3. Chapter 2: The dangers of the Road
Berethor awoke before dawn. He paid his tole, saddled his horse and was on the road before sunrise. He began making his way down the greenway, thinking about the words of the ranger. He held them less credible in the light of day now he had the time to think. The darkness awaits him. What was the man talking about. <Folly,> he thought. <Presumptuous folly.>
He thought about making his way north, off the greenway. Looking into the distance through the trees he saw nothing but hills. <I'll take my chances with the roads.> he thought.
Meandering down the winding path, he felt fresh and awake. He had not slept so well for a long time. After many hours of riding, the road turned north and he felt luck on his side. The forest walls on either side of the road raised creating rising walls of earth. Ayreth softly shied nervously. Berethor scanned the tops of the walls for trouble but his mind was elsewhere. Then a muffled thump sounded from behind him. Berethor jerked the reigns to halt his steed. He twisted in his saddle to look behind him, his sword half drawn, when something struck him in the back of his head. He was briefly aware of the sound of his horse and voices as he fell to the floor and slipped into darkness.
He awoke, again to darkness and a fierce, insistent pain in his head. Feet stumped and stamped around him and he heard harsh voices calling to each other. A horse-Ayreth, he was sure-screamed in fury as he brought his hooves crashing down to the earth. Berethor swallowed a groan, as the sound sliced straight through his battered head. He felt as if his skull had been crushed to jelly as every sound, every vibration in the ground was sheer agony.
There were several men, to judge by the voices, struggling to control the enraged Ayreth who did not suffer them lightly. Berethor still lay where he fell, his sword pinned under him and his cloak over his head. The proud warrior in him wanted to leap up and take revenge on his foe, the wounded man in him, alone in this strange place wanted to just slip back out of consciousness. But it was the battle hardened veteran in him that had won the day, so he neither moved nor spoke, strategically giving no sign at all that he lived until the unsuspecting thieves could give him an opening. They finally succeeded in calming Ayreth, and began to unload the baggage of his back. He concentrated on counting the separate voices and placing them in preparation for his attack. Then he heard a voice rise above the rest.
"Search the body Aglun, get his purse."
Aglun gave a short, ugly laugh. "And get that sword of his in my gullet? Na, I'll not touch him."
Berethor heard steps coming closer. "He's dead ye' fool. I bashed him in the head meself."
Another voiced chimed in. "That's what ye' said about that dwarf, Gerd. And remember how that ended!"
"Huh. Dwarves' heads are made of rocks. This one went down like wheat before a scythe. He's naught but crows food. Ye're fools and cowards, the lot o' ye." A thick hand closed around Berethor's arm and attempted to heave him on his back. Berethor rolled over, seeming to move in obedience while actually freeing his sword.
"Let's have that purse then, ye big lump o…"
His voice trailed off into an odd gurgle as Berethor spitted him on his sword. The others thieves stood gawking at him, too frightened to move. Berethor leapt his feet and kicked Gerd off the end of his blade. But he had bargained without his own injuries. He went to raise his sword and staggered to the side to keep balance. His nerveless muscles brought him to his knees and a churning sickness rose in him. His eyes went dark but the cries of triumph helped him recall his sense of urgency. He looked up to see two figures dart towards him with daggers in hand. The soldier rose to the challenge. He threw himself up and another deft thrust left the second body twitching on the floor. He swung his blade at the other, slashing his arm. The thief howled in pain and scuttled away, while the rest of them broke and fled.
He lowered the tip of his sword to rest in the dirt and leaned heavily on the hilt. His eyes closed in weariness and he sank to his knees again, gripping the sword with both hands and pressing his forehead on the cold steel. There he stayed until Ayreth trotted up beside him. He looked up and smiled, "not crows food yet, my friend. It seems I have something in common with dwarves."
He looked down to the body of Gerd who lay dead on the ground, his face frozen in eternal amazement. He recognized his face surprisingly, but could not recall why. His rough, homespun, woollen clothes were dirty and stained. Then he realized, the gang of ruffians at the inn. A mirthless smile touched his lips, "I should have dealt with you earlier," he spoke to the corpse. "No matter, merely a headache."
Berethor climbed to his feet and sheathed his sword. He straightened his back and the sickness rushed back to his head. A black mist swam before his eyes and he staggered drunkenly, grabbing a handful of Ayreth's mane for balance. He then looped both arms around the horse's neck, burying his face in the smooth hind of the steed. The horse nickered and Berethor choked a laugh, muffled in the horse's neck. "I don't think we shall go farther today."
When he could stand without swaying, he took a few cautious steps toward his baggage, Ayreth followed. He began to reload the baggage back atop his horse, pausing in between movements to quell the sickness, occasionally leaning against the horses side. Ayreth was happy to assist.
Once everything of value was taken, only the two bodies lay in the road. Berethor took Ayreth's dangling reigns, looped them round his hand and began down the path until they could get off the road. He just wanted to lie down where he was and rest but his head wound did not render him senseless. He knew he would probably never wake up if he slept exposed. Driven by soldier's reflexes and not his own will, he started across a field to a small clump of trees.A few minutes walk and they were making their way through the branches until out of view from the road. Berethor released all the gear including the saddle, suggesting to Ayreth to find something to fill his empty belly, for the man wanted nothing save a little drink from his water skin. He lay on the ground and a dreamless sleep came quickly, as too did the relief from pain.