Blacknail reacted quickly to the fight brewing between the two men in front of him. He growled menacingly as he pulled himself to his feet and reached for the pommel of his blade. The hobgoblin’s cloaked body was tense and hunched over as he readied himself to spring forward.
Sir Masnin threw a startled look the hobgoblin’s way at the unexpected noise, and he hesitated. His eyes tore themselves away from Saeter and tried to peer past Blacknail’s heavy clothes without success. Unnerved, the paladin hesitated and then turned back to the old scout.
“Sir Devos is a young fool” the paladin muttered as he reluctantly let his hands drop to his sides. “If he is truly attacking you and your compatriots then it’s his own folly, although I fear I have been caught up in it.”
Blacknail smiled proudly to himself. Obviously, he’d terrified the man into submission without even needing to fight. He sure was a scary warrior!
“He’s got us all involved in this mess,” Saeter huffed back. “Now, come with me. Herad wants to see you.”
As Blacknail watched, the paladin nodded in agreement and then began to follow the older man. The hostility from moments before had yet to completely fade, though. Saeter kept one wary eye on the paladin while Blacknail glared suspiciously at the man’s back as he followed.
Saeter led sir Masnin back through the camp and towards the entrance. There, Herad and her lieutenants were yelling orders at dozens of bandits that were running around. One of the outlaws near the chieftain had a trumpet and was signaling the call to arms. The annoyingly loud tones of the instrument filled the clearing and echoed off into the trees.
Almost everyone seemed focused on the eastern entrance to the camp, so Blacknail peered in that direction as well. However, the long dusty road that ran through the forest looked empty.
The hobgoblin grunted in annoyance. Hopefully this wasn’t another stupid human waste of time. The trumpet was starting to give him a headache.
“How do you know Lord Strachan’s men are on their way back? I don’t see them,” sir Masnin asked.
Saeter grunted in annoyance before answering.
“Herad had mounted scouts sent out to trail your friends the second they left. Apparently, they didn’t go all that far. They picked up a few more men from the first village they crossed and then headed straight back here. Now, they’re sitting up on the hill that lies down that road. It’s just out of sight from here,” Saeter explained.
“You must mean Datshire. It’s the village we stopped at yesterday. We left our supplies and some of our retainers there,” the paladin commented.
“I know it was Datshire. There aren’t many villages left hereabouts and I’ve been to them all,” Saeter replied scornfully.
Before sir Masnin could reply, Herad shouted in their direction.
“Come here, paladin,” the bandit chieftain yelled as she motioned him closer.
“Mistress Herad, if my companions are really returning I need to talk to them. There is no reason for this to devolve into a fight,” the paladin told her as he approached.
“That would be nice,” Herad replied sarcastically. “I didn’t call you over to play peacemaker, though. If these damned idiots plan on charging to their doom I want you within arm’s reach where I can keep an eye on you.”
“I know you outnumber sir Devos’ force but they are trained and mounted knights,” the paladin explained. “Your victory is far from a sure thing and would undoubtedly cost you in blood and souls. It would be better for everyone involved if it didn’t come to violence.”
“You underestimate the options at my disposal,” the bandit chieftain replied. “I was quite happy letting you fancy high bloods leave unmolested but your friends had other plans. This my territory and you’re intruding, so whether you like it or not there’s going to be a fight, one I intend to win.”
“If you let me talk to them I’m sure I can prevent any bloodshed. If they see I’m free to leave then they will turn around. This expedition’s goal was to root out ghouls, the enemy of all mankind, not skirmish with bandits,” sir Masnin begged.
“Or, then I’d have one more enemy to worry about and unless I miss my guess you’d be more dangerous than any of the others,” Herad countered angrily. “The order of Helio-Lustria rarely accepts anyone but the best and then they make sure their warriors are equipped with everything they might need to fulfill their duties, like Elixir.”
“I give you my oath that I wouldn’t betray your hospitality,” the paladin told her.
“Even when your compatriots are dying right in front of you? You’d do nothing? That’s not a risk I intend to take,” Herad replied with a scowl. “Besides, even if sir Devos leaves now he’ll probably just be back later with more men and time to prepare. We’ve insulted him by existing, and he sees our deaths as a chance to build up his name.”
Sir Masnin sighed and looked frustrated but he didn’t seem to have anything else to say. His shoulders hung loosely under the weight of both her words and his chainmail shirt.
A sudden burst of activity got everyone’s attention. The noise and movement around Herad had grown quieter while she had been talking to sir Masnin but now it redoubled. The cause was obvious.
“It seems like they got their shit together,” Herad growled as she stared down the road.
A large formation of soldiers had appeared around the bend in the road and marched into sight. Blacknail had to squint to see that far but there was no mistaking who it was; the knights were back.
In the front rode a large formation of mounted men. They were even more heavily armoured than the last time Blacknail had seen them. Almost all of them had steel plate armor and helmets with visors that concealed their faces. Above them the flag of Lord Strachan waved and snapped in the wind.
Behind the riders came a smaller formation of foot soldiers. Their armor was much lighter but they were still heavily armed. Some of them held spears while others had swords and round shields.
There were definitely fewer of them than there were knights. Blacknail wasn’t that good at counting so he wasn’t sure of the exact number. After staring at his hands and wiggling his toes, he swiftly concluded that there were a lot more than twenty, though.
As bandits all around Blacknail rushed to prepare for battle, the horsemen suddenly charged forward and clouds of dust rose up behind them. Their horses’ hooves pounded against the earth and roared like thunder as they closed in on the camp’s entrance and the men guarding it.
“Everyone get to your positions, now!” Herad suddenly roared as she waved her sword above her head.
A good dozen bandits with spears had taken up position behind the wooden barrier that partially blocked the way into the camp. Alongside it, men were climbing up into the watch towers and stringing bows.
Blacknail’s eyes went wide and his ears went flat against the back of his head as he watched the charging enemy. He was fairly far from the front line, but not nearly far enough.
The knights were closing in quickly and they certainly didn’t look like they expected the spearmen to stop them. Blacknail was rather sure he agreed with them. The speeding wall of steel, horse flesh, and drawn blades terrified him. Something seemed to be squeezing his heart and stifling his breath.
The hobgoblin quickly looked around. While he had been focused on the enemy almost all his tribesmen had wandered off. Only a terrified looking Khita was left , and she wasn't good for anything!
Saeter had somehow ended up off to one side with a squad of archers. Herad, Red Dog, and the paladin were now surrounded by the chief’s bodyguards and headed towards the center of the camp. Blacknail wasn’t sure where he was supposed to go...
Suddenly, there was heavy crashing sound which was swiftly followed by screams as the knights slammed into the barricade and then blew right through it. Uh oh, that wasn’t good.
The riders were now barreling straight toward Blacknail so the hobgoblin decided to retreat in an orderly fashion.
“Eeeekk,” he squeaked in unrestrained terror as he fled as quickly as he could.
There was no way he was going to stay back there! That furious stampede of horses would crush him into paste! Their riders also looked sort of dangerous.
The hobgoblin hesitated only for the split second it took to push Khita and get her moving as well before dashing off the road. The stupid woman had been in his way.
As they broke into the clearing, the charging rides were greeted by a hail of arrows from bandits positioned at the edge of the woods. Almost instantly, the knights’ formation split into two and accelerated out of the way.
The knights avoided most the arrows and the rest failed to penetrate their armor. However, their sudden course change meant they were no longer directly headed towards Blacknail and Khita. The pair kept running, though. At least one of them wasn't stupid.
Behind them, the enemy footmen charged into the remaining bandits at the broken barricade. A melee broke out as the two sides began fighting for control of the entrance to the camp.
The bandits there were outnumbered and were steadily giving ground until a large group of reinforcements detached themselves from the woods and rushed over. The new group of outlaws smashed into the side of the soldiers and the fighting intensified.
The two formations of horsemen were rampaging through the camp now. They had split up and headed in different directions but they were now circling around to meet back up.
The speed and weight of their mounts made them seemingly unstoppable. They rode through the camp unopposed, trampling tents and cutting down stragglers as they moved.
Herad and Red Dog had reached the center of the camp and had joined up with more of her men. Her house and several sturdy timber buildings guarded their flanks. So far, the knights were sticking to the outside of the camp where the buildings were thinner and their path was clear.
A minute later, a gasping hobgoblin made his way over there as well with a still shocked Khita right behind him.
As Blacknail leaned against a building for support, he spotted several of the band’s horses off to one side. They were tied up and didn’t seem like a threat but he kept an eye on them anyway, in case they decided to join their fellows in trying to kill him. You couldn’t trust horses.
“We can’t form up and launch a counter attack with them charging around like that; we need to slow them down,” Red Dog cursed.
Herad frowned and turned to her left where Mahedium was standing.
“I don’t suppose you’ve gotten something impressive hidden up your sleeves?” Herad asked the mage.
Mahedium took a moment to study the nearest group of riders that were tearing their way through the camp.
“It depends... I could try and hit them with some force bolts but unless they’re headed straight for me then I’m unlikely to be very accurate. I would end up wasting a lot of valuable crystals for little gain. As for fire... It’s a bad idea if you don’t want me to burn the camp down,” Mahedium replied reluctantly.
“What about slowing them down? Can you create some mud or freeze the ground?” Red Dog asked the mage. “I’ve seen that kind of thing work before.”
“Unfortunately, I don’t have the correct tools or components to use such a strategy,” Mahedium admitted.
“How useful,” Herad shot back sarcastically. “Just keep your head down and wait for a clear shot then, mage.”
“They’ll have to confront us eventually,” Red Dog pointed out.
“Not soon enough. I’m going to go out and meet them. Be ready to attack when I’ve stopped them,” Herad told him.
Her lieutenant frowned in disapproval but knew better than trying to argue directly with her.
“The paladin may not be their only Vessel. These are knights, one of them may come from a family line of Vessels in service to Lord Strachan. Mounted combat is also kind of their thing,” Red Dog warned her.
“Do you have a better idea?” the chieftain asked him.
“Let’s see what we’re dealing before we commit,” Red Dog suggested. “If we send some men over to that pile of timber by that hill it’ll draw their attention. When the knights charge the men can cut the timber loose. That’ll slow the riders down so that most the men will survive long enough for you to hit the enemy from behind.”
“That’s not a bad idea,” Herad mused as she looked over all the suddenly nervous bandits around her. “Who should we send?”
Blacknail grinned to himself from where he was standing out of sight behind a cluster of bandits. Red Dog’s plan sounded like it would be amusing to watch. He approved of any plan that involved hitting a bunch of unsuspecting horses with logs.
“I suggest sending the hobgoblin there,” Red Dog said as he pointed Blacknail’s way. “He’s fast and horses act skittish around him,”
Blacknail stood up straight in alarm. Wait... what was this now? This plan was terrible; he wanted no part of it!
“Fine, you over there will join him,” Herad told several bandits as she followed Red Dog’s advice.
There was nervous muttering from everyone who had been selected, except Blacknail. The hobgoblin was slowly and silently backing away. Herad hadn’t technically given him an order yet. So, if she didn’t look his way in the next few seconds he would be able to disappear around the corner of the building behind him...
Everyone suddenly grew silent as the sound of Herad drawing her blade filled the air. A second later the bandit chieftain leveled it at the nearest group of subordinates she’d chosen to use as bait.
“Get moving, now,” she commanded as she glared coldly at everyone she’d selected.
She gave Blacknail a particularly unamused look and all he could do was smile nervously back.
“Yep-ss, sure thing mistress,” the hobgoblin replied as he pretended he hadn’t been about to run away.
Herad motioned with her blade and the reluctant men and women stepped out from between the buildings with Blacknail in their midst. Seconds later, they broke out into a run towards the wood pile. The sooner they got this over with the better.
It didn’t take very long for them to draw the attention of one of the groups of knights. Sure enough, the riders shifted their direction towards the now exposed bandits.
Blacknail picked up speed and pulled ahead of everyone else. He had been planning to stay sheltered in the very middle of the group but on second thought he realized that was dumb. He doubted the humans around him would even slow the charging warhorses if they got trampled, no matter how fat they were.
The hobgoblin sprinted towards the lumber pile as quickly as he could. His feet pounded against the ground as he ran but his footsteps were drowned out by the sound of the charging cavalry descending towards him.
He snuck a quick glance over his shoulder to see a wall of heavily armoured knights bearing down on him. He didn’t like this one bit! He was so going to get back at Red Dog for this!
With speed brought on by desperation, Blacknail leaped forward and drew his sword. He landed on the lumber pile. His blade sliced through the air and then the nearest clump of rope. The hobgoblin quickly moved on to the next knot and severed that as well.
The first of the bandits reached the timber stack. They quickly began to hack away at its restraints as well. Sensing something amiss, the knights slowed their charge.
There was a loud crack as the last of the ropes came loose and Blacknail kicked the top log off the pile. The timber rolled free and towards the knights with surprising speed. It was swiftly followed by others as the bandits got to work.
The first swiftly rolling timber barrelled towards the riders. Startled knights pulled on their reins as they urgently guided their mounts out of the way.
Most had no trouble evading it, or managed to jump it, but not all of them were so lucky. One rider in the middle of the formation was too crowded in and had nowhere to go. The log clipped his horse and took out its legs. There was shriek of pain from the horse as it tumbled over sideways and crushed its rider.
A ragged cheer went up from the bandits as more timbers spilled down towards the knights and they were forced to turn away from their targets. However, none of the other riders went down and they swiftly reorganized.
The bandits started pushing more logs down to keep them away, but the knights split up and encircled their targets. Infuriated by the loss of their comrade, they drove their mounts forward towards the sides of the timber pile that remained clear of falling timber.
Desperate bandits tried to back up towards the top of the pile but the knights cut the closest ones down. The scent of blood oozed out as the sounds of fighting rang forth.
Herad’s men frantically tried to slow the advance of the armored riders. With their shinning, if now bloodstained armor, and warhorses the knights seemed unstoppable. Bandits fell one after another as the knights advanced atop their corpses.
Atop the pile, Blacknail loosed another timber and sent it sprawling down. When that failed to do anything, he drew his sling and started flinging stones.
He got a satisfying whinny of pain from one of the horses when he struck its flank but the stones he sent towards the riders bounced uselessly off their armor. Whelp, that was bad. He was completely out of ranged weapons and he really didn’t want to get in a sword fight with these enemies...
To Blacknail’s left, a bandit screamed as a knight’s blade sunk into his shoulder. The man was then silenced by another blow to the side of his neck that almost decapitated him and sent a spray of blood towards Blacknail.
There was no one between the hobgoblin and danger now. Warily, Blacknail drew his sword and turned to face his heavily armed attacker.
The knight's mount snorted as it stepped forward and it gazed evilly at the hobgoblin with its huge insane looking eyes. Its visible breath steamed out from its ugly flaring nostrils and rose up into the air.
Blacknail really hated horses.