This is an earlier version of the ambush section of the first chapter, keeping the same basic events but in a more dispersed manner, and with some clunky dialogue in places. It was revised to stick to a single viewpoint, and the threat posed by the bandits was beefed up slightly. The only thing rally lost in the change is Keldun's first viewpoint, the basics of which had to be condensed for his first fight with the Broken.
The fall wind raced along the well-worn road, funnelled by the trees from which it whipped a cloak of leaves into a manic dance, ending abruptly against the unyielding rider. Galvain stopped to flick a couple from his face, glancing at the mark on the tree he'd just passed. The boy had probably circled behind them.
Dismounting to examine his horse's shoe, he glanced at the procession following a short way behind him, carriages and horsemen making their way up the gradual incline. Catching the eye of a horseman, he gave a slight nod, and the man urged his horse forward. Waiting, Galvain made a surreptitious sweep of the road ahead. His jet black, severely trimmed hair showed a few strands of grey as he removed a stray leaf. He turned back as the rider approached.
"Sir?" Beroven made an equally casual inspection of the trail. Bald and meticulously clean-shaven, he seemed to consciously stop himself sitting to attention.
"You saw the mark?" Galvain said.
Beroven replied in a muted tone. "Yessir."
Galvain glanced back up the road where it disappeared around a bend ahead, rocky outcroppings alogn the left diverting it from a straight path. "They'll probably be set up just before the bend, maybe a couple on the outcroppings. You see any?"
"No, but tree cover's thick in places, so they wouldn't need to be too stealthy."
Galvain nodded. "Stop the carriages to look at that problem wheel. I want you, Grellden and a few of the others staying back, keep an eye out behind, though I doubt Ash'd have missed anything. Have the rest of the men come on up."
With a quick nod, Beroven trotted his horse back towards the procession, shouting at the lead coachman about straining that wheel.
Turning back to casually inspect the trees, Galvain surreptitiously checked his sword, and loosened the ties holding his shield to the saddle. Satisfied, he remounted as the others drew near, turning his horse to face the road ahead, and advanced at a slow pace. His eyes darted to every movement, cursing the wind as he forced himself to maintain a calm fašade.
The bandits, unless especially dim, undoubtedly knew their prey were aware of them by now, and some would be considering their odds. They'd likely set up in the best positions they could find, but even with most of the troops who'd normally keep the roads safe diverted to the border, few bandit groups could survive in one location for very long, so they probably wouldn't be too familiar with the ground. Seeing a group as well-armed as his company should give them pause, making them consider letting this lot pass, and if he held back a bit to give them chance to consider it, maybe they could pass unobstructed. But he didn't feel like leaving a public road in the hands of their kind.
The tense silence from behind, broken only by the sounds from the coaches, and the faint scuffing of weapons being readied, met an eerie stillness ahead. By the time they'd travelled halfway to the outcroppings, his fingers itched for the signal.
A strangled yelp came ahead and to the left, as a body plunged from a tree, a protruding arrow visible as the bandit spiralled to the ground. Ash.
His sword drawn before the body landed, Galvain's shield was on his arm a moment later, as he let out the call to charge. Another body fell a short way further up as he spurred his horse off into the trees on the right.
His shield high, at least one missile glancing off it as he charged, Galvain broke through the tree line, quickly spotting a few of their intended ambushers, gripped by confusion and panic. One recovered faster, hastily readying a rough pike against Galvain's charge.
Barely slowing as he closed in, Galvain slapped aside the flimsy weapon with ease, kicking the man squarely in the face with his steel-toed boots as he passed. Turning on the others, he brought his shield down on the head of one, and a slash of his blade disarmed the next, who quickly turned and ran.
Turning, Galvain quickly searched for further resistance, his shield high again, but the only enemies in sight were down or running, his men in pursuit. A few fallen archers dotted the ground, and he lowered his shield without incident. Barely worth the effort, and certainly offering little practice. At least it should make the road safer.
Letting his men run down the bandits, he returned to the road. The scene on the opposite side appeared much the same, albeit with a few more men lying dead, none of them in the charcoal grey of the mercenary, or the white hawks head on a black background insignia of his company. Satisfied, he returned to the coaches.
Stumbling through undergrowth in flight, his prey lost ground as they shot panicked glances back at him. The latest obstacle sent them in different directions, one continuing headlong while the second split to the right as he stumbled to regain his footing.
Blood pounding, focussed on his prey, Keldun didn't break stride as he drew back his large axe, hurling it towards the first target, catching the man with a choked squeal, and enough force to continue his flight a good few strides. Keldun didn't see him land, or even get hit, his attention on the remaining prey.
Fear radiated from the man's face as he shot another glance back, the gap between them closing. He must have realised his chances of escaping, and maybe saw his pursuer's empty hands, as he turned to meet the charge, his sword quickly braced in a shaky defence.
It offered little protection, swatted away with barely a nick to Keldun's arm, unnoticed as he bore the man down, landing on top of the figure nearly half his weight, his fists pummelling the petrified face before it could respond.
Little of that face remained by the time his rage had ebbed, and Keldun's thoughts finally slowing to a point where he could hear them. He paused, adrenaline draining with his rage, and stared at what remained of the bandit. He'd been dead a short while.
Dragging his eyes from his handiwork, Keldun pushed shakily to his feet, his gaze moving dazedly to his bloodied knuckles, and finally noticing the mark the sword had left on his arm. He stumbled away, looking for the other, faintly recalled, bandit, to recover his weapon. He couldn't see more of them, and suspected those who'd run would be far gone by now, and unlikely to return.
Spotting his axe, he focussed on finding his horse. He faintly recalled leaping from him near the road. If he'd stayed mounted he could probably have run them down faster. And cleaner. The thought forced another glance at his knuckles.
He sighed in resignation. When the rage took him, as it seemed to do more often, planning wasn't an option. Not that he felt guilty about what he'd done, given what they'd have done, and probably had before. But the look on the man's face, the pure terror, broke through the red mist engulfing those memories. Terror which barely obscured the desperation, the man's gangly frame a testament to his reasons for banditry. But a terror likely mirrored on the man's own victims.
No, there were plenty of other faces more deserving of memory. Those of soldiers he'd faced in an even, or at least open, fight. But a bandit, a parasite like this?? Whatever he may have been, he'd degenerated into barely more than a beast.
The rage had receded now, but Keldun still felt it toiling within, the constant companion who never deserted him. A curse he no longer had the strength to fight.
Rummaging through the dead man's clothes unearthed little more than a portion of uneaten meat of indeterminate species, which even Halbryn found unappetizing. At a tinkling of coins and his eyes shot up to find Creault giving him a toothy, albeit lopsided, grin as he shook the lean purse over the subject of his search.
Halbryn glowered, his expression changing little. "How the cruk d'you always find the good stuff?"
"It's jus' copper, anyhow," said Creault, tucking it away and resuming his search, flicking back greasy hair as it slipped over his narrow, angular, face.
"Typical. We get attacked by the cheapest bunch of bandits." With a quick check of the rest of his target's meagre remains, Halbryn glanced at the last body.
"Well, if they had much money," said Creault, "they wouldn't likely be out here doin' this, would they."
Halbryn gave him another glower, this time accompanied by a grunt as he heaved himself to his feet, running a hand over his head and back towards his receding hair. He pulled his armour into a more comfortable position, little altering the dishevelled look he achieved within minutes of donning clean clothes.
Before he could move towards the remaining body, the horn sounded from the road. He caught sight of the coaches moving, and caught Galvain looking their way.
"Leave the bodies and get mounted," said Galvain.
Halbryn muttered as he straightened himself, turning to find Creault rising. "I ask you, what kind of a world is it where ya can't even loot bandit crelluks in peace?"
A voice from behind made them both jump. "Your horses, are over there." Turning sharply, they saw Ashoun pointing with his free hand, his other leading Keldun's horse. A slight grin creased his tanned face as continued past, even the larger horse seeming to make no noise as he led it.
Halbryn scowled after him. "It's impolite to sneak up on people, boy."
Ashoun slowed near a tree where one of the archers had been snagged on a branch as he'd fallen. Standing in his saddle, he reached up to retrieve the remaining arrows from the man's quiver, continuing on as he sorted through them, discarding all but three of the shafts, which he placed in the quiver hanging from his saddle.
Straightening himself, Halbryn set off towards the horses. "It's not exactly like this is a proper job, anyway, escorting some lord's daughter 'cross country, an' that mainly as a favour. And then these crelluks try and rob us." He gave a casual kick at the unpilfered body in passing, only to jump back with a start as it roused.
Their swords drawn and pointed at it, Helbryn nodded at Creault to check the man. Gingerly using his foot, Creault rolled him over, and they saw his only wounds appeared to be a nasty gash on his arm, and a graze to the head. The man stirred, as Halbryn crouched down to examine his wounds, and check for weapons, Creault keeping his sword threatening.
"Come on," Halbryn shook the man's face until his eyes opened. "You'll live. At least until we hand you over to the law. On yer feet." He dragged the man up, eliciting a grunt of pain. "It's only a flesh wound. Well, maybe a small chunk of bone, too, but it's not gonna to kill you. Let's get you tied with your surviving friends and we'll see about stitching it up." He prodded the man forwards, towards the few men trailing the final coach on foot, wary horsemen herding them along.
Paralleling the road as he followed one set of tracks, Ash spotted his quarry walking towards the road, and adjusted his path to intercept at a leisurely pace.
Their paths intersecting, Ashoun pulled Keldun's horse around for him. Whinnying its reluctance, it moved as bid. Nearly a half a head taller than Raven, Ashoun's horse, it was almost twice as wide. The same could almost be said of their riders, except that Keldun was a whole head taller than Ash.
Keldun offered a curt nod as he mounted. Despite its strength, the horse still seemed to sigh under the weight.
"No prisoners?" said Ashoun, although the blood on the larger man gave his answer. They rode towards the road. "You lost control." It wasn't a question.
Keldun took a moment to answer. "The horse sometimes gets upset in battle."
"That, too. Although he's a trained warhorse, and has no fear of fighting."
Keldun met Ash's even gaze with a stare, its hardness soon evaporating, forcing him to look away. "It's getting worse. My temper flares at the slightest thing, and when the blood starts pumping, I..." he trailed off, his eyes fixing on the road.
"Maybe we should get you a plough horse, give you the chance to get your temper under control by the time you reach the fight."
Keldun shot him a look, but soon forced a smile. "I'd just end up killing the thing in impatience." After a minute's silent ride, as he adjusted his path adjacent to the road without nearing it, he turned to Ashoun. "I'll ride alone a while."
With a nod, Ashoun urged Raven into a canter, headed towards the front of the column. Within a minute he rode alongside Galvain. "Any injuries?"
"Helfrin's horse took was grazed by an arrow. It should recover, but I told him to take it slow, follow behind at the horse's pace. I left him Grellden's horse to ride, and Grellden's on a coach. Otherwise the only casualties were bandits."
"You want me out ahead, again?"
"May as well. I doubt there'll be more bandits, this close to the edge of the forest. They'd try and drive nearby competition out first." He glanced at Ashoun, who met the unreadable stare. "And if you spot anything, circle back to warn us."
"I left a warning, which you obviously saw."
"Then you took an unnecessary risk."
"There was little risk. Their poor attempt at concealment displayed a lack of experience at their chosen profession."
"That's hardly reducing the risk. Amateurs are more likely to panic..."
Ash interrupted. "Apart from their spotter, they were set up too far away for their archers to get a good shot through the trees, and there were no signs they had horses, so I could have easily outrun them. What would you have done differently had I doubled back?"
Galvain glared for a moment. "I'd have sent Grellden around the other side, so we could've cut down the number of archers before we went charging in."
Ash opened his mouth, but thought better of it. "Next time I shall turn back."
After a moment, Galvain returned the nod, turning to review his men's formation as Ash rode ahead.