Sir Andronikos and his squire finished arming, figuring to leave the helmets off but close, and they made sure their steeds were secure to stout limbs, but could be loosed quickly should the need arise. Then they waited, listening.
Hávarðr turned the turkey on the spit, and kicked more wood into the fire. Its heat felt good, though the smoke and steam rising from it was considerable. The smell of cooking bird and burning fat soon filled the air almost as much as the scent of fire. They heard the sound of approaching hooves, at a trot before picking up the pace to a canter. Many hooves.
A cluster of five men rode into view on the trail, not in formation but not single-file, either. They were lightly armored, heavily armed with weapons at the ready, variously dressed, and rough-looking. When they saw the two Kilpans at the fire they let out a howl and charged in, quickly surrounding them at spear-point while gleeful hooting and celebrating at getting the drop on the two standing men.
But the mounted brigands were used to dealing with rabble, militia, and farmers, not well-trained knights. It rapidly turned into a standoff, with many demands made for the knights to drop their shields and weapons, but the outlaw’s spears couldn’t get past the excellent defense of the two warriors standing side by side with their backs against the trees and a fire on one side that spooked the horses. None of the horsemen were willing to dismount and get behind them because they’d have to stand precariously on the fallen trees. Hávarðr spoke to them in Kilpanese, which none of them knew, and Sir Andronikos pretended to not know any of the poor Crimean they were blathering, exchanging words only in Kilpanese with his squire, while blocking the much less skillful thrusts of the bandits. The knight’s armor plate shed the weak thrust of dull spear points easily when they missed a parry, and the limited room prevented the mobility which would normally be the horsemen’s greatest asset. One of the spears lost its point, the shaft cut clean through by a vicious broadsword hack. As the standoff lengthened, a moment of motionless happened, then grew. The crackling and sizzle of roasting turkey starting to burn filled the air and drew the attention of the ruffians.
The five started jabbering among themselves; Andronikos gathered they were hungry, and trying to figure out how to deal with the knights and get to the meat before it was too charred. None of them carried bows. One of them tried a different language. Then a third, and a fourth. Andronikos pretended to not know any of them, though he knew one well and a smattering of another.
More discussion among the brigands. One – the youngest, by the look of him – advanced on the side of the fire and with his spear started to knock the spit and bird away from the fire. At the same time a horse without bridle or harness of any sort came running down the trail from the same direction the horsemen had come, running as if spooked. The other four horse-thieves backed up, seeing it and not wanting any of their captured goods to get away.
In that moment of confusion one of them pitched forward with an arrow so deeply embedded in his back it protruded from his chest. The others wheeled about to face this new threat but saw nothing. Seconds later, another brigand sprouted an arrow in his mouth as he shouted orders to the other three. Andronikos and Hávarðr charged forward to their distracted foes, thrusting upwards with their sharp broadswords, well-aimed between boiled leather plates of armor into the guts of the men. The last man seeking to escape took an arrow to the back as he fled down the trail, falling off and crashing into the brush and breaking his neck in so doing.
Jispin emerged from the woods where there had been nothing a second before, grinning like a goblin. “Another good day!”
“Why did you wait so long?” demanded Andronikos.
“Taking care of the one left with the other horses.”
“How many horses?”
“More than four hands. Some with harness, some without.” Jispin looked at the roast bird laying in the mud. “Let’s eat.” Andronikos looked at him in surprise. “Hot food and the dead will both go cold. But only one is a waste.”
So they ate their fill of hot fowl and surprisingly good cold wine from a wineskin taken from a brigand’s horse, along with some freshly stolen bread, cheese, and dried figs. The recently deceased had made a good raid, and almost got away with it.
Jispin hadn’t been so full of decent food in his life.
It took the rest of the day to loot and haul away the bodies, secure the horses, donkeys, gear, and supplies which the thieves had stolen, and move the camp and fire to a less obvious location. From their tarp-covered encampment with a well-sheltered fire they looked at the thirty five animals in the corral someone (possibly the dead thieves) had built recently and pondered their newfound wealth. The extra animals would mean they could all ride and move much faster. But some of the branded military horses and gear belonging to just the three of them would make them a target in all sorts of ways. In these parts the law was on the side of the strongest force. But at least there was enough fodder for them to be able to eat for a couple of days, and the constant rain left puddles for them to drink from everywhere, which gave their owners time to decide on a course of action, at least until someone else came down the trail.
The nearest town of any significance was a full day’s ride away, with a couple of hamlets scattered between – but it was not likely there would be any money in those to buy more than a small fraction of what they had, though there were likely enough militia to try and seize it. It was a conundrum none of them had faced before. If anything, they had spent their lives with the opposite problem, being a hard target with nothing of great value worth the risk. But three dozen animals, quantities of armor and weapons, many weeks’ worth of food, and only guarded by the three of them? Apparently alone, weak, and wealthy was a dangerous place to be anywhere in the world, let alone the wilds between two warring nations.
If they left someone behind to watch the animals he’d be alone, and it would leave only two to go ahead and find a buyer. Leaving the animals alone and not leaving anyone behind meant they would be free for the taking, or the eating by wild animals. Taking them all and staying together meant they would be going into an unknown situation with large quantities of readily visible wealth.