look back.
Fawcett watched them run towards the safety of the building where they would make their last stand without him, then turned to face his pursuers as they scrabbled over the uneven grass. Resigned to his fate, he tossed his bow away, undid the buckles on his pack and dropped it, did the same for his quiver and utility belt. He had time to take one final gulp of water then flung the flask away. The ferals were almost on him now as he slowly unsheathed his massive double handed sword from the scabbard on his back.
Gripping the handle he raised his sword in a well-drilled pose, twisted his heels into the ground for grip and swallowed. Then with a burst of strength and a grunt, he swung the massive blade at the first five Ferals that converged on him. He swiped them into halves as they ran onto his mighty sword -- a fine weapon that he had been his father’s and had never, ever let him down in combat. Chunks of torso, limbs and flesh flew around him. Even a Feral that had been halved down the centre landed either side of him, his strong arms whirling the sword faster and faster as more opponents ran into a red death on his beautiful steel. It was a textbook lesson in controlled swordplay, all his years of experience guiding his every stroke demonstrating how good Fawcett was and why he was so respected. But inevitably, there were simply too many opponents and he knew that even with all his skill against unarmed bare skinned opponents would be overrun and sadly, horribly, predictably, he disappeared under the tattooed horde and in a frenzy of screams, was torn apart.
Chin, being the fastest, was the first to leap over a slight ledge of earth, he stops, turns and takes cover behind it just before McCallum and Debbie both hurdle over him as he notches an arrow. Aiming carefully, he gives Valguard and Crow covering fire until they catch-up -- they actually see the blurred shaft of the arrow pass between them and Crow cannot stop himself from letting out a scream as he feels the air move as the arrow whistles past. Behind them, it hit its true mark and thudded deep into the crazed man’s stomach, its tip only stopping when it gets lodged between the vertebrae of his spine.
“Keep moving!” says Valguard to the hobbling traitor.
The pair leapt off the escarpment next to Chin, who like a shepherd waiting for his flock to catch up, brings up the rear and joins Valguard in helping him in support Crow on his other side. Together the three of them could run faster for the building.
McCallum reaches the wooden door of the Tower first and finding it locked, uses his shoulder to pop it open at the second attempt. He got inside quickly to check the room was safe followed by Debbie who had been covering him with a couple of arrows from her bow.
The building was all right angles and unremarkable; a squarish two-floor box with a smaller block on top, crowned by a blocky minaret where the signal torch would have been lit. It had all once been painted white and when you were close up you could see it was a neglected and flaking grey colour; rust, moss and mould taking over.
Originally built as a lighthouse, before being used as a signal tower for relaying coded messages -- known as ‘lights’ -- to the next one further up the coastline. Coastal ones were often less successful as the sea frets and fog hid the light and it became difficult to read flashing messages accurately.
Ultimately though, the very dangers of the rocks beneath had caused the occupants themselves to flee as the cliff had been eroded over the years by wind and rain, all the way to its back door.
What they hadn’t seen as they ran into the building was the chunks of masonry on the rear that fell away to the rocks below when McCallum rammed the doorway on the front. The back of the structure was sitting on the very edge of the cliff and before it had been abandoned by the previous owners, they had futilely attempted to shore it up with timber joists for added support.
The irony was that the running heroes thought they would be safe on the inside of this crumbling ruin.
Carrying Crow was hampering them and one very fast feral broke away from the pack and almost caught up with Chin, swiping his claw-like hands at him with as he drew up alongside. Chin twisted and ducked to avoid being pulled to the ground but had his arm raked by claws drawing blood. He responded by jabbing a sharp elbow into his throat -- making a cracking sound, probably a vertebrae snapping -- and the attacker collapsed. The rest of the pack were only twenty feet further behind now, they could feel their feet through the ground they were that close and they could see the fear in Debbie’s face as she stared at them from the doorway terrified they wouldn’t make it.