Chapter 5: Ferralla
The sun was shining brightly on the plain as Michael, Sharona, and the handful of servants and guards they had brought worked their way slowly down from the rocky pass separating Ferralla and Artalland. The sparse dry oaks on the leeward side of the mountain were little shelter, and soon everyone in the party was loosening collars and removing jackets to cool off.
Langelo came riding awkwardly toward them from up the road, his horse (borrowed from one of Michael’s retainers, who slept happily in the wagon) second-guessing his commands and turning this way and that in its gait.
“Sire! There is a detachment of soldiers up ahead. Ferrallese soldiers.”
“I see,” Michael said, reaching out a hand to calm the snorting destrier upon which Langelo was perched. “How large a group?”
“Fifty, maybe sixty men.”
“We need not be afraid, my lord,” said Guissali, a low-ranking knight Michael had snagged from his post at the palace. “You are the victorious prince!”
“Ferralla hasn’t surrendered just yet, Gui,” Michael said. “These soldiers are obviously stationed here to guard the borders. Insurgency is a problem in times of war, and more so as a conflict resolves. I predict they will be unwilling to just let us pass on. Hold up here.”
“What do you have in mind, my lord?” Guissali said. “Shall we work our way around, or have your mage give them a good fright?”
“I should have anticipated this,” Michael said. “Trying to avoid them may prove difficult. If they are guarding the border here, they likely will have scouts around these parts for such an occurrence. It is likely we have already been seen and are being tracked.”
“You’ve become such a pessimist lately,” Sharona said. “If they did see us they will think us merchants with our guard. Nobody is wearing anything fancy. We’ll just tell them we’re merchants.”
“I guess that is a possibility,” Michael said. “Of course, we carry no goods.”
“We could be travelling to buy, not to sell,” Sharona said.
“Then they’ll want to rob us,” Langelo said. “Soldiers without a solid command quickly turn brigand, your highness.”
“Well, if you have a better idea, I’d like to hear it.”
“I say we turn around and head back through the hinterlands, in the path of the army. Nobody will bother us on that road.”
Michael shook his head. “You don’t know that, and we don’t have the time. I’d be willing to play dice with what Sharona said… but if they find out who I am, they’ll capture me with a mind to ransom me in the upcoming negotiations.”
“Well, sounds like it will be on me to do the legwork,” Sharona said. “I’ll be hard pressed, but-”
“I have another idea,” Michael said. “That will put us all at less risk. Langelo, are you a good liar?”
“Are you a good liar? Can you tell a lie convincingly?”
“He’s no noble, I’m sure,” Sharona said.
“I think so, sire.”
“Good. And are you loyal to a fault?”
“To a fault?” Langelo said.
“Sire, I am loyal to a fault,” Guissali said.
“I know, but you’re also a terrible liar, hence why I appreciate you, and also why you have been stuck as a palace retainer for twenty years.”
“Sire… I don’t understand,” Guissali said, creasing his dark face with a deep frown..
“Never change, Gui,” Michael said, smiling. He turned back to Langelo. “You’re going to deliver a little message for me to the Ferrallese commanding officer.”
Langelo rode to the assembly of cavalry flanking the armored men on the road. They had a number of wagons set up, easily movable to create a quick barricade, but presently they were standing off on the grassy shoulders of the road. He did his best to hold the great destrier steady, holding up his hand as he rode forward in a symbol of peace.
Several men with crossbows lowered their aim as he approached, at a signal from a knight armored with a coat of plates over tarnished mail. His face was gaunt and creased into a permanent frown over a thin beard of black.
“Who goes there?”
“Messenger, sir,” Langelo said, and pointed to a bag at his hip. “Looking to pass through to Ferralla and bear news to the court of Alanarae.”
“What news?” The knight said. “Give it to me and I will see it safely sent.”
“I was… um, instructed to share it only with the queen’s court.”
“He’s lying, cap’n Philo,” said one of the soldiers. “String him up and see what letters he’s got, and what coin.”
“No! Don’t do that!” Langelo said. “I… I’ll give the message to you, sir,” he nodded to the first knight to speak, “if you will assure me you will send it on properly, and that you are in command, of course. I’m not paid to die.”
Philo looked at him with narrowed eyes. “Very well, give me the letter.”
“I… I can’t sir. It’s an oral message, in case I was, erm, intercepted.”
The knight frowned and looked to one of the other soldiers.
Langelo coughed and nearly choked. “I will, uh… share it with you in private. Yes, private only.”
Philo chewed his cheek for a moment and said, “Very well, come to my command tent.”
Langelo nodded carefully and dismounted, following the knight past the soldiers and into a small camp. They halted outside a small and shabby canvas tent, just high enough for a man to stand when inside. The knight held back the flap and allowed Langelo to enter. The interior was sparsely furnished and dimly lit by two ports cut into the cloth overhead.
“Well, spit it out, if you don’t want to be put on a spit,” the knight said, drawing his sword.
Langelo gulped and nodded. He reached for a pouch at his belt and felt the tip of the knight’s sword touch his shoulder.
“It’s not a weapon, my lord,” Langelo said, his voice shaking. He took the pouch and held it forward to the knight, opening the top slightly. Inside was the unmistakable glint of gold.
“Where’d you get this?” The knight said, taking the pouch.
“There’s more where that came from, if you can hold command of your troops.”
“Of course I can hold command. What is your proposal.”
“Nothing substantial. Just move your men off the road and a few miles to the west, where the river runs. You can say you gained information from me regarding an incursion. Once I’m through, you collect another payment at the place I will tell you of.”
The knight shook the heavy bag for a moment. “How about I collect the rest right now?”
“I don’t have it on me.”
“So I’ll just wait for you to come back with it.”
“I won’t be back with it if you don’t move your men.”
“You know what? I think you’re lying. I think you’re just going to run off and I’ll never get the rest. I have a mind to keep this and have you hanged. At least then I’ll be doing my duty to my queen by preventing any spies through.”
“Don’t you know you’ve lost the war?” Langelo said. He swallowed hard. He wasn’t supposed to say that.
“We’ll see. The queen still sits upon the throne and Forgoroto has yet to be breached.” The knight smiled. “And now I know you’re not Ferrallese as well.”
“Fine,” Langelo said with a hard swallow. “I’ll take you to them.”
“To who? Your conspirators?”
“The… My employers. Who have the rest of the money.”
“Good. Let’s go.”
Langelo stuck his hands in his pockets and followed the captain’s sword tip toward the flap of the tent. As he lifted the flap, a twig snapped, causing the captain to flinch.
“What the hell is this?” Philo hacked at the empty barrels with his sword, sending them rolling around the back of the empty wagons.
“I… I don’t know,” Langelo said. He approached the wagon and looked at the empty bed, scratching his head with his bound hands. “This is where I was supposed to come back to meet them.”
“What’s this?” one of the soldiers said. He held up a strip of paper. “I can’t read.”
Philo snapped it out of the soldier’s hand and read it. “Blast it, it’s for this scum here. Says they abandoned the wagons and went round the north side, where the river runs. Run down and have both squads move to cover the river valley. Go.”
One of the soldiers saluted. “And what of the prisoner?”
“Leave him to me.”
“Aye,” the soldier said, and mounted his horse. He shot down the road in a puff of dust.
The captain turned to Langelo. “What are you playing at?”
The captain walked to the edge of the wagon and kicked Langelo in the head, sending the boy sprawling. He leapt down from the wagon and moved to kick him again, but as he wound his leg up he heard a loud crack and collapsed. It took a few moments for the pain to kick in, then he began to scream in agony.
The one remaining soldier ran over, drawing his sword, but was hit in the neck with a crossbow bolt that burst through his mail coif easily.
Sharona, Michael, and Guissali stumbled down the hillside from behind a rock. Michael was holding his crossbow, already fitting on the crank he used to span it while in the saddle. Langelo pushed himself up and stared at the thrashing, screaming captain, clawing at his misshapen leg like a beast.
“Sorry,” Sharona said with a huff as they crossed back into the road. “I should have done that sooner. Luckily I’ve been saving chicken bones.”
Michael ran to the captain and kicked him in the head, rolling him over. With a toe, he stilled the man, then bent down and cut the bag of gold from his belt.
“Glad you were able to snap that twig,” Michael said, putting the gold in the bag at his hip. He moved to Langelo and began untying him.
“What should we do with the captain, my lord?” Guissali said.
“Let him cry with that broken leg. I have no compassion for greed.”
“To his credit,” Langelo said, “Philo did try to protect his border.”
“He took the gold,” Michael said. “That would be enough for me to hang him, were he under my command.”
“You’re – You’re the prince of Artalland,” the soldier croaked. “I… I saw you on the field.”
“So I am. Good luck telling that tale.”
“Lord,” Guissali said. “I cannot allow you to endanger yourself by letting such a man pass on the truth that you are in Ferralla.”
Michael nodded. “Make it merciful.”
“Yes, my prince,” Guissali said. Though he might have been held a lowly retainer due to politics, Guissali was as deadly with a blade as any knight of Artalland could be; with a single swift stroke of his heavy curved blade he severed the head of the Ferrallese captain, ending his suffering and misdeeds in the world that is.
This post is part of a project to write and publish a book in a month, as part of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). If you enjoy this story, consider buying my other fantasy novel The Water of Awakening.