The highwaymen were hidden in the bushes by the roadside. They knew from experience that they could not be seen from the road, and in the thick snow that covered the cobbles the caltrops they had thrown down were invisible. They were severely down on their luck, and before the winter had fallen they had been forced off most of the bigger roads by larger, more successful gangs, who had now moved south to spend their ill-gotten gains in the comfort of warmer climes.
With no competition they had managed to secure control of the main road through the kingdom-province of Ertesi, but the reasons for their competitors absence was rapidly becoming clear.
There was nothing on the roads. They had failed to intercept a single cart or carriage for nearly two or three weeks; they were hungry, tired and getting desperate. This would explain why, when a scout planted up the road ran down to report to the leader that a mail coach was heading down the road, instead of ordering his men to clear the road and run, he pulled the safety clamp off the string of his crossbow and whispered round the order for his men to do the same, and be ready for a fight. Soon enough, the cart rolled around a corner about half a mile up to road from their hiding spot, going as fast as the slippery roads would allow. The thieves shook snow from their gaunt shoulders and gripped their weapons. They knew what they were about to do, but they were as desperate as their leader, and were willing to risk it.
The lieutenant beside the self-appointed chief whispered in his ear,
“I call it five ‘til they hit the spines, six to stop.”
The boss nodded, and looked around to see that everyone was in position. There was a standard procedure for this kind of attack: the horses would hit the caltrops and fall, sending the cart skidding uncontrollably along the cobbled road. The second it came into range the men would shower it with arrows and bolts, and then half of the group would charge into the road to finish off anyone who had survived the initial shower, whilst the remainder stayed hidden to provide covering fire if it was needed. It was foolproof, providing the caltrops, spread in wide bands several yards up the road in either direction, felled the charging horses.
The first indication that this incident was not going to plan appeared when the coach attempted an abrupt stop, the horses’ hooves skidding for a purchase in the slush whilst the driver and guards held desperately onto the railings to stay in position. The whole vehicle managed to come to a halt just before they hit the caltrops, and the horses started moving again, stepping forwards slowly and carefully, brushing away the snow underneath their hooves with skillful leg strokes before taking a step. The driver left the horses to do their job whilst he climbed nimbly down the side and into the small, armored section built in behind his seat, reaching out the front hatch to retrieve the reigns and regain his control over the horses. The two guards, once they had recovered, climbed carefully down from the side, crossbows ready, safety clamps off. One of them knocked on the door of the carriage and, after a brief, hushed conversation, it opened and, to the bandit’s growing dread, two figures emerged: a tall, red haired woman with a repeating crossbow in her hands and a longsword on her belt and a dwarf, also carrying a crossbow, but with a battlehammer hanging from a leather loop on his belt. A third, hooded, figure appeared briefly, but the dwarf waved it back inside after another brief, unheard conversation. The four fighters walked carefully to the four corners of the carriage and the whole convoy continued its slow advance.
The lieutenant looked to the chief, who was sweating heavily despite the freezing temperature,
“What now, sir?”
“We’ve still got more than ‘em, continue with the original plan.” The man hissed back, glancing round at the snow-covered banks and praying that he was telling the truth. The gang had shrunk drastically in its decline, but surely they could take on four lightly armed men? Well, two lightly armed men, one heavily armed woman and one heavily armed dwarf.
The coach continued to creep forwards, Dorvic, Jezz and the two guards all searching the bushes by the road carefully with their eyes, looking for any sign of movement. Dorvic had placed himself by the rear of the coach, where he could still whisper to Mill.
“How many? And where?” he hissed, talking out of the corner of his mouth, whilst still keeping his eyes on the bush-covered roadside.
Twelve, in the bushes four hundred yards down the road. All armed. All ready.
“Ach well, looks like its gonnae be interestin’ after aw” the dwarf muttered, smiling evilly. Jezzika glanced back to him briefly, and he raised three fingers against the stock of his bow, one on his left hand, two on his right, she nodded, and turned back just in time to see the first of the bandits rise from his hiding place and loose an arrow directly at one of the guards. The man reacted with lightning reflexes, leaping aside and dodging the arrow by inches. The guard raised his own bow and returned fire, his bolt striking his attacker heavily in the chest, just as the other ambushers rose from their cover and let fly.
Dorvic simply covered his face with his arms, and felt the bolts and arrows glance off his armor, but the others were forced to dive to the ground and hope that their light armor would stand up to any lucky hits. The second guard, a new recruit less quick on his feet than his veteran companion, was struck in the left shoulder, and crumpled with an agonized cry. Dorvic, being the only one still standing, and the closest to the injured man, was the first to react. He grabbed him by his good arm and dragged him behind the coach, just out of the attacker’s sight. By the time he looked back to the battle, Jezzika had already risen, and was loosing off bolts rapidly, if inaccurately. Ten bolts flew into the bushes and trees at the road side, and there were several cries of pain, Dorvic rushed to cover her as she unclipped her now-empty stock and struggled to load a second, he took a quick shot at one man whose face appeared briefly above the foliage, but missed, and his target disappeared. The first guard had now reloaded his bow and Jezzika finally got the last strap of her fresh stock clipped into place, Dorvic quickly loaded his bow again, pulling back the string and slotting the bolt with one hand. The bandits rose again, having also reloaded, although there were less, they were aiming more carefully now, and their targets were standing.
“Now would be a good time to intervene, Mill” Jezzika said, quite loudly, as she flicked hair and snow out of her eyes with a sharp twist of her neck.
The highwaymen fired, but before any of their projectiles reached the group, there was a burst of white fire, disintegrating them all in mid-air. From the coach’s open door stepped down a terrifying figure. With skeletal hands outstretched, wreathed in fire, and hood swept back to reveal its worn skull and cold, glowing eyes, Mill descended from the carriage. There were screams from the roadside, and the attackers broke and ran, as tongues of flame licked out and struck at them, killing all they touched instantly. Dorvic and Jezz, accustomed to their friend’s power, began picking off fleeing foes with him, fire and bolts striking down all of those in range. After about five minutes, the ambush was over. Ten of the original ambushers lay dead, most of them struck in the back whilst fleeing. One man had got away, his footprints through the snow showed he had headed west, away from their destination and their worries, but one had been left behind. Struck in the leg by one of Jezzika’s first volley, he lay, bleeding and shivering with cold and fear, in the bushes by the road.
As Dorvic tended to the injured guard, Jezzika, Mill and the remaining guard, who was keeping a safe distance from the lych and constantly glancing at him fearfully, approached the survivor. Jezz knelt down on one knee in front of him, pulled out a hook-bladed knife from her belt, and, in a quiet, civilized tone that sent further shivers down the guard’s spine, said,
“We are going to kill you. This is certain, and inevitable. All that you can change is how long it takes for us to do this. I just need you to answer a few questions.”
The fear in the man’s eyes was incredible now, his lips quaked and he let out a small, terrified sob.
“Why did you attack the coach? Surely you knew that you could not possibly escape the Empire’s wrath? What was it that made you think it would be worth it? Was it meant to be carrying something of such great value as to be worth the risk of the Imperial legions?”
The man let out another sob, and Jezzika let out a weary, but dignified, sigh.
“I can see this is getting us nowhere. Mill, would you mind-screen him for me?”
“No! Please! I’ll talk!” the man screamed, eyes flashing with frantic horror, “We were desperate! We’re just simple thieves! The coach was the only thing to come down the road in weeks! I swear by the gods I’m telling you the truth!”
“Hmph, what do you think?” Jezz turned to the guard, who had gone very pale, and was staring at Jezzika with an expression of horror that almost matched the injured man’s.
“I-I think he’s telling the truth.” He stuttered, backing away from Jezzika’s, inquiring gaze.
“Well then,” She turned back to the man on the ground, “our friend here vouches for you. Your story is not so unbelievable, I shall accept it.”
She reached into a small pocket of her jacket and pulled out a small, loaded springbow, she raised it to the man’s forehead, and was about to pull the trigger when Dorvic arrived.
“Jezz! Whit the hell d’ya think yer doin’?” he shouted as he ran over, dropping the bandages he had been applying to the injured guard’s arm, “Yeh cannae just kill the man! We’ve talked aboot this, yeh agreed not tae kill prisoners!” He reached her and placed his hand gently but firmly on her shoulder, “I cannae let yeh do this!”
“He attacked a mail coach, Dorvic.” Said Jezz, calmly, not moving the bow an inch. “The penalty for that is death.”
“Aye, but we’ll let the authorities handle that, we cannae just deal oot the law as we see fit!” he pulled her shoulder back gently, tying to get her to turn away from the man and look at him. “We’ll take him on the coach in chains, and we’ll hand him oer tae the guards at the next village. The poor guy wis jist hungry and desperate.”
Jezzika’s hand began to shake a little, and Dorvic continued in a low, calming tone,
“The other guard wis hit, Jezz, I need yer help wi’ the bandages. Just leave this guy tae the guard, he’ll ken whit tae do.”
Jezz slowly lowered the bow, her hand shaking violently, and fired the bolt into the ground; she stared at it for a second, blankly, then, suddenly snapped back to life. She pulled the bolt out, and put it and the bow back into her pocket. Dorvic breathed a sigh of relief, and released he shoulder. She stood up, and turned around to the guard who had accompanied them, her taut muscles relaxing slowly,
“Dreadfully sorry you had to see that,” she said, her face suddenly showing nothing but genuine apology, “I do hope it hasn’t tarnished your opinion of me.”
The man looked at her in shock for a few seconds. In all his years as a soldier, he had never met anyone like her,
“O-of course not madam,” he said, “if you would like to return to the coach, I will be quite fine dealing with the prisoner from now on.”
“Thank you, sir. I’m sure, judging by you performance earlier, that you are more than up to the task.” She turned to Mill and Dorvic,
“I am rather hungry after all that, shall we get some provisions together? How’s the other fellow coping Dorvic?”
“Aye, he’ll live,” replied Dorvic, turning with his two companions and walking back to the coach as if the last few seconds hadn’t just happened, “but he’ll wilnae be fightin’ wi’ that hand for a wee while yet.”
“Ah well, but he will live. That is a relief. I do hope that the rest of this journey will uneventful, if would be dreadful if he were injured further.”
The veteran guard stared after the three friends as they strolled back to the coach and shook his head in amazement, then knelt down and began the task of binding the terrified, wounded highwayman.
The rest of the journey did, indeed, pass without incident. The coach road to Dra’tol was, for the most part, well maintained, and as they travelled further south and left the highlands the snow began to recede a little. The biting winds became less so, traffic on the roads increased, and, to Dorvic’s delight, the scenery improved immensely. Behind them the huge Cordal range swept north and east to meet the Gebir range which encircled the Empire’s northern borders around them lay the open fields of the rich Etersi heartland, still covered in a thick coat of snow and ice. The thick coniferous forests gave way to vast, bare, deciduous woodlands. Now and again, when the coach breached a high ridge or when the gentle hills to the east dropped away, they caught glimpses of the sea, vast and green-blue, stretching away to the far horizon.
Twice they stopped in small villages, picking up and dropping off meager amounts of mail, and delivering their prisoner to the Imperial guards stationed at the first stop. Their cohorts also changed. Their cocky southern driver was replaced with first a rookie northerner who apologized for every bump in the road and then a central Imperial who took his job far too seriously to talk to any of them. The last leg of the journey was spent mostly in silence, as Jezz and Dorvic stared listlessly out of the windows and Mill sat on the floor, seemingly in silent meditation. Eventually the stillness was broken by a cry from one of the guards,
“Thank the gods, there it is! Dra’tol!”
Jezz leaned over to Dorvic’s window, and there it was, covering the river bank below them. The city of the Godbridge.