Market of Autumn (Part 2)
Location: Mid-November 3550; On the road to Felonwood, Harkania March, Cymeria
Timeline: Part 2 of 3
Oksana led the way through the cavern passageways, marveling again at the massive network of subterranean corridors that provided the entrances and exits from Stormholm Caer. Human hands had widened them to allow for the passage of large wagons and created the massive rune engraved arches that marked where the passages branched into other caverns and corridors. One had to know the labyrinthine system to not become hopelessly lost. Simply following the light of the moonglobes and light troughs was not a guarantee that one rode or trod the correct path. Many corridors were kept lit as lures. Reaching the keep was not as simple as riding into the passages and coming out on the other end.
As they progressed, they passed household staff who were changing out the large moonglobes from their sconces. They were also refreshing the light oils that fed the flames in the light troughs. A trough filled with oil would provide light for twelve hours. The oils were unscented and smokeless. Between the troughs and the moonglobes, the passages were kept well-lit.
Sometime later, another light joined with that of the moonglobes and light troughs as they approached the massive exit from the caverns. Guards stepped away from the opening as they also recorded who was leaving the caer. Records were kept of the comings and goings and shared with each shift of Guard whose duty was to protect the entrance. Barely seen in the shadows was the great stone that could be rolled into place, effectively sealing the entrance. Oksana could not recall it ever having been closed.
A woman astride a big bay warhorse waited outside the entrance. Her hair, which tumbled from an unseen clasp on the top of her head, was a deep red in color. Unlike Oksana's red-gold tresses, it was wild and a bit rough. In stature, she appeared to be petite and light of build. Her facial features were also small, almost delicate, and dominated by her large, dark eyes. She was attired in the scale mail armor worn by the Morrighan.
Oksana recognized her as Lynx Cearrach, a particular friend of Mikhael's. Along with her skills as an archer and swordswoman, it was rumored she was also a top-notch thief and pickpocket. The Chatelaine nodded politely to the woman, "Thane Lynx Cearrach," she greeted her.
Lynx's eyes scanned the group. She did not recognize the two Guardsmen, but she knew the Chatelaine and Oréas of Moonhunter Pride. "Lady, Oréas, Guardsmen," Lynx inclined her head to each. "The Ryndar sent a message to Kellswater asking that I accompany you to Felonwood today." Kellswater was Lynx's farm, a decent sized plot of land that she had received upon becoming a Morrighan. It was her haven and refuge, separate from her life as a warrior for the High Lord.
Though he had now passed through the cavern path that led out from Stormholm a few times, Richard was still amazed at it. The cavern path was truly an engineering wonder, given how large the passage was and how many tons of rock sat above it. The fact that, despite his perch high on the cart, Richard did not once have to duck his head was impressive. That and the possibilities for defense were frightening. The path on its own was confusing enough that Richard was still not sure he could find his way back without a guide. Even if the enemy knew the exact route to take, the potential for choke points meant that a bare handful of men could hold off many times their number. Still, it was not impregnable, no fortification was, but the cost an attacker would have to pay would be staggering.
If Godwyn shared Richard's thoughts, he gave no sign of it. He rather placidly drove the cart through the tunnel which to him was probably no more amazing than a skyscraper would be to Richard. Truly amazing when you thought about the engineering involved, but something one rarely thought much about at all.
Richard was glad when they reached the entryway and once again came out into daylight. Between his own experiences in Afghanistan and his father's stories about his work as a tunnel rat in Vietnam, Richard did not much like caves, even large and spacious ones. Richard saw the new guard approach but said nothing. He did offer her a nod in acknowledgment and was certainly glad to have an additional guard along for this trip. Once they had cleared the outer perimeter of the gate guards, Richard loaded his crossbow and stood by to move out.
"Are we escorting goods of great value?" Lynx asked and nodded toward the wagon. It was not unusual that the Lady of the Hearth would ride out with goods to be delivered to tenants or those in need. What she found rather odd was that Oksana would travel to Felonwood so soon after the events that occurred on Samhain night.
Oksana shook her head, "Important, but not irreplaceable," she said to Lynx. "All of the injured that could be safely moved from the hold to the hospital at Harkanus Gaer has been transported. Unfortunately, there were several that could not make the journey. The Chief Battle Surgeon left staff to assist in their care, but they are running short of needed medicines, bandages, and other goods."
"And Stormholm is much nearer than the fort," Lynx added, nodding her understanding. She considered their options and then looked to the Wyr where he sat his horse near the Chatelaine, "Oréas, take point. The Chatelaine and I will follow the wagon." The road to Felonwood was wide and well-maintained. Lynx would be able to maneuver herself into a defensive position should the need arise. Even in human form, Oréas' senses would be sharper than hers. The small escort was perhaps unwise as it meant none could be spared to forage too far ahead or lag too far behind and still provide cover and protection. She did not add that they Guardsmen should remain alert. They knew their jobs.
Oréas replied to Lynx orders with a short nod and nudged Brawler to a speedy canter, taking point of the column. Once ahead he kept at a steady pace that would prevent him from getting too far ahead of the cart. There was little need to pay attention to the road quite directly, it was well maintained, and Brawler needed no guidance. Oréas kept his eyes on the grounds ahead, searching the bushes along the hill path, the boulders, the small nooks for things out of the ordinary. The light wind sang on cooly across the hills, but it carried little outside the rustling of the branches and calls of the late birds gathering for their journey to the southern coasts.
Richard had listened quietly while the Morrighan discussed the nature of the mission with the Chatelaine and set the order of march. He had not been aware that wounded still remained at the farm after the attack and a brief look of concern crossed his features. It soon faded away however into a look of calm.
With Oréas out in front, Godwyn got the wagon moving and followed after along the well-worn road that would take them to Felonwood. Both he and the horses knew the route well, and they had no trouble keeping their place in the formation. The pace, while not sedate, was not breakneck either.
Richard scanned the surrounding country from his perch atop the wagon. His vision swept the countryside for threats in the way he had been taught, right to left, low to high. The reason for that particular pattern was surprisingly simple. It was the opposite direction from the way you read, and so the brain was less used to it and therefore less likely to fall into a lull and just go through the motions. So far all he had seen was the occasional farm hand or laborer going about their work, but he kept his vigilance.
The small group followed the High Road away from Stormholm Caer, mostly allowing the eager horses to set a lively, but gentle pace. The Felonwood track branched off from the main road well short of Duskhallow and, for a time, followed one of the many tributaries of the Gwyfal River. It diverged from the meandering creek several times as it passed through thick forests before bursting back out into the bright sunlight. When not veiled by the trees, Marnwr, Gaia's largest three-ringed moon, glowed overhead, seeming to watch over the travelers.
Lynx set the pace at a brisk trot before reining her horse in to keep pace with Oksana's mount. She deftly maneuvered her big bay between the Chatelaine and the thick forest once they entered the smaller trail that led to the hold, still some distance away. She was uneasy as they left the main road. Unfortunately, there was not another approach to Felonwood. Oksana seemed to feel some of Lynx's nervousness. She had taken her sword from where it rested in the scabbard on her back, and now it rested across the bow of her saddle.
The road wound through the thick forest, past the huge ancient oak trees, it was empty, as far as Oreás could see. Ahead of them lay a long bend that led into a somewhat less densely overgrown area. The ground there was softer, and road fell into something akin to a hollow path for a while. The thick smells of the earth in autumn hung in the air, rotting leaves, mushrooms and the general soft scent of the year slowly dying and the Mother turning to sleep while the Lord of Winter returned from the icy north. There was also another smell in the air, Oreás suddenly became aware of the smell of fire, of smoke on the wind. He rose in the stirrups to gain a better view ahead, the very same moment he heard a warning shout at his back - Lynx… no Oksana called out something, the words lost to the wind.
In the same moment, several arrows whistled past him, one hit Brawler in the leg, the horse shrieked in pain and stumbled hard. The burning arrows hit the cart. Almost in reflex, Oreás jumped off the wounded animal, landing deftly on the ground. Before he was up, he saw them - several armed men had emerged from the bushes, three, no four ahead of him several at his back.
Behind him, Oréas heard Lynx’s battle-shout, the fierce warrior had not waited a single moment, not lost one breath on the enemy, advancing toward the attackers and meeting them with steel. Her blade had sent the first down to the grown ere he could knock another arrow. Three others were close to her. Like a fleeting storm, she ducked the first attack, coming up to block the next with her blade. Steel sang on steel as the blade screeched off Lynx’ trusty weapon. The third of the attackers moved in to stab Lynx in the back but was met by Oksana, who blocked his stroke with her sword, one swift whirling move, and she broke the blade free to attack the brigand.
Richard had not much liked the look of the dip in the road as they had approached. It was the kind of terrain that just begged for an ambush. There was also something subtly wrong, though at first, he could not place it. It seemed a bit too quiet maybe, as though the birds had all abandoned the area. These thoughts though took just a bit too long to cross Richard's mind to make an effective warning. Chaos erupted with Lynx giving a wordless shout, and a hail of arrows pouring out of the brush followed quickly by men.
Godwyn, seeing Oréas and his mount react had barely enough time to swerve and bring the wagon to a hard stop, managing to avoid colliding with Oréas or the wounded animal. For a moment though he hesitated and fumbled with his weapons as he tried to decide whether or not to dismount.
"Contact! Close Ambush!" Richard shouted as his crossbow came instinctively to his shoulder. Swinging left he aimed and squeezed the trigger. His old muscle memory had betrayed him somewhat as he had fired it like a rifle, not fully accounting for the drop of the crossbow bolt. Instead of striking the target's chest, it plowed up to its fletchings in his stomach. The man howled and dropped to the ground, and the man nearest him hesitated as if unsure whether to help his comrade or press the attack. It was a fatal error as Richard's hands were already working through reloading process. As the indecisive bandit turned to resume closing in, Richard fired again. This time he allowed for drop and hit the man square in the chest.
Godwyn, by this time, had reached his decision and had jumped from the wagon, sword in hand. "Syr, get down!" he shouted at Richard. "The wagon is on fire!"
Richard heard his friend call out and began to move, only to be stopped short by the safety rope he had tied earlier. "Smother the flames! I'll cover you!" he shouted back as he drew his knife to cut himself free.
~ To be continued...