The next chapter of my prequel short story (in progress and unedited). If you have not read any of it yet, here is Chapter One.
The Bandit’s of Pratt’s Refuge
Chapter Five: The Refuge
“That was amazing!” Weber said for the third time. Though, thankfully, at a more reasonable volume after Meric had warned him on the second repetition. Weber seemed determined that he know how impressive the speed and accuracy of his shot had been. After he let out a deep sigh, he heard Malina chuckle from somewhere behind them.
They had regrouped after finding the prisoner, and settled in while Wood (as Meric had noticed the men referring to the Sergeant) had his ‘chat’ with the man. Apparently, the prisoner had been very cooperative. Wood said the guy could not sell out his friends fast enough, and while they would not rely on the man’s word alone, they definitely gained some useful information. The revelation of the caves beneath the valley, alone, would have been worth the hassle of dealing with another prisoner, not to mention that they were indeed the ones responsible for the deaths being investigated. The number of men, placement of lookout position, and weapons available would be verified to the extent possible. Which was what they had gathered to discuss, along with strategies for taking the valley. One of the Cullen twins (Meric could not tell them apart, yet) was left to watch the prisoner after he had been bound and gagged.
They were looking at the map and deliberating the possible ways to enter the valley, which was running almost exactly north to south, when Meric noticed the troubled look on the Captain’s face. Bridgewater was so obviously not looking at Meric and Malina that he might as well have shouted their names. The Captain’s dilemma was understandable; the people best suited to scout out the area for information, where the two people he knew the least about. Could he trust them? It would not be an easy decision, but Meric believed that the Captain would have to place his trust in them. From what he had seen so far, they were the only two with the skill necessary for the task. While Weber was not hopeless, he had nowhere near Meric or Malina’s abilities. Even Woodard, who could move with surprising stealth for a man built like he was, could not match the two Rennick natives.
Putting the lives of your men in the hands of relative strangers was not a position to be envied. Meric left the Captain to his deliberations, and looked to Wood as he spoke about the vale. He was pointing out the locations of the lookouts according to their prisoner when the Captain called him and the Lieutenant aside. Handing the map to Baker, the Sergeant moved off in his superiors’ direction. While the three of them put their heads together, Meric joined the discussion with Malina and the rest of the soldiers. He would abide by the Captain’s final decision, but could only hope that the man agreed with his assessment.
“We take out the sentry on this hill overlooking the valley, and replace him with Meric. With his skill using that bow, he can start taking out the enemy just before we attack,” said Terry Cullen (or was it Perry? He still could not tell).
“Right,” continued the other Cullen. “Then we hit them while they are all confused.
“Good plan, Cullen comma P,” Woodard barked at the first Cullen that had spoken even as he approached the group, making half of them flinch.
Meric had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing out loud. He would have to make sure he was around the next time Woodard went to Brody’s inn. Having the two of them in the same room might be fun, especially if there was beer involved.
“Uh… thank you, Sergeant?” came the hesitant reply. He seemed to gather some courage and continued. “I thi-”
“Don’t tax that brain of yours, Private. You okay with that plan, Vettor?”
“Yes, Sergeant,” Meric replied crisply, causing said Sergeant to narrow his eyes.
Meric could tell that the man was unsure if he was trying to be funny. Meric just looked calmly back at him until the man snorted and turned back to the others.
“Alright, here’s how it’s going to go down. Me, Vettor, and Malina will scout out the area first.”
He must have seen something in Malina’s face that made him pause, because he raised a hand to her.
“Hear me out. Vettor will take the eastern most hilltop overlooking the valley. That will be his side to scout as well. It should be a higher vantage point than the other side. I know you two would be better at getting around unseen by yourselves, but I’m gonna need you to go into the valley with the others, Malina. After scouting out the area, you’re gonna get me close enough to the other sentry, and then get back to the south end of the valley.
“We will split up so that there will be people entering either end. That idiot told me that the main cave entrance was kept hidden, in case someone found them out here. They have ladders in place to get to the entrances they use regularly. There are two; one for the boss and one for the rest of them. If trouble comes, they hit the caves and remove the ladders after they are up. Hopefully, we catch them off guard enough to prevent that, but there will probably be some of them in the caves already. Your job is to find that entrance, and lead the others to it.”
She nodded, satisfied enough with her orders.
“An hour after the sun drops below the tree line, me and Vettor take out the sentries and move into position, replacing them. Hopefully with no one the wiser. After that, we wait to a two hundred count, and then start raining down the confusion.” The last part was said with a grin.
Meric was not the only one to return the eager smile.
“Seven in the group to the south, the other three post at the northern end to keep anyone from getting away. If the prisoner was not lying, there should only be twenty-three of them left. If you sorry lot can’t handle two-to-one odds with this bunch of scum, then if you survive, you’ll wish you hadn’t when I’m done.” Woodard looked around at each of his men, and nodded his approval at what he saw. “Damn right! Let’s move out.”
Meric spent the last two hours of daylight scouting the area he was assigned and then reporting back. It was as Woodard suspected; these were a bunch of lazy, undisciplined ruffians. The one man he found on watch at the north end was sitting with his feet up, back turned to the outside, and drinking. The target up on the hill was also drinking, but at least he was looking in the right direction. He had also begun starting a fire just as Meric headed back to report, that would most likely back-light him nicely once the sun was down. When he reported to the others he mentioned that he thought there might be some ground traps at the entrance to the vale that he was assigned to check, because of the route the few men walking around took. They did not take any particular path until they got to a certain point, and then they always walked the same route.
Malina agreed and Woodard ordered Weber to take the northern end, as he would be more likely to spot these traps if those men needed to come in from that way, and the men at the south would wait for Malina to lead them in. Once everyone was briefed on their responsibility, the Captain stepped forward.
“With everything the prisoner has told us, added to the fact that the trail leads directly here, there is no doubt in my mind that these are the ones responsible for the killings we have been investigating. If you need more; Malina actually made her way into the valley and had a look around.” There were several surprised looks sent in her direction, and more than one nod of respect. “She overheard two men talking about the latest murders… one was… detailed in his retelling. They also have two young women caged up next to the eastern most cottage.
“Meric, make sure no one tries to use them as hostages.”
At Meric’s nod the Captain then took a moment to make eye contact with each of his soldier’s.
“If you can incapacitate any of them without putting yourself, or someone else in danger, do so. Otherwise, you put them down like the dogs they are. If they surrender… well, that is what the shackles you will carry are for. If they do not surrender… you show them the same mercy they showed that little boy.” As he finished, his voice was cold, implacable.
There was not a single person present that had any problem with those orders. Meric hated to take a life, but also knew sometimes it was necessary. Life was precious, and not to be thrown away needlessly. That knife cut both ways, though. These men deserved what they would get, and if he had to lose a little sleep over it, then so be it. He was certain that he would not be losing much.
They ended their briefing after going over the updates of traps and lookouts he Malina had made to the map, then moved out to their areas of responsibility. The sun had just set, and the sky was rapidly darkening, but Meric had paid attention when he was scouting earlier. He found his way back to the spot he had picked with no trouble. Settling in to wait, he divided his attention between his target and the moon, as it slowly crept higher. It was reasonably bright, but not full. It also would not be overhead any time soon, so they could not rely on it for light. Meric did not think that would be an issue, since these men did not appear to have a lack of firewood. He could tell from the way the trees were lit up that there had to be a few big fires going down in the vale, and as he had thought, the man he was watching had a blazing fire going just behind him.
Shaking his head at the man’s stupidity, Meric studied the trees around the lookout for indications of wind. The orange glowing foliage did not even stir in the slightest, causing a slight grin to come across his features. Perfect.
When the appointed time came, Meric stood from his crouch and moved a step away from the pine he had been leaning against. Sighting his target even as he put tension on the bowstring, he breathed in deeply. When his right thumb brushed his ear, he let out the breath slow and even, adjusted slightly, and let fly.
Just as the string had slipped past the point of no return on his fingertips, another figure began to reveal itself from out of the darkness surrounding the firelight. With no hesitation, acting on pure reflex, another shaft was sent on it’s way. There was barely a second separating the two arrows as they crossed the distance to the, now two, targets. Meric could not tell due to the distance and lack of light, but he imagined that the second person barely had time to be surprised at the arrow sprouting from his companions chest before the second yard long projectile pierced his own heart. Both dropped dead without making any more sound than that of their bodies hitting the dirt.
Sprinting across the open area, he found the path up to the lookout post easily enough, and headed up as fast as the incline would allow him to go safely in the dark. Woodard would have a much easier time, since the western side of the valley was not much more than a big hill. He once again felt thankful for the lack of apparent skill or discipline shown by these men, as he followed the path leading up. Leaving an obvious trail right up to their lookout post was just one example of their ineptitude.
At the top Meric began a count in his head and made a quick check of the area just in case there might be another uninvited guest and then moved away from the fire and toward the inside ridge over looking the valley interior. He knew that he and Woodard would not be able to time their assault exactly, but they would be close enough. They were mainly going to be a distraction, so it might even be to their benefit.
Finding a spot that kept him from being visible due to the fire, but with a good field of view, he surveyed the dell and continued counting. He located the rock ledge that held the cave entrances about thirty yards down to his right, mentally marking it as a point to keep an eye on. The spot he chose would be a good one for keeping the bandits away from the cave entrance.
He had only made it to one hundred and twenty-three when a woman’s scream drew his attention to movement by the cottage below him. His earlier scan had shown the two make-shift cages, both with an occupant. He checked these again with a quick glance, and seeing them still occupied, he turned back to find a man dragging the screaming woman around the back of the cottage by the hair. She tried to fight back, but was jerked even harder by the hand fisted in her hair, causing her to stumble. The man pulled her into the shadows behind the cottage, but fortunately for Meric, the three large bonfires spread around the center of the vale were bright enough for residual light to reach them. It was not ideal, but he could see well enough for a shot.
By this time he still had over a sixty count to go, but he would not be able to wait. The man yanked the woman around to face him and then punched her in the face so hard she spun and landed face down in the grass. Not giving her time to recover, the man was on top of her quickly. She had not made it fully to her knees when he yanked her skirt up over her back and knelt down hard over her legs causing her to collapse. She struggled in vain, as the man’s hands went to his own waist to work on his clothes fastenings. He had just finished getting his belt loose when Meric’s arrow took him in the throat. The woman had never stopped struggling, so even as her assailant toppled sideways she was scrambling away. Rolling onto her backside, she continued crawling backwards until noticing the state of the man that had been attacking her. Confusion and fear had her looking around frantically. It did not take long for her gaze to make it up the hillside, and even though every instinct he had screamed at him to stay concealed, he moved until he was lit up enough for her to see.
He did not stay that way long. When he felt sure that she had seen him, he waved her in his direction, and then moved back to the shadows. What she did next would be up to her. Once more concealed by darkness, he surveyed the area again, looking to see if anyone noticed what had just transpired. Apparently they had not. He could see several men hanging around the fires, laughing and rowdy. Only one turned in the direction the man had taken, but he had merely shouted “watch out, she bites!” and went back to his drink while his nearby friends roared out laughter in response.
Despite all of this going on, Meric had not lost his count. Noise from directly below turned out to be the woman making her way to him, so he shifted his aim away from her to search out a new target. As soon as he reached two hundred he sent the knocked shaft on its way. Right into the left butt cheek of the ‘comedian’. He did not feel inclined to kill the grin that formed at the man’s high pitched scream.