"Successful shopping, Gord?" the one-eyed bard asked, but as he said this, his own hands were carefully querying Gord as to his concern. No one not in the group around him would have noticed such a signal, not even a skilled thief or Rhennee mountebank.

"Nothing doing," the young thief replied. "Where is Greenleaf and his trio of apprentice druids?" Gord flashed a warning that he was trailed by two or three experienced men as he casually conversed in vocal fashion.

Gellor tilted his head toward the town gate nearby. "Curley and his three associates went off about half an hour ago to find some herb or other. They are to meet us at the inn – let's off!" The one-eyed adventurer matched action to word, striding purposefully for the Brass Ball.

Gord understood this without benefit of any additional communication. If Curley and his inexperienced apprentices were caught somewhere outside the town by determined attackers, they could be in trouble. Jokotai, Incosee, and the two fighters hadn't noticed anything out of the ordinary during the whole of the exchange between thief and bard; so the four simply followed after Gellor and Gord, assuming that their comrades were anxious to find the rest of their party and set plans for tomorrow's leavetaking. The group quickly covered the short distance to the place where the large, tarnished globe of brass marked their inn. Gellor was leading them on past the Brass Ball toward the gate, certainly planning to seek the druids wherever they might be beyond the portal, when the husky half-elf and his trailing novices appeared, passing through the heavy gates and heading toward the inn.

Greenleaf waved cheerily, and his friends stood waiting for the four druids to join them outside the hostel. While Patrick and Moon were discussing something quietly between themselves, and Incosee was likewise engaged in idle banner with Jokotai, Gord was alertly scanning the area for those men who had watched and followed him, and Gellor's posture and movements indicated that he too was on the lookout for trouble. It came almost immediately.

"Watch yourself, damned churls!" This was spat disdainfully from a well-dressed horseman exiting the stableyard of the inn. He had nearly ridden down Incosee, and as he cursed the dark warrior, he kicked his booted foot at the Chakyik next in line. There were five or six other horsemen behind the first, all coming at a trot now and drawing their swords.

"Silly shit," Jokotai said indifferently, levering the man from his mount by means of his own extended foot. The fellow crashed heavily to the paved roadway, stunned but still trying to unsheathe his longsword.

Gord and the rest scattered as the riders came up, blades flashing, trying their best to trample and hack the men before them. One managed to ride his own comrade down, just as the fallen man was regaining his feet and had his sword in hand. A horse flailed its hooves at Gord as its rider reined it back hard, slashing and wounding the Chakyik barbarian who had so rudely unseated his attacker.

Gord ducked under the animal before him, thumping its belly with a balled fist as he did so, then rolling and tumbling clear. The pain caused the horse to come down stiff-legged and buck. Its rear hooves lashed out and caught another of the mounted men on the leg. That rider yelled in agony and lost control of his mount, and soon all of the riders were milling in a confused knot, trying to regroup and resume their attack.

"These knaves need punishing!" one called, still keeping up the obvious pretense of offended gentleman at odds with surly common adventurers.

"To our Master!" cried a loud voice from the group of bystanders who had appeared as if by magic to view the melee.

Gord was virtually out of the confused scene by then, not even having drawn sword or dagger. He saw that there were a dozen or more armed men in the crowd. One he immediately recognized as being among the men who followed him earlier This whole affair was certainly well planned and orchestrated, even though the initial rush of horsemen had not had the effect that had been hoped for. More ruffian-types were congregating around Curley Greenleaf and his apprentices, while a larger force was intent on dealing with Gellor and the rest. The footmen claiming to be (he servants and retainers of their associates on horseback had produced weapons and were menacing the five adventurers, while the mounted attackers were readying to come at them from the other side. Gellor, Jokotai, Incosee, Moon, and Patrick had no place to go, caught as they were in the open area between the two forces. Neither group of foemen had yet noticed that there was one member missing from the party they were besetting.

Blades began to meet in ringing strokes. Gord had no time to worry about what was happening to Curley and his associates, realizing that unless he came to the aid of his five trapped friends, they would be in serious jeopardy. The opportunity was perfect, for Gord could fall upon the attackers from their rear and take them unawares, intent only on their supposed victims. He went into action immediately, striking low with a broad sweep of his shortsword, cutting the backs of the legs of two of the attackers, while plunging his long dagger into the unsuspecting back of a fellow about to smash Moon's head with his upraised morning star.

Just as he withdrew the poniard and dealt a finishing stroke with his sword, nearly severing the foeman's head with the blow, Gord saw the mercenary Blonk suddenly leap in among the horsemen, his longish spear playing havoc with men and horses alike. Stabbing with one end, clubbing with shaft and butt as if it were a quarterstaff, the rawboned fighter laid about him with a ferocity that momentarily impressed even as seasoned a combatant as Gord. The riders were confused and scattered by the attack, one crushed beneath his fallen stallion, another dripping blood from a long gash inflicted by the keen blade of the spear, a third trying to halt his stampeding mount, and the other two reeling atop panicked and bucking steeds.

Gord blocked a cut from a broad-bladed sword and riposted with a long lunge that skewered his adversary through the chest. Gellor and Incosee were fighting back now with confidence, not having to worry about their backs for the moment. Patrick and the bleeding Moon held one flank, while Jokotai was actually singlehandedly driving a bunch of attackers backward on the other. Gellor was engaged with a pair of hard-bitten opponents who were pressing him severely Gord wounded one of the pair so as to distract him sufficiently for his one-eyed friend to finish the deed and concentrate on the remaining opponent.

Of the original gang of ruffians who had beset them, at least a half-dozen were dead, as many sorely wounded, and most of the others bloodied to some extent. Being what they were, they broke and ran. Several more of the thugs died in the process, but the remainder made good their escape, leaving their dead and wounded to whatever fate befell them.

The horsemen had fared little better, although their quality was certainly superior to that of their so-called henchmen. Gord noted that somehow the doughty Blonk had managed not only to remain alive but was still carrying the fight to his mounted adversaries. Of the seven who had begun the fray, four still sat atop their steeds and fought. It was nearly impossible, but the lone footman, armed only with his spear and incredible courage, kept them at bay and managed to occasionally deliver a solid attack upon one or another of the riders as well.

Gellor ignored the whole, running past to see to the safety of the druids, for they were still engaged in melee with the ruffians who had attacked them. Gord sprang high, landing on the rump of a startled horse, feet first. Before the animal could react, the young thief had cut its rider's shoulder with a sure sword-stroke and vaulted to a similar position atop the next horse. With a scything stroke of his dagger, he took its rider out of combat, the narrow blade penetrating the exposed place under the man's armpit and killing him. As the horse whinnied and reared, Gord was off and striking the withers of yet another of die animals, using the flat of his sword to send the horse into panic.

"Thanks, comrade," the spear-wielding mercenary said as he tugged the weapon free from where the horseman had impaled himself on the heavy-bladed shaft as he fell from the bucking gelding. "That does for the lot."

The lone survivor of the seven mounted attackers had indeed spurred for parts unknown. Gord didn't waste time in conversation. "This way," he called to Blonk as he ran to the place Gellor and the rest now battled. There was no further work for his red-stained blades, however, or for the deadly spear that the mercenary plied. By the time the two men came to reinforce the rest, the few remaining attackers had dropped their weapons and were begging for quarter. At about the same time a large squad of die city watch arrived, crossbows cocked and at the ready.

"Lay down your arms and cease fighting!" The order was given somewhat uncertainly by the captain of the group of city guards, for he was wise enough to recognize a tenuous situation when he saw one. Before him were a band of obviously capable adventurers who had just roughly handled and defeated twice their number. Now he, with a score of soldiers of little more than militia quality, must try to disarm these veteran warriors and spell-casters and march them off to face a town magistrate! As the man feared, his command was greeted with something other than compliance.

"Arrest this lot here, if you will," replied a tall, muscular man with a black eyepatch, "but leave honest wayfarers be. We have had quite enough for one day, and I don't think my friends here will take kindly to any official folderol from you and your pups."

The officer did his best to hide fear under a stern countenance, and the men with him made aggressive sounds and held their weapons menacingly still, but the captain knew that none of this posturing was having any effect whatsoever. Grumbling and threatening to return with the full weight of Badwall’s watch behind him, the fellow herded the cowed ruffians into a bunch and made do with that bag. After sternly ordering the innkeeper to see that the bodies scattered in gory pools around the front of the Brass Ball were neatly stacked and left undisturbed for official investigation, the captain hustled his prisoners off, leaving Gord and his associates to their own devices.

"Get everything together quickly," Curley Greenleaf said with finality. "It is absolutely necessary that we leave here immediately. You have ten minutes to be ready. If you aren't here, then I leave without you in the appointed time – understood?" All nodded agreement. "You," the druid added, pointing an accusing finger toward Blonk, "are coming along with us as swordsman and guide."

Blonk evidently had no choice. The druid's statement was an order, not a request. The mercenary didn't object, simply nodded and turned on his heel to gather his belongings from the inn. The die was cast.

Chapter 6

They made excellent speed leaving Badwall. Everyone had been ready in less than the ten minutes Curley Greenleaf had allowed, and the grooms and stableboys had eagerly brought their ready mounts for them, knowing full well that their haste would be well rewarded by the clinking chinkers that filled these patrons' purses. The ostler was likewise eager to see them off – both to avoid any possible future trouble and to collect his own coins. The rotund druid was generous, he knew, and in return for a promise of sending any friends in the same general direction of travel as the druid indicated, the half-elf had richly rewarded the innkeeper, paying over a handful of copper and silver in addition to those coins that compensated for the services of the inn.

Eleven strong now, the party left the town's walls behind on galloping horses, the last light in the western sky leading them onward.

"Will we have pursuit?" Gord inquired.

"Not from the minions of the town watch," Gellor said wryly, "for they're undoubtedly glad just to be rid of such as we… – But of others, I know not – nor do I care to speculate at this time."

"I concur," the druid said. "We are the stuff of nightmares now, as far as Badwall is concerned. Someone desires us dead, and they were anxious enough to see it done dial they allowed their tools to assault us in the midst of the town – reckless of consequences. The lords of the place will be congratulating themselves on our departure, and not at all eager to follow. Any other troublemakers will be on our heels, and Badwall is left undisturbed once again!"

"It grows too dark for such a pace," noted the Chakyik nomad. Coming from a horseman such as Jokotai, this was a warning worth heeding.

"Agreed," Greenleaf replied, and called for the party of adventurers to slacken their reckless pace. "We still have much distance to travel this night, and wounds to be seen to ere dawn. Let us go with a care for our lives though, so that when the morrow comes, we may all greet the warm rays of the sun with gladness and good spirits."

Regular rest periods were taken, intervals of perhaps an hour on the hour, during the darkness. During these pauses, Curley used his druidical arts of healing to help mend wounds and restore vigor. The half-elf ministered to both men and animals in such good fashion that when the sun did eventually rise again in the east, the entire party was feeling nearly as well as if they had not fought a pitched battle the day before, ridden all night, and had no real food to eat.

Even with their pauses, they had covered some twenty miles, and it was now time for the adventurers to consider what course they must follow in order to assure that they could fulfill their mission without interference from the malign activities of the Scarlet Brotherhood.

The party had left the beaten path at first, taking to the fields around Badwall to elude any immediate pursuit. During the course of the night they had come upon another track, and they had followed this path for it led in the direction of the Suss Forest and made their travel easier and quicker by far. When they had come to a tiny cluster of huts at a crossing of paths, they had swung around the little community and pressed on, unnoticed, disappearing into the cloaking darkness of the cloudy night. They were now quite near the verge of the dank and foreboding woodland, and no sign of man or his works was visible – save the faint traces of the rutted track they still followed.

"There," said Greenleaf abruptly. "That copse offers us shelter from eye and provides some small protection from marauding man or beast as well. Let us go there and rest for the trials which must be faced when we enter the Suss."

None demurred, so the eleven riders were soon amid the trees of the small grove, removing saddle and tack from tired animals. After seeing to their mounts, the adventurers set about preparing a repast for themselves. Then, with sentinels posted in pairs and a smokeless fire burning, they settled down to rest for the remainder of the day and the coming night as well. The light of the next day's sun would find them deep within the shadowy depth of the fell Suss Forest, and each man knew that this opportunity was not to be wasted.