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CHAPTER THIRTY-SEVEN

The "get his ass out of town" patrol, as Herzer thought of it, had not been a rousing success but at least it was nearly over. The three cavalrymen had not traded any more words with him than were necessary for the business of the patrol, but that was fine by him. He was in no mood to talk anyway, and the only subject that would come up he really didn't want to talk about. They had just done their job, riding in the long circuit down the west side of Massan Mountain then back up the east, finding nothing but birds and beasts of the field. Supposedly there was a large force out here somewhere, but if so they had seen no sign of it. One time they ran across signs of an encampment but the trail had disappeared when whoever used it had broken up. That had been on the southwest side of Massan Mountain and they had ridden carefully for a day but after seeing no more sign they had slipped back into simply riding.

The valley had started to slip into early fall and the nights were turning cool with the trees on the upper ridges already starting to change color. Down in the valley, though, it was still hot during the day and as they rode up the valley the air was slow and still.

Herzer took off his helmet and wiped his face, looking up at the sun to judge the time. If they rode hard and didn't stop for an afternoon break they could probably make it back to town that day, if late. The horses were doing fine; they had found plenty of forage on the patrol and they had hardly had to touch the grain they had carried with them except for a cup of it in the evenings to keep them happy. They were in good enough condition to make the town, tired but more than capable. He was pretty sure the cavalrymen were of the same mind but it didn't hurt to check. He turned to ask one of them what they thought of it when a mourning dove flew up out of the trees to the side of the trail and he suddenly dug his heals into Diablo.

"Ambush!" he yelled, spurring the horse hard as the air suddenly filled with arrows. They made an evil hiss in the air as they went overhead. He heard a scream from behind and him and looked back to see one of the cavalrymen swaying in his saddle with an arrow sticking out of his shoulder.

"Back to town," he yelled, then was yanked sideways as his pack horse went down with an arrow in its side.

"Loose the horses!" he said, cursing himself for not thinking of that himself. As he did so with his mount, and the other three charged past, he saw a group of six horsemen coming out of the woods on their tail.

"Keep moving!" he screamed. "One of us has to get back to town!"

He looked back and shook his head in resignation. The horses behind him were some breed that he didn't recognize but they were fast, as fast as Diablo when he was fresh. And their riders were in light armor whereas he was in his full Blood Lord plate. The cavalrymen were well clear, as long as there wasn't another ambush set up ahead of them. But he was lagging behind and the pursuers were catching up.

"Hi, Diablo! Run boy, run for your life," Herzer called. And mine, he added mentally.

This was an ignominious way to die, he thought. He had figured he'd die in battle, in the front lines, defending Raven's Mill. But, this was close. He was in front of the front lines. Chuckling, he spurred the flagging horse again as it ascended the Bellevue grade into a narrow defile. As he did he heard another yell from ahead of him and then a whole series of shouts.

As he crested the hill he saw one of the cavalrymen down and the other two fighting a group on the ground. Wishing he had a lance, Herzer drew his sword and charged into the group, slamming into one of them with Diablo and slashing downwards at another. He'd left his Blood Lord shield and sword behind, picking up a conventional kite shield and longsword from Baron Edmund before he left. He was glad he had; a short sword would be useless in this encounter as was his Blood Lord training. He'd have to depend on what he remembered of longsword work.

He reined the horse to a stop and looked at the narrow defile in which the skirmish was taking place. Well enough.

He pulled his shield off the side of the horse and hit it on the rump with the flat of his sword. "HI DIABLO," he called, "run for home!" With that he charged the group of infantry slashing from side to side. One of the group swung an axe at him but he blocked it with his shield without thinking and then slammed the steel boss into his opponent as he slashed another across the face.

"RUN YOU FOOLS!" he yelled as one of the remaining cavalrymen turned back to his aid. "Get to the town! That's an order!" He swung at another of the group, then backed up so that his back was to the wall of the cut. It was probably an old road-cut from the Norau days and it would do. If he could finish these three off he was well enough placed to face the cavalry. If.

Two had spears, one of which had apparently finished off the injured cavalryman since it was red-stained with blood, and the third had another crudely made axe. One of the spearmen charged him and Herzer caught the spear on the side of his shield and then cut at the shaft as if this were another drill. To his surprise the shaft snapped and he lunged forward to spit the spearman on his sword.

It was the first time that he had killed a man in earnest and intent and the man staggered backwards wailing as if in grief with blood pouring out of the wound and bits of intestine showing in the hole. He had black hair and a beard that was shot through with gray. His mouth was open in the beard and as Herzer watched he seemed to realize that his life was done. He opened and shut his mouth then slumped to the ground.

For a moment Herzer was shaken in hesitation but as the axeman swung he snapped back into drill, blocking the blow with his shield, then jumping forward in a bash at the axeman as the second spearman, the one with the blood of the cavalryman on his spear, tried to spit him from the side.

The point of the spear glanced off the plates of the armor but slipped up into the articulation on his side, barely piercing the cloth underneath.

Herzer grunted at the blow but slashed downward again, cutting the shaft off just below the spearhead. He then jumped back at the axeman who was still muzzy from the shield bash and finished him off with a slash across the throat. That left only the spearman who turned away to run.

Herzer picked up the axe and weighed it in his hand, then shrugged and as carefully as possible hurled it at the spearman. More by luck than training the weapon caught him between the shoulder blades and dropped him writhing in the dust.

Which would have been the end of it if the six cavalrymen hadn't crested the rise at almost the same moment.

Herzer sighed, tiredly, and took up a stance. This was just another drill. The cavalrymen didn't have lances, just swords. They would try to ride him down or cut him with the swords. He was heavily armored to a downward strike so the technique was to step to the left of one of the charging horses and slash it across the side, taking the blow of the sword on his armor and helmet.

The problem in this case was the six were crowding each other to get to him and there wasn't so much as a decimeter between them. For that matter the horses were either very well or very badly trained because instead of avoiding the injured spearman they pounded him into the ground. Which, Herzer figured, was what was just about to happen to him.

As they approached, therefore, he ran to the side of the defile and actually up onto the side, using the force of his run to lift himself into the air and up over the shoulder of the startled horse on the farthest left.

He didn't try anything fancy like staying on the horse or slashing at anything, he simply let a hundred plus kilos of body and another twenty of armor smash into the rider.

He couldn't tell if the rider was dead on the way down nor did he really care. But if he wasn't he assuredly was when Herzer landed on top of him and used the rider's body to break his own fall.

The landing, just about flat out on his face, still drove the air out of his lungs, and his helmet slammed face down quite painfully. But he stumbled to his feet, making sure of the enemy by lifting himself up on his swordpoint, which went through the cavalryman's chest and out the other side.

He got to his feet and took a deep breath, swishing the sword through the air and shaking his head at the last five riders. "Come on you bastards!" he called. "It's a long damned walk to town, I've got a headache and it's going to get dark soon! I want to be drinking ale before midnight."

The horsemen gathered together to charge forward again but one of them held up his hand and reached down to open up the bow case at his knee.

Herzer went cold as the composite bow came out and the horseman reached down to flick out an arrow. The bow would go right through his armor and might just go through armor and shield. Furthermore, the bastard could keep out of range even if he charged.

It still was the only choice and he raised his shield up before his eyes and started running. "HOW MANY OF THEM CAN WE MAKE DIE!"

The other horsemen closed on him, hacking downward, but he was straitly concentrated on the bowman who was trying to settle his horse. At this range it was a clap shot and Herzer was looking right at the arrow pointed at his visor when there was a twang of a bowstring.

And the rider tumbled sideways out of his saddle.

The arrow went he knew not where and he turned to the side slashing at one of the other mounts as there was a rapid "Thwang, thwang, thwang" and the remaining riders tumbled to the ground, arrows in chest, neck, and eye.

He looked up at the rise above the defile as a light clad archer dropped to the ground and smiled at him naughtily.

"Hi there, lover boy," Bast said, hand on one outshot hip. "Sorry to ruin your fun, but I wasn't willing to break in a new boy-toy."

* * *

Herzer and Bast met Kane and a group of militia a kilometer short of the town border. The two were holding hands, Herzer riding a sorely lame and chagrined Diablo and Bast riding a bay Arab that had been one of the pack horses. They were trailing a string of horses, some of which had dead bodies thrown over their backs.

"I heard you were dead," Kane said with a grin.

"Not hardly," Herzer grinned back then sobered. "Barsten didn't make it, though. He's over his horse."

"Yeah," Kane said. "How many?"

"Six in the second ambush and six riders. I don't know how many in the first ambush, though. Lots. Bast saw more."

"As he said, lots," Bast said. "The rest I think should be shared with Edmund."

"Well, he will want to see you. I'll take the horses."

"Don't wait here, we don't know what's coming," Herzer said, looking up at the last of the light. "I doubt that it's going to come tonight, though."

"I'll follow you back, but you'd better hurry ahead," Kane said. "Move it, Triari."

"I lost that slot," Herzer said with a grimace.

"I don't think you'll be worrying about it for long," Kane said with an ambiguous expression.

Soon Diablo was up to a canter and Herzer didn't want to push him more than that. When they approached the town he could see torches moving into the stockaded area and somewhere a bell was ringing.

"I see the rest of the scouts made it back," Herzer said.

"Yes," Bast said, shaking her head. "And now the sheep huddle behind the walls of the paddock in fear of the wolves."

"These sheep have teeth," Herzer said as they cantered up to the gate. "And sheep dogs. Ho, Cruz, open the hell up. I've got the mother's own saddle sores and I want to get off this beast."

"HERZER!" Cruz yelled, jumping down off the stockade wall and shouting for help to open the gates.

As Herzer walked the horses through the gates he heard other people calling his name and suddenly the whole triari was gathered around him, crowding closely enough to make Diablo nervous.

"Back off!" He laughed, dismounting and then clutching at his shoulder. After the battle he had found that at least one of the horsemen had dented his armor hard enough to cause a bone bruise but other than that and the tag in his side he had come through his first battle well enough.

"You're alive," Cruz said, slapping him on the shoulder.

"Ow!" Herzer said. "Yes, I am. People keep saying that. And watch the shoulder."

"Your armor is a sight." Deann chuckled. It was, in fact, splashed over with blood. "You'd better not let Gunny see you."

"There wasn't much clean to wipe it with," Herzer admitted, swallowing as he remembered the remnants of the skirmish. "Kane's bringing the other horses and the bodies in. I'm supposed to report to Mayor Talbot."

"It's Baron Edmund," Deann said. "They passed the Constitution of the Free States while you were gone. And guess who one of the first nobles chosen by acclaim was?"

"Oh," Herzer said, working the name around. "I think . . . that fits. Somehow."

"Demoted to baron has he been?" Bast said with a laugh. "Fits him not, methinks. Duke, aye, King even, Baron? I think not."

"Well, time to report to the baron anyway," Herzer said, walking towards the town hall.

The guards at the doors were holding back a crowd but they passed him through with a nod of recognition and surprise. "I thought you was dead?" one of the guards said as Herzer heard his name muttered in the crowd. Something about that made his blood run cold.

"Close, but not yet."

Inside the council chamber was a strange sight. Most of the council had apparently been tossed out and it was only Gunny, Daneh, swollen with her pregnancy, Rachel and Baron Edmund gathered around something on the table. As Herzer approached he realized it was a rabbit. To be precise a flop-eared brown and white rabbit. It had a harness on, which was heavily hung with small weapons ranging from a knife the size of a fingernail all the way up to a pistol crossbow. He thought at first it was some sort of toy or joke until Bast hissed.

"Oh, By Wood and Water!" she snapped angrily. "What is that doing here?"

"Hya, Wood Bitch," the rabbit said in a high tenor, looking over his shoulder and nibbling at his back. "I could say the same of you."

"Herzer," Daneh said, rushing over and then stopping at the sight of his armor. "Good God, Herzer, what have you been doing?"

"Survivin'," Gunny said. "Welcome back, Triari."

"Glad to be here, Gunny," Herzer said with a nodded head at the un-demotion. "Doctor, Rachel, Baron Edmund."

"You heard," Edmund said with a nod. "What do you have to report?"

"We were approaching the Bellevue grade when we were ambushed by a large force of archers. They were obscured by trees so that I could not get an accurate count. We were pursued by a small group of six horsemen and ran into another group of infantry. Barsten had been hit by an arrow in the first ambush and was slain in the second. I dismounted and engaged the enemy there and slew those that remained. I then engaged the horsemen that had pursued us and was more or less saved by Bast."

"He says only the half of it," Bast laughed. " 'Slew those that remained' he says. Aye, all six against only him, then took down one of the horsemen by bounding off the cliff did he. Was well on his way to winning, bowmen and all, when I decided he'd simply had enough fun for one day."

"Well done, Triari," Gunny said with a nod.

"I haven't had opportunity to clean my armor, yet, Gunny, sorry," Herzer said, then looked at Rachel as she laughed.

"Just this once I'll let it pass," Gunny said with what looked suspiciously like a smile.

"It seems, Herzer, that we have a report from the enemy camp itself," Baron Edmund said dryly.

"The . . . rabbit?" Herzer asked.

"No rabbit that," Bast spat. "Demon of chaos. Bringer of discord."

"Thanks for all the compliments, sweet-cakes," the rabbit replied. "But, yeah, I came from those bozos that ambushed you. I watched 'em go and then got myself."

"Why?" Edmund asked.

"Look, it's a rabbit-eat-rabbit world, right?" the rabbit said, bending to scratch behind his ear. "So I hear there's some mighty army of evil forming, right? And I figure 'Hey, I'm evil. This could be fun.' But . . . lord they're screwed up. Evil is supposed to have its shit together. I mean, we're the bad guys, sure, but we don't have to be stupid about it. Not these bozos. They're violating every rule in the book. All the way up to the funky face-obscuring helmets and one-size-fits-all armor."

"Yes, and burning out towns and farms," Edmund said, grimly.

"No, that's just part of the job, you know? But these guys are like total idiots. I keep telling them, it's rape, loot, pillage and burn. Can they get the order right? No. Then they violated the Deal."

"What Deal?" Rachel asked, fascinated. "And . . . rape?" she added angrily.

"Well, not per se," the rabbit said. "I mean, I'm a rabbit. The best I can be is really affectionate, if you know what I mean," he sighed and looked positively dejected for a moment then brightened. "And, let me make this perfectly clear, at no time have I been with these guys when they have been doing any of that stuff. I wouldn't sully my good name with those idiots."

"What good name?" Bast scoffed. "Are a most hated bunny."

"Sure, but I'm good at being hated," the bunny replied. "I'm made that way. If I can let somebody fall in the soup by inaction it's my priority. And if I can push them that's even better. But I do it smart. Not stupid."

"So your job is to be evil?" Daneh said, carefully. "So you're a construct. AI?"

"Do I look like a nonsentient to you?" the bunny scoffed. "High-end AI, thank you."

"You must be old. A construct like you would be banned under current protocols."

"One of the first," Bast spat. "In the AI war was. Both sides."

"Hey, my job is causing discord. That and watching Baywatch. Okay, and killing telemarketers. Causing discord, watching Baywatch and killing telemarketers. That's my job. Oh, and trying to kill Santa Claus which is REALLY HARD WITH A MYTH," he shouted as if at the universe.

"What is Baywatch?" Herzer asked.

"What's a telemarketer?" Rachel asked in turn.

"Jeeze, kids these days," the rabbit sighed. "I swear, if I ever find a time machine I'm going back to the twentieth century and neutering some guy named Pete Abrams. With a spoon."

"So what was the Deal?" Edmund asked, again

"All the alfalfa hay I can eat and a big-titted blonde," the rabbit said immediately. "I'm willing to change sides since they went south on the Deal."

"No big-titted blonde?" Edmund asked, raising an eyebrow.

"They ran out of alfalfa," the rabbit said bitterly. "Wanted it for their horses can you believe it? And their damned smith was all the time following me around, trying to find out if I had a security hole that he could crack. The guy was a fisking idiot; I was made at the height of the most complex and paranoid period of the whole history of civilization. No modern bozo can crack my code!"

Bast looked at him for a long moment and then leaned forward. "Burrow," she said.

The rabbit looked up at her in surprise and flinched. "Not good enough, Wood Bitch," he gasped.

"Burrow," she said again then leaned forward and whispered something in his ear.

"CURSES!" he shouted. "Damn you, Wood Bitch!"

"I take it you now are required to answer more precisely," Edmund said with a grin. "How many?"

"A bit over a five hundred," the rabbit said with a glare at Bast.

"Five hundred?" Herzer gasped.

"Yeah, that camp of theirs you found was only the vanguard," the rabbit said. "They spotted you guys and set up the ambush. But you made it out. Incompetent, like I said."

"How are they armed?" Edmund said as if the news didn't surprise him. "And where are they getting the materials to support a force that size?"

"They've got some smith from before the Fall. And they've got some heavy-duty power on their side. Among other things, most of their force are Changed. Really nasty Changed, too. Short, dark, broad, powerful and just as stupid as the day you were born. Light armor, though, mostly leather and not boiled at that. But there's a core of human fighters that are really heavily armed and armored. And their leader is some idiot named Dionys who thinks he's Satan's gift to evil."

"Do you know their plans?" Edmund asked.

"Everybody in the camp knows them," the rabbit said. "Stupid, like I said. They're planning on coming up the west bank of the east valley then fording the river somewhere south of the town. Then they'll approach along the east bank. Dionys has promised them that this is the richest town in the entire valley; they're planning on looting it and burning it when they're done, like Resan." The rabbit shrugged, difficult for a being that seemed to have no shoulders. "It's as good a plan as they can muster; anything more complex would have them so totally confused they'd end up attacking themselves."

"How truly good," Edmund said, musingly. "How truly wonderful."

"Yes," Gunny said in the same tone. "Let them come?"

"No, fire arrows," Edmund said. "Maneuver warfare."

"High disparity of force," Gunny pointed out.

"Reconnaissance, ground," Edmund replied.

"Hai, that would be me," Bast said with a smile. "A long time since we've fought together, my lord."

"With that size force they'll have a serious logistics problem," Edmund said.

"What are you talking about?" Daneh interjected. "For the militarily illiterate present?"

"They're talking about suicide if you want my opinion," the bunny said. "They're talking about taking their 'army' out and fighting them in the field."

"We can do without your comments, evil one," Bast growled.

"I answered the questions," the rabbit replied. "And my password rotates when used!"

"I can guess some of the others," Bast said silkily. "And I bet anything that you have an override, don't you."

"Curse you, Wood Bitch," the bunny snarled. "Stay away from me or you'll end up as a harem girl."

"Well, Mister Bunny," Edmund said. "I think that you've fulfilled the bargain."

"What about the Deal?" the rabbit asked. "The girl's a looker."

Edmund smiled tightly and stared at the rabbit until it, with apparent unconcern, nibbled at its back again. "I've been stared at by worse," the rabbit muttered.

"What do we get out of the Deal?" Edmund asked.

"Chaos!" Bast said. "Make no deals with the Devil, Edmund Talbot."

"I won't betray you to them," the rabbit replied, ignoring Bast. "I'll settle for just the alfalfa as long as it includes margaritas."

"We don't have any tequila."

"Damn I hate this fallen world. Okay, alfalfa and whatever you make in the way of hooch."

"I make a decent bourbon and there's some brandy," Edmund admitted. "How much?"

"Three shots a day and bottle of high test at New Year's eve. I'll find my own girls. And alfalfa. As much as I want."

"Alfalfa we have in quantity," Edmund said. "Deal. Shake on it."

"By my true name which no one may know," the rabbit said, sticking out a paw with a glance at the elf. "Right?"

"Fine by me," Bast replied with a shake of her head. "But I think you know not what you do, Edmund."

"I'm not going to trust him," Edmund said, shaking the small paw. "But now that I'm a baron, we need a court jester."

"Oh, very funny," the rabbit said, hopping off the table. "I'm going to go drink my ration. The rest of you can just blow me." With that he hopped out of the room, humming.

"Okay, what just happened?" Rachel asked.

"Your father made a most unsavory deal," Bast replied, shaking her head.

"I've heard of that rabbit," Edmund said with a grin. "Shall we say he is a small but doughty fighter."

"Aye, for both sides!"

"He won't fight for the side he is attached to unless he is tricked," Edmund said. "I'll just have to be tricky."

"When do we leave?" Herzer asked.

"And what is this about leaving?" Daneh added.

"We can't fight an army of that size at the walls," Edmund said, "even with every man and woman who can carry a blade. They'll just spread out and swarm the walls. So we're going to go out and fight them. We'll have to use some trickery, but it's better than just trying positional defense. If we had a real castle, maybe. I'll see if Sheida has any help to provide and send a rider to Angus as well. But I doubt the dwarves can arrive in time. So we'll go out and maneuver on them."

"That is why we have been training so much," Gunny added. "With the walls defended and us on their heels, they won't be able to attack the town."

"You'll be . . . badly outnumbered," Rachel said. "Worse than in the town."

"We'll try very hard not to let them surround us," Edmund chuckled. "Gunny, boots and saddles at one hour before dawn. Tomorrow, we march."

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