Chapter 13, Part 4
The two archers placed their shields at either side of the entrance to the shelter, using their feet to prop them in place. One shield was hit immediately and another arrow buried itself in the dirt, but the two men both drew and loosed almost at the same time and there was no answer from the overhang right away. Sela darted out and returned with the second arrow.
“Lady Sela, what are you—“ Dolan began, but she cut him off.
“Highness, whoever they are, it’s safe to assume they have more arrows than we do, so we might need every one we can get. Besides, I’m not a fool–by the time any of them can mark me, I’ll be out of sight.”
“Highness, she’s right,” Dolan’s bodyguard said. “They’re not bad archers, and we’re certainly in danger. But I haven’t seen anything to convince me that we have any masters among them. Kev and Loken are in more peril, and poor Akan is stuck under the wagon.”
“We can’t stay here,” Marta said. “And if we try to leave we’ll get picked off. As your bodyguard pointed out, Highness—they’re not bad archers.”
Dolan frowned. “True, but we’re safe from arrows in here and they don’t dare a direct assault, even if they can get down here. Only four? Feh. Kian could handle that many by himself, and he won’t be alone.”
Marta was a little embarrassed to think that she only now knew the names of their companions other than Kian, but there were more pressing concerns, as Kian was quick to point out.
“Your Highness flatters me, but all our supplies are in the wagons which we can’t reach. The bandits—for so I presume they are–can wait longer than we can. But at least we know now who was responsible for the murder.”
“Sir Kian? I understand your scout discovered a killing?”
“In here, in fact. Look at the dirt by the entrance, Lady Marta.”
Marta did so. What she saw was that it had been disturbed. Further into the shelter, the floor became rock, but the first few feet were bare earth, and it looked as if someone had turned it with a spade. Bonetapper hopped down to the ground, gave a sniff, and fluttered back up to Marta’s shoulder.
“Blood,” he said. “No bodies buried, but there was definitely blood. Human.”
“No bodies? Is your…servant, certain of that?” Kian asked.
“I have a nose for such things,” Bonetapper said. “Especially for someone without a nose at all.”
“I do trust his interpretation of the scent,” Marta said.
Kian nodded, and sighed. “Loken smelled the blood himself, and that wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t stopped here to rest. We assumed someone was buried there, but the lack of a body makes more sense.”
Dolan frowned. “Really? Why?”
“Consider, Highness,” Kian said. “For a bandit group, it’s the perfect situation–isolated groups along the pilgrim trail, usually fairly small, usually carrying offerings for the monastery. From that overhang they could assess the worth of each group, pick and choose. Then descend on rope ladders or the like when the party had taken shelter for the night, slip in and slit throats, then dispose of the bodies in some fashion, perhaps there’s a crevice higher in the rock we can’t see from here. Regardless, you couldn’t bury very many in this small space and remain undetected for long.”
Sela nodded. “But if a few groups disappear…well, it might be years before anyone came looking for them, only to find nothing. Assuming that, indeed, there was another way to hide the bodies, all the bandits need do is keep the earth turned to cover the scent of blood, which would fade soon enough.”
“Just so,” Kian said.
“But why risk attacking an armed party in open daylight?” Dolan asked.
“My guess is that someone noticed our interest in the dirt,” Marta said. “The smart thing would have been to wait and see if we camped here despite that, but perhaps someone panicked. They couldn’t risk us telling anyone.”
“I believe Lady Marta is correct. There was only one archer at first, I believe,” Kian said. “If all four had been on the line it’s quite likely that we’d already have dead or wounded.”
“Likely Akan, possibly Sela and myself,” Marta said. She took a moment to peer outside, then ducked back in before another arrow smacked into the earth just inside the entrance. Sela glanced at it.
“They’ll be watching that one,” she said. “I’ll wait.”
“Our position is untenable,” Dolan said. “Suggestions?”
“Only one,” Marta said. “Which I’d hoped to avoid.”
“I think I know—“ Sela began, but was shocked into silence by a rumbling in the stone and then a roar like thunder. Heedless of the arrows, they all rushed to the opening of the shelter and looked out.
Dust obscured the pass but Marta noticed several large stones where there had been none before, some of which were still rocking from the impact of falling. As the dust cleared the realized that the overhang had collapsed completely, bringing all its rock and trees down to the floor of the pass, blocking it to a height of at least ten feet and likely more than that deep, though it was impossible to tell from where they were. There was no sign of the archers.
“You could have given us a little warning,” Sela muttered.
“I would have gladly done so,” Marta said as the others just stared at her. “Except for one thing—I didn’t do it.”
Akan had crawled out from under the wagon. The debris from the collapse had reached within ten feet of the pack track and the horses were close to panic. Akan seized the reins and began trying to calm them.
“Let’s go,” Kian said. “Shields at ready and stay alert!”
He was speaking to the other two soldiers, but Dolan, Marta, and Sela followed in their wake as they rushed toward the rock fall.
“There’s one,” Sela said, “Or at least an arm.”
That was the only part of the bandit they could make out. The rest of him was presumed to be buried in the landslide. About ten feet away lay a broken bow. Further up on the pile, a dead man’s head and upper torso protruded from the rocks. Soon they had spotted other signs to indicate that the archers would no longer be of conern.
The scout Loken was the first to spot the opening in the rock. “Look up there!”
A dark hole showed itself on the west side of the cliff face, about fifty feet up. Dolan frowned. “There’s no way we’d have been able to see that with the overhang in place.
Kian was looking at Marta. “I heard what Lady Sela said. Could…could you really have done this?”
“Oh, yes,” Marta said. “Easily. But I didn’t.”
“Then who?” Dolan asked.
“You’ll have to trust me when I say that it doesn’t matter for now, Highness. We need to make certain there are no more of them hiding up there. Bonetapper?”
The raven, which at the moment was perched on the rocks eyeing one of the dead men speculatively, sighed. “All right, I’m going.”
“Be careful,” Marta said.
((End Part 4))
©2015 Richard Parks