Tales of a Horse Thief, Part 4c

Tales of a Horse Thief, Part 4c

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“Ander, wake up. We’re heading out shortly.”

The words confused him; his head ached and it tasted like something had died in his mouth.

A firm hand gave him a shake. “Ander. By the gods man!”

He identified the speaker as Kantem and slowly opened his eyes. His head throbbed. His eyes did not open easily, there was a gummy resistance to opening his eyelids and when he had finally succeeded at that, the brightness of dawn left him dazzled and confused. He had fallen asleep laying on one of the bottles while he still clutched the other in his left hand, the remaining contents just a couple of fingers across the bottom. It took him a while to sit up.

His hat had also been underneath him through the night and there was no new bottle for the day. That made him groan; sadly these things happened sometimes.

The noise of the caravan getting underway was overwhelming, a wave of nausea washed over him, he made it to the side of the wagon before he vomited a stream of last night’s rum and stomach bile over the side.

“Gods Ander, don’t let the boss see you this way…”

Ander wiped at his mouth and spat a couple of times. Gods, his head hurt.

He half fell out of the wagon, nearly dropping the last of his booze. He was still sitting there, wondering if he should drink that last bit of the booze or find a place to take a dump, when the call to roll out sounded through the camp. He cursed and then gulped down the last couple of swallows of rum, within moments the rum dulled the ache in his head. He struggled to his feet and went to find a place to relieve himself.

It took him most of the morning before he caught up to his wagon. They were placed about twenty wagons from the front. He did hear that the heavy wagons had rejoined the caravan last evening, shortly after sunset. He also heard that there had been two more sizable camps found a ways off the road and plenty of tracks. This put a bit more fear in people, even though some of the guards were full of bluster and assured any who would listen that there was no way even a hundred bandits could take the caravan.

Despite such reassurances many of the people in the caravan had strapped on weapons or kept a loaded crossbows in hand and many of them had put on whatever they had available to provide some protection. The mood throughout the caravan was serious and many people had fearful looks for their surroundings. By the time Ander had rejoined Kantem he was hot and sweaty, covered in dust from the road and by the teamster’s expression, he did not smell too pleasant.

When the bandits did attack it was near mid afternoon, a wave of panic and confusion travelled the length of the caravan. The bandits had attacked in two groups, from either side of the road, the attack took place near the rear of the caravan and was over nearly as quickly as it had started. They had fired a couple dozen arrows, there was a fair number of injuries and a horse had to be put down. No bandits were hurt or captured.

The caravan had stopped as messages were exchanged from front to back and people braced for a second wave to the attack. Ander figured they had sat there for almost an hour waiting for something to happen but nothing did. When they were underway again everyone’s nerves were a little frazzled and many people were obviously scared.

The second attack was a bit more serious and took place about an hour after the caravan had been moving again. A group of men and women on horseback had positioned themselves on the road ahead of the caravan, a couple of handfuls of archers had been on a nearby hill to the west and began shooting arrows into the leading wagons and outriders while a third force moved up through the trees from the east. The caravan guards had returned volleys of crossbow bolts towards the hill position, outriders had charged the mounted bandits to the front and a section of guards formed to meet the skirmishers moving through the trees.

The bandits on the hill had moved off as soon as organized volleys started being shot at them, the outriders had mostly been unhorsed by a couple ropes that had been strung across the road and pulled taunt as they charged along the road, the mounted bandits had ridden away casting insults behind them. The attackers in the trees turned away allowing hidden archers to take shots at the closing guards. That attack had left five from the caravan dead with numerous injured and a number of horses were put down.

This time arguments travelled the length of the caravan as well as messages. It took well over an hour before the caravan started forward again only to stop a short while later when they were faced with entering a heavily forested area between two hills. Outriders and guards formed up and advanced ahead of the caravan alert for the next ambush. Nothing seemed to be lurking in the woods and it was not until the lead wagons were just coming out into more open territory when the next attack finally did happen. Trees were felled into the middle of the caravan, a wagon was smashed and horses were killed, the front of the caravan was cut off from the back. When a work crew attempted to clear the trees blocking the road the real attack began.

Signal arrows whistled and a great shout came from the east and another from the west, while bandits on horses appeared along the road and groups of skirmishers advanced through the trees. Sounds of engagement could be heard throughout the woods. Ander stood on the back of the wagon to see if he could keep track of what was happening, briefly he caught a glimpse of running people, but from where he was, sound was the best indicator.

From ahead of them shouts travelled down the line to advance and one after the other the wagons ahead of Ander began to lurch into motion slowly gaining speed. Kantem shouted for him to sit down and the wagon rocked forward nearly toppling Ander over the side. He crawled in behind the bench where Kantem sat, neither of them had a crossbow or any other form of projectile. Ander grabbed his staff and, still crouching behind the cover of the bench, held on with one hand and peaked out to see what was happening.

Ahead of them bandits were rushing out from cover with long sticks and sometimes spears while archers covered them from amongst the trees. The wagons were slowly building speed. The bandits seemed intent on attacking the wheels of the fleeing wagons. Crossbow bolts and thrown projectiles dropped a number of the bandits though not enough to keep them back. Spears and sticks were jammed into the wagon wheels, though the attacks seemed mostly not to work as intended, the sticks just broke often staggering the attacker.

Kantem was shouting at him, “On the left! They’re coming in on the left.” Ander changed his position and spotted a trio of bandits running up on their wagon. Without really thinking about it he launched his staff at the nearest bandit, as if throwing a spear. It thudded into her chest and knocked her down. One of the other bandits managed to jam a stick into the back wheel but the stick shattered into pieces and he reeled away. Ander clutched the back of the bench and glanced ahead, left and right, bandits continued to rush out of the woods. A couple of arrows hissed past him, he ducked back down and gripped the bench with both hands.

The spacing between wagons was slowly increasing, ahead he could see more light through the trees and assumed they were coming close to the edge of the forest. The third wagon forward from their position suddenly had a wheel break under the bandits attack. The wheel fragmented, pieces of wood flying high into the air, the wagon bed jerked to the left and the team screamed and plunger off the road to the right. The next wagon in line also turned sharply to the right as the wagon in front of them began to roll, the teamster in the second wagon could not avoid the disaster and the two teams and wagons collided.

Luckily, the wagon in front of them and Kantem had both opted to pass the disaster by shifting left. Their wagons bounced violently as the wheels along the left side passed over roots or stone and Ander was slammed to the right side of the wagon, nearly toppling out from behind the bench. He held on for dear life as the wagon bounced a couple of more times and then pulled himself back in behind the bench.

As they cleared the edge of the trees they passed another wagon in the process of being swarmed by bandits while further ahead, yet another wagon was off the road but still in motion as the teamster and two others fought to keep the attackers away. Ahead of them they could see the carriage house and lighter carriages of the merchants lords, with an outrider escort of a dozen at the head of the caravan. Somewhat trailing the leading group was Mr Dahlah’s beautiful wagon and half a dozen others, then a gap followed by three more wagons, another larger gap followed by the wagon in front of them.

Ander stood up and glanced back to see two other wagons following them, but that was all. Behind them in those woods seventy or so of the caravan’s wagons had been trapped by the bandits. All that Ander could think was he was glad it was not him and as relief washed over him he started laughing.

They way ahead crossed a wide swath of open ground, a gentle slope downward to the east of the road lead to a treed gully and the west side held rougher terrain leading back into the hills. The road gently turned and became a modest incline heading northwest, the peek of which was crowned by another small copse of trees.

Ander watched as the carriage house with its large team of heavy horses hardly slowed as it started up the incline, the two carriages belonging to the merchant lords slowed a bit and the rest of the wagons slowed considerably as they started up hill. The wagon ahead of them was soon coming up on the wagons ahead of it and they all slowed a bit more. Shouts and arrows burst from the trees at the top and a number of riders appeared, some obviously trying to catch the carriage house and other charging down on the caravan’s outriders.

Mr Dahlah’s wagon and a three of the others went left into the rougher terrain, a couple of the wagons continued up hill. A great shout from the copse of trees at the hill’s top was the preamble to a charge by over forty bandits. As Ander watched the carriage house crested the hill and was soon gone from sight, the lord’s carriages were quickly overrun by bandits. Most of the bandit’s mounted skirmishes went after the carriage house, a few came down along the road. The wagons ahead of them began to stop.

Kantem bellowed in fear, “Fools! Don’t stop! Don’t stop!” The teamster tried to take the wagon along the east side of the road but as they hit the edge they lost a wheel and the horses went down. Ander was suddenly flying through the air, then the ground rushed up towards him. Then nothing.

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