All Things Are Lights – Day 56 of 200

Now Guido’s bowstring twanged beside him, and Roland lit another. One after another the flaming missiles arched to the cabin in the ruins. It had been a dry summer, and the highwaymen’s shack appeared to be built of old wood. Almost at once a flickering glow turned the marble columns orange. Women screamed and terrified horses neighed. Moments later, Roland and Guido heard men shouting and cursing and bodies crashing through the woods on the other side of the hill.

“That has flushed them out,” said Guido. They crept closer to the fire, using a broken wall for cover.

In the lurid light Roland saw shadowy bodies, the women naked just as they had been roused from sleep, the men struggling with frightened horses.

“Look sharp, that knight has done this!” one of the men called.

There they were. The ones who had crippled Perrin. With only the fire and the moonlight to see by, he could not make them out clearly, but hatred welled up in his chest, burning in his throat. He wanted to charge at them with his sword.

As if he could read Roland’s mind, Guido seized his arm in a restraining grip.

The black figures ran about before the blazing shack, searching for their attackers.

Roland pulled an arrow from his quiver and nocked it. From his kneeling position behind the ruined wall he aimed at a man holding two horses. He let the arrow fly. The man fell, screaming.

Roland cursed himself for merely hitting the man’s side. The freed horses galloped off into the woods. Guido’s bowstring thrummed again, and the fallen man jerked violently and lay still. The remaining highwaymen quickly crouched in the shrubbery around the shack.

“Now we must go in after them,” said Guido softly, and Roland was glad. He wanted to meet them, man to man.

Roland and Guido stood up. Roland slid his sword from his scabbard and heard the hiss as Guido drew his. The great weight of Roland’s sword, balanced by the iron ball at the base of the hilt, felt good in his hands. He held it out before him and brandished it a little to warm up his arms and shoulders. “Now may you drink blood,” he said to the sword.

“There!” one of the highwaymen called. “Two of them!” He pointed as Roland and Guido stepped out from behind the fallen stones. A woman screamed.

“Out of the way, you sluts.” another highwayman’s voice growled. “Go hide in the woods.” The pale, naked forms disappeared into the trees.

The highwaymen called out to each other and pointed at Roland and Guido. Despite the strength his anger had given him, Roland felt a quivering in his guts. Five against two. They could butcher us.

Roland and Guido automatically advanced in unison, Guido’s sword pointing slightly to the right, Roland’s a bit to the left. The point of Roland’s sword drew small circles in the air as he moved forward.

The five highwaymen spread out in a line, raising their own weapons. Two had long, gleaming daggers. They stepped slowly to either side, flanking the knights. Again Roland felt naked without his hauberk. Another man came forward slowly, gripping in both hands a huge club. The moonlight glinted on the three tines of the fourth man’s pitchfork, sharpened to needle points. In the center stood a highwayman taller than the rest, brandishing a woodsman’s ax as big as any battle-ax Roland had ever seen.

Roland paused to size them up, and Guido stopped with him. They were big, strong-looking young men with hard, determined, confident faces.

“Brought a helper with you, did you, Messire Lute-player?” the man with the ax called. “Good. There will be two less knights in the world before dawn.”

Roland did not answer, but he thought, You bastards will wish to God you had never laid a hand on Perrin before I am through with you.

He resumed his slow advance, Guido beside him. They stepped carefully. There were broken stones that could easily trip them scattered all over the grassy summit of the hill.

As Roland moved closer he saw that the tall man’s cheeks were pitted with old pox scars, his cheekbones and the ridge of bone over his eyes prominent and thick. Bruchesi had described him: Didier Longarm.

The fire inside Roland flared up until his very brain seemed ablaze.

Easy! he commanded himself. I must keep my head until I have made them talk.

Purposefully, Roland advanced on Didier.

“Come on, Messire Lute-player, come on,” Didier mocked him, shaking the ax. “You will lose even more than your man did.”

Suddenly a man with a dagger darted at Roland from his left, thrusting to get inside his guard while his attention was on Didier.

Dodging, Roland felt the point slash through his tunic and slice along his ribs.

Roland stepped back, planted his feet, and swung the sword two-handed, putting all the weight of his body behind the forty-pound blade.

The man with the dagger tried to duck away, but Roland leaped forward as he swung; and the edge of the sword caught the man at the joining of neck and shoulder, slicing away his head, shoulder, and arm. So sharp and heavy was the longsword that Roland barely felt resistance as it cut through flesh and bone.

He heard a distant wail of anguish from the women peering from the trees.

Then he took a stunning blow high on his back, near his right shoulder. The pain was so great he cried out and nearly dropped his sword.

“Good hit, Jean!” Didier called. “Now finish him. Smash his head!”

Roland’s right arm went numb. He thought his shoulder must be broken. But he was still filled more with fury than with despair.

Staggering, holding his sword in his left hand, he turned to face his attacker, struggling to raise the sword with one hand in time to parry a second blow of the man’s club. He could hear the clatter of Guido dueling with the pitchfork-wielding man.

The club knocked his blade downward. The steel’s ring was like a cry of anguish, and he thought for a moment the blade might be broken. The sword’s point struck the ground, burying itself in the tall grass.

Pain shot like lightning up Roland’s left arm. But he still managed to keep a weak grip on the hilt.

The highwayman rushed forward, swinging his club up with both hands. Roland knew no helmet would protect his skull against the blow. His head would be crushed like an eggshell.

He tried desperately to lift his sword to protect himself.

Just then the highwayman uttered a sick, squealing noise and dropped the club.

A gleaming steel point protruded from the man’s belly. The highwayman moaned again, pitched forward, and fell at Roland’s feet as Guido jerked his sword out of the man’s back.

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