Ander could taste blood. From nearby the screaming of a horse assaulted his ears. Somehow he was sprawled on head and shoulders, legs akimbo with his face firmly planted in the ground. He wondered how he had ended up in such a peculiar position and hoped he had not done this to himself or the poor horse.
He vaguely became aware of other shouting, men and women yelling back and forth, everyone sounded upset. He was really unsure as to what was happening around him. Carefully he unrolled himself to lay flat, when he felt no shooting pain from his limbs he was somewhat relieved. Gingerly he touched his face, the right side was starting to swell, dirt and grass and small pebbles fell away when he brushed at the swollen side. There was a bit of blood and some pain. But mostly confusion.
Someone ran by and did not stop to check on him, something was seriously wrong. He forced his left eye open, the right eye gave a stab of pain but seemed like it was going to stay shut. The light was bright and when he sat up his head started pounding and he retched and coughed as his empty stomach flip flopped. It seemed like he had done a real number on himself this time. He took a couple of breaths and the world slowly came into focus.
Not far from where he sat, his assigned wagon was overturned and broken, one of the horses was dead another had a broken leg and was the source of screaming. Kantem lay next to the overturned wagon, his neck obviously broken, eyes empty, the spirit gone. Ander retched again but there was nothing in his stomach. Beyond the wreck of the wagon, across the road a ways, he could see Mr Dahlah’s wagon and two cargo wagons clustered together with lord Gainsly’s carriage not far from their location. The lord’s carriage was a wreck with two broken wheels and two dead horses, the other two of the team were in questionable shape. Bandits, many dozen of them, were around the area, some on horseback, though the majority of them were not mounted. Two of the bandits were organizing the others, calling out orders. They seemed intent on the cluster of wagons where a fair number of people from the caravan were preparing to repel the attackers. Other wagons, horses and bodies were scattered along and to either side of the road.
With a shout from one of the mounted bandits the majority of them began to shuffle forward towards the surviving members of the caravan, their approach was cautious and many of them had picked up improvised shields to protect themselves with. Ander stood up to see better that which he would rather not see at all. There were close to fifty bandits and they formed a ragged horseshoe formation. A few of the defenders fired crossbows but only one bandit was wounded and the rest of the bandits launched a few spears and a couple of dozen arrows in response. Ander could not see if any of his associates where struck.
The bandits gave a cry of fury and started to rush in on the wagons, trying to close the last twenty paces as quickly as they could. Ander spotted one of the copper plated shutters on Mr Dahlah’s wagon snap open and a double barrelled kryl shooter protruded through the opening. There was a bright reddish flash followed a moment later by a second, the sizzling shots cut into the bandits at short range, blowing through shields, armour and flesh. Each of those shots had cut down two to three bandits, their advanced slowed and then Lord Gainsly and a half dozen other caravan folk raised from cover and shot crossbows or, in the lord’s case, a kryl pistol. This dropped another three or four bandits. The wounded screamed, the advance slowed and then another twin blast from Mr Dahlah’s wagon dropped two more and the bandits broke. They turned and started running for cover.
Though, as the bandits ran away from the wagons some of them started to drop as arrows slammed into them from a different direction. Ander spotted a dozen people up the hill not far from the copse of trees the bandits had attacked them from. These people were not armed with light bows, he saw longbows and large composite recursive bows and they had the enemy by surprise as well the high ground. Over a dozen bandits dropped to the initial couple of volleys, many never to rise again.
The bandits were routed and most of them ran for the cover of the forest to the south, another dozen or so of them did not make it to the trees. Cheers rose from the surviving caravan folk. Dizzy with relief Ander sat down heavily then laid back and cried.
Moments later he thought he heard the sounds of combat again. Horrified he sat up.
Another group of caravan folk had come out of the trees and they harried the broken bandits, who lost a few more of their number as main group veered to move past. Ander saw that there were only a handful more wagons that had made it out of the forest, but maybe as many as sixty of the caravan folk, many of them wounded. Ander gasped and he retreated into his own throbbing head.
His life flashed past in fleeting memories, odd thought intruded; When had he stopped noticing the trees? His family house back in West Port, vague memories of a childhood of plenty. Then a wife and children he did not love but felt obligated, vows were taken, promises made, but a vow taken nearly twenty years ago, his children near grown, seemingly with better prospect than he. Ander had spent two thirds of each year, for most of the last decade, on the road as a hired labourer. He did not much like their lordships nor many of the people of the caravan and most of the bonds he had made had been made through the bottle. And that damn hat only made it worse, because it was too easy to be numb, easy to stick to the familiar. Easier not to look past his own situation. But, it was getting harder to live with himself as his situation closed in around him and he had become aware of worse hangovers and more vomiting, his teeth were giving him a hard time and he knew he had not been eating enough. Could not eat sometimes. Today he had just about died and seen more than a dozen other deaths. A war with an impossibly well organized army of bandits. A man had died today that he had spent more time beside than he had with his wife. He could not even remember if Kantem had any family left back in West Port, he though he should know that. Was the sky always this beautiful?
Suddenly there was a man standing over him looking down, blocking the sun, a swirl of clouds cloaked his head, his features lost in the glare. “You alright? Can you get up?”
Ander blinked, “Sure, I think so.” It came out in a bit of a squeak, he was parched. He sat up. He did not remember having laid back down.
The big bright guy spoke calmly, “I’m with a number of foresters from just north of here. How many people do you have back in the woods?”
Ander was a bit taken aback, this bearded man was large and vigorous with intent eyes and a serious brow, he carried a large bow and a single arrow, simply dressed. Ander turned and looked to the woods. He could see the other caravan folk approaching but how could he answer this question, why did his head hurt. Yes, he had been thrown from the wagon.
Meanwhile the big guy went over and put the screaming horse out of its misery.
Ander could see Lord Gainsly and a couple of his people were heading towards the other survivors while a dozen or so moved around the field, checking bodies, helping the wounded and recovering what could be recovered. Mr Dahlah and a few of the others kept an eye open for trouble, weapons at the ready.
The big guy came back over with a water skin, “Drink. You should clean your face, you might need someone to help you. How many people did you have in the woods?”
Ander just looked at the man, not sure what to say.
Mr Dahlah walked over, “I guess we left a hundred or so, call it six score, we will know more shortly.”
The man looked to the tree line as if considering going in there.
Mr Dahlah spoke up, “I’m not sure there’s much to be done in there. I know his lordship would pay well for an escort to Carskot. If you and you men could-.”
He raised a hand, cutting her off. “These are not my men, they are folk from the foresters village. Your lord would have to secure their help independently of my own. I do not speak for them.”
Mr Dahlah gave him a look and suppressed a smile, “Oh course, I had no idea.”
They locked gazes for a moment.
Ander drank some water then spat it back up as his stomach twisted in a tight spasm. After a moment of two he tried again and this time kept the water down.
Mr Dahlah offered a gloved hand, “Glad to see you made it Ander, how about you get up. Help us sort this mess out.”
Ander took the offered hand, Dahlah carefully helped him stand.