Read Two Heirs (The Marmoros Trilogy Book 1) Online
Authors: Peter Kenson
The man sat quietly astride his horse, watching the activity in the clearing below. Four covered wagons and five open carts had arrived a few moments earlier and were preparing to set up camp for the night. They were escorted by a large group of horsemen who spread out around the clearing. He counted thirty eight mounted fighters, some with swords and bows and others carrying spears and shields. Another nine warriors were driving the carts, their personal mounts saddled and tethered to the rear of each wagon. Their armour was minimal, mostly sleeveless leather jerkins, the archers identifiable by the leather bracer on their arm.
The exception was clearly the leader of the group. Mounted on the pick of the horses, a chestnut mare with four white feet and a white blaze on his nose, he wore a chain mail shirt and a crested helmet that had seen better days. While all the others dismounted to set up the camp, he rode the perimeter of the clearing posting sentries in the treeline both ahead and behind along the trail they had used.
Quickly but without any fuss, the drivers arranged the wagons into a semicircle in the centre of the clearing allowing fifty paces of open space between the campsite and the nearest trees. The leader of the group was a cautious man who obviously did not intend to be surprised during the night.
the watcher thought,
“you don't survive long at this game without learning some caution”.
At the central point of the circle, two of the men were building a fireplace, cutting the turf into squares and stacking them, ready to replace in the morning. Others watered the horses at the stream which flowed swiftly down the ridge to his left to border one edge of the clearing. The horses were then hobbled before being turned loose to feed on the grass.
One of the wagons had disgorged a quantity of slaves, the clanking of their ankle chains audible above the bustle of the camp. Eight male and five female slaves were labouring now to erect the tents around the other side of the circle. One of the women stumbled and fell under the load she was carrying but no-one moved to help her. One of the warriors cursed her and gave her a kick in the ribs before dragging her upright by her hair. He was a giant of a man standing head and shoulders above most of the other men and lifted the slave easily off her feet, dangling her by her hair until a shouted curse from the leader made him release his hold. If the watcher on the ridge felt any emotion at the slave's cries of pain, it did not show on his face but he made a mental note of the giant swordsman in the book of accounts.
There were other women in the camp too. Two of the cleaner and better dressed had ridden up front with the driver of one of the wagons but most of the rest had been sprawled across the contents of the open carts. One of the tents being erected was much larger than the others and the leader's two women disappeared inside as soon as it was up. The other women busied themselves helping to unload the carts and prepare the evening meal.
There was another woman as well who caught the watcher's eye. She had travelled in one of the covered wagons but she was not manacled
like the slaves and she was clearly not one of the camp followers. She was better dressed and from a distance appeared more beautiful than the leader's two women but she did not go into the leader's tent. Instead she stayed by the wagons and seemed to ignore the activity going on around her. She had what could best be described as
but with no obvious role or authority. He could not fit her into any of the easy categories
but noted that all of the camp followers and most of the men walked cautiously around her.
His attention was diverted then by the arrival of the outriders; the two point riders coming back down the trail that forded the stream, two more coming in from the far side of the camp and another two following the side trail over the ridge about eighty paces to the east of where the observer sat. Despite himself, he was impressed. He had known they were out there of course, but it was another indication that this was more than just an ordinary band of brigands and slavers. Some of them, definitely the leader and almost certainly some of the others, had received military training at some point.
His horse stirred as a small animal disturbed by the riders on the trail, rustled through the undergrowth behind them. He leaned forward slightly to rub the horse's neck and whisper in its ear. The rustling faded away and horse and rider resumed their watch.
When he had found the group earlier in the day there had been more of them, nearer sixty on his original count. Somewhere along the trail as he manoeuvred to keep out of sight of the outriders, a group of them had split off. So now they waited, horse and man looking as though carved from a single block of wood as they stood motionless, concealed from view by the beech trees that crested the ridge.
The late afternoon sun was rapidly heading towards the treetops and an autumn mist was starting to form over the stream. The first frosts were still a few weeks away he judged, but already the evenings were turning chilly. The camp fire below was starting to catch now and the slaves were being herded away towards the trees to collect armfuls of dry wood.
One of the sentries shouted a challenge and all around the camp men reached for weapons, checking swords in their scabbards and reaching for bows ready to string. Two of the horses had been kept saddled and tethered to the wagons and the giant swordsman and the leader of the group were mounted before the answering hail came from down the trail. The camp relaxed again as another five horsemen rode out from under the gloomy trees and into the circle of firelight. It had obviously been a successful hunt as one of the horsemen had the carcass of a deer laid across the front of his saddle. He dismounted to the congratulations of the camp and a grudging nod from the leader. They would eat well tonight.
The watcher on the ridge waited until the camp had settled down again before he moved, backing his mount cautiously down the far side of the ridge and then angling across to cut the trail the outriders had followed. He crested the ridge and started down towards the clearing. It was almost full dark now and neither of the moons had risen yet so, although he was not trying to creep up on them, his approach on the side trail was not detected. He stopped at the edge of the clearing and hailed the camp.
“Halloo the camp”.
The results were electric. As before men reached for weapons and bows were strung. The leader and the giant were mounted and threw their horses into a flat gallop across the clearing towards the sound of the hail. The man sat calmly astride his mount and waited for them to reach him. The leader dragged his horse to a standstill, rearing up on its hind legs while his companion galloped past to check the trail behind him.
Neither man spoke until the giant returned down the trail and took position behind the man. “He's alone”.
The leader nodded. “Who are you and what do you want?”
“I'm just a traveller. Been on these back trails for days without seeing a soul. Saw your campfire from the ridge up there.”
“Felt like some company. Thought I could maybe share your fire, share some talk. I've a couple of rabbits I can add to your pot.”
“We got food.” This from the giant.
“So I can smell. But in my experience, a little more never comes amiss.”
“What are you doing on the back trails?” the leader asked.
“In my profession, I prefer to travel the quiet roads until I get where I'm going.”
“And where's that?”
“Truth to tell, I haven't rightly made my mind up on that. So I just travel until something turns up.”
“And your profession?”
“Little bit of this, little bit of that. Generally seems to end up with a little bit of fighting.”
The giant stirred behind him. “He's a common sell-sword.”
“A sell-sword, yes,” the man agreed amiably. “But I take exception to common.”
“You rate yourself then,” the leader asked.
“There's more than a few men who could testify to my skill.... If only they were still able to speak.”
“Let me kill him now,” the giant growled. “Then we'll see how good he is.”
“Wait,” the leader commanded. “He has asked for our hospitality. We should not refuse him. There will be time enough in the morning for a trial of arms... If you agree?”
“I will be delighted.”
“You will be dead,” the giant commented.
“Then I should obviously make best use of my remaining time on this earth. And the smell from your campfire is really becoming most enticing. Shall we?”
He urged his horse into a walk, forcing the leader to turn and trot after him.
“I didn't catch your name.”
“I didn't offer it. But it's Held.”
“Held. That's not a common name.”
. Apparently it means something in
“You from Gernia then?”
“Nope. But my father travelled quite widely.”
“And your mother?”
“I'm Manfred Redblade
but everybody calls me Manny. This is my camp. And the ox behind you is Torsten.”
They reached the circle of wagons and the crowd of men parted to let them through. At a sign from Manny, the swords disappeared back into scabbards and the bows were unstrung.
“Drop your gear over by the wagons and come to the fire.”
Held unsaddled his horse and rubbed him down with a couple of handfuls of grass before turning him loose with a slap on the rump.
“Ain't ya gonna 'obble 'im then?”
He turned to face the speaker, a fresh faced youth of no more than 16 or 17 summers. “No need. He'll still be here in the morning.”
“But wot if somebody steals 'im?”
“Then I'll kill the sentry who fell asleep.”
“Oh. I'm Jaks by the way. Manny sent me to fetch you to the fire.”
“Thought I'd get lost, did he?”
no,” Jaks flustered. “I.... I don't think it was that.”
“Only kidding,” he smiled. “But the smell of that food is causing my stomach to make some serious complaining noises. Let's go eat.”
The slaves had dragged some logs into a rough circle around the fire and Jaks found room for them on the far side opposite Manny. As befitted the leader, Manny sat in a proper chair and spoke now, without getting up but in a voice loud enough to command attention.
“This is Held, not from Gernia
despite the name. He is going to be our guest for tonight and tomorrow has offered to give Torsten a demonstration of his sword fighting skills.”
There was a chorus of sniggers and muffled laughter around the circle.
“I thank you for the hospitality of hearth and food and I promise not to be too hard on Torsten in the morning.”
That provoked some more open laughter and a scowl on the face of the giant Torsten, who grabbed a slab of venison from one of the slaves and attacked it savagely. As the food was being served, Held took the opportunity to look around the circle. Manny sat in front of his tent in a wooden chair with some ornate carving and his two women, one on either side, on collapsible camp stools. All of the other fighters, barring those on sentry, were seated on the logs, some with their womenfolk alongside them. The slaves were walking round carrying platters of steaming meat and pitchers of beer.
He helped himself to a generous portion of venison and then gave Jaks a nudge.
“As I rode in, I thought I saw another woman, rather striking, long brown hair. I don't see her now.”
“Oh, that'll be the Lady Falaise. She's an 'ostage. She don't eat with us.”
“A hostage for what?”
“Well we went to 'er
village to collect the regular tribute. You know, provisions for the winter an' that. An' the village came up short like. Manny got pretty riled up with his local lordship, so Torsten belted '
im one an' we took 'is woman as 'ostage. Gave 'em
one week to come up with the rest of the goods. We go back there, day after tomorrow.”
“So her village is near here then?”
“Well it ain't
a proper village like. They're travelling folk. Settle somewhere for a few seasons, plant some crops, raise some livestock and then, suddenly, up and move on. One of the old-timers told me it can sometimes take weeks to track them down to collect our provisions.
“Some people call 'em gypsies but that ain't
told me. They used to be regular settled folk with towns an' villages an' that.”
“So what happened?” Held prompted after a mouthful of meat.
for certain. I '
there was some trouble with a local warlord. Took over their main city an' drove '
out. Been '
ever since. Least that's what I '
eard. Long time ago now.”
“So why do they give you this tribute?”
“'Cos we needs it. For the winter. Otherwise we'd starve. They always grows too much anyway. That's what Manny says. So we asks 'em and they gives it.”
“And if they don't? What happens if they don't come up with the rest of the provisions?”
“Manny will keep Lady Falaise for 'imself. Fancies 'er
something rotten 'e does. Course it'll cause some trouble with Leyla an' Mo but Torsten's quite sweet on Leyla so it'll all work out.”
“Leyla and Mo, I take it, are the two on either side of Manny.”
“That's right. Mo's the little dark one on the left and Leyla's the blonde with the big um...”
“Chest?” he supplied helpfully.
“Yeah. Not 'arf.”
Any further musings on the potential domestic difficulties which Manny might face, were interrupted by a shout from across the fire.
“So Held. Tell us your story.”
“It's a long story.”
“We have all evening. Where have you travelled? Where did you learn the sword? Where did you work last?”