The four lads from the Pekot orphanage and boarding school were not happy. They had been dispatched by the Brothers of the Holy Stone, who ran the school, to help the local authorities root out bandits from the hills of the frontier. It was not this mission that had upset them.
No, the lads of the Pekot school were ready for action. After years of monastic instruction and military training by the Brothers at the school, they yearned for combat. As the juniors of the school, those eldest pupils in their last year, the four young men were honored to aid the local knight in what they had been told was an important mission. They were ready. Now was their chance to show their brothers, and themselves, that they were worthy.
But what had come of this chance? To be used as little better than squires by Sir Gareth and his men. Fetch and carry. Water the horses. Pack up the gear. Was this soldiering?
The four young men of the Pekot school knew they were fit for more. All seventeen or eighteen years of age, they were strong and tough. The Brothers had seen to that with a martial training regimen unparalleled in the Holy Stronian United Kingdoms. They had been properly outfitted as well; ready to be assigned to combat units.
Two of the lads, Baron and Choke, had been trained and outfitted as horsemen. Mounted on light warhorses they had reared and trained themselves, they were armored in full suits of chainmail, with shields that bore no standard. Armed with lances, they also wore longswords at their hips.
The next of the lads was known as Knucklehead, or Knuckle. A massive, powerful lout, Knuckle had been trained as a foot soldier. Also with a full suit of mail, he wielded a two-handed greatsword along with an arsenal of lighter weapons.
The fourth was a smaller fellow, known as Pinch. Of a slighter build and of nimbler type and mind than the others, Pinch had been trained as a scout and outfitted accordingly. He was armored in simple leather armor and armed with a short hunting bow and light melee weapons.
Of course, all four of the Pekot juniors had proper names that the Brothers of the school preferred they use. All of the pupils and residents of the Pekot orphanage and boarding school received good, Stronian, names when they first came there, baptized (or rebaptized if there was any doubt) by the Brothers. However, it was a point of pride among the residents to earn a nickname from their fellows as quickly as possible.
Choke and Knuckle were both orphans, and so had been named after Stronian saints. Pinch had a mother, somewhere, but had been instructed that with her being a woman of ill-repute, it would be better for him to consider himself an orphan. Baron, so nicknamed because he was the bastard son of the local lord, had been installed in the Pekot school by his father’s people.
As well as being an orphan, Choke was of Scythan stock. That there were plenty of such folk around the northeastern frontier of the United Kingdoms did not improve his situation. The polytheistic Scythans were horselords of the Great Plains, and to say that the monotheistic Stronian folk of the United Kingdoms did not get along with them would be putting it mildly.
In the last three weeks with Sir Gareth and his men, in the cat-and-mouse game of riding the bandits down, the junior brothers of Pekot had actually learned much. They had learned firsthand the work and coordination required to keep a hundred mounted soldiers moving effectively. That this meant that the work they had been doing was, in fact, precisely what soldiering was mostly all about was not actually lost on all of them. But, now, to have put all that work in only to be denied the chance of combat in the final act, when Sir Gareth and his company had finally trapped the bandits. This was too much!
Outmaneuvered and outmatched by Sir Gareth, the bandits, under their infamous leader, Tom Rakham, had retreated to a dead-end hollow in thickly forested hills. That morning, Sir Gareth had ordered the final assault, and had tasked the Pekot juniors, as a unit, to cover a possible escape route for the bandits.
The area the lads were meant to be guarding was the mouth of a stream in a tight, steep-banked ravine where it came out from between two of the hollow’s flanking hills. Sir Gareth’s scouts had reported that there was no way a horse could be ridden down it, but that determined, or desperate, people might be able to make it through on foot.
The Pekot juniors were stationed behind a cow shed beside the stream, next to a pleasant little meadow. This afforded them a good view of the ravine where it opened up, and kept their horses out of sight. Being footmen by training, Knuckle and Pinch both had simple riding horses for transportation. Their type would ride to battle and dismount to fight. Baron and Choke’s warhorses were closer at hand, tethered right up against the cowshed. All four young men were hunkered down in the long grass next to the stream.
“This is fuckin bullshit!” Knuckle hissed, for about the tenth time. “There’s a fuckin battle going on up there, and we’re sitting here eyeballing cowshit like a bunch of peasants.”
Baron, the de facto leader of their crew, sighed.
“A small point, Knuckle, but, in fact, as mere men-at-arms without a lord, we are lower in the social order than peasants. Growing food for us all is of more value to society than fighting.”
“Fuck that. Without us protecting the cowards, they aint growing shit,” Knuckle returned.
“Well, feel free to bring that up with Brother Willem, then. But I shouldn’t need to remind you that as junior brothers, our prime virtues are humility and obedience,” Baron said, with a smug smile signaling that he regurgitated the Brother’s lesson not out of any true belief, but simply to be a jerk.
“We have our orders. That should be enough for you,” Choke said quietly, his eyes never leaving the ravine.
“Oh should it? Fuck you, ye jink! Maybe it’s enough for ye, being a motherless horsefucker like ye are, but I got bigger plans,” Knuckle said.
A slow blink at the ravine was the only acknowledgement Choke gave the racial slurs Knuckle had laid on him. He waited a little more before saying:
“What plans might those be, Knucklehead? Getting flogged for disobeying orders, or hanged for desertion?”
Knuckle turned on Choke, his hand dropping to the handle of his bollock dagger as he began to stand. However, before he could continue whatever was on his mind, Pinch got between them.
“Hey! Knuckle, take it easy, man! Choke’s right. We got orders. Why ye gotta be like that to him? That shit aint right,” Pinch said.
“Choke is right. On all counts,” Baron interjected. “So sit down, Knuckle, and stick to our orders. Or I will kill you myself. Am I clear?”
Knuckle glared at Baron, but did as he was told.
“And I am quite sure we would all appreciate it if you could find it in your heart to shut the fuck up,” Baron finished.
“Yeah, fuck all ya’ll,” Knuckle muttered.
Following this, silence reigned for a while, but Knuckle could not stand that for too long.
“For fuck sakes! Come on! We’re just sitting here with our thumbs up our asses! Yar all gonna tell me this is what ye want? Fuck!”
“This is not what any of us want, Knuckle. But what do you propose we do about it?” Baron asked.
“How should I fuckin know? Yar the brains of this outfit!”
“We. Have. Our. Orders.”
“And those orders are fucked!”
“That may be. It doesn’t change a thing,” Baron said, beginning to look like he might attack Knuckle.
“Shhh!” Choke hissed as he stabbed his finger at the ravine’s mouth. “There.”
Falling completely silent, the lads all stared at where Choke had indicated. Sure enough, a number of figures could just be seen wading down the center of the stream in the middle of the ravine.
“Hold,” Baron whispered. “We need to be sure they aren’t peasants. Are they armed?”
Although he was loath to admit it, Baron’s eyesight at distance was not good.
“Oh, yeah. Thems are bandits,” Pinch whispered when the people started clambering up out of the stream and into the meadow.
There were ten bandits altogether. They were a sorry-looking bunch: completely soaked and obviously exhausted, they stumbled up into the meadow and collapsed in the warm spring sunshine. None of them were mailed, and they were generally armed with spears or battleaxes with roundshields. Not one of them had a bow or crossbow.
“Oh, fuck yes,” Knuckle murmured. “Okay, so now what?”
“What’s the range on them, do you figure?” Baron asked Pinch quietly.
“About a hundred meters.”
“And for a kill yar only reliable on yar bow within about thirty, right?”
“That’s right,” Pinch answered.
Baron thought for just a second before issuing his orders.
“Okay, quickly now, before they rouse themselves. Choke and I will mount up and prepare to charge them. Pinch, you keep at the edge of the stream bank and work yar way towards them in the taller grass. When yar close enough for a good shot, ye give us yar chickadee call and we’ll charge them. When they pop up, ye take who ye can. Right?”
Both Choke and Pinch nodded. Baron looked to Knuckle, who was gripping the hilt of his greatsword eagerly as he waited for his assignment.
“Knuckle. When we charge them and the arrows start flying, whoever we don’t put down are going to get back in the creek. That opposite bank is the shits, so they’ll probably try to stay in the water and head down this way. When we charge, you get down into the stream and move upstream to meet them head-on. Right?”
Knuckle nodded with an evil gleam in his eye.
“Good. Let us pray,” Baron said.
All four men took a knee and closed their eyes as Baron led them in a brief prayer:
“Lord Stron, thank you for delivering these wicked men to us this day for your justice. Guide our hands and protect us as we do your good work. Amen.”
“Amen,” the other three murmured.
Pinch set off quickly, moving nimbly and quietly through the tall grass at the top of the stream bank. He held his bow at the ready with an arrow notched and held in place with his left hand gripping the bow. Knuckle crawled into the grass and disappeared down the bank into the stream. Baron and Choke untethered their horses from the side of the cowshed and mounted up, getting their shields and lances set as they did.
It took less than a minute for the cheerful and piercing song of a chickadee bird to ring out over the meadow. Baron and Choke did not hesitate. They spurred their mounts into a gallop as they came round the cow shed and into the meadow. Ever the officer in thinking, Baron moved out to the right, leaving Choke the lane at their quarry closest to the stream. This would naturally put Choke more in harm’s way of the arrows that Pinch would soon be shooting.
With the warhorses thundering at them, the bandits gave shouts of alarm as they roused themselves. Pinch’s first arrow dropped one of them as they scattered like startled rodents. Then Baron and Choke were on them in full charge.
As light horsemen, Baron and Choke’s lances were not heavy ones designed for full tilting, being basically long spears with short iron heads. Not wanting to run their targets through completely, they moved slightly obliquely to them as they stabbed. Both Baron and Choke felled their man, but Baron could not quite pull his lance tip from his target before his horse’s momentum pushed it straight through him, and he was forced to drop it as he rode on.
Baron’s charge had cut two bandits off from the river, so he whirled his mount on them as he drew his longsword. Both the bandits fled in terror, but one of them quickly fell with Pinch’s second arrow in his guts.
With his lance still in hand, Choke rode his horse into the five remaining bandits, running right into the back of one of them. Choke’s horse lashed out with a hoof and knocked the man down to be ridden over and trampled. Choke reined up and wheeled over the bandit, allowing his horse to continue to stomp down on him to finish him off. The remaining four bandits wanted no part of this and spilled over the bank into the stream below.
Choke glanced behind him to see Baron chop into the back of the fleeing bandit in the meadow with his longsword. With the meadow clear, Choke dropped his lance as he dismounted, drew his longsword, and followed the bandits into the stream.
As Choke slid down the grass into the shallow water, he was able to intercept two of the bandits who had gone in a little upstream of the other pair who continued to wade downstream as fast as they could. The closest to him was a big man in leather armor, armed with a roundshield and battleaxe. The warrior whirled on Choke with a hard chop of his axe. Choke blocked this with his shield and dropped low as he spun into a slash of his own. His sword just cleared the bottom lip of the warrior’s shield and cut deep into his lower leg. The man grunted as he fell, and Choke sliced off his axe arm above the elbow.
The two bandits fleeing downstream had disappeared around a bend, so Choke was now alone in the stream with the last bandit, who was just a bit upstream of him. This one was a skinny runt of a lad, unarmored in a ragged cloak and filthy peasant blouse. He had a short handaxe in one hand and a knife in the other and was backing away from Choke in a defensive crouch.
Choke locked eyes with the lad as he moved to close. As he did, he froze. This was no lad. The skinny girl stared back at Choke without any appeal for mercy in her big eyes. Even so, Choke gave it.
“Go,” he said quietly, pointing upstream with his sword point.
The girl hesitated just a second before she did exactly that.
With the sound of Knuckle gleefully clashing with the last two bandits downstream, Choke turned to the warrior he had felled. The man was sitting in the stream with his teeth clenched, grimly gripping the stump of his severed arm as his life’s blood squirted through his fingers. He looked up at Choke.
Choke presented his sword’s edge to the man with a tilt of his head in an offer to end it. The man nodded. Choke took a moment to adjust his stance and cut off the warrior’s head cleanly.
Then things were quiet again. Knowing that downstream Knuckle was either victorious or dead, and with nothing better to do, Choke picked up the dead bandit’s battleaxe and climbed back up the riverbank into the meadow.