“Plough! Where’s Gilikan Plough?” asked the stableboy Reed, noting the absence of the Jameson’s hulking, seemingly nigh-indestructible Morag bailiff.
Andreas looked down; it was Cyril who explained, “He remains behind, as is his duty as bailiff and castellan.”
The Ess girl Nan gasped, but Lord Spaulding nodded. “A good man, noble in spirit if not by birth. I am sure he stands proud whilst performing his duty of being tortured and eaten.”
“That depends,” replied Andreas, amidst a wave of dirty looks that flew by Lord Spaulding unnoticed. “As we had discussed at that unfortunate fishing village, the cromen are more organized than usual, at least moreso than when I’ve encountered them in the past. As you say, Plough is not a Nat, but he is a valuable asset, and if they wish to keep the remaining residents of the Rest working for them, Plough may be the only remaining person who can keep them functioning.”
“They weren’t too concerned with keeping those villagers functioning…” muttered Nan. They continued along the tunnel in silence for a while, the diminutive Tookie insisting on hobbling ahead, the tap-tap-tap of his walking stick leading the way.
There were no additional complications at the exit point, as reported by the musketeers on guard. “But we should hurry, sirs,” their sergeant reported. “It’s too dark out to scout patrols at a good distance. There’s bound to be cromen along sooner or later.”
“Agreed. Haste, please,” said the aged Lord Cyril. Spaulding shrugged; glorious battle could wait another day or so.
After a treacherous hike in the dark through thick woods, punctuated by low jogs across open and exposed croplands, the party joined up with Lord Jonn Sterling’s forces behind a row of hastily-pounded yet nasty looking picket spikes. After customary greetings between the nobles, Jonn swept his gaze over the party in the torchlight as Lord Cyril followed an escort to a bedroll. “Plough?”
“Stayed behind,” said Andreas.
Lord Sterling shook his head. “His men won’t be happy about that. He’s an excellent battle commander. I shall do whatever I can to return him safely.”
Lord Spaulding stepped forward. “Lord Sterling, whatever crazy, hasty, suicidal plan you have in mind for the retrieval of Bailiff Plough, I and my retainers are ready to execute!” Reed stepped backward; Nan tried to hide behind Sam, who lowered his gaze and sighed.
“I thank you for your… generous offer,” said Sterling, eyeing Spaulding’s companions, “but we can do nothing for the Bailiff right now. The keep is besieged, sorties are sure to pursue the Jamesons, and our resources are limited. We are outnumbered at least five times over. Our chances for reinforcements are slim at best. I would say our best strategic option would be to hold the cromen here, but realistically we might slow their progress toward Cago if we are lucky.”
“What? But Sir,” said Reed, “why would we not receive reinforcements?”
“Because as we stand here, most of Cago’s military is deployed northward, where the primary forces of the enemy march. Yes,” continued Sterling, “this force is not their main strength. It’s considerably larger than I had expected, but the forces now holding Cyril’s Rest were a division split away from their main army.”
Andreas scowled. “Things may have been different had the primary forces of the Rest been in place to repel this attack. Three hundred troops in a fortified position, better equipped, better trained… the eighty or so remaining serve only to stand by Bailiff Plough as he surrenders the keep to save our citizens.”
“Three hundred additional troops would be nice about now,” mused Sterling. “I don’t recommend we plan as if we might expect them anytime… oh. Speaking of reinforcements…” Sterling paused at the sound of horses’ hooves approaching, and turned as a morag in leathers and maille approached the group, leading an obviously weary horse.
“Well, that went as well as expected,” grumbled Thorin, passing the reins to a human soldier who led it toward a nearby stream. “Stupid council is too busy hiding in the fort and arguing over command rights to do anything useful. Nats,” he spat, ignoring the nobles in his presence, including his liege Lord Sterling.
“Nothing from House Forska?” asked Sterling, likewise ignoring the slur.
“Just the score of troops he’s already spared. All other forces are deployed north or manning the fortress walls. Precious little for the city proper, either.”
Sterling frowned. “Not good. If the enemy gets as far as Cago proper, casualties will be heavy.”
“What about Frogg?” asked Nan. “They don’t have any defenses at all!”
“I know,” said Sterling, “but Frogg isn’t on the direct approach to Cago, and it’s a little village of no import. Hopefully no one will think to approach, and if they do, Reeve Carpenter has instructions.”
Reed had been poring over Erok Leafson’s rough map during the conversation. “There’re a lot of rivers on the way. How are they going to get across them all?”
Sterling nodded. “Most of them have fordable points, plus some bridges. If everything goes to plan, there should be considerably fewer bridges leading out of Cyril’s Rest shortly.”
“What?” gasped Andreas. “But my people…” he trailed off.
Sterling replied evenly, “Your people’s fate will not be affected by the availability of bridges at this point. I dare say the majority of them have evacuated, judging by the flow of traffic over the past couple of days on the road back toward Cago. Those who remain are mostly soldiers, duty-bound as is Plough.
“In any case, the hour is late, sentries are posted. I shall have a better strategic picture come morning, but regardless we need to get Lord Cyril and his charges to Cago. Andreas, perhaps you and your father will have more luck raising reinforcements.”
Andreas frowned. “Well, maybe, but as for returning to Cago…”
Sterling nodded and took out a piece of paper. Scribbling, he said, “Dispatch this to House Forska on your arrival. You will be safe in their home until we can liberate yours.” He folded the note and handed it to Andreas. “Lord Spaulding, can I rely on you and your… intrepid… band… to see our friends back? I am afraid I cannot spare any troops, and we know for a fact that there may be cromen scouts or raiders who have evaded our attempts at a blockade. It may be perilous.”
Reed and Nan gave each other a look: Magic word.
“But of course!” replied Spaulding, attempting to strike a heroic pose with one hand in front of his chest, one foot atop an imagined hilltop that, amazingly, remained too unreal to stop him from stumbling and catching himself before he could continue. “No peril is too perilous! Let the rotters come at us with their flaming axes and poisoned spears and fanged countenances. We shall prevail!”
Reed quietly asked of no one in particular, “Is it too late to try a frontal assault with just the three of us?” but nobody acknowledged him.
“We should all get some rest… unless there is anything else, Tiny?” Sterling had on occasion called Thorin this, an odd nickname for any morag.
“Hmm? Oh…” The morag fumbled at a number of folded papers tucked into his girdle. “Yes, something else. Some messages here for you, and uh, I picked up some for Lord Spaulding and his animal handler. Oh, and one for you Nan, from Frogg.” He handed some papers to the travelers, and a larger sheaf to Lord Sterling.
Sterling took the sheaf. “Any sign of the Black Jagers?” Reed perked up at this, his head tilting quizzically; the Black Jagers were rumored to be a roving, secretive band of light scouts, causing merry hell for the Cromen in the middle of the night with harassing tactics and trickery. Everyone in his group had heard of them, thanks to the scout’s report that brought them here in the first place, but no one had seen them. No one, that is, with the possible exception of Reed, who had run into a bedraggled farm boy with a looted cromen bow and a crude sack-cloth domino mask, claiming to be one of these elite fighters while gratefully wolfing down a stale bread heel from Reed’s questionable store of rations. Reed had sent the boy on to “keep watch” over a group of refugees, shaking his head while pondering what the poor deluded boy might be one day, should he ever take that first daring step of teaming up with a vainglorious nobleman with a lot of money.
Thorin shrugged. “Nossir. Well, signs, you know, but no contact. No reports.”
“Ah well, I’m sure they’re doing what they do best,” said Sterling, visibly shuddering. “Anyway, my sincere thanks for rescuing the Jameson and his house. I’ll have some shelter assigned so that you may get some sleep. You may re-provision with us in the morning for your journey.” Somber good evenings were exchanged, and the party followed a grunty valet to a large tent furnished with rude cots, a welcome luxury after days and weeks on bedrolls under a tarp or the open sky.