Sunday, January 29, 2006

Conspiracy of Shadows (Season Two, Episode Two, Part One)

The travelling party is now quite large. Larsen the scout is leading, followed by the two Alexanders and their mule, Sedziwoj and his squire Sergei are next followed by Anatoli. Lebowski, Mariuz and Kaspar, three of Sedziwoj's father's men bring up the rear.

They swing out east as if travelling to the lands of the Cup Knights. On the way they see that ragged mercenaries (veterans of the war against the barbarians) are keeping a watch on the main roads and crossroads. When one approaches to politely question them Big Alexander deals with the situation, sticking to the story that has been agreed that they are a group of faithful soldiers heading east to fight under the guidance of the friars. The watcher rides off but no-one can say whether he truly believes it or not.

Once far along the trail and away from prying eyes the group turn off the trail and head north and west through the rolling broken forest of Wallvich. Larsen takes the group along the edges of forests and through streams and narrow valleys, anything to make pursuit harder. After some hard riding the group is at the edge of the ancient woodland that dominates Jenka and has reclaimed so much of the country after the devastating invasion so many years ago. They set up camp overlooking the old road into the forest and arrange watches.

On Big Alexander's watch he is alarmed to see a hundred or so burning torches appear in the trees of the woods the group have just travelled through, preceeded by the howling of wolves. As he watches he sees the silhouettes of men and dogs erupt from the trees and quickly alerts his sleeping comrades to the impending danger. Sedziwoj is quick to harness and mount his horse as is Larsen but the others struggle being less familiar with horses, there is no chance to escape the horde bearing down on them.

Sedziwoj wheels his horse and charges the men, as he closes he sees that the dogs are actually snarling wolves. He crashes into the line and as he wheels around three of the wolves leap at him, he is able to bash two of them away but the third lands in his lap and only a degree of iron will keeps Sedziwoj in the saddle.

Behind him Little Alexander sees that the line of figures collapse like smoke or fog, like a bonfire in reverse the figures and torches start forming a cloud around the figure of Sedziwoj. Then as the cloud starts to compress and threatens to swallow Sedziwoj Alexander screams a prayer and charges after him. With the shout fresh on his lips he is awake, having fallen asleep against a tree. The shout disturbs his companions (except Big Alexander who tells him to go back to sleep) but no-one seems to have shared this strange vision. The remaining watches are uneventful.

The next morning the group set off down the old forest road, with the settlements that once lay along its route ruined and abandoned the forest threatens to swallow the remaining road and already small bushes and long grass slow travel along it. Compared to the dark deep forest on either side though the track is easy to navigate.

At midday, with the mist of the forest dispelled by the bright sun, the group encounter a ruined in and rest for a few hours. As they do so two riders gallop past the inn and further north along the road before any can do much but note their passing. When the group move off from the inn Larsen and Kaspar stay behind to watch the inn at a distance and see whether the horsemen are fleeing someone or whether the group themselves are being pursued.

The rest of the group travel on through the flat forest road. The trees seem to have no boundary beyond this narrow pass of fresh growth. In the distance they eventually see what appears to be a naked body lying in the overgrown remains of the road's drainage ditch. The priests remain on the road while the soldiers take into the woods and quickly encounter a broad swept path leading away from the road.

They return to the road and signal to the rest of the group to join them, the analysis is quick. The body in the road has broken many of his ribs and blood still stains his lips, the victim of a fall. The tracks on the road indicates a horse refusing and falling before being dragged through the undergrowth. The wide sweeping in the forest litter indicating that the body has been removed elsewhere with the rest of the effects of the rider. The dead man's partner though seems to have continued through the ambush without breaking pace. It is decided to camp off the road, Sedziwoj is uncertain whether to stop the journey and make after the bandits.

Back at the inn there is no activity and the pair have to ride off before the light fails. However as they ride along the track looking back they can see a pale column of smoke in the air, someone is making camp along the track but it is too dark now to turn back and find out who.

In the morning Sedziwoj has decided that he must pursue the bandits and gathers together his father's men. As he leaves the camp a voice challenges him to surrender or at the least hand over the priests if he wishes to leave in peace. Sedziwoj curses Larsen under his breath, for his was the last watch and despite claims to have been a scout the man has let enemies come practically to the point of warming themselves at the campfire. There is some verbal sparring but the outcome is not indoubt and the bounty hunters and the Koniecpole men swiftly come to blows. Sedziwoj is held by his opponent but in the sharp fray, Kaspar is wounded and two of the bounty hunters are felled. At the same time bandits armed with bows dance between the trees on the edge of the camp firing arrows that force the priests and Anatoli to head for cover. Little Alexander charges into the fight and quickly sets to concussing the bandits with his faithful stave. Sergei is less fortunate and quick and takes an arrow below his left collar bone, a serious wound particularly for a boy.

Big Alexander condemns the bandits for their faithlessness and promises them damnation is fearful terms. As if to accent his words a great wind blows through the forest.

The bounty hunters flee back across the track and into the forest with Sedziwoj and the others in pursuit. Their leader takes advantage of his right to declare the retreat to sprint away, the other is not so fortunate and hotly pursued by Sedziwoj he tumbles over a rise and is impaled on branch that is driven right through his chainmail. Sedziwoj finishes off the alive but fatally wounded man and sees Little Alexander rush into the woods to his left.

Back at the camp Kaspar is leaning against a tree clutching his wound. He looks at the canopy and notices that although the sound of rustling and wind has continued the trees are no longer moving.

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