Two such small holdings, the Barony of Estrallia and the Kommun of Raust, meet at the point where two small rivers or large creeks, the Fyschkill and the Fraugkill, merge to form the Dead Horse River. The "V" of lands between the two Kills has been hotly contested by the Barony and the Kommun for several generations. Those who live in the Vee, as it is called, or just either side of the Kills, are subject to raids and attacks, which relent only when the greenies storm across the Blood River or out of the mountains and all grudges are momentarily set aside to repulse the invaders.
Raphael de Gitano was a ferryman on the Fraugkill, an inhabitant of Estrallia. His status as an Estrallian did not stop a raiding party of the Baron from burning his boat as they retreated from a counter force of Kommmunards so that the Kommunards would be unable to cross the Kill without detouring far to the North. He had had enough. He set off into the hills and scrub forest seeking Myredd the Red, an Outlaw who had made a name for himself by attacking and robbing not the peasants and inhabitants of the Vee, but instead the raiders, Baronial and Kommunard alike, as well as other travellers.
Myredd was an Albioner tribesman fled from the Norran overlords of that island. Seeking freedom and liberty, he had tried his hand in the "Free Shire of Esvale" only to find that it was no more free than his homeland. He took to the hills and soon settled on the Vee as the place best suited to his skills and plans.
Raphael found him, or rather Myredd found him, and the ferryman was allowed to join their band.
* * * *The bridge across the Dead Horse was out, which mean that Anika-Heide von Grunwald had to turn the coach upstream. "Bad luck, Heide," said Klaus Grossenaus, who was riding next to her on the coach. "The nearest ferryman I know of is all the way up on the Fyschkill. We'll have to cross the Vee to get to the Free Shire. Heide knew it, but there was nothing for it but to chance running into an Estrallian patrol. Othewise they'd have to detour a week or more out of their way or wait Taal knew how long for the bridge to be repaired. This way they only lost a couple of days travel time.
The crossing of the Fyschkill was made without incident and they drove the coach horses hard for the ferry across the Fraugkill; The Veelanders wouldn't care if they were Kommunards as long as they paid.
As they rolled toward the ferry landing, no barge was in sight, so they rolled slowly closer to wait for its return. Then the hairs on the back of Heide's neck stood up. Something was wrong and something was watching ...
Before she could call out a warning, three small greenskins - goblins stood up from behind a nearby bush and leveled their bows and two large greenies - orcs broke from cover and moved to cut off the slow moving coach. The archers fired and an arrow transfixed Klaus' left arm and another plunged into his chest driving him back against the seat although it was mostly turned by his mail shirt.
Smack! Heide cracked the reins down onto the backs of the coach team. The horse pair, easily spooked now that they were scenting green skin, lurched forward and to the side away from the goblins. She didn't try to direct their course. Let them go where they would at first; they would move away from orcs and goblins and that was enough. And they all might live -- man and horse alike -- if she could only drive their speed high enough, soon enough. And if they didn't slip.
Heide's impulse to fight died with the shot to Klaus' arm, and the shot to the chest... but Klaus was moaning now as he clutched the coachseat rail, and she wondered if the mail shirt had held. Yes... maybe it had. Her eyes darted to the loaded blunderbus clipped to the coachseat to the right of her hip. One shot and then too much time to load.
She yelled at the team. "Mach schnell!" She could drive coach and those chasing greenskins right to some unsuspecting Veelander hut dwellers, or maybe a village, whatever would distract them... She could do that, given the time... and just a little luck, which was running so short of late.
The coach lurched, but with an expert flick of the reins she brought the horse back into line and it settled again. One orc, larger and better armored, shouted something in their harsh language and another volley of arrows arced out from the goblins. The lead horse reared as the three arrows stung him hard and the coach lurched hard to one side. Klaus grunted as the horses collided then swept up his blunderbuss one-handed. "Verdamt greenies," he gasped as he fired. Just as he shot, the wooden tongue to which the horses were harnessed snapped under the stress of the bucking and rearing animals. Klaus' shot went high, and then he was thrown forward and off the coach as the broken tongue plunged into the ground bringing the coach to jarring halt.
Heide pulled her gun from the coachseat clips, leapt forward, and ran for the horses, drawing her knife. She knew Klaus wouldn't be able to ride and fire, but she could. Maybe she'd miss, but if she kept moving, she might luck out and stay alive long enough to defend the cargo. She hoped her knife would slice through the leads quick enough. And that clumsy Klaus could hit something moving faster than a beer jug.
The new lad, Raphael heard the sound off to the southeast. It took a moment for him to recognize it since he had heard it only a few times before - a gunshot. He rose and told Myredd what he had heard.
Even in the few weeks he had been with the band, they had learned to respect their new comrades keen ears. "Gunshots?" said Myredd. "A coach then. From the southeast. Toward your old ferry landing then?"
Raphael considered a moment and agreed.
"Aye then, up lads and lasses!" cried Myredd. "Either someone's poaching on our prey, or something worse is afoot."
The bandit gang rose quickly and started moving. Raphael, Karl, Hans, Rosalita and Snorri No-neck the dwarf started jogging toward the noise, while Myredd, Esteban, Greta and Cuillen ran to their horses.
Back at the ferry-landing, Klaus had stumbled up and put his back against the coach, drawing his sword, as Heide ran to where the horses milled about in terror. The three horse team, still harnessed to a four feet length of the wooden tongue which swayed in the air between them, were casting about madly looking for a place to run as Heide reached them.
The big orc shouted something again and he and the other orc swerved to run toward the horses and Heide. Heide heard the bowstrings thrum again and behind her heard a shreik cut off quickly. Sparing a glance, she saw Klaus with his head pinned to the side of the coach by an arrow that had punched through his cheek. She also saw, with some concern, that wisps of smoke were rising from the seat of the coach.
Heide glanced back toward the coach as she reached the side of Frau Blucher, the big black mare, and her favorite. Her dark eyes shifting from the smoke to the orcs, she murmured something meant to soothe the animal. Then she cradled the blunderbuss, levelled it at the larger of the approaching orcs, and said, in a girlish, harshly accented voice, "BOOM."
And the big gun did just that.
Not waiting further, she only just catches sight of the affects of her shot before turning, intent on grabbing the Frau's reins, cutting her free of the harness, and scrambling onto her back, as soon as she might.
The big orc grunted as the shot took him hard in the right leg, but he kept coming, waving a notched axe with grim intent.
Heide cut the traces with a smooth slash and swung up onto the horse's back as the orc chopped at her with his axe. The blow rocked her back, but her mail held and a moment later she was away. Glancing back, she saw the orcs seemed more interested in the horses than her. Counting herself lucky, she made for the nearest cover as a few last arrows arced her general direction.
She rode a short distance away, then reined in since there was no pursuit. Turning back she listened to make sure there was no pursuit and heard the sound of horses. But the sound was in front of her. Turning back, she saw four horses break cover in front of her. The lead horse was ridden by a wiry, red-headed man dressed in rough homespun - under which she saw the glint of mail. His companions, two men and a woman bore wooden round shields painted red. The red headed man spoke, "Well, lass, that explains the gunfire. What were shooting at and where's the rest of your coach and team?"
She gave the stranger a dark, surly look, as if the lost cargo, lost work and the ache of the axe hit were all somehow his fault.
But she said, mildly: "Greeners, seem to want ze horses. Coach might burn." And she pointed back through the trees along the way she'd come.
There was a rustle in the brush and another three men and a woman appeared, all on foot and carrying bows. "Greenies ... aye. That fits. But they're stealing our loot! Unless ... on fire you say? That'd be a shame indeed. Sharpears," he pointed at Raphael, "get up there and see what you can learn. Cuillen, Rosalita go with him."
One of the men dismounted joined the bow-wielding woman and one of the bowmen. "Off with you."
"Ok, let's move out. Move quickly but quietly, no need to be stupid, we'll get to a point where we can see them and then figure out our next move." Said Raphael... listening intently as they moved through the brush, arrow knocked and his steady hand ready to pull back the string at a moment's notice.
Raphael's heart raced, the excitement of the hunt thrilled him. As they moved onward he found himself hoping that there would be a good take from the coach to help ease the suffering of those in the Vee.
"No-neck," the redhead spoke to the dwarf. "Maybe you should take a look at her side. I think she's bleeding." Sure enough, a red stain was soaking through her shirt where the axe had struck. "You're safe enough now, lass, with Myredd the Red and the Red Raiders."
Heide smiled in a way that looked like it could come as easily from pain as good humor.
Heide had heard of them. A group of bandits operating in the Vee, but striking into both Estrallia and Raust. They had never been brought to bay, partly it seemed, because they treated the peasants well, certainly better than either the Kommuncouncil or the Baron, not that that would be difficult. On the other hand, it did suggest that her cargo was lost one way or the other.
Which meant one thing, anyway... she might be better off going where the cargo went, if it meant the cargo went with this lot. At least it was an immediate profit to someone nearby, and whether or not she could find a take here, perhaps she'd find another one soon.
She was pretty sure that a group like this wouldn't mind the addition of a gun, as well as the one who knew how to use it. She needed to get Klaus' shots and powder, and his gun as a spare wouldn't hurt, either. Access to ammunition might become a problem should she start riding with a lot of ragtags.
Heide nodded at the dwarf walking up, "No-Neck", who at first glance lived up to his name. "It does hurt," she admitted. As she raised her arm to give the dwarf a better look, she changed the subject. "Zer is a dead man, Klaus, at ze coach who has shot and powder and a gun I can use on whatever you want. I am called Heide Gonnes."
"Well Heide," said the dwarf as he poked and prodded. "Nothing too serious. The blade drove some of the links into your skin and scraped you up." He applied an ointment from a jar taken from his sling bag. "The bleeding's nearly stopped already."
The scouts moved toward the ferry landing. Raphael heard the noise first, guttural orc-talk, and then he saw and smelled the fire; it smelled strange and sweet, like spices or something. Then the small group found a vantage point and looked out.
The coach was burning merrily giving off clouds of sweet-smelling smoke. Nearby, the orcs were retying the remaining two horses into what was left of the harness while the three goblins kept up a poor watch - poor enough that they didn't see the bandits.
Raphael withdrew himself to a vantage point of better cover from their view, signaling to his companions to follow him there. "Ok there's three of us, and five of them, not very good odds." Keeping a keen eye affixed on them the whole time.
His companions had been teaching him the gesture based command language they used, but he had not yet mastered it.
"Cuillen, you head back and tell the boss what's up, and be quick about it. It looks as though they mean to be away with everything, If we are gonna stop them it's gonna take more than the three of us. Rosalita and I will stay here and cover them with our bows."
Cuillen nodded and slipped off toward the others.
"Rosalita, do you know anything that would smell so sweetly when it burns?" asked Raphael.
"It smells like the spices my mother used to cook with in the good days. Could they be transporting spices?" offered the woman.
Snorri was just finishing up with the bandaging when Cuillen arrived. He rattled a quick summary in Albion, which appeared to be his and Myredd's native tongue and then Myredd summarized for the others. "Five greenies. Two big'uns and three little bowmen. The coach is burning allright. Here's what we do. Karl and Hans, you go join Raph and Rosa. Esteban, Greta, Cuillen and I will go in mounted. When we break cover, you open fire on the big'uns and we'll ride down the archers. Clear?" The outlaws nodded. "Well, 'Gonnes,' it was your coach. How are you feeling? You want in on this or do you need some rest?"
Heide mumbled a thanks to No-Neck, and looked at Myredd. "Please, call me Heide. I am fine to go," she answered. "You mounting up or leaving ze horses behind?"
"I and these three," he indicated the mounted troops behind him, " are going to ride down the archers. Your horse isn't saddled, so why don't you go in with the our archers. Load up, we'll wait."
In a moment or two, Heide had reloaded her blunderbuss and was ready to go. She, Karl and Hans moved off to join Raphael and Rosalita. When they reached the two archers, Karl whispered the plan to them.
The sudden charge of the four mounted bandits almost caught the archers by surprise. But not for long. The arrows arced toward the two orcs, followed by the boom of Heide's gun while they were still in flight. Raphael's arrow stuck in the arm of the unwounded orc as Heide's shot thumped into his breastplate leaving a dent. The wounded one down as two arrows finished the job Heide had started with her gonne.
Amazingly, two of the goblins held their ground and only one ran shrieking as the four riders charged them. Their two arrows went wide of the mark, although it forced the riders to swerve.
As Heide drew her knife, the archers fired again, Raphael's arrow opening a long gash on the orc's face as he started to charge the archers. As one, the bandits drew and loosed, and all three arrows went home. The orc skidded to a stop only a few yards away and lay still.
One of the brave goblins broke a bow string and that decided him, he cast the bow aside and ran after his fleeing comrade. Esteban took an arrow in the arm from the other, before cutting him down. Greta and Cuillen chopped the other to the ground at the same moment.
"Well done!" cried Myredd, rounding his horse and charging the last goblin. Two quick strokes and the goblin's head rolled free.
Heide ran to the coach, but could not approach it too closely since it was burning with some enthusiasm. She wondered at the speed with which it had gone up, then realized that Klaus had carried some extra powder in a bag on his side and the arrows from the ambush must have split it open. When his blunderbuss misfired a spark could have landed on the split powder. It wouldn't explode but it would burn quickly and hot. No wonder the coach had gone up.
Walking around a bit, she came in sight of Klaus's body, unexpectedly pulled free of where his cheek had earlier been pinned to the coach by a greenskin arrow. She didn't pause to wonder what the greeners had intended with his body when they freed it from the flames, but instead, knelt beside and inspected it. She pulled his powder horn and shot bag clear before pausing to look into his dead blue eyes, and to close them with a pass of her hand. She considered searching him for coin, but skipped it. Let any watching see her only take what was most practical for her to have -- out of them all -- and only those two things, keeping them in sight.
Heide set the horn and shot bag on the ground near the body, and stood, drawing her sword. She approached the coach as near as she could. She could see Klaus's spent, scalding-hot metal blunderbuss nearby where he had dropped it; the goblins had left it alone. She knelt again, seeing if she could reach her sword out to try to maneuver it closer to her. It would be nice if she didn't have to wait out the fire to get another gun. She wondered if Myredd would let her keep it. In a sudden hunch, she knew what she'd do in his place, and doubted it.
Myredd walked up next to her. "Pity about the coach and cargo," he said.
Heide nodded to him, pulling at the fire-hot gun with her sword. "My work with it is done. I do not go back; I must find something else." Having drawn the gun away from the coach to cool, she sheathed her sword again and looked over at him candidly. "There is so much to do in this life. How did you get into this business?" It took a moment for Myredd to realize she was speaking to him in the Albion dialect.
"You trade with the Free Shire?" Myredd asked. Heide nodded. Myredd went on, "Mmm. I got into the business like most people. Few choices and most of them bad. Starve or take to the hills and take some money off the fat bastards starving my friends and family were the two choices. One was a slow, sure death. The other promised a quick and painful death, but gave me the chance to get some of my own back." He gave her an infectious grin, "So far Lugh has smiled on me and I've been lucky."
"I would like to have this luck because of a smile," said Heide, holding her fingers over the gun to get a sense of its heat, and picking it up. "I bet Klaus has a bit of coin on him, besides the shot and powder. What now?"
"We burn the greenies. As for him, he was your friend ..." Myredd wandered off to roust some of his crew to toss the greenies onto the burning coach.
A moment or two later, Cuillen walked up. "One box is spices the other is olive oil," he said. Myredd nodded. "Nothing on the greenies."
Heide watched Myredd walk away, and carried the gun back to the body. She knelt again and picked through Klaus's things for valuables, and struggled to lift his shoulders. "Snorri?" she said to the dwarf as he ambled nearby, and nodded at the feet when she had the dwarf's attention. The dwarf lifted the feet and together they tossed Klaus into the flames. Heide returned alone to collect gun, shots and powder horn.
"Well, Gonnes," said Myredd. "What are you going to do now? You can ride with us if you'd like."
"I will do that," said Heide, looking over the ragtag group. "Let me collect Frau Blucher... the mare."
"Why did you try the Vee anyway, wouldn't the Whiterock bridge have been safer?" asked Myredd.
"The bridge downstream on the Dead Horse was down," said Heide.
"Down? What happened to it?" asked Myredd.
"There was some charring, as from a fire."
"Did it look accidental?"
"I have no idea."
"Maybe we should go check it out, Myredd," interjected Raphael. "If someone's messing with the routes to cross the river, that could cause us trouble if we wind up on the run in the middle of a fight. I wouldn't doubt if it was the same bastards that burned my boat."
"Maybe we should at that," said Myredd.
"I will collect the Frau," offered Heide, and turned in the direction of the tree she had tied the unsaddled mare to. She returned with Frau Blucher, and looked toward the river as she rubbed the white star under the mare's forelock. "So, I was going to see the ferryman for crossing the river when the greeners came. He was away; maybe he is back now. The river flows to Whiterock -- I wonder how fast we make it there that way?"
Myredd laughed, "Raphael there was the ferryman, till the Estallians burned his ferry during a retreat. Now there's no ferryman on the Fraugkill."
"Myredd, let's head upriver... we can try and find a place to ford the river, The closest definite place is a ways up, but we could get lucky on the way and see another spot where we can cross. What do you think boss?" asked Raphael.
"Approach from the Free Shire side?" Myredd nodded. "If the bridge is out, we wouldn't see much from the Kommun side anyway." The decision made, the small company of bandits was quickly in motion. The riders swept out to the left, as Raphael led the walkers along the river looking for the signs that would tell him if there was a ford to be found. They stopped an hour or so later as night began to fall and made camp. The dinner was livened up by the spices and oil they had recovered from the coach, but was plain for all that. Watches were arranged and bedrolls and shelters pitched.
The following morning, they rose early, broke camp quickly and continued on their way. Despite a few promising looking sections, no fordable section of river presented itself until nearly nightfall when they were only a few miles west of the usual ford. Still, three or four miles up and three or four miles back was several hours saved so, guided by Raphael, they crossed carefully, then made camp, sure to dry their clothes by the small smokeless fire.
Then it was back west along the Fraugkill, their speed improved by the road which they picked up about midday. They were still careful to camp well away from the road and to keep a sharp eye out for Estrallian patrols.
A few hours after dawn the next morning they passed the ferry landing opposite their starting point. Soon after that, they stopped at a small farm for a quick rest and some gossip. They sold some of their spices and oil to the farmer at a price which was ridiculously low, but the gossip really caught their attention.
"Four or five days ago, it was Senores and Senoras," said the peasant. "Verdes, a raiding party. They burned Risco Blanco but a group of Free Shire archers and Estrallian Caballeros caught them against the Fraugkill. Some tried to escape on rafts, but they were slaughtered! Or so I heard from my cousin."
Heide frowned into her cup of brown, grainy-wet detritus that passed for Estallian peasant homebrew. They knew how to barter, these mongrels. Heide missed a word here and there of the local speech, but it sounded as though the greeners might have been busy again. Either that or there was just a rival robber band -- she wasn't sure. "Do they try to isolate the people of the Vee?" she wondered aloud.
"I doubt it," said Myredd, drinking his homebrew with every appearance of enjoyment, "the Veelanders are like Pablo here, they have nothing worth stealing - unless we've been by recently. Eh, Pablo?" The peasant smiled, gazing at the bandit chief with near-awe. "The Whiterock folk, well, it's not a big town, but it's a town at least. My guess is they just raided it. Probably came down through the Vee since the patrols are fewer and farther between. Almost none at all from the Estrallian side at the moment."
"The greens seem to have strange taste in goods," mused Heide. "They want to pursue horses but maybe ignore coins and guns. Or perhaps we didn't give them long enough to start to gather all they wanted from the wreck."
"That seems likely. Unless there was some reason they were more interested in the horses. If they got smashed at the river, as Pablo says, maybe they were running away and wanted mounts?" offered Snorri.
"Could be," Heide said. "Did they have the loot of recent raiders? No, it didn't look so -- if they were raiding they were not successful, or they made the river fishes rich..." She grins suddenly. "Hmm, boatman," she said in caustic humor, turning to Raphael. "You swim?"
Raphael responded, "I do indeed, Do we know where they would have crossed the river? Otherwise it will be like trying to find a needle in a hay stack. Also the river runs pretty strong, and no telling that if what they had would have stayed or gone off downstream. Is there any way we can maybe find out if or what they attacked to get a better idea of where I should be looking?"
"So," summed Heide, "the greeners burned a bridge and Free Shirers and Estallians pinned them at the river. Supposedly they tried to escape on rafts but were slaughtered. But we saw some greeners too, yes? Different ones, or same? We don't know, or know if they were raiding or what they were doing. Down Whiterock way, the people could say if they'd been raided. I don't know about swimming, but if we saw the place of the river fight, could be that we might find a hint on what the greeners were doing. If they were doing anything worth knowing. Maybe they left something behind at that place in the hurry. What do you think? It sounds to me like all greeners who have been seen by anyone are now dead. So."
"I confess to an interest in seeing the battlefield," said Myredd, "although we'll have to move quickly if any of the troops are still about."
The next morning they headed out, leaving behind another family of happy peasants who would no doubt aid them in times of trouble. When the road turned a little inland, they left it behind them and followed the river instead. A few hours before dusk, they arrived at what was clearly the site of the fight. A few funeral pyres had been made with the bodies of the raiders, although a row of twenty heads on stakes had been put up along the river as a warning. The ground had been torn up by the fighting and was a muddy ruin. Several of the pyres had been pulled apart, presumably by local peasants looting anything left on the bodies.
"I'd say nearly a hundred raiders," said Myredd. "A pretty good size party, but small enough to move through the Vee without notice.
Inspecting a torn-up pyre, Heide muttered, "The fighters will have looted them well even before the peasants came. So. They tried to escape on rafts, did they?" She walked down to the river bank, scanning it for small boat or raft tie-ups, or some sign of the rafts themselves.