Emparigus’ head was spinning. He sat up and looked around him. The street was empty. That fat butcher had obviously been a better fighter than he’d anticipated.
When he stood up, he realised his armour had been stolen (as he could remember nothing after being thrown from the tavern – his head had received a nasty bash on the doorframe). He was wearing his tunic and breeches, but had lost his helmet, his mail, his sword and his shield. This was very bad.
Looking around him cautiously, he headed for the sound of voices. Turning the corner, he saw three men silencing the two of Angus’ sons that had not yet been subdued.
But as he approached, the two sons performed a perfectly synchronised movement with their hammers, spinning their opponents’ swords out of their hands. They then turned and fled back to their tavern.
‘Surely soldiers of Ildar can defeat some dirt-blooded, scrawny Chalean villagers!’ roared Emparigus in rage; the two soldiers turned to see their leader without armour and laughed quietly.
‘I don’t think you had much success either, sir,’ they guffawed.
‘Maybe not,’ said Emparigus evasively. ‘But keep looking anyway, they’re bound to be here someplace.’
‘The butchers’, sir,’ said one soldier suddenly. ‘We haven’t checked in there.’
‘Well, go on then!’ yelled Emparigus, jerking his thumb over his shoulder. ‘On the double!’
Even though they would have been quite able to finish Emparigus easily when he was without armour or weapons, the men obeyed him instantly and fearfully. Hurrying back along the alley, they turned into Six Spears Lane and headed for the butchers’. On the way Emparigus sent someone to collect some more armour for him – he did not appreciate being in nothing but his tunic and breeches.
When Emparigus reached the butchers’ he found the door locked. Immediately he became suspicious, as every other door they had encountered had been unlocked. Maybe they thought that if they hid something in there and locked the door, he wouldn’t be able to find it. But Emparigus simply squared his shoulders and smashed through the door, into the dimly lit shop.
His sharp eyes swept around the room, seeking out cupboards, doors and concealment devices. The abattoir door was still ajar, and he made his way swiftly towards it.
As the door opened, the smell of fresh meat reached his nostrils. Sliding between the lines of steaks, joints and chops, he went towards the back of the room, where another door was open, revealing a small set of steps, no doubt down to the cellar.
Emparigus descended the steps and emerged into Evan’s cellar. Boxes were piled high against the walls. Bottles of beer and wine were stacked neatly in a rack. But the furthest corners of the room were thrown into shadow by the lack of light.
‘Forze?’ called Emparigus tentatively. ‘Endelash?’
At once there came thumping and crashing from one of the larger boxes, and some strangled wailing. Emparigus dashed over to it, and wrenched off the lid, which had been nailed shut.
Forze and Endelash were lying in the box. Forze was pale and shaking, bound and gagged. Endelash was even whiter, with a blood-soaked tunic and an arrow in his gut.
At once Emparigus pulled Forze out of the box. Forze could hardly walk – Emparigus ushered him over to a barrel in the corner and sat him down.
‘Forze – what happened?’
‘Thank – you,’ he gasped, ‘for getting me – out of there.’
‘What happened?’ Emparigus repeated urgently.
Forze was very weak. It looked as though he was exercising all of his strength to talk.
‘Endelash – dead – we were attacked –’
‘… two – children, a – boy and a girl – must have been about – fourteen – they killed – Endelash – then – we were – imprisoned – in the box –’
‘Children?’ exclaimed Emparigus. ‘You were attacked by children?’
Forze nodded silently.
‘We must find the children,’ said Emparigus, and a sudden, burning anger blossomed inside him. The fact that children – children, moreover, from the barbaric country of Chalea – could put Ildar’s best spies out of action, was ludicrous! Emparigus didn’t know whether Forze’s memory might have been affected by what he had seen, because he hoped against hope that it wasn’t true.
And before long, Forze had been taken to the medical team, Endelash had been covered and was being taken on a litter back to camp, where he could rest in peace. Emparigus doubted very much that the children mentioned were still in the village, however much he reckoned that they could not pass the blockade.
That was where he was going to start. There was a guard at every gate of the village – north, west and south. He doubted they would have headed north, as Thorsbridge was the most northerly settlement along the mountains. They might have breached the wall to the east and be going over the mountains right now – but if they did, their camp would stop them. But west – that was the way to Lionforge. They would have escaped to tell the King what had happened!’
An uncontrollable panic seized Emparigus, and before he knew it he was running as fast as he could towards the west gate.
‘Have you let anyone past the gate tonight?’ he demanded of the soldiers there.
‘Of course we haven’t, sir, your orders were very clear,’ drawled one of the soldiers. Emparigus looked from one truthful face to the next, then hastened to the south gate.
‘Have you, by any chance, let anyone through the gate tonight?’ he panted, approaching the guards there.
The heavyset man answered.
‘Yes, sir, we let –’
‘Why did you let anyone through, I told you not to let anyone pass!’
‘There was a man in an Ildarine uniform, sir, I thought that would have been proof enough.’
‘And where do you think he got that uniform from?’ said Emparigus shamelessly, spreading his arms to make plain the lack of his armour, jerkin and weapons.
The heavyset man paused, looking shocked at his stupidity.
‘Was the impostor accompanied by anyone?’ snapped Emparigus furiously.
The soldiers assembled looked darkly at each other, and fearfully at Emparigus.
‘Y-yes, sir,’ said the heavyset man. ‘He was with two children, a boy and a girl, unless I am much mistaken, said they had another encampment on the other side of the –’
‘You believed that story!’ exclaimed Emparigus. ‘They’ve probably not gone south at all, but west to tell the King that we are here! Why does nobody listen to me? I told you explicitly that no-one was to pass, and look what you went and did!’
Emparigus turned away and saw a boy running towards him under the weight of armour, jerkin, shield and sword. Gasping for breath, he handed them to Emparigus. He took them silently without thanking the boy.
Once he had donned them he turned to his men.
‘Get out there and find them,’ he said quietly, ‘and find them before they reach the King, or I will cut off all your heads.’
‘But who will guard the –’
‘I will guard the gate!’ roared Emparigus suddenly. ‘And no doubt I’ll do a better job than ten of you! Now go or I’ll cut off your heads now!’
The men hurried away, into the darkness, leaving Emparigus to his troubled thoughts of how everything was going so horribly wrong.