Death by the Numbers
A tale of Altiva
Teel James Glenn
“Do you think there really is safety in numbers, Erique?” The girl asked. When her companion didn’t answer right away she added, “Like in a big family?”
The two were riding on a country road north of Stormlanding and were a study in contrasts. He was tall and broad-shouldered with a thick braid of black hair halfway down his back. On his chest was the triple diamond shaped brand that marked him as a full priest of the Kovar; each section of it burned into the flesh of his sternum at the end of a three-year training period as priest-singer, healer and warrior.
She was petite and almost child-like in her proportions with close cropped red hair. Where he projected a calm, almost reserved air, she seemed to be a coiled spring, as if there was eight feet of personality contained in her five-foot form.
They rode on antlered vorn, cloven-hoofed mounts they had leased in Stormlanding and they lead a pack animal behind. The lights of the city were far behind them as they headed up to a series of Kovar settlements that needed medical supplies. The medicines were crammed into the overstuffed packs of the trailing beast to help against an outbreak of the Century Plague. Political factions in the country were engaged in arguing over jurisdictions and had little regard for speed so it was left to the religious leaders at the Academy to dispatch the supplies via covert means.
A healer like Erique Shoutte was desperately needed and the Academy Kova had dispatched him to help Kovar adherents up country with Arinna, his ‘shadow’ and friend had tagged along to break up the monotony of her duties assisting her father’s teaching duties.
The two riders moved up through the foothills as the Elder Brother, the slower of the two stars of the Altivan sky, went to sleep beyond the horizon. Neither moon had risen yet, so the vorn were forced to move slowly in the starlit gloom.
“What did you say?” Erique Shoutte asked as he took his mind off the trail ahead. He peered at her in the dim light with an arched eyebrow. “Have you lost your mind, Arinna; I mean, more than usual? When did you start thinking about a family?”
“Well, have you ever thought about children?” She wore leather breeches, had a straight saber at her hip and high, and soft boots with knee straps to hold them up. “It was just me and papa, and you said you only had one brother back home.”
“You had all of the academy as a faux family growing up these twenty years.”
Arinna was the daughter— and chief student—of the Academy’s sword master and had indeed grown up in the training yard along side Erique since they were both young pre-teens even though she, herself, did not follow the religion of her father and Erique.
“It’s not the same: don’t tell me you haven’t thought about a legacy, Reverend Lord Shoutte,” she said with dripping sarcasm. “You used to talk about having a family all the time.” He stared at her for a moment before shrugging his shoulders and answering.
“That was just idle talk when we were kids because I came from the clans and there were always people around—” He chuckled at the memory, “and I talked about them before you realized where your romantic interests…eh…lay.”
She snorted. “That doesn’t mean I can’t think about a family too.”
“Well,” he responded, “Life is about a number of choices, you know and the Kova is all about things changing. I do practice making a family as often as I can with Myrran.” Arinna made a face at him.
“Hardi-har-har,” she said. “I’m serious. There is always strength in numbers; and you’ve always been great with kids.” Her serious tone caught the newly minted priest off guard and he was silent for a moment.
The road was wide enough for several vorn to ride abreast and well maintained, so there was little chance of one of the mounts stepping in a chuckhole and they continued to move at a relaxed walk waiting for the twin moons to rise. They planned to ride through the night without making camp to get the vital medicines to the upcountry settlement.
“I don’t know,” he said after a time, “What kind of life is wife to a circuit Priest-Singer and how do you raise children?”
“Hey, my father was still riding circuit when he contracted with my mother; long before the Academy,” Arinna chided him. “Me and my brother didn’t turn out so badly.”
Lord Shoutte was properly chastised but deflected her wrath with “What about you? Don’t you want little Arinnas running around?”
“Can you get any littler than this?” She pointed to herself and they both laughed. “But Yuzen comes from a large family and she says there is strength in numbers. Maybe we’ll get you to provide the—”
Just then Arinna’s mount reared with a bleat of pain throwing her to the ground. She landed hard on her right hip trying to avoid landing on her sword on the other.
Lord Shoutte was about to laugh when he noticed the dagger sticking out of her vorn’s flank.
“It’s an attack!” he yelled just as half a dozen brigands broke from the cover of roadside foliage.
Arinna rolled to her feet with her rapier out and met the first attacker with a needle thrust to his heart.
Three bandits attempted to pull the priest and his vorn down by sheer force. He wheeled the mount in a tight circle and reared it while drawing his straight saber.
Shoutte slashed one attacker across the eyes.
Had he been alone the priest would have tried to ride through the footpads but he knew Arinna was afoot behind him, so he jumped to the ground to face the attackers.
The swordswoman was being hemmed in by three attackers. They forced her against the base of a huge old growth oak as big around as a small house. All three of the men towered over her and were armed with curved two-handed war swords. This was her saving grace because working in close quarters the three could not wield the blades to full effect and they could not lunge to any real potency.
Neither could Arinna lunge forward to attack any one of them by that method as it would expose her back to the others. As long as she could maintain her vigilance it was a standoff.
“Erique,” she yelled. “Three!” to alert him how many she faced.
The priest had landed on his feet in the center of the road behind the footpads who had grabbed his vorn and was able to race to within five yards of Arinna before one of them cut him off. The others who had waylaid the mount dropped the reins and quickly moved to surround him. They kept their distance out of respect for the saber in his hand and his status as a Priest of the Kova.
“Three!” Lord Shoutte called back to Arinna, ignoring the one he had slashed across the eyes. That bandit was kneeling by the vorn and wailing in blinded terror. Then Lord Shoutte put Arinna out of his mind for the moment to assess his opponents.
The three men surrounding the priest were armed with a variety of weapons; a war mace, an axe and a rapier. They had the rough look of men who knew how to use them. They also fought well together, with discipline that implied military service.
This is no tavern brawl, Lord Shoutte thought, The Rhythem will determine this, not skill.
The three footpads pressing Arinna had evolved a plan to kill her. They kept her backed against the tree and fanned out so that her attention was strained to keep all three in her peripheral vision. At the second that her attention was diverted by one, Arinna realized, she would be overwhelmed by the others.
Arinna made the decision to take a gamble to break the deadlock. It was a dangerous gambit but she had no time for hesitation. She made a fierce cry and dodged to the left.
As the men reacted to her move left she pivoted and raced to the right, narrowly avoiding a hacking cut that would have taken her head off had she not ducked. She thrust her blade through the attacker’s left shoulder joint and as he dropped slashed him across the throat and she raced past.
The tiny swordswoman sprinted toward the trio of attackers that had surrounded Lord Shoutte. “Two!” she screamed. Behind her the two remaining cutpurses gave chase.
At her scream, Lord Shoutte took advantage of the momentary distraction of the attacker closest to her, and darted forward to slip his saber past the axe in the man’s hand and pierce his throat.
The war mace bandit tried to strike at the priest as Lord Shoutte took the axe man. The priest saw the movement in time and with a twist of his wrist redirected his point to his right.
Lord Shoutte dropped into a low lunge in an eye blink that drove his saber through the mace wielder’s upper body. Erique followed his blade by pushing forward as he rose out of his lunge and drove passed the falling bandit. As he did, however, Lord Shoutte’s saber became lodged in the connective tissue of the shoulder socket, and when he tried to yank it free, the flat of the blade bent against the shoulder blade and the sword snapped. It broke at the mid-blade and the priest was left with little more than a long, blunt-tipped knife.
Lord Shoutte raced up beside Arinna. “One,” he said, “but I’m down a sword.” His breathing was even and shallow, with no sign of exertion.
“Let’s see what we can do about that,” she said. She turned about again and charged the two swordsmen who were chasing after her. When she got within blade range she stopped and yelled a fierce challenge.
The first of the attackers drew up to a combat stance, cautious now of the little wildtvek and focused on her.
At that moment Lord Shoutte threw the broken sword hilt so that it slammed into the man’s face with a crunch. Arinna did a stop hit to the heart of the distracted man and snatched the war sword from his twitching fingers to throw it to Lord Shoutte.
“One!” She called with evil glee.
“Switch!” Lord Shoutte said, moving past the swordswoman to engage the last of her attackers war sword to war sword.
Arinna held her ground and let the rapier man come to her.
All around the moans of the mortally wounded acted like a chorus to the two pairs of remaining fighters.
It was bright enough now with light from the rising moons for each combatant to clearly read their opponent. Lord Shoutte assessed the two remaining footpads.
The last two bandits were both men of rough bearing who would neither give nor expect quarter. If they had been disturbed by their ‘easy kills’ turning difficult they gave no sign. They were professionals and would play the hand, however the cards were dealt. Still the priest decided to try to end it without further bloodshed.
“Leave now,” Lord Shoutte said in a loud enough voice to reach both men, “and we will not pursue you.”
“All or nothing, priest,” the man facing him said. “Those saddlebags with the medicine and all else if you die, no pay if you live; worth the gamble and I do have a reputation to keep up.”
“So be it,” Lord Shoutte prayed, “to The Rhythem!” He adjusted his stance with his right foot forward, weight centered. He assumed middle stance with his sword held a few inches below his navel at the center of his gravity with the blade pointing straight at the bandit’s eyes.
Both swords were Ker Nokian style blades, three and a half feet long, single edged and with a slight curve to the tip. The bandit held his blade in high guard poised above his head.
The footpad suddenly attacked slashing straight down intending to cleave the priest in half. Lord Shoutte parried with deflection to his right and thrust forward. The bandit sidestepped left and launched a kick to Shoutte’s right shin. The priest dropped to his right knee with a grunt of pain as the bandit turned to attack again.
Arinna met her opponent blade to blade with a forceful attack. The man was longer limbed than she and tried to exploit it. He kept the point of his sword in her face to force her to a defensive posture.
Her reply to the aggression was to fight back with attacks on the blade, forcing him, by degrees, to lower his guard. He was swordsman enough to realize what she was doing but she was so skillful with her blade that there was little he could do about it.
Lord Shoutte’s attacker drew his sword overhead for a fatal blow that would have hammered through any attempt to parry it but the priest made no attempt. Instead he chose to slash with the whole force of his body horizontally through both of the bandit’s legs. He threw himself backward as his sword hacked through the man’s legs to avoid the dying man’s last, deadly cut.
Arinna drew her opponent’s guard down then attacked ‘over the blade’ of the man to drive the point of her rapier into his bicep. The man dropped his sword and she followed up with a point slash across his throat that finished him.
Suddenly it was over. Seven men lay dead or dying around the two friends.
Arinna walked to meet Erique and the two threw arms around one another, all but collapsing against each other. “Zero.” She said with a breathless giggle that was at the edge of hysteria. The adrenaline fatigue was setting in. She shivered with an inner chill from the horror of the deaths and accumulated fear that she had put aside while fighting.
Lord Shoutte took a deep breath and rested his chin on the crown of her head. “I know, Arinna,” he whispered, now fully the reverend, “I know; I’ll finish it.” She pushed away from him then and shook her head.
“No,” she said, “We’ll finish it together.” The two then went from footpad to footpad and with a practiced healer’s eyes Shoutte assessed each man. Three were dead and two so seriously wounded that nothing could be done for them. In their case Arinna administered a ‘mercy’ cut to aid in their transition and Shoutte offered a truth chant of transition for them.
The remaining wounded men, the blinded attacker and the man who Shoutte had broken his saber off in, were attended to by the priest. He ignored his own pained side, bound the men’s wounds and gave them thodist powder for their pain.
The men had walked to the ambush from a camp over a mile away so there were no mounts for the friends to find.
“What do we do with them?” Arinna asked as she and the priest were attending to the knife wound on her vorn.
“It is a problem,” Lord Shoutte said quietly. He had rubbed a local anesthetic on the vorn’s rump and closed the not-too-deep wound with stitches. “We can not stay with them, nor take the time to bring them back to Stormlanding; that medicine has to be in Clifftown by tomorrow or innocents could die.” Arinna made a face when he added. “And no, we can not kill them without reason or mercy.”
The blind attacker blubbered, “We were just hired, I swear,” he said. “It was Govar who took the contract, you said he is dead.”
“Why did you attack us?’ Arinna asked in a threatening voice.
“I don’t know who,” the drugged bandit said in a slurred voice, “but it was to keep the medicine from getting up country; it was only Kovar settlements. It was to make the authorities look bad.”
Shoutte pulled her away from the two men and shook his head. “Politics,” he said as if it were a curse, “To make the Kovar people suffer.”
“We can not just let them go.” She looked around the wooded path and gave a disgusted sound. “If we leave them they will be taken by animals anyway.” She looked at him as if her statement would make him reconsider her suggestion. He looked at the men then back at her and nodded as he made a decision.
“We can make a travois for your vorn and set them on the road back to Stormlanding the beast will make its way back to its stable by habit. The blind attacker can ride and the other lie on the travois.” He suggested.
“I’ll cut some branches,” she answered, used to giving into the priest’s better nature, and somewhat resigned to.
He put his hand on her shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze. “I will write a note to the authorities in Stormlanding and attach it to the front tack of the mount where the blind one cannot find it,” he said. “ Of the number of things that we can do, it is the right thing to do, Arinna.”
She smiled. “I know,” she reluctantly admitted. “And this is why I keep saying you would be a good father. And I guess you’re were right, t he numbers are not always in our favor.”
“But so far they have been,” he said as he wrote the note for the authorities and touched his religious symbol in a ritual gesture. “And that is all that matters right now.”