A Markus Reutger Adventure
[Note this is the follow on story to Carnival and is best read in that order]
‘Sir, wake up,’ said Boris.
‘What is it?’ Markus, half-asleep, mumbled.
‘There’s movement in the dunes.’ Hearing this Markus was immediately wide-awake. He quickly scrambled to his feet and followed the big Kislevite out of the building. Outside, a dark shadow against the stars, ensign Reigemar was waiting for them.
Johann spoke in a whisper. ‘I think the Moors are up to something.’
Markus answered him in the same hushed tones as the ensign. ‘All right. Let’s take a look.' Markus reflected that a week in this infernal land had got them all acting strangely. The quiet of the desert night made you want to whisper so as not to disturb, Sigmar knew what.
During the night the force he led had taken possession of what Markus took to be a farmhouse. It consisted of a crude mud brick enclosure with a number of small outbuildings set into the wall and the larger house in which most of the Outriders had collapsed exhausted after marching through the desert all day.
Dismissing the gloomy thought, Markus climbed up onto the flat roof of the main building, the highest point of their refuge for the night. Looking about he used his telescope to carefully examine the starlit desert. He could see nothing out of the ordinary. Yet he knew that the Arabians were there, waiting, hiding in the shadow of the dunes.
‘They’ll attack at dawn.’ It was Johann. The ensign had joined Markus on the roof.
‘What makes you so sure?’
‘It seems a sensible thing to do,’ Johann explained. As if, Markus thought, this poor excuse for an ensign knew the fighting habits of Arabians.
‘We’d best be prepared for that eventuality. Stand the men to at first light.’
‘I’ll see to it.’ Johann said nothing for a while and neither did Markus feel much like speaking. Despite being wrapped in a cloak Markus shivered with cold. He idly wondered why a land that was so burning hot during the day could be so cold at night. Colder, he reckoned than winter in his beloved Reikland. He filed the thought for later consideration. If there was going to be a later time, he told himself.
Johann then spoke, ‘It’s my fault you’re in this hellhole.’
‘I don’t blame you, Johann,’ answered Markus. ‘You didn’t get us into this.’
‘True. But if I hadn’t deserted, you wouldn’t have been sent to Tilea. You wouldn’t have ended up fighting shadows in the sand. And the prisoners got away because of me.’
‘That’s all in the past. We’re here and we’ve got to get back to the coast.’ And alive, added Markus wordlessly. He didn’t want Reigemar to become despondent, there was enough fear as it was without the ensign carrying it like a virus. He added. ‘We’ll get going as soon as we can see our way. It’s not far now. About a day’s march.’
‘I’ll rouse the men.’ Johann turned to go.
As his shade disappeared, Markus whispered urgently after the fast disappearing ensign, ‘Do it quietly.’
Markus gazed out once more at the shadows that surrounded their refuge. In a few hours, he knew the landscape would burn under an angry sun. How many he wondered bitterly would live out the day. He silently asked Myrmidia, the goddess of war, for her protection. Then he climbed down into the courtyard.
Brennr, the troll slayer, accosted him and pulled him aside. ‘It’s bad, isn’t it?’ the dwarf asked.
‘It’s not good,’ Markus acknowledged.
‘I’ll take the rearguard,’ announced the slayer in a voice that was not open to argument.
‘You do that,’ answered Markus. He knew that if it came to it the dwarf couldn’t outpace their pursuers. ‘Your presence will be invaluable.’
‘Good.’ Brennr added grufly, ‘I’d have done it whether you agreed or not.’
At this moment Boris, the Kislevite and Markus’ long-serving troop sergeant, interrupted them. ‘Sir, we’re ready to move out.’ Over to the east a faint bluing of the night indicated that dawn wasn’t far away.
‘Let’s be off then,’ Markus ordered. He led the soldiers out of the farm and towards the north. As he did so, yells behind them indicated they’d been spotted. ‘Quick. On the double,’ he shouted, ‘we’ll try and lose them in the dunes.’
He immediately led the men forward at a jog, the fastest he dared go across the rough stony ground in the demi-noire of daybreak, weighted down with arms, armour and equipment as they were.
They continued this way for several minutes. As the sun rose, the shape of the land took on substance as if emerging from a black mist. Markus could make out the ruts and boulders and the tall treacherous sand dunes that he knew were a common feature of the desert landscape they had crossed earlier. He feared that bands of Arabians lurked behind each and every dune, ready to swarm out as they approached.
The first one they passed hid nothing but more sand. Markus breathed a sigh of relief. He stopped momentarily to allow the stragglers to catch up. The short-legged slayer was, as he had promised, the last to arrive, scowling furiously.
Once assembled again, Markus led the group on at a rapid pace. He was pleasantly surprised not to have encountered the enemy and was beginning to hope they’d made their escape when drawing near another line of dunes, arrows began to shower down on them. A line of Arabians mounted on small ponies, brandishing scimitars and lances, now wheeled out from dead ground to bar their passage.
‘There’s nothing for it,’ shouted Markus. ‘We’ll have to fight our way through.’ He stopped his men and shouted, ‘Form column.’ He drew his sword and unholstered his repeater pistol, fingering the butt to get the grip just right.
When the men had formed, ready to attack, he addressed them, ‘Don’t fire until I give the order. Three rounds. Then we’ll charge.’ He inspected the assembled men. Their faces were lined from lack of sleep, but also grim and determined, ready for the fight. They knew their lives depended on it. Being taken prisoner was worse than dying. They’d seen the cruelties the Arabians inflicted on their enemies. ‘Forward. At the double,’ he ordered.
‘I don’t trust him,’ Habich raged. ‘He’s nothing but a pirate.’ The colonel stared at the other officers assembled for the conference. They stood or sat around a large table covered by an oversized map of the known world. The room was devoid of natural light since little came through the arrowslits. Lamps hanging from the ceiling threw a shadowy light on the proceedings.
‘But we need him. De Morlay’s the only man who can lead us to the gold,’ answered another participant dressed in the uniform of a naval captain.
‘That’s what troubles me,’ continued Habich.
‘We’ll be vigilant,’ added a Reiksguard major.
‘What do you think Reutger? You’ve had a chance to study the man,’ Habich asked.
‘He’s cunning, ambitious and greedy, and can be quite ruthless. He’s definitely not to be trusted. Also he’ll do anything for money.’
‘So we pay him,’ interjected the major.
‘Otto, it isn’t that simple. If he gets a whiff there’s a fortune to be had...’ Habich left the implications unsaid.
‘We’ll put it about that the purpose of the expedition is to locate and bring home the passengers and crew. And, if possible, salvage the ship’s guns,’ the captain added.
‘We’ll have a strong force. There’ll be Reutger’s troop of Outriders and the ship’s marines, not counting the crew,’ the major said.
‘He would be a fool to try anything,’ said the captain.
Habich spoke decisively. ‘So it’s settled. We’ll use him.’ He then turned to the Reiksguard major and added, ‘Brennr wants to join the expedition. He tells me he speaks some Arabic. Also, given Reutger’s experience fighting the beast, I think he’ll prove useful.’
‘Fine day,’ said Gilles de Morlay as he joined Markus by the rail of the aft deck. ‘At this rate, we’ll be there in no time.’
‘You sailors have a funny idea of the weather,’ answered Markus. The wind gusted strongly and Markus had to grasp the rail as the ship, sails unfurled, heaved through the rolling seas. Overhead a few seabirds cried out as they circled seeking scraps among the flotsam. It reminded him uncomfortably of the storm that had wrecked the Lion of Nuln and the reason for this journey.
‘I forget, you’re a soldier, like the rest.’ He gestured at two Outriders shakily making their way across the main deck. He went on, ‘But one thing puzzles me. Why are you going back? After what happened, being attacked by that beast of chaos, I’m surprised you agreed.’ Gilles was referring to Markus’ battle with a savage monster of chaos he’d encountered on the shores of Araby. It had attacked and killed Marin, the only other known survivor of the shipwrecked Lion. ‘They don’t need you to salvage a few cannon. Or to search for the missing crew and passengers.’
‘Maybe, I was ordered to come?’ Markus countered.
‘Bah,’ spat Gilles spat, ‘you expect me to believe that? There’s something you haven’t told me. Isn’t there?’
‘Whatever explanation I gave you, you wouldn’t believe me,’ Markus answered him. He turned away and headed below deck.
‘This is the spot,’ Gilles announced to the assembled officers on the poop deck.
Indeed, Markus thought the shoreline looked familiar. Sandy beaches alternated with rocky outcrops behind which a line of cliffs cut off their view of the hinterland. He could even see what he thought was the cleft in the rocks that Marin and he had used as their refuge. He looked towards the reef for signs of the wreck of the Lion, but none remained.
‘We’ll anchor and investigate,’ the captain announced.
At once the crew set to work. Boats were launched and the Outriders prepared themselves.
When all was ready sailors lowered a large chest into one of the boats. Soldiers clambered down the ship’s side. Markus was the last to go. As he scrambled down to join the others, he saw Gilles lounging against the rail observing every detail. Markus wondered what he’d make of the chest.
The sailors made short work of rowing ashore.
As he disembarked, Markus was suddenly overwhelmed with grief. He looked towards the spot where he’d buried Marin. Standing on the very beach from which months before he’d been rescued, it seemed like yesterday. Instinctively he looked up to see if the riders on the cliff top who’d observed his departure were watching. The skyline was empty. The only movement that caught his eye was a few flyers in the distance. Suddenly fearful, Markus examined their silhouettes in case they were the winged beasts of chaos aroused by their arrival. He quickly realised they were only seabirds soaring on the wind.
‘Where did you hide it?’ asked the Reiksguard major interrupting Markus’ thoughts.
‘This way,’ he replied and led the party towards the spot where he’d hidden the gold after salvaging it from the wreck of the Lion. The area looked undisturbed. ‘It should be here,’ he said as he pointed to a pile of rocks near the cliff.
The troopers set to work and quickly uncovered the bags, just as he’d hidden them. Placing them in the chest, they laboriously carried it back to the boat. Markus and the major went with them and returned to the ship, leaving the Outriders behind on the shore.
The ship was a hive of activity. A giant copper bell was being hauled out of the forward hold. A couple of dwarfs were supervising the operation. Markus noted that Gilles was keenly observing all the goings on. He seemed particularly interested as the sailors manhandled the chest on board. Giles watched as it was taken aft. Yes Gilles, Markus spoke silently, it’s going to the captain’s cabin. Giles then noticed that Markus was watching him. He smiled and waved before turning back to view the salvage operation. Markus then went to join the captain and the major on the poop deck.
The major was speaking, ‘The first part of our mission has been successful. I see you’re making progress here.’
‘Yes,’ the captain replied, ‘we’ve located the wreck. We’re just launching the bell.’
‘How long will it take?’
‘A couple of days. Maybe more, if the weather is rough.’
‘That gives us time to undertake our secondary mission: to look for any survivors. I’ll lead the Outriders in a reconnaissance. I’ll leave the marines on board to provide security.’
Markus spoke up, ‘What of the slayer?’
‘Ask him if he’ll accompany us,’ the major suggested.
The land was totally desolate. Their path led them over dry packed clay that alternated with dunes of soft dun-coloured sand. It made for hard marching. In the baked soil little vegetation grew and that which did looked dried out. Markus wondered whether the route they’d taken was leading anywhere. He took out the lodestone once more the check their direction. He was reasonably sure they hadn’t strayed from their intended line of advance.
The sun beat down. Inside his armour, he felt his body fry in the heat like meat on a fire. His throat was parched. There was no shade.
Brennr, the slayer, who was struggling along behind him, spoke up gruffly. ‘Still no sign of anything?’
‘No.’ Markus knew the dwarf was really only interested in finding the beast. To his way of thinking, the fate of the castaways was of little consequence. So far they hadn’t seen any sign of the monster. He tried to sound positive. ‘The thing had wings. It could probably travel a long way. We haven’t gone far.’
‘I still don’t like it,’ the dwarf went on. ‘We’ve seen no sign of people. We’ve lost the track we picked up at the coast.’
‘We’ll find it again.’
‘Umpfh,’ spat the dwarf.
To escape the slayer’s grumbling Markus dropped back to speak to the major. ‘Sir, shouldn’t we turn back? There’s nothing here.’
‘We’ll continue till nightfall. If we don’t find tracks by then, we’ll head back to the ship.’
‘As you wish, sir,’ said Markus trying to be polite. He was beginning to hate Araby. He recalled what Habich had said about the land. The lack of water, the ferocious population, their savage ways, their strange cults. He’d explained how the Estalians and Bretonnians had suffered years of hardship during their invasion of this land. Markus wondered why they’d bothered. He now regretted his decision to return. To relieve some of the ire he felt he kicked at a stone only to discover it was firmly fixed into the ground. Instead of flying off, he hurt his foot.
‘Cursed country,’ he swore as the pain registered.
Then he heard a distant cry ahead. It was Boris. The sergeant was about three hundred yards in front, with the vanguard. Markus saw that the advance party had stopped at the top of a rise. Boris was gesturing at them, signalling for the main party to catch up. Markus increased his pace as much as possible without actually running. He rapidly caught up with the big Kislevian.
‘See, sir,’ said the sergeant, pointing down the slope ahead. Markus looked. At first he failed to make out anything. Then he was able to sense of the shapes on the ground. Like a field of vegetables a number of bodies lay spread-eagled on the dirt. Sand had partially buried them.
He asked, ‘Do you think they’re from the ship?’
‘Only one way to find out.’ Boris strode off down the slope and knelt to examine the first one.
Markus followed the big Kislevian. He scrutinised the victim. The harsh desert sun had dried out the corpse. Staked and tied as the body was, he saw that the man had been tortured to death. The man’s face frozen in a grizzly rictus, as if laughing. Animals or insects had eaten away the eyes and the flesh. He couldn’t tell whether this had happened while the man still lived or after he had died.
‘Well?’ he asked.
‘The clothes are empire—or Tilean,’ said Boris finally.
‘Who do you think did this?’ It was Reigemar. The man visibly shook as he gazed at the horror of the scene.
‘The Arabians,’ Boris replied laconically.
‘Get back to your duties, ensign,’ Markus barked. ‘You’re place is with the rearguard.’
‘Sorry, sir, I just had to see.’ Reigemar stumbled back up the slope.
Boris spoke up after the ensign was out of earshot, ‘You’re being harsh on the man. He somehow feels responsible.’
‘He can be a fool,’ Markus said in an irritated voice. He knew he was being unreasonable. He put it down to the heat and the forbidding wilderness. And the eerie sight of the field of death.
‘Come on, let’s look at the others.’ They examined a number of other corpses before returning to the main body that had waited on the crest.
‘What do you think?’ asked the major.
‘Definitely survivors from the ship.’
‘Do you think this is all of them?’ the major went on.
‘I’d think there’s at least thirty. The Lion carried over two hundred. These unfortunates tell us that some survived at least this far. There could be others.’
‘I agree,’ said the major. ‘This changes things. We’ll continue our search.’
‘Yes sir,’ Markus acknowledged. He felt uneasy at the decision now that he’s seen at first hand the savagery of the local inhabitants. While he knew his men well, they were but a small company in a hostile country with a black reputation.
‘Nasty place this,’ opined Brennr.
‘It’ll probably get worse,’ Markus suggested in a sardonic tone.
‘There’s a village ahead,’ Boris reported. He’d come sliding back down a large dune where he’d been observing the ground in front.
‘How many people?’ the major asked.
‘Hard to tell exactly. Maybe thirty. Possibly more in the houses.’
‘Did you see any survivors from the ship?’ Markus inquired.
‘I don’t think so.’
‘Well, we’ve found us some natives,’ said the major. ‘They’ll be able to tell us what happened. Deploy the men. We’re going in.’
‘Sir,’ Reigemar piped up, ‘is it wise letting them know we’re here?’
‘He has a point,’ Markus added.
‘Afraid of a little fight are we?’ the major shot back in a scornful tone.
‘No sir,’ Markus replied, angered by the unspoken assumption.
Reigemar said nothing.
The major drew a rough diagram in the sand with his sword. ‘We’ll go in from all sides and surround the village. That way we’ll get them all in the bag. Reutger, you’ll block the point opposite.’ He pointed at the farthest side of the village with the tip of his sword. ‘When you’re in position start closing in. We’ll attack when we see you make your move.’
Markus then led his small group of soldiers in a long detour keeping to dead ground to avoid detection.
But before they had got into position, he heard shots. ‘Follow me,’ he shouted as he broke into a quick jog. ‘We mustn’t let them escape.’
As they sprinted forward, a number of villages came into sight running towards them. Spotting the Outriders, they fled towards some dunes.
‘Stop them,’ he ordered. The soldiers fired. Most of the villagers were hit, but two vanished out of sight. ‘Damn,’ he exploded. He pointed at four of his men. ‘Go find them.’
The detachment hurried after the fugitives.
The men quickly returned. ‘They’ve disappeared,’ said one.
‘Ulric preserve us,’ Markus muttered. ‘Just what we need.’ He indicated to the squad. ‘Keep watch,’ he ordered.
Markus headed for the village. As he approached he saw that most of its inhabitants had been rounded up and were squatting, huddled together, heads down, under the levelled guns of the Outriders.
He spotted Reigemar to one side. ‘Where’s the major?’
‘He’s on the other side of the village,’ Reigemar informed him.
Markus headed through the village. It consisted of a number of flat roofed mud dwellings, none more than one story in height and various smaller out buildings. Between the houses were mud-walled paddocks, some of which held a few scraggy sheep and goats. A poor lot, he thought, just like the country.
As he emerged on the other side, he spotted the major who was in the middle of an animated conversation with Brennr. As he got closer he heard what the major was saying. ‘Ask the villagers about the shipwreck.’
‘Their dialect is difficult to understand,’ the dwarf replied.
Markus broke in. ‘Sir, some of the villagers escaped.’
‘As I feared. They spotted us before we’d got into position,’ the major explained. ‘We’ll leave as soon as we get some answers. They’ve probably got friends around here.’ Turning to a soldier standing nearby, he ordered, ‘Bring us one of the prisoners.’
‘Yes, sir,’ replied the man and hurried off.
The Outrider was soon back prodding a youth forward with his sword. The lad looked at the officers and cowered.
‘El harrah toma solangi,’ Brennr said to the villager. This seemed to reassure the youth and he asked a question. Brennr pointed at the major and spoke slowly in broken Arabic. The lad nodded and replied at length.
When the lad had finished, Brennr reported. ‘I asked him about the monster. He said it lived near the coast but didn’t fly this far south. It’s dead. A traveller told the villagers he’d seen the beast’s remains near the coast. I also questioned him about the corpses in the desert. He said they killed all the survivors when they arrived in their land some moons ago. They feared the foreign devils—that’s what they call us—were going to attack their village.’
The major asked, ‘How do you know he isn’t lying?’
But before Brennr could open his mouth, the youth had leapt forward brandishing a knife and stabbed the major through the eye.
With lightning reflexes, but still not quick enough to stop the attack, Brennr swung his axe and cleaved the Arabian in two.
Taken completely by surprise Markus had remained rooted to the spot. Seeing the fallen major, he hastily kneeled to help. ‘Dead,’ he said. He stood up and gazed at the village and the group of prisoners. ‘Hellish country, hellish people,’ he muttered.
Brennr, calmly wiping the blood off his axe on the youth’s robes, spoke. ‘You’re in charge now, Lieutenant.’
Markus recognised the truth of the slayer’s words. With the major dead he was now the senior officer and the men’s safety depended henceforth on his decisions. He turned to the dwarf, ‘What do you think we should do?’
‘Go back,’ Brennr answered without hesitation.
Markus briefly wondered whether the advice was due to the slayer knowing there was no monster to kill. But he knew the dwarf was right. Searching for survivors had been a fool’s errand.
‘We’ve found what we were looking for. We’re finished here,’ he announced. ‘We’ll return to the ship.’ Turning to the soldier, he said, ‘Find Boris and tell him to get the men ready to march. Tell him also to search the village for food and anything else we can use.’
‘Yes sir,’ the Outrider saluted and left.
Brennr asked, ‘And the villagers? They’ll cause trouble once we go.’
‘Then we’ll take them with us,’ Markus replied.
‘It’s going to be a long trek back,’ the dwarf pointed out. ‘Better to kill them now.’
‘No, we won’t have any needless butchery.’
‘They won’t thank you for it,’ Brennr insisted.
‘Probably not,’ Markus agreed. His voice had turned grim. The situation was not to his liking but he couldn’t just butcher the villages in cold blood.
Markus led the group away from the village without incident. The men were pleased to be going back and joked amongst themselves. He had sent Boris on ahead of the main party to scout out their route. In the middle under Reigemar’s charge, were the villagers, herded along like so much cattle.
The column made slow progress, having to halt frequently to stop the women and children straggling. Seeing how the villagers delayed their progress, Markus began to regret his decision to bring them along. He wondered whether he should follow Brennr’s advice on their fate. It was still not too late, he realised.
Some hours later, the sun was a blazing ball near the horizon. The sun was now so low its reddening light cast long shadows across the land. Markus considered calling a halt. He was wondering what dispositions to make for the night when on of the Outriders yelled. ‘Ambush!’
A volley of arrows swished past. A man screamed.
‘Where are they?’ shouted a soldier.
Like ghosts, their assailants were hidden in the dunes.
Oblivious to the arrows falling all around, Markus scanned for the enemy. Holding a hand to block off the sun's glare, he could just make out dark shapes on the skyline, silhouetted by the setting sun, popping up to fire their arrows before dropping out of sight again. ‘They’re in the dunes to the west,’ he called out.
Outriders now fired back. All around came the crack of gunfire as the men tried to hit their elusive foe. Then shots could be heard to their right. Markus knew it was Boris with his advance party, doubling back to take the ambushers in the flank.
Then as quickly as it started, the fight was over.
Taken from the side, the enemy had retreated into the shadows of the night. As silence returned to the desert, the sun dipped below the horizon and the land was plunged into darkness.
A soldier came running up to Markus. ‘Sir,’ he panted, ‘The villagers. They’ve escaped.’
‘What?’ exclaimed Markus.
‘In the confusion, they turned on their guards and got away.’
‘Sigmar, what next!’ barked Markus. ‘What was Reigemar doing?’
‘He advanced with most of the guards to help you, sir.’
‘Where are the villagers now?’
‘They disappeared into the dunes, sir.’ The soldier added, ‘Shall we pursue them?’
‘Bah, they’d like nothing better. Tell Reigemar to see to the casualties. Strip the dead of anything useful. I want to be ready to move out in ten minutes.’
‘I’ll inform him at once, sir,’ the soldier replied.
‘Also tell him,’ Markus added as an afterthought, ‘I’ll speak to him later.’
‘Yes, sir,’ the Outrider answered. He saluted and left to convey the message.
Boris, leading the advance party back from their attack, now joined him.
‘We missed ‘em, sir. Didn’t see ‘em hiding in them dunes,’ the sergeant explained in an apologetic voice.
‘It’s not your fault. They planned it carefully,’ Markus answered. ‘You did the right thing counterattacking.’
‘What now, sir?’ added the Kislevite. ‘They’ll regroup and attack again.’
‘We’ll use the dark to lose them. We’ll change direction. With Ulric’s help we’ll shake them off. Brief the men. Tell them we must move quietly and quickly.’
‘Aye, sir. They’ll find it hard, most are deadbeat,’ Boris replied.
‘And Boris,’ Markus added, as the Kislevite started to move away, ‘if anything happens to me, Reigemar will be in command. You’d best be prepared.’
‘You’ll be fine, sir,’ Boris replied.
It was after midnight when Boris, who led the advance, halted the column. Markus moved up to join him. ‘Sir, there’s a building ahead,’ Boris informed him keeping his voice to a low whisper.
‘See anybody?’ Markus asked, speaking in the same low tones.
‘Well we can’t go much further tonight. We’ll occupy the building and rest up till dawn.’
‘Very good, sir,’ the Kislevite answered.
Markus now took the point and led the group forward under the starlight. A short distance ahead he could make out the outlines of the buildings, their darker shade a regular shape against the night sky. No one challenged them as they advanced. Up close, Markus realised that what he had taken to be one structure was, in fact, several buildings surrounded by a wall. It reminded him of the fortified farmsteads of his native Reikland.
He gestured to the men. They rushed in ready for anything. Markus burst into the largest building. It was empty. Searching in what he took to be a house he found evidence of recent occupation but a through inspection didn’t produce any of the inhabitants. Markus surmised they had fled—or were out searching for his group. This meant news of their presence must have spread. He tried to work out just how many angry and hostile Arabians were looking for them. He didn’t much like the answer.
‘Sir.’ It was Reigemar. ‘I’m sorry about the prisoners.’
Tired and on edge, weighed down with the responsibility of command Markus wasn’t in any mood to talk. He spoke brusquely. ‘Set the watch. Wake me if anything happens. General reveille at first light. We want to be away from this place at sun up. Is that understood, ensign?’
‘Yes, sir,’ Reigemar answered, saluting for good measure.
‘See to it,’ Markus barked. He found a corner and spreading his cloak over himself to keep out the chill night air was soon fast asleep.
Alerted to the presence of the Arabians outside their refuge. Markus had tried to escape in the half-light of dawn. But the Outriders had been spotted. Now, a line of mounted warriors blocked their passage. They had no alternative but to fight their way through.
As they got closer to the Moors, arrows flashed past or thudded in the ground all around. ‘Aargh,’ screamed a soldier as he was hit.
Then the enemy charged.
When they were less than thirty yards away, Markus barked, ‘Fire.’ From all around him came the crack of handguns.
The effect on the enemy was devastating. Horses reared as they were hit. Red stains appeared on the Arabians’ white robes where they stopped a bullet. Some were knocked backwards by the impact. Others sagged off their horses, dropping their scimitars or their horses shied, dragging them away. Some turned and fled, clutching at an arm or their bellies. Those that remained raised a great cry, ‘Alshesh! Alshesh!’
Then Markus was among them. In front of him was a white robbed spearman. He knocked the point away as it was thrust down at him before stabbing the man in the chest.
Already another Moor swung his scimitar in a blow to decapitate him.
He ducked and felt the blade grate across his helmet. He fired his pistol.
The Arabian staggered back, blood spouting from a head wound, before he toppled off his horse.
Immediately another enemy took his place. The scimitar momentarily caught the sun and flashed brightly as it swished in a descending arc.
Markus parried the blow with his sword. The two weapons crashed together, the collision sending shock waves up his arm. He fired at his attacker. A dark hole appeared in the Arab’s robe. The man fell backward and crashed to the ground.
Then Markus was through. He spun around to see his men finishing off the last of the Arabians. In seconds it was over. Only the Outriders remained standing. Most of the Arabians and the loose horses were galloping away broken by the fierce assault.
‘Onward,’ ordered Markus before setting off at a gruelling pace. He knew he had to put as much distance as possible between the enemy and his party. Other riders would soon return to harass them.
Heart pounding with the effort, he jogged on for some minutes carefully scanning the way ahead for any further ambushes.
Then Boris lopped up beside him. ‘Sir, the enemy aren’t pursuing us.’
Markus stopped and looked back. In the distance he could just make them out, dark shadows against the sky. The Arabians were aligned at the apex of a dune and were gesticulating wildly.
‘What do you make of it?’ Boris asked.
‘Dunno. But at least it gives us a chance.’
Markus stood on top of a tall dune and examined the way ahead with his telescope. The landscape was, if possible, even more rugged and desolate than anything they’d already traversed. He took out the lodestone to check on their direction. It pointed ahead. He was reasonably sure that if they continued in the direction they were travelling they’d eventually reach the coast. But they’d have to march across the dunes that now blocked their path. They reminded him of waves on the sea, a sea of sand barring their progress to the coast. Perhaps, he thought, this was why the Arabians gave up chasing them. They knew they couldn’t escape this way. He turned to see Boris watching him. He asked the sergeant, ‘How are the men?’
‘Thirsty, tired, but they’ll make it.’
Markus gazed down the slope at the Outriders. He watched Reigemar struggle up the dune. As he climbed, each footfall sent a shower of sand tumbling down. The ensign barely made any progress. Markus wondered whether the Kislevite was right. He could see the loose sand would make travelling difficult. And some of the men were wounded. His gloomy broodings were interrupted as Reigemar pulled himself onto the top of the dune and threw himself on the ground.
‘Whew,’ bleated the ensign.
'Get up,' Markus ordered brusquely, disgusted with the man's behaviour. Markus knew that whatever had led the two into friendship was now dead. He had only contempt for such a weakling.
Reigemar unsteadily got to his feet.
The rest is unfinished.
But they meet giant scorpions
The creature scuttled forward and grabbed at him with its large pincers. Markus beat at it helplessly with his sword. Then the scorpion’s tail jerked forward to strike. ‘No,’ he screamed as he felt the point penetrate his chest.
Then he was awake, sweating, lying in a bunk. He felt the berth tilt. I’m aboard ship, heading home, he told himself. But the nightmare haunted him. Tense as he was, he felt unable to sleep.
He got up and decided to take a breath of air on deck. He dressed himself and, grabbing his cloak, stepped out of his cabin.
The corridor was pitch black. The solitary lantern that provided just enough light to avoid the worst pitfalls had gone out. Since no one had relit it, Markus reckoned it must be near the end of the third watch.
Then he spotted a faint glow coming his way. Without stopping to consider his actions, he hid himself under some stairs. The faint light came closer. Markus then saw the bearer was none other than Gilles de Morlay. Markus knew he had no business wandering around the ship in the middle of the night. He decided to follow the man surreptitiously to see what he was up to.
[There’s a confrontation between the two]
 See Carnival