“We are losing our grip on the outer lands. How can we call ourselves a House if we can’t even keep order within our own villages? The people have no faith in our ability to protect them.” Lord Gasbjorn’s voice carried the sound of a sage old man. A voice usually reserved for those who spent a life of drinking and smoking yet too stubborn to die. Irony was Erik Gasbjorn was barely more than 40 years of this earth. His voice silenced the room quicker than an executioner. “The Rathal gang is moving closer to us each day. They will likely be on our castle doorstep two days out. We need a solution. NOW!”
The Lord surveyed his counselors sitting at the table. A burly master-at-arms nearly his own age, he appeared more skilled at killing veal quicker than men. Master Kain had served the family during the rebellion, but grew weak and bloated over time. Prosperity had made him unfit for a soldiers life.
Erik’s son, Ghordrun sat beside him. Not yet ready for his naming, but the time would soon come and Erik had learned any heir in this House best be ready for his ascension any given day. Ghordrun had always favored a desire for combat and had bested some of the very men at the table. He was learning the ways of the court as well. Erik had made sure of that. Not the most cautious of diplomats, Ghordrun’s temperament had a way of setting the opposition on the defensive, an advantage Erik had used many times.
No one spoke. Erik’s look of disappointment insulted his men more than any words could. “Elgar, I want you to take a few of your men out and find their encampment. Scout it out completely. Get me numbers and a count of their arms. I want to know what we will be up against. Least we can do is walk into battle knowing our enemy for once.”
Elgar, also a man from the rebellion, had a knack for using only a few of his rangers to turn the tide of an entire battle. He was a master at war, but fearful to speak his mind before his lord. “Yes, my lord. I shall have reports by the morning.” Elgar looked around the table. “I will send a messenger at the first opportunity.” The master of ravens had been absent from the table for some time. He grew sick with no recovery in sight. Erik felt it would be reprehensible to replace him while still alive.
“Good, Elgar. I would suggest men that you do not value. The Rathal have proven themselves excellent hunters. You would not want one of your best men falling to them before the real battle.”
“Yes, my lord.” Elgar turned to leave. He always hated how Erik treated his soldiers as second class. “Real” battle was a common term used to distinguish Erik’s favored method of battle from Elgars. He rattled his brain on the soldiers he would use for the task. He needed skill, but the skilled men were the ones he would need in two days time to defend the castle. He entered the barracks. His men stayed in their hammocks, but gave Elgar their attention.
“Listen up men! I need a few of you to go with me. We must scout the Rathal camp. We have to get numbers of men, weapons, and hopefully, weaknesses.” The sound of a collective sigh filled the room. “I don’t want to hear it you ungrateful maggots! You do nothing but sit around all day asking for a fight.”
“Sir, this isn’t a fight. This is scout work,” spoke one of the rangers mid-spoonful.
“And until you prove yourselves in battle, this will be all the work you get. Kal, Medwin, you’ll be coming with me.” The two men were barely out of training. In fact, Kal had just finished qualifying with his bow only a few days ago. This would be a test for the new men. Sadly, it could be a test that would end in their deaths if not managed properly. Best to not let them know it. Neither had a family to speak of. Medwin’s closest relative was a dying grandfather nearly a months travel away. He’d likely never hear of his grandson’s death before his own. _Better that way. _
“Jonas! You too. It’s time we saw how well you can hide out there. Be ready in less than an hour. We need to find the camp by the morning.” Choosing Jonas was easy. The boy, barely out of his twenties had been caught for thievery. It was a loaf of bread. Lord Gasbjorn was intent on punishing Jonas publicly by cutting off his fingers. After Jonas had been convicted, he made an offer for his hands. In exchange for his digits, the boy would return all the goods he had stolen. At first this seemed like a worthless trade to Erik, but Ghordrun was interested and so his father indulged the boy.
Jonas’ residence proved to be worth more than most of the villages under Gasbjorn rule. Relics and artifacts only Erik himself could identify were among the treasures Jonas had stored. He stole not for the value, but for the thrill. His skill was obvious. Erik needed no further evidence. After having the relics returned to their proper chambers in the castle, Erik gave him a deal. Jonas Reeve would serve house Gasbjorn as a Ranger willing to serve any call of his lord or commander. In exchange for his service, Jonas would keep his hands intact and use his skills for the House. Elgar knew Erik’s thinking. Jonas likely wouldn’t last but a few days in the dangerous bandit ridden hills. Erik got all his property back and would soon be disposed of this wretched little thief.
Elgar could see the makings of a trail that led from the main road. “See this, men. They parted the road here. Likely meaning to make camp not but half a mile off the road. Close enough to hear any travel, but far enough to hide from regular traffic. We must be quiet from here on.” He motioned for Kal and Medwin to take the left of the path and Jonas to stay with him on the right.
Ten minutes later they were near the camp. It rested in a small valley. A few subtle fires were visible, dying out. They regrouped on a hill nearby with perfect view into the camp. “You two will go around the south side. All I need you to do is verify my count. I see seventeen tents from here. One belonging to the commander himself. We’re looking at roughly one-hundred fifty men, if we’re lucky. Try to get close enough to determine their arms. That will matter far more than how many of them there are. Be back here by sunlight. We need to be leaving by then. Now go!” The slightest hint of daylight was already visible on the horizon. It wouldn’t take long before there was enough light to see.
“Jonas, you and I get to check the north side of the camp. We need to see if there are any captives or perhaps they’ve kept some of their loot.” Jonas nodded and began to head off ahead of Elgar.
He came to a good resting spot. He could see the tents in question, but nothing inside them was visible. He turned to speak, “Elgar, I think…” before words could escape him, he saw the tip of an arrow escape from Elgar’s left eye. The responsible bowman was nearly a hundred yards off and barely visible behind the dead officer. With no weapon at the ready, Jonas ducked into the foliage. Lying on the ground he tried to string his bow. His heart beat like never before. He had come close to getting caught and punished for stealing before, but his silver tongue had saved him. Somehow, Jonas didn’t think he would have a chance to talk to this man. The bow snapped straight without a string and flipped a few feet further into the woods. That sound was quickly followed with an arrow piercing the tree just an arm’s length away from his face. It was the sound he fired at, not you. Jonas told himself. He flipped on his belly and crawled through the brush. He had no bow and only a small blade to fight with now. His options were limited. His only hope would be to catch this man off-guard. _He just killed the best Ranger here, should be too hard, right? _
The hunter’s footsteps came close. Jonas knew the distance from the sound. He couldn’t move any more._ Too close. He would hear me. _His small blade rested backwards in his hand. His heart beat so strong he thought the sound might give him away. He could see nothing as he faced the plants. The footsteps were getting closer. There’s no way he can’t see me. He realized he was holding his breath. Probably the only reason he hadn’t been seen. Then, he felt it, so close. The hunter’s right foot rested only inches from the shoulder of his prey. Just as his foot lifted, Jonas flipped to his back and drove the blade into the brigand’s calf muscle, tearing it from the bone.
The archer screamed in pain. His first reaction brought the bow down in an attempt to shoot the ground beneath him. Jonas rolled around his left keeping the blade in his hand and ripping the muscle until the blade exited its human sheath. It took no effort for Jonas to knock him to the ground in the same move. Face first in the dirt, the Rathal hunter searched for his blade and tried to gain ground with one good leg. Jonas’ blade took no time finding a new home. Avoiding any more screams, he jabbed right into the throat. All life deserted the man. Jonas had never killed a man. He thought many times how he could do it so easily while sneaking around a victim’s house. Never had he actually taken a life until now. It happened so fast.
Jonas looked up. His first instinct was to retrieve his bow. He looked for the arrow marking the tree above its resting place. Just before he began to head towards it, he saw two silhouettes in the woods. The other watchmen were likely responding to the screams of their companion. He wouldn’t be able to reach the bow now. HIS bow. Jonas looked down. His heart sank. The bow had broken in their struggle. He had only the two blades for weapons now. Taking a quick survey of the land and his situation, he had to head towards the camp if he was going to have any chance of escaping the watchmen.
The light was starting to break. He didn’t have much time before he would be seen by anyone awake. Keeping a low profile he came upon the outer edges of the camp. Just then he heard the sounds of more men screaming. The far side of the camp was alive with activity. Kal and Medwin had been discovered. It wouldn’t be long before they were dead. The whole camp seemed to be headed in their direction. Jonas ducked into the first tent he saw. Not knowing what to expect, he came to his feet as quickly as possible brandishing both blades. Nothing. A few cots were empty and several chests and barrels filled the room. A quick survey and a few picked locks proved it was one of their treasure hordes. A few casks of rum filled the remainder of the tent.
He dare not touch the tent flaps until he could assess the situation. The small slit he could see through showed no men outside. As he pulled the flap back, a large battle-scarred man stepped out of a neighboring tent facing the southern side of the camp. He was surveying the scene. His back was covered in tattoos. The Rathal marked their leaders permanently with tattoos. If they were ever to commit an offense worthy of demotion in a normal army, it would be worthy of death to a Rathal. He must be the chief. Jonas rolled out the back of his tent and scurried over to the chief’s tent. Rolling under the backside of the thick leather tent, he saw the back of the man. He stretched, reaching for the sky as most did just after waking. Two women lay on his bed. One was terrified, stifling her tears. Jonas could not tell if the other was even still alive. “Do as I say and you may yet live.”
A scream belted out from the tent. The ragged woman cursed the chieftain’s name and grasped at her bindings. The bewildered man walked into the tent. “What the f-,” Jonas’ blades cut each tendon just above the heel. The embattled veteran was now helpless as he fell to the ground. Jonas sprung on his back with the two blades just above the skin. One blade rested on each shoulder in between the third and fourth ribs. One for the heart, another for the lungs.
“It’s a shame I won’t have the time to punish you properly for what you have done to the people of these lands. I will make sure that you are properly displayed as a warning.” The chief began to speak, but Jonas had no intent to hear his words. Blood began to spill across the dirt floor. He looked up at the woman. “The men will scatter in a few seconds running from the fire. Scatter any rum or wine you have out in front of this tent. They won’t be able to reach you. Run north, find the road and you will come across the castle. Ask for the protection of Lord Erik. You will be safe.” He pulled his picks from his coat jacket and quickly set the woman free. She quickly found all the remnants of the previous night’s celebrations and went outside to pour them out.
Jonas returned to the first tent. He palmed a few trinkets and took his flint. He uncorked the barrels and stuffed them with torn sheets from the nearby beds. With a small bit of flint, he started a torch. Five barrels rolled out of the tent. Lit and setting fire to anything that would take. It was completely daylight now. He could hear the confusion in the camp.
Exiting the tent, he grabbed the chieftain’s body. He dragged it out as far as he estimated he could without being seen in the woods. Using the chains from the captive woman, he chained the body to a tree. A quick check reassured him there was no point in trying to find his other companions. He was alone.
After three hours, Jonas saw the familiar castle walls. Only then did he emerge from the tree line. The House guard quickly came to his aid. “Are you alright? Where’s Elgar? What happened?”
“Take me to Lord Erik. I would tell him myself.” Erik took audience immediately after hearing of Jonas’ return. Jonas told him the story of Elgar’s death and told him where to find the chiefs body.
“You killed him? You weren’t even to enter the camp! This is why I don’t order my Rangers often. I can’t trust them to follow a damn word I say. But you, Jonas, have served me well. Call the troops. We march to their camp today and end this! They will no doubt be scattered and confused from this. Let us take advantage.” Master Kain called the men to arms, waddling as fast as he could to the courtyard.
“ To arms! To arms!” could be heard slowly fading. “Jonas, I would have you take me to the body.”
“Yes, my Lord.” As he rose, a small trinket fell from his cloak. Lord Erik’s eyes were drawn to it right away.
“I see you took some for yourself.”
“No, my lord, I didn’t mean…”
“No worries. Keep them. You have surely earned them today as long as you left the remainder for your lord.”
“Yes. They should be intact in the camp.”
The encampment was a burned and charred pit of human and leather remains. Rangers encircled it and sought out any stragglers foolish enough to try to claim their own treasures. Only a few of the Rathals remained, most would be picked off by the archers in the woods. Lord Erik had the land left as it was found. He loaded up the hoard to take back to the castle and put the body in proper crucifixion at the camps entrance.
The brigand raids slowed for a long while after this. Jonas Reeve saw quick promotions among and the Rangers as he led his teams to hunt and destroy any Rathal remnants. Slowly, Erik gave his scouts more respect for their methods of battle and Jonas more respect for his results. Only a year later, Jonas was given command of the entire unit. A few of the elder, more experienced Rangers were vocal against his promotion. These Rangers bravely met their end in battle days later. Since then, none have questioned his position or his frequent absence from their ranks at the behest of Lord Gasbjorn.