“Sigmar damn you man! You cannot shave there you halfwit! Could you not find a ditch to accommodate you?”Markus Kruber looked up from the water butt, his shaggy beard shrouded in foam and a frighteningly sharp knife clutched in his hand.
He stood bare chested with a latticework of scars covering his arms and torso, his body pale and white against his suntanned arms and face. He had the hugely muscled physique of a warrior accustomed to swinging heavy weapons for hours and across one shoulder he bore a strange scar, like ferns of frost that form across a window pane in winter.
In contrast Count Viarmo stood in immaculate finery, his expensive clothing completely at odds with the roadside clearing they had made camp in. A scarlet doublet with intricate sapphire blue piping suggested the Count was a distinguished man of Altdorf, maybe a Freeman or Friend of the city but Kruber hadn't asked and quite frankly didn't care. He just needed the coin and the man had found Kruber in the gutter outside the Powderman's Inn, kicking him awake and offering 50 shillings for safe passage.
“My wife will be ready to travel soon, and I do not wish her to be subjected to your …..nakedness. I had hoped to arrive in Auerswald today so don't tarry any longer.” Viarmo snapped, glowering at Kruber as the Count pulling on some delicate, doe-skin gloves.
“I hardly think I need protection from the Sergeant.” a lilting woman voice called across the muddy field. Viarmo blinked in alarm before assuming his usual oily tone when around his wife. “Of course my love, but the sergeant was about to shave using our limited drinking water to douse his filthy face.” Viarmo shot Kruber a glance of warning not to contradict the count.
Konstanza gave a Kruber a smile of genuine warmth and walked to join Viarmo. He looked at her then patted one cheek with his finger. A flash of annoyance slid across her face before she raised herself on her toes and kissed his face.
“After all, he has been hired to shield us from the horrors of the road. Is that not so Sergeant?” She raised an eyebrow at him, a delicate smile tugging the corner of her mouth.
“Of course my lady “Kruber stammered, suddenly acutely aware of his state of undress and the foam in his beard. His head pounded from the bottle of cheap rum he'd purloined for the trip, and he struggled to straighten his thoughts. Even so he knew Konstanza was toying with him, but she still made him feel like a callow youth. He didn't think she was middle aged, but she was certainly no slip of a girl and had an air of dignity and gracefulness that made her seem otherworldy when contrasted with the usual mud, blood,and ale that made up Krubers daily life.
“I am very glad you are here Sergeant, and feel safer having you around.” Konstanza said, enjoying the way Viarmo bristled as she complemented Kruber. “Isn't that so my love?” She pouted as she looked up at the Count. She's toying with him too Kruber thought as she ran one of her fingers down Viarmo's chest.
“Of course, of course,” Viarmo blustered. “After all, that's why we're paying the man.” he soothed. The Count's face returned to it's habitual scowl.
“Make ready to travel within the hour Sergeant.” He barked. “No excuses.”
“And sergeant?” Konstanza called as she turned to leave.
“When you do shave, keep the moustache. It makes you look distinguished.” She said with a husky giggle, leaving Kruber stunned as a lump of foam dripped from his beard and slid down his chest.
The day had turned bright, with a gentle breeze rustling through the trees either side of the rutted track. The Reikwald forest, for all of it's rumoured horrors, was fertile and rich and the air buzzed with all kinds of birds and insects settling on the roadside wildflowers. Markus was strangely enjoying escorting the Count and his wife though the Reikland as his hangover melted along with the morning mist.
He looked over his shoulder again, noting the carriage in the distance behind them. When he had first spotted it he had suggested to the Count that they wait and travel together to enjoy strength in numbers but he had been mocked as a coward for suggesting the delay and so they had continued alone.
“Oh Sergeant?” Konstanza cooed from the window the carriage. Viarmo looked down from his horse with utter contempt at Kruber as the Sergeant trudged closer to the carriage.
“Yes M'Lady?” Kruber said, doffing his hat. “Why don't you ride? It seems you trudge along next to this carriage for miles when you could ride alongside the driver or purchase a horse?”
Kruber frowned. He didn't want to explain how every penny went on ale to wipe away the memories of his friends flesh bubbling into black tar, even as their souls were ripped from their bodies and sent screaming into the arms of Morr. Most nights his sleep was hard to find. He unconsciously rubbed his shoulder, rolling it as he struggled for words.
Even as Markus was forming an excuse in his head, he heard the thung! of the bowstring and flinched.
The arrow missed him and thunked into the carriage door as another skittered across the road to disappear into the hedgerow. A third arrow hit the driver, slamming into his chest and throwing him from the seat to crash to the road below.
Konstanza gave a yelp and tumbled back into the carriage even as Viarmo squealed like a scalded child, thrashed his horse into a gallop and disappeared in a cloud of dust.
Kruber barely had time to arm himself before the four men burst from the undergrowth screaming and ran towards the lone figure.
Markus watched in professional calm as they charged towards him. Their weapons were well oiled and their leather armour appeared well maintained. Kruber gritted his teeth and growled as they closed on him.
The men fanned out, slowing down when they realised they had their quarry outnumbered.
“You gonna die here friend?” One of the men called, pointing with his sword.
“You ain't my friend.”
“Could be.” The man who was likely the leader said, smiling with blackened teeth. “We could be your friend. All we want is what we can get from the carriage. Maybe we could give you a little cut of the profits? All you got to do is walk away.”
One of the other men nodded, and shooed Kruber away with his sword.
Suddenly Konstanza wimpered, just loud enough for them to hear. At this the bandits became more animated, smiling at each other. Kruber could feel his anger rising. “So now we get to the real prize!” The leader called. “Is she pretty?Maybe we could let you go first?”
Konstanza let out a shuddering sob that reminded Kruber of all the heartbroken wives and sweethearts he had been to visit after battles. All the families who had asked him how their man had died and where he was slain, and how all of Kruber's kind words of bravery and friendship had done nothing to dull the families grief or the sense of crushing guilt he had felt. The pain was too sharp, the anger was too much.
Kruber looked up and charged.
The startled look on the leaders face lasted only seconds before the edge of Kruber's shield slammed into his throat flinging him onto his back in the dust, where he clutched his neck and made strangled noises as he kicked his legs. Another lunge with the sword killed a second bandit before he could even defend himself. The other two snapped out of their shock and attacked.
Blocking blows on his shield Kruber sidestepped and parried with his sword, getting the measure of his opponents. Although they were desperate men and competent swordsmen, they were outclassed by Markus who had been fighting his whole life.
One of the men lunged, overbalancing himself and Kruber let the blow skitter along his shield and swivelled the hand holding his sword.
The bandit simply ran onto the end of Kruber's sword, the weapon sliding through the meat of the man's thigh. The bandit screamed and dropped his sword to the clutch the wound as bright red blood pumped out to spatter in the dust. He crashed to the floor, helplessly trying to stop the flow.
The final bandit looked terrified as he traded blows with Kruber, his panicked parries becoming more desperate as Kruber's years of experience with a sword overwhelmed him. Almost inevitably, the bandit failed to block an overhead swing and Kruber's sword hit the man in the shoulder, cleaving down through flesh to lodge against a rib. As the man collapsed the weight of the corpse almost ripped the weapon from Kruber's hand.
Kruber looked at the bodies on the road, and flicked the blood from his sword.
“I need a drink” He growled.
It was half an hour before the Count returned, the dark stain on his hose and the damp flanks of his horse a testament to how his courage had failed him. The countess' bubbling laughter pealing through the air as she mocked her husband was a memory Kruber would cherish for years to come.
—————————“Halt!” a nasal voice called as the prison cart arrived at the bodies. A cloaked man jumped from the running boards, kicking up dust as he landed. “Keep your hands away from the bars, witch!” The man yelled at the prisoner in the cage.
The woman inside took her hands away from the cage and affected a pained expression of innocence, even as the metal of the bars clinked and cooled. She watched as the man examined the bodies, and as he approached one it flailed an arm in the air. The dark figure muttered a question before drawing his rapier and lancing it through the chest of the prone man. He returned to the cage, fixing the woman with a stare. She stared back, trying not to focus on his milky-white ruined eye.
“Mercy, is a luxury enjoyed by the weak,” The man sneered, “and there can be no mercy for the criminal or the heretic.”
The prisoner rolled her eyes and sighed as he climbed back onto the cart.
“Drive on!” He barked, settling into his seat.
“Sergeant!” Konstanza had called from the carriage. “Come closer please.”
Kruber walked over to the window, keeping pace as it trundled along.
“It seems Sergeant that I must reward you for your gallantry.”
“There is no need M'lady.” Kruber muttered, acutely embarrassed.
“On the contrary. I owe you my life. Therefore I have something for you.”
She reached behind her into the carriage and produced a hat. It was high quality, with a curling brim and a fine gold embroidery set in the fabric. Three black feathers adorned it and it truly was a thing of beauty.
“I cannot help but notice your headgear is slightly battered Sergeant.” The countess said, grinning. “Therefore I would gift you this, fit for any court in the land.” She handed over the hat and he removed his old, faithful battered headgear.“You must wear it when you are Knighted for valour” She mocked, throwing her head back and laughing. Kruber laughed too, enjoying her company on the warm day.
It was dusk before they arrived in Auerswald and Count Viarmo had handed over five silver shillings to Kruber the moment they entered the town gate. Markus frowned and opened his mouth in complaint. “The hat will serve as payment enough Sergeant” Viarmo interrupted, failing to hide the bitterness from his voice.
“Thank-you Markus, you have saved my life” Konstanza said with a small courtesy. “I would wish you luck on the road ahead, and give my kind regards to your kin in Ubersreik. Goodbye Sergeant.”
He tipped the brim of his new hat and fashioned a clumsy bow as they parted, before looking down at the grubby shillings in his hand. There was barely enough for a room and a pot of ale.
As he looked up he saw a dark figure striding through the twilight towards him and Kruber recognised the wide brimmed hat and cloak. A witch hunter.
Markus narrowed his eyes as the man approached.
“Sergeant I witnessed the result of your martial prowess on the road, and I require your assistance in my continued journey escorting a dangerous prisoner to Ubersreik. What say you?”
Kruber looked down at the heavy purse in the WitchHunter's hand and smiled.
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