Ballad of the Faerie's Champion: Esteem - Part Six
Grace's head was lowered, her horn displayed threateningly as she pawed the muddy earth at the riverside. Thankfully none of the bandits seemed to be mounted, or Gary figured they never would have stood a chance.
The rogues seemed to have decided that their aim with the crossbows wasn't sure enough, and they were closing to finish the job. Several of them had already pulled out clubs or daggers. At least they didn't have real swords; those would have chopped through the wooden blades in less then a heartbeat.
Then the bandits were on them, and there was no more room for thought. A spiked club swung towards Gary's head, and he instinctively brought up his shield to block it. He shoved back against the man, using his superior strength and height to force him off his feet. To his right, Grace delivered a powerful kick to another, Rue swatting a third from his place on her back.
As another of the throng charged Gary, he was surprised to find that he was holding his own fairly well. He was so used to Rue or the Man-At-Arms flattening him that he'd more or less become convinced that he was a terrible fighter. Oh, he wasn't dominating this battle, far from it. His enemies were scoring hits that left him battered and were progressively weakening him. But they hadn't taken him out yet.
Whoever was in charge of organizing the villains didn't seem to be with them today, because they in no way acted like a cohesive group. Their attacks were haphazard and uncoordinated, each one operating like an individual rather than a member of a group. Small blessing, that.
Still, they had to get away from the river, and fast. All it would take was a quick shove at the right moment to send the squires toppling into the churning river. The current and jagged rocks would almost certainly see to it that none of them were ever heard from again.
Gary cast around for a likely escape route, somewhere to get some breathing room and improve their odds. After a few seconds he spotted the narrow ridge along the river that he had seen the day before, arriving with Ohu. He didn't know where it lead though, and for all he knew the path could wash out from under them completely when they tried to walk along it.
A searing pain in his face yanked Gary's mind back into the present, and he cried out in pain. One of the bandits had clipped him with a dagger while he was distracted, just missing his right eye.
"Gar'!" Rue bleated, throwing himself out of Grace's saddle to tackle his friend's assailant. Both the Aisha and the bandit hit the mud hard, rolling and thrashing. Gary had to bring his shield up over them quickly to stop an opportunistic rogue from beating both of them senseless with her club.
"Get to the path!" he bellowed, swinging his sword to force the assailants to step back. "Over there, along the river! Grace, clear the way!"
The Uni reared, swinging her hooves in the air. Then she charged, shoving the bandits out of the way to the best of her ability. She was neither as large nor as strong as Ohu though, and without Rue on her back the bandits were scoring painful hits on her back and hindquarters.
The Aisha, meanwhile, had managed to gain a momentary upper-hand on his opponent. He kicked the older Neopian in the stomach, yanking the dagger from his hands as he extricated himself. Gary grabbed his hand, pulling him up and jerking his head towards the ridge. Rue nodded, and the two squires rushed to Grace's aid.
The rain was intensifying, and Gary could scarcely see their goal through the sheet of water. It was everything he could do to keep the brigands off of him and avoid falling in the river. His wounded face seared with pain, and his exhausted muscles felt like lead. Then, suddenly the water veered away, and he could see the path right beside him.
"Go!" he called to Rue and Grace. "Make cert' there's not an ambush ahead of us! I'll guard the rear!"
The Bori turned to face the oncoming bandits, but was somewhat surprised to find them hesitating. As the two squires and Uni scrambled along the ridge, Gary saw one of the bandits smile at him and offer a tiny salute. They didn't leave, but they weren't giving chase.
"Gary!" Rue called. "There's a cave o'er here! We can hole up in it and take 'em one at a time."
"They ain't chasin'!" Gary called back. "They just stopped followin' us!"
"I ain't gonna complain," Rue said wearily. "But I reckon we can still hide in here 'til help shows up. Get out of this rain, and I can have a look see at that cut o' yours."
The Bori couldn't argue with that logic. His fur was so saturated with mud that he felt as if he were carrying twice his normal weight, and the bruises from his falls the day before and the more recent skirmish were sending bolts of agony up his back and arms. He followed his friend into the cavern, wincing a little as a bolt of lightening lit the sky outside.
"It's really dark in here," Grace said, her voice low. "I can hardly see."
"Just keep your eyes on the opening," Gary said, putting a hand up to his throbbing muzzle. "If'n you see a shadow against the light, get ready to defend yourselves."
The Bori winced as he spoke, feeling grit in his mouth from his earlier fall. He spat it out, shaking himself all over to clear off some of the muck. "Y'know, no one ever talks 'bout this kinda thing when they tell you what bein' a knight is like. Rolling in the mud like a snorkle..."
"If they did, would you've agreed to become one?" Rue asked, sounding amused.
"Well agreeing weren't much of a consideration," Gary pointed out sardonically. "If you recall, nobody bothered to tell me what I was gettin' signed up for. I just knew that suddenly people was feeding me."
The Bori glanced at the entrance again. Why weren't the bandits following them? What was the point of going to the trouble to ambush the squires if they weren't going to finish the job?
"C'mere Gar', let me look at your face," Rue commanded, and with a confused headshake the Bori complied.
"Gotcha good, didn't they?" the Aisha remarked, squinting in the half light. "Course I dunno if it's possible for you to be made t' look any uglier."
"Ha ha," Gary said dryly. "At least next time I'll know better'n to get distracted in a fight. Dunno what I was playin' at, woolgathering like tha-"
Suddenly, Grace shrieked, causing both of the squires to leap to their feet. Gary had just enough time to see a flash of green light from further in the cave before an explosion of pain in his head plunged him into blackness...
* * * * *
The squire's awareness was returning, and with it the pounding of his abused skull. He moaned softly, trying to lift his arm only to find it obstructed by something heavy and course. A bag?
Realizing that he must have been captured by the bandits, the squire sat bolt upright in panic, immediately regretting it as his head exploded with agony. He curled forwards, burrowing his face in his knees.
"That wasn't a very good idea," a familiar voice remarked. Gary looked up in surprise to find that he was not in a bag, but lying on a bed with a thick flaxen blanket over him. The one who had spoken was standing over him, her arms crossed and an expression of sympathy warring with something like amusement.
"L... Lady Ayame?" he muttered.
"Who were you expecting, Count Von Roo?" she asked. "No, don't answer. It was pretty obvious from your expression that you were expecting the worst. Don't worry; you're safe for the moment. I just came to check on you because that Aisha friend of yours is beside himself, and I'm the only one other than his highness who can override the healers orders to leave you alone while you rest." She coughed. "I, ah, hadn't intended to wake you though. I apologize."
So Rue was alright, at least. That much was a relief. "What happened?" the Bori asked, leaning back into the pillow behind him.
The Kougra folded her arms. "You don't know?"
He started to shake his head, but decided it was probably better not to move it more than necessary. "No."
"Well, your Uni got back to the castle and told Sir Valrigard what had happened. He led a force to rescue you, but by the time he got there you were unconscious and your friend badly hurt. He couldn't give use a clear idea of what had happened, just that you sheltered in a cave and were attacked by something. You were already out cold by that point, he'd slung you over his saddle and was running alongside his Uni when the rescuers found him. They beat back the bandits that were still there and investigated the cave, but found nothing."
She shifted, her expression turning sour. "Unfortunately, it turned out to be a diversion. While a good chunk of the knights were off looking for you, a second force raided the farmlands."
Despite the haze over his thoughts, the squire could easily guess at the repercussions of that. The already poor fief was going to be hard pressed to survive the winter without their stores.
He put an arm over his eyes with a groan. So much for proving himself to the knights. He'd just caused even bigger problems for the people they were supposed to be saving.
The Kougra seemed to notice his change of mood, and she put a hand on his shoulder. "Hey, don't beat yourself up over this. It wasn't your fault."
"How not?" he asked bleakly. "T'was my idea to go out and practice, even though I knew that there was bandits lurkin'. I was stupid."
"If that's the case, then so was your very experienced Uni, and the knights who gave you the permission," Ayame pointed out dryly. "But seriously, beating yourself up isn't going to change anything. Maybe you should have been more cautious and better prepared. You'll remember next time."
The Kougra suddenly smiled. "You know, I used to do something a lot more stupid than just combat practice in the rain in hostile territory. When I was little, I would sneak off to Illusen's Glade without telling anyone and do quests for her."
Gary lifted his arm, staring at Ayame in surprise. He had, of course, heard of Illusen the Earth Faerie. Who hadn't? She had lived in a magically protected glade near the Brightvale Bridge for as long as anyone could remember, giving quests to any Neopian that approached her in exchange for prizes.
"But..." he said softly, trying to remember his pagehood geometry lessons. "That's a mile out from the border of your fief!"
"And boy did my parents freak when they found out," she replied without remorse. "But it was worth it; I learned a lot from her, and we still exchange letters to this day. I miss going to see her, but my responsibilities here keep me too busy."
She stood, stretching. "My point was, we all do stupid things from time to time. The key is to try to make the most of the situation, and learn from it, rather than dwelling on it in guilt. Might-have-beens don't mend the broken pot."
To be continued...