A High Price
A Lieutenant Markus Reutger Adventure
Markus looked at the dusty unmetalled road in front of him. It wound away in the distance along the base of a series of low but steep-sided hills. At intervals, rocky outcrops and gnarled and stunted trees broke through the tall withered grass, sallow-coloured from lack of moisture, that grew on the slopes and along the valley floor. Overhead the sky, a dull grey except where the sun tried to shine through, added to the washed-out quality of the land.
He wondered who would want to live in these parts. In his mind, he compared it unfavourably to the lush dark-green pinewoods of his own home. He recalled the wonderful scent of sap given off on a hot day by the forests of his native Reikland. The thought of summer reminded him how cold it was.
He swivelled in his saddle to look behind him.
The column of Outriders as it moved along was kicking up a plume of dust. It hung like a mist marking their passage. He then noticed Boris, his troop sergeant, making his way along the column to rejoin him. He soon drew alongside.
‘So, sergeant, all’s well?’
‘Troops’ cold an’ tired, sir,’ came the laconic reply. The sergeant, a big Kislevian, was not known for embellishing the truth as he saw it.
Markus gestured at the scenery. ‘I’ll be pleased to be away from this too.’
They rode on in silence for a while.
The long ride made Markus uncomfortable. To ease his muscles, he stood up on his stirrups and sat down again. He also adjusted the position of the long leather case that hung from the pommel so it wouldn’t chaff him.
Boris said, ‘That rifle’s just a nuisance.’ He patted his repeater handgun. ‘I can fire all six shots with this against your one.’
‘True,’ conceded Markus, ‘but I’ll get to shoot first.’ Mischievously, he asked, ‘How far away can you hit anything?’
‘A hundred yards.’
‘Seventy-five, more likely.’ Markus knew the old soldier was good. Even so, in combat to be sure of making all the shots count, he would want the troop to hold fire until the enemy was only fifty yards away.
He patted the rifle’s carrying case as he continued ‘With this, I would be certain to hit you at three hundred yards.’
‘You managed five hundred at the butts.’
‘True, but those were special conditions. I couldn’t be certain in the field.’
‘Still, three hundred yards.’
Markus could see Boris mentally adjusting his tactical thinking.
‘I’d still prefer to have six shots,’ the sergeant finally decided.
‘I’ve also got this.’ Markus slapped the butt of his repeater pistol. ‘It’s good for close up work. I can punch out a man’s button at twenty-five yards.’ Markus smiled inwardly at the amount of money he had won with that bet. His fame with firearms within the Engineer’s School at Altdorf was such that none dared wager against him. Some of the soldiers had tried to make money by getting him to prey on ignorant out of towners, but Markus had refused to play game.
‘Sir, look!’ Boris pointed ahead. ‘Trouble.’
Markus gazed in the indicated direction. Ahead, he saw a column of black smoke rising someway in the distance at a point where he thought the road must lead.
‘Boris, deploy the troop,’ he ordered.
The lead cavaliers spread out into a skirmish line. Boris led them forward along the road at a trot.
Markus followed a little behind with the reserve, ready to respond to any threat. As the troopers advanced Markus could see the soldiers in the van nervously looking around them.
Boris signalled to Markus to join him.
‘Sir,’ he said as Markus rode up, ‘over there.’ He pointed.
Markus could now plainly see the smoke’s origins. A wagon had been set on fire. Behind it, another had been turned over and a third lay tilted in a ditch. The wagons’ contents lay strewn haphazardly on the road. Then he made out the wagons’ owners amongst the rubbish.
‘They’ve been attacked.’
He spurred his horse forward.
‘Be careful, sir,’ Boris shouted behind him.
Markus paid no heed and trotted towards the wagons. He could now plainly see a number of men, women and children lying where they had fallen. Dark pools of blood beside a few told where their lives had oozed into the dust.
He heard hoof beats behind him. He turned to check. It was Boris leading forward the troop.
‘Boris, see if anybody is still alive,’ Markus ordered in a sour voice.
The Kislevite indicated to the men to fan out and search the area.
Markus dismounted and wandered along the smashed convoy. By the look of their clothes and scattered belongings he judged them to be simple peasant folk.
Boris interrupted his thoughts.
‘Sir, there’s one still alive. But hurt bad.’
‘Who would have done this?’ said Markus. He was feeling bitter at the savagery of the perpetrators. As far as he could tell, it was just common folk who had been butchered. They probably couldn’t defend themselves.
He followed his sergeant to where private Zecker, their informal medical orderly, was tending an old man.
He was pleading with Zecker, ‘You’ve got to find her. Get her back.’ His face grimaced in pain with each word.
‘What’s he on about?’ Markus could see the man was in a bad way.
‘He says the bandits who attacked them took his daughter,’ said Zecker.
Markus kneeled down and looked at the old man. Their eyes met. Some emotion deep within Markus stirred and he found himself saying, ‘We’ll get her back, I promise.’
He stood up. ‘Sergeant, see if you can spot which way they went.’
Boris hesitated a moment as if to say something then strode off.
Markus looked at the old man again. ‘Zecker, stay with him.’ He then summoned corporal Heinman. ‘Get the men to bury the dead.’
With a rising sense of the injustice of what he was seeing, Markus gloomily watched the grim proceedings. Then Boris returned. ‘Well?’
‘I found traces. No attempt to hide their tracks. About twenty or so, on horseback. They’re headed up a side valley.’
‘How much of a head start do you think they’ve got?’
Boris looked at the remains of the burning wagon then said, ‘I’d say less than an hour, sir.’
‘Get the men formed up. We’re going after them.’
Riding again in pursuit, Markus was grateful to leave the scene of the massacre but it did little to lift his black mood.
They quickly reached the place where the bandits had turned off the road, at a point about half a mile from the site of the ambush. Looking at the fresh tracks leading off through the tall grass Markus saw that Boris had been right.
Leading the troop forward Markus found it easy to trail them. The bandits had taken an obvious route that led along the floor of a valley that ran at right angles to the road. He led the troop at a quick pace so as to catch them up.
Soon the sides of the valley began to squeeze in and Markus could see the end about two miles to their front where a ridge ran between two hills. He searched the ground ahead to see if he could spot their quarry, but could see nothing. He was about to question Boris about this when a shot rang out.
The Outrider next to him grunted and fell off his horse.
‘Ambush,’ Markus shouted.
At the sound of the shot, bandits appeared as if by magic from the brush in front of them.
Markus had just enough time to draw his sword before a large man in a studded jerkin rushed at him halberd in hand.
He fended off the assailant’s thrust and slashed indiscriminately at his attacker.
The man retreated somewhat and swung the halberd in an arc to hit him with its cutting edge.
Markus just managed to duck, the blade catching the side of his helmet as it passed. Instinctively, he spurred his horse forward.
The man was knocked sprawling. The horse, battle trained, trampled him.
The immediate danger over, Markus quickly glanced around.
Surprise gone, the better armed and armoured Outriders were rapidly gaining the upper hand. Three of the outlaws were already felled and it wouldn’t be long before the more numerous soldiers overcame the rest.
Then a whistle blew.
The bandits broke off and ran.
Markus drew his pistol. But a couple of Outriders who had advanced after the retreating brigands blocked his line of fire.
As the two mounted men caught up with the rearmost fugitives an ogre suddenly materialised from his hiding place. He swung an enormous axe at the nearest rider.
The blade bit deep into the soldier who was knocked off his horse by the blow.
The other wheeled about and beat a hasty retreat.
The bandits and the ogre then vanished into the brush.
He jumped off his horse and went over to the trampled halberdier. The man was still alive and was moaning plaintively. Markus bent down and grabbed hold of his jerkin. He shook the man angrily.
‘Where’s the girl?’
The man looked at him with dulled eyes and tried to say something but instead just choked up blood.
‘He can’t speak, sir,’ said Boris.
The big sergeant had dismounted and joined his commander. He lay a gauntlet on Markus’ shoulder. He added quietly, ‘He’s a goner.’
‘Damn them all,’ Markus shouted. His anger was boiling up inside him. He let the man drop. He stood up and gazed about the battlefield. Several empty horses told him the butcher’s bill.
‘See to the wounded, Boris,’ he ordered I na curt voice.
‘Aye, sir.’ The Kislevian hurried off.
Markus gazed up the valley his mind a swirl of dark thoughts. The bandits were nowhere in sight. He inspected the ground carefully and rapidly came to the conclusion the only way out was over the ridge or back the way they’d come. He looked at the sides of the valley and immediately knew the outlaws couldn’t outflank them without being seen.
Boris returned. ‘We’ve got four dead and six wounded, sir,’ he announced, his voice grim. ‘They’ve given us a bloody nose, to warn us off.’
‘Yes. Their leader knew what he was doing,’ said Markus bitterly.
‘We’ve paid a high price,’ Boris added. ‘Shall we turn back?’
‘No!’ Markus looked at his sergeant. There was ice in his voice as he spoke. ‘I’ll pay it–and more, if I have to!’
Boris said nothing.
Markus came to a decision. ‘Detach some men to care for the wounded. Get the rest ready to move out.’
‘Aye, sir.’ Boris went off shouting orders.
Markus found his horse. Taking the reins, he put a foot in the stirrup and swung himself into the saddle. He sat and waited for the men to form up, idly caressing the rifle’s leather carrying case.
‘Ready, sir,’ the sergeant announced presently.
‘Let’s move out.’ Markus led the column forward at a brisk trot.
They had not gone far when Markus saw the bandits ahead of them. A group of horsemen were riding rapidly towards the head of the valley. Alongside them lopped the ogre.
‘After them,’ shouted Markus, spurring his horse into a gallop. ‘We’ll cut them off.’
The Outriders gained on their foes, but Markus quickly realised that try as they might, the bandits would get over the brow of the hill before they could be intercepted. Glancing up at the ridge he immediately feared the dead ground at the summit would provide the bandits with another opportunity to surprise them.
By now the fugitives were less than five hundred yards away. He thought he could make out their chief leading a horse on which rode the captive girl.
Then Markus spotted one of the trees that grew in the valley. He reined in his horse and leapt down grabbing the rifle case as did so. He was conscious of the troop coming to a halt behind him. He rapidly drew the weapon out of its case and checked it.
He sprinted over to the tree and rested the long barrel in a fork. He sighted at the horsemen climbing the last few yards before the summit. The barrel waved back and forth as he sought out his target. Then he saw the leader.
‘Damn,’ Markus swore. The ogre was half hiding him. He took another look at the party in the distance as they reached the crest. He knew it was now or never. Taking careful aim he pulled the trigger.
The gun shuddered.
The sound of the shot reverberated across the valley. Markus couldn’t see whether he’d hit his target because of the dense smoke from the discharge.
‘You’ve missed ‘m, sir,’ Boris helpfully announced.
Markus, hefting the rifle, stood away from the tree. The riders on the crest had stopped. The ogre was sitting down.
‘Ogre got in the way,’ Markus replied bitterly.
‘Must be over six hundred yards,’ said corporal Heineman in admiring tones.
Markus glared at him.
‘Well you’ve given ’em a fright, anyways,’ said Boris.
‘We’d best be careful approaching that summit,’ said Markus getting back on his horse.
A little while later Markus watched impatiently as Boris scouted out the summit before signalling the troop to join him.
When Markus reached the top, he could see the land falling away again. At the bottom of the slope, where another valley started, he spotted the bandit party riding off with all good speed. The ogre was now taking up the rear. He judged the distance and quickly decided against trying another shot.
They followed the tracks left by the bandits, as they wove their way down the slope. During their descent Markus lost sight of the horsemen. He knew he’d have to be careful. He didn’t want to blunder into another ambush.
Fortunately, the valley through which they now rode was less overgrown than the one they had come from. Although the grass was greener, it was cropped short. Markus soon spotted the reason. Disturbed by the intruders a troop of wild goats scampered high up the hillside. They looked on reproachingly as the Outriders rode past.
The Outriders were now in a part of the valley that was studded with rocky outcrops. The bandits’ tracks weaved between these. Then some distance ahead Markus spotted the outlaw party again. Immediately something nagged him about the group. He was just about to say something to Boris when a roar caused him to look around.
‘Bleeding ‘ell,’ Boris yelled.
From its hiding place in one of the rocky outcrops the ogre was lumbering towards the troop, axe raised in both hands, ready to strike.
The Outriders, surprised by the sudden attack, were slow to react. The axe bit home into the chest of the nearest soldier.
Then blam, blam, went Boris’ handgun.
Markus saw the shots hit the huge humanoid. It continued to swing the axe as if nothing had happened.
‘Fire, damn it,’ Markus shouted.
Boris swore, ‘Ulric’s patience. It’s jammed.’
Markus drew his own handgun. The ogre was now less than twenty feet away. With no time to aim properly, he pointed the pistol in the general direction of the attacker and pulled the trigger. The gun jerked violently in his hand as the mechanism fired the six barrels in rapid succession. The volley produced a thick cloud of smoke that stung his eyes and obscured everything in front of him.
Blinking to clear his eyes, he spurred his horse forward.
The ogre was sitting down, blood poring from numerous wounds. It looked at him with a stupid expression. It tried to shake its head and then it collapsed backwards.
Markus dismounted and approached the dead ogre slowly.
‘Falbius,’ he said as he looked down on the corpse.
Boris had joined him. ‘That him?’ he asked in a mystified voice.
‘No, not the ogre. The tactic.’ Markus spoke as if quoting. ‘Delay the enemy.’ He kicked out at the body viciously. ‘The ogre just meant to hold us up.’ Boris still looked puzzled. Markus explained, ‘I’d wounded him. He couldn’t keep up with the bandits. He knew he was as good as dead. He fought to give the rest time to escape.’ He looked at the distant point where the bandits had disappeared. ‘I wonder what other niceties are in store for us?’
The ogre had killed one and wounded two other Outriders. Markus reflected dully on the mounting butcher’s bill as the dead soldier was quickly buried in a shallow grave. He looked at the harsh expressions on the faces of his soldiers who had the grim task of burying their companion. The bandits, Markus knew, had some reckoning up to do.
They tracked the outlaws for the rest of the day. Dusk found them still in the same valley, now much broader. During their march, the valley became home to, at first, a small stream. Then, as they progressed, it grew into a small river. The character of the land too changed. It was now lusher, with clumps of trees and bushes. This slowed them up, as each potential trap had to be carefully investigated. They also passed occasional rectangular piles of stones that looked man made and suggested the valley may have once been inhabited.
They spent an uneventful night near the river. Markus had the men up before dawn and ready to move out at first light. They quickly picked up the trail. Markus considered that following the outlaws was easy—too easy. He raised this with his sergeant.
‘They’d have difficulty in hiding their traces around here,’ answered Boris.
‘I suppose so,’ said Markus, but he was not convinced. Something nagged him about the bandits’ behaviour. ‘Do you think they’ll try to ambush us again?’
‘Maybe,’ replied the Kislevian, ‘but we’ll be on our guard.’
They rode on in silence after that, Markus lost in dark thoughts.
The spoor led them onto what Markus took to be a track. He wasn’t sure whether animals or men had made it. Whenever he could, he scrutinised the country ahead, trying to spot their quarry. He saw nothing and could only presume they had gained a considerable lead.
Eventually, the horse marks left the track and struck off across country once more at an angle to their former path. Markus led the Outriders after them.
About an hour later, he spotted a wide river. Along its banks grew the occasional willow. As they approached, he saw the tracks entered the water and were plainly visible on the other side.
Markus scanned the ground carefully on the far bank to check whether the brigands had hidden themselves there. He quickly satisfied himself that the way was clear.
‘It’s safe to cross,’ he told the troop.
Before wading in, Markus had to reposition his rifle around his neck to stop it getting wet. Two soldiers keen to be the first to the other side overtook him as he adjusted the strap. He half watched as they forged ahead, his attention on the case’s buckle.
Suddenly, corporal Heineman called out, ‘Watch out!’
Markus looked up.
The two riders were clinging desperately to their mounts as they were being swept away by the current. As he watched in horror, one fell off and disappeared under the water. A hand briefly appeared above the surface and then the man was gone.
Then Markus saw Boris riding frantically along the bank swirling a rope in one hand. He threw it out towards the other Outrider who grabbed it with both hands. Urging his horse, Boris began to pull the luckless man to safety.
‘Give him a hand,’ Markus shouted to the other soldiers.
Three men immediately rode to the soldier’s rescue. Soaked and half-drowned, he was dragged to safety.
Boris, his work done, rejoined the lieutenant. ‘That was meant for you—or me,’ he said quietly.
‘He’s a cunning bastard,’ Markus grudgingly acknowledged, thinking of the outlaw leader actions.
Once they had sorted out the luckless soldier, Markus led the troop along the bank heading upriver in the direction of the track they had left earlier. As they rode along he looked back at the column. He saw the troopers’ tired expressions and grimy faces. The number who followed him was much smaller than it had been the previous day. Half the men, he reflected grimly, were either dead or wounded or had had to be detached to care for the injured. He wondered how many of those who followed him now would make it back.
They found the real ford and picked up the bandits’ tracks on the other bank.
As the day wore on, the sun appeared briefly, for the first time in many days. It gave full colour to the landscape. In other circumstances, Markus would have found the countryside quite beautiful. Now it held only menace. He knew they had to be careful that every copse, fold in the land or rocky outcrop didn’t hide an ambush.
It was late afternoon when he confided his plan to Boris. ‘I’m in no doubt the bandits are aware we’re still following them.’ Markus explained why their leader hadn’t chosen to ambush them again. ‘He’s too intelligent to try the same trick twice.’ He looked around. ‘We’ll have to make camp soon for the night. This is what we’ll do…’
They rode on, the land once more becoming rougher, with a series of rolling hills lying across their line of advance.
Eventually, as the sun began to set, Markus declared they should make camp.
The Outriders stopped to spend the night in a small copse. A party went out to find some game. Somewhat later, Markus heard the echo of gunshots. Soon the hunting party returned with two dead goats.
After supper, Boris asked, ‘Do you really think he’ll attack us tonight?’
Markus spoke with a confidence he didn’t entirely share, ‘I’m counting on it. He knows we’ll catch up with him eventually. Our horses are in better shape than his are.’ He added, thoughtfully, ‘He likes to choose where to fight.’
‘But I don’t like the idea of your exposing yourself.’
‘I couldn’t order anyone to take the risk.’
‘I’ll do it.’
Markus was insistent. ‘No, Boris. I’ve got to do it. I need you to keep an eye on the men.’
‘Aye, sir, I’ll do that.’
‘Well, I’m turning in. Wake me when it’s the third watch.’
Markus wrapped himself in his blanket and stretched out on the ground.
He felt he hadn’t slept a moment when he was shaken awake.
Boris whispered at him, ‘It’s time, sir’.
He looked around. The fire, now dampened down, gave off enough light for Markus to see the forms of the sleeping soldiers. Beyond that it was completely dark. He looked up but couldn’t see any stars.
He got up and, picking up a handgun, relieved the sentry. As he took his turn on guard, he tried to calm his nerves by pacing up and down. Eventually he sat down with his back to a tree and covered himself with a blanket.
While he waited, he willed his eyes to penetrate the darkness around him but soon came to the conclusion it was hopeless. Instead he listened attentively to the sounds of the night.
Markus was not sure how long he remained thus in his private world. But he suddenly knew something was not right. Somewhere in the night a twig snapped. A shiver went through him. The fire had died to a few embers and the sphere of darkness had squeezed in around him. He wished now he had given orders for the fire to be kept stoked.
Instinct made him look up.
A shade, a deeper darkness against the blackness, was slowly making its way towards him. He let the spectre approach without giving sign he had seen it.
The shadow lunged at him.
But Markus was ready and threw himself out of the way just in time. He rolled and jumped up gun at the ready.
His assassin was still standing where his victim should have been.
Markus pulled the trigger and in the quietness of the night the crack of the shot resounded loudly.
This was the signal for mayhem to break out.
Shapes raced towards him out of the blackness. Off to his left and right the crack of gunfire met the attackers. In the light of gun flashes Markus saw bandits dancing macabrely as the wall of lead hit them.
All around yells and screams pierced the night.
‘Aimed fire,’ boomed Boris’ voice above the bedlam. ‘Aimed fire, you dolts.’
Markus, realising he made a target, dived to the ground. He heard an arrow swish past the point where he had been standing.
On hands and knees he quickly crawled out of the line of fire.
The firing now become sporadic.
When he felt the dying fire no would no longer silhouette him, Markus rose to his feet and sprinted away to the right of the firefight.
He dashed in a big half circle to get behind where he thought the outlaws to be. As he got closer he slowed and eventually kneeled down. He strained to see anything in the darkness. Then he thought he saw something moving.
He fired a spread of shots in the general direction. He heard someone grunt. Satisfied he slowly retraced his steps.
Back at the camp, he found Boris busily organising a search of the area. He looked relieved when he saw Markus.
‘Couldn’t find yah, sir.’
‘Just doing my bit,’ proffered Markus. ‘Did we get their leader?’
‘Nah, sir,’ said Boris, shaking his head. ‘We ain’t found ‘im yet.’
Markus slumped down.
Boris asked in an anxious voice, ‘You ‘urt, sir?’
‘No just tired.’ He paused, before adding quietly, ‘But thanks for your concern.’
Markus found it hard to get back to sleep and he was happy enough to rise when the first bluish light announced the new day. He found Boris by the fire warming up some coffee.
The Kislevian handed him a cup.
‘The plan worked,’ he said. ‘We bagged eleven of ‘em. We found two more wounded where they’d hid their horses.’
‘But not the girl,’ said Markus. Boris shook his head. ‘Then the chase is still on,’ Markus added bleakly.
‘What I don’t understand,’ said Boris, ‘is why he doesn’t give her up.’
‘It’s his insurance. He’ll try to use her to bargain with. You’ll see.’
‘One of the wounded told us their leader was an officer once,’ Boris said. ‘Said he left the militia on account of a fight he had with a superior. Been an outlaw ever since.’ He offered Markus more coffee, which he declined. Then added as an afterthought, ‘Calls himself the Judge.’
Markus said nothing. He drained the last of the coffee and stood up.
‘Boris, get the men ready as soon as you can.’
‘Aye, sir. We’ll be ready to move at first light.’
The sun’s rays were just touching the top of a nearby hill when Markus wearily swung himself into his saddle. Once seated, he carefully arranged the rifle’s case to stop it chaffing against his thigh. He watched the rest of the Outriders slowly mount up. They’re tired, he thought, tired and wondering if this wild beast hunt will ever end. Markus questioned his own judgement. What have I led them into, he asked himself.
‘Ready to move out,’ announced Boris.
Markus looked at the clear blue sky giving the promise of a fine day before he announced, ‘It’s a good day for the hunt.’
He spurred his horse into a brisk trot. He turned to look back at the troop following him.
‘Let us catch us a bear today,’ he said to no one in particular.
They followed the hoof marks left by the remaining outlaws. They then passed the remnants of a smoking fire, where the bandits had passed the night. Uneaten food and discarded items of clothing showed that they had left in a hurry.
The hoof prints led the Outriders further down the valley before swerving off towards some hills.
‘They’re trying to lose us in them hills,’ opined Boris.
‘Or waylay us again,’ added Markus sourly.
They rode on in silence.
Markus kept a sharp lookout for likely spots to set an ambush. They stopped often to check them out, but they were all empty.
About midday he spotted some distant specks on the skyline. He pointed them out to the Kislevian who nodded. With the bandits in sight, Markus felt more confident the Outriders wouldn’t be bushwacked.
He led the cavaliers on at a rapid pace in order to catch up.
About an hour later, Markus saw they were gaining on the brigands. The rugged, hilly country was tiring their horses. One or two had dismounted and were leading their mounts. However, he also noted that the steep, rock-strewn hills towards which the bandits were headed offered them a strong, makeshift defensive position.
Boris had also drawn the same conclusion. ‘Six men could hold off an army,’ he observed.
‘I’ve an idea,’ said Markus.
He slowed his pace somewhat confident the bandits would now turn and fight.
Sometime later, Markus stood with the Outriders looking up towards the crest of a pass. Even unopposed, he could see it would be a difficult climb. Above them their enemy waited ready to deal death on the Outriders. He finished briefing the soldiers. They nodded. ‘Let’s go, then,’ he said and slinging his rifle case started to climb the slope.
As he climbed, he watched Boris with the bulk of the Outriders struggle up towards the entrenched bandits. He saw the Kislevite look in his direction and wave.
The steep climb and the weight of his armour and equipment meant that Markus was soon sweating profusely despite the cold. The exercise made his heart beat loudly and he took great gulps of air as he scrambled slowly up the loose scree.
His route took him not towards the desperados on the summit but up the steeper side of the valley. While he climbed he looked around at the panorama. From where he now was, the horses had shrunk into animated miniatures. He could make out the handlers watching their progress. When he looked towards the bandits’ position, he could see them watching him.
Realising he was high enough, he unslung the rifle and found a suitable rest on a rocky outcrop. He looked towards the enemy. He carefully took a draw on one of the bandits who was half exposed and squeezed the trigger. The gun shuddered as it fired. Smoke stung his eyes.
He rubbed his eyes to remove the smart. He saw the bandit lay slumped back. He was quickly dragged out of sight. Markus smiled inwardly and started the slow process of recharging his piece.
When he was ready he searched the skyline for targets. The bandits were keeping themselves well hidden.
He said to one of the soldiers, ‘Fire a shot at their position.’
‘But it’ll never reach,’ said the soldier.
‘It doesn’t matter. Just do as I say.’
The soldier pointed his handgun towards the enemy position and fired.
Markus kept the skyline in sight.
A bandit raised himself to check on Boris and the other party of Outriders that had been slowly making its way towards their position.
Markus quickly aimed and fired.
‘Got ‘im, sir,’ the soldier who had fired shouted in an exuberant voice.
‘They’re leaving,’ said another.
Markus looked and saw the bandits were indeed abandoning their position. He waved and shouted at his sergeant.
‘Don’t let them escape.’
Boris waved back at him.
Markus led his little party towards the pass. As he worked his away across the hillside he watched as the Outriders scrambled up the last hundred yards to the summit and disappeared down the other side.
Eager to catch up, Markus clambered recklessly across the loose rocks sending stones rattling down the side of the hill.
Once at the saddle, he dashed past the two fallen bandits.
Over the crest, he looked into another valley. Down below, the remaining outlaws were already mounting their horses. Markus would have shot one, but his rifle was unloaded. Instead he had to watch them make their escape. He counted seven, plus the girl. The last to leave shook his fist at the Outriders charging down the slope before galloping away.
Seeing nothing more could be done, Markus walked back across the summit to signal to the horse handlers to bring up their mounts.
A short time later they found the tracks left by the remaining fugitives. The bandits had split going off in two directions.
Markus sat on his horse examining the tracks for a long moment.
Boris chewed on a bit of jerky. ‘Shouldn’t we be after ‘em, sir?’
Markus said nothing. He turned his attention to the savage landscape.
At last he spoke. ‘Boris, you’ll take the left and I’ll follow the right.’
‘Is that wise, sir?’
‘He knows this area. He’s probably got some stratagem in mind.’
‘Be careful, sir.’
Markus patted the sergeant’s gloved hand. ‘I will, Boris, I will.’ He then signalled to the five soldiers that were to accompany him and led the little group along the trail.
Later, as he scanned the forbidding hills into which the spore led them, Boris’ words came unbidden into his mind. On both sides, the hills rose up in a series of terraced steps like a giant’s staircase. The valley floor, along which they rode with some difficulty, was covered by strands of silver birch interspersed with chunks of rock that had fallen from the cliffs. Markus felt it was an ideal place for an ambush.
‘Not my kind of place,’ volunteered corporal Heineman.
‘No,’ agreed Markus, ‘but a great place to hide.’
‘They’re close.’ Heineman pointed.
Markus followed his indication. Partially hidden in the trees, he saw three horses standing abandoned.
‘Corporal, stay here with the horses.’ Markus gestured to two of the troopers to dismount. He took out the long rifle and joined them on foot. Then he led them forward scanning the area ahead carefully.
When they had circled the horses and he was sure the enemy had fled, he called over the rest of the party. Markus couldn’t understand why they had abandoned the horses.
‘Old trick, sir,’ said Heineman. ‘We go after ‘em and they comes and clobbers the guard. We use it all the time when we have a rumble with the militia.’ He was referring to the frequent drunken brawls that took place in the streets of Altdorf between the various military units.
‘You’d make quite a general,’ Markus said approvingly.
‘Thank you, sir.’ Heineman beamed all over at the compliment.
Markus scanned the hills above him to see if they were being observed. Satisfied he spoke to the corporal. ‘We’ll play along. I’ll take three men and follow their tracks. Then we’ll double back and surprise them. You’ve got the hard part, staying here.’
‘We’ll do our bit, sir. Count on it.’
‘Whatever happens, don’t let them get the horses.’
‘I won’t, sir.’
Markus nodded. He gestured to the three who would go with him to fan out. As expected, the bandits hadn’t tried to hide their tracks and he quickly deduced the direction they had taken. At a muddy spot he carefully examined the footprints. One of them was smaller than the rest. He was sure it was the girl’s. So he had chosen the right tracks to follow. The outlaw leader was somewhere ahead.
He scanned the hillside that loomed above him. At any moment he felt sure he would hear the crack of a handgun and feel the lead tear through his insides. His hands felt sweaty as he gripped the rifle.
A yell told him there was trouble behind him. Shots rang out.
‘Quick,’ he shouted as he bounded back towards the horses, the soldiers scrambling after him.
Getting close to the horses Markus saw the corporal and the trouper engaged in hand to hand combat with two of the bandits. He charged towards the melee, as fast as he could, his legs pounding on the hard rough stones.
Then the trooper was down and the two bandits had turned their attention on the unfortunate Heineman.
‘Hang on corporal,’ Markus shouted at the top of his voice.
One of the bandits looked towards him and broke away. He quickly grabbed one of the Outrider horses and hauled himself into the saddle.
‘Oh no, you won’t’ shouted Markus.
He dropped to a kneeling position. The rider was kicking the sides of the horse to make it go faster. Markus took aim at the mounted man, careful to compensate for the moving target, and fired.
Through the gunsmoke Markus saw the outlaw falter in the saddle before plunging to the ground. One foot remained caught in the stirrup and he was dragged a short distance along the ground before the horse came to a stop.
The sound of shots close by reminded Markus of the other outlaw. He turned back towards the corporal. He was lying writhing and moaning on the ground. The bandit lay prostrate beside him.
Markus jogged over to the wounded Heineman. He saw the raw and bloody wound to his thigh. He kneeled down beside the soldier, quickly tore off a bit of the corporal’s uniform, and used it to bind the injury.
When he had finished, Markus looked at his handiwork then at the corporal’s face. His strained, blood-drained expression spoke volumes.
Markus joked to reassure him, ‘You’ll live. They’ll probably make you a sergeant.’
‘Yah … think … so?’ came the reply between drawn breaths.
‘I’m sure of it,’ answered Markus. He moved over to examine the fallen trooper. He turned the soldier over. The man was dead. Markus got up and looked up at the hilltops. He spoke grimly.
‘Another debt, you owe me.’
He considered the situation and spoke to the remaining troopers. ‘I want a volunteer to go with me.’ None of the soldiers said anything. Markus looked at each of them.
Then one of them raised a gloved hand. ‘I’ll go, sir.’
‘Thanks, Smidt,’ said Markus. He told the others, ‘If we’re not back within two hours, you’re to take Heineman and all the horses and get back to sergeant Boris. Tell him what’s happened. He’ll decide what to do. Is that clear?’
‘Aye, sir,’ said one of the soldiers. ‘We wait two hours only.’
‘Come.’ He gestured to Smidt to follow him and they set off in pursuit of the remaining outlaw.
Markus had to shoulder his rifle at the steepest points as they climbed up the side of the hill. Following the path taken by the bandit and his captive was not difficult. They had left clear marks of their passage on the rocks. The signs led them towards the summit.
Markus expected to be waylaid at any moment and so he was surprised to find himself looking out over the top without being challenged. The summit fell away gently in a series of descending terraces. Most of the surface was smooth like a table, except where wind sculptured outcrops of harder rocks had resisted the erosion. Markus didn’t like the look of it one bit.
Smidt crawled up beside him. ‘I’ll go first, sir,’ he said and he snaked out over the plateau towards the first of the rocky outcrops.
Markus watched him crawl to safety before following him.
Once beside the soldier he cautiously spied out their advance. He had the uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach when something was not right.
‘He’s up to something,’ he whispered to Smidt. He looked around to make sure the bandit hadn’t somehow got behind them. Reassured he said, ‘We’ll advance to the next rock.’
The soldier nodded and moved forward on all fours. Markus crouched covering him, rifle at the ready.
Once in cover, Smidt signalled for Markus to join him.
Unhappy at the position they were in and keen to get behind cover, Markus scuttled forward like a crab on three legs, as one hand cradled his rifle. He joined the trooper.
‘See anything?’ he asked.
Smidt shook his head to say no.
Markus was now thoroughly alarmed. He just knew the bandit leader was hiding somewhere nearby biding his moment. He surveyed the rocks ahead of him paying careful attention to those nearest to their position. He could spot nothing out of the ordinary.
Markus swore. ‘Ulric deliver us.’ He said to the trooper, ‘We’ll just have to chance it.’
He crawled towards the next outcrop scanning the skyline carefully. He felt better behind its protection. Markus sweated as he watched Smidt creep towards him. The soldier made agonisingly slow progress.
At last the two were reunited as the solider joined him behind the rock.
From their new vantage point, Markus scanned the hilltop. While he did, he wondered whether the bandit chief was not at this moment doubling back towards the horses. Then, behind an outcrop, he saw a bare hand rise momentarily above the rock before being suddenly pulled out of sight.
Markus slapped Smidt on the arm, pointed at where he thought the bandit was, and made an encircling motion before he crawled out to outflank the position.
A shot rang out.
Markus looked to see whether Smidt was hurt.
The soldier signalled him an all’s right with his thumb and forefinger. The Outrider then got to his feet, his weapon at the ready and advanced towards the rocks.
‘Get down you fool,’ Markus shouted.
But it was too late.
Another shot rang out and Smidt doubled over and lay sprawled on his back.
Markus gazed aghast at the fallen trooper and then towards the outcrop from which swirls of gun smoke drifted.
His heart beat loudly in his chest as he scuttled forward to enfilade the bandit. At any moment he expected a bullet to smash into him. He kept his eyes on the outlaw’s position as he moved.
Then he saw the man, frantically reloading a handgun. Markus could see he was priming the pan, which meant he had already loaded the piece.
Throwing himself down, Markus aimed his rifle just as the outlaw cocked his weapon.
The bandit looked up and saw Markus. He immediately brought the gun up to his shoulder and sighted down the barrel.
Markus fired and immediately rolled with the slope, letting go of the rifle in the process. He heard the handgun go off, but didn’t feel the bullet.
At once, he was up and running towards the bandit, drawing his pistol as he did so.
Markus saw the bloodstain where his shot had hit the man’s shoulder.
The leader grabbed the girl as a shield. In one hand he clutched a dagger, in the other a sword.
He called out to Markus, ‘Any closer and I’ll kill the girl.’
Markus stopped where he was.
‘Let her go,’ he ordered.
He rapidly calculated the distance between them. Ten, fifteen yards, he told himself. He considered the possibilities. He didn’t think he could be sure of missing the girl. He extemporised for time.
‘Why did you take her?’
The bandit took this for a cue to parley.
‘Let me go and you can have her,’ he said.
Markus said nothing. The man took this for a sign to continue.
‘I’ve got money, goods and cattle stashed around here. I can make it worth your while.’
Still Markus said nothing.
‘I can make you rich. You’ll have much more than you’ll ever earn on an officer’s pay.’
‘You can’t match my price,’ Markus retorted.
‘I’ll give you five thousand pounds,’ the bandit answered smoothly. ‘And the girl.’ He smiled at Markus in a gesture more akin to a rictus of pain than friendship. He shifted his grip on his hostage.
Perhaps out of fear or pure desperation but the young girl used the opportunity to leap from his grasp and dart away.
This caught Markus totally by surprise. It took a moment before he reacted.
The bandit had already dashed after his human shield and widened the distance between them.
Markus, keeping his draw from the girl, opened fire. The gun danced in his hands as the mechanism rotated and fired the successive barrels. The pistol fired four times before its mechanism jammed.
‘Damn,’ he cried in despair.
He drew his sword and immediately dashed forward through the smoke.
The bandit was looking at him, leaning on one leg. The girl had vanished.
Markus approached the man slowly, remembering his earlier cunning.
In response, the outlaw chief retreated.
Markus could see the edge of the plateau behind him.
The man sensed or read something in Markus’ expression for he hastily glanced over his shoulder. He nevertheless continued to retreat towards the edge as Markus advanced.
The man glanced again and then held his ground. His eyes remained fixed on Markus as he drew near.
Markus stopped when he was within striking distance. The man spoke.
‘We can make a deal. I can make you rich.’
The man seemed bewildered with the response.
Markus lunged with his sword.
The bandit stepped back to avoid the point and lost his balance. He fell heavily dropping his sword and dagger. The dagger bounced and clattered away over the edge. Markus heard it strike the rocks below.
The bandit was lying with half his body over the ledge and holding on with his good arm. He looked up as Markus advanced.
Between laboured breaths he said, ‘Seven thousand pounds.’
Markus looked down at him for a moment. Their eyes joined. Then he brought the heel of his boot down savagely on the bandit’s hand.
The man screamed.
Markus kicked out at his head.
The outlaw slipped over the edge screaming loudly as he fell. For good measure Markus kicked his sword after him.
Turning away he sought out the young girl. He found her not far away, crouching behind one of the rocky outcrops.
As he walked towards her, he licked his dry lips. They tasted acrid. He gestured at her.
‘Come,’ he said, ‘I promised to take you back to your father.’