The Pirates of Ersatz-Thirty-Four

The Pirates of Ersatz-Thirty-Four

Horses came plodding into the courtyard with Ghek’s retainers driving them. They were anxious to get rid of their conquerors. Hoddan’s men came trickling back, with armsful of plunder to add to the piles they’d previously gathered. Thal took charge, commanding the exchange of saddles from tired to fresh horses and that the booty be packed on the extra mounts. It was time. Nine of the dozen looters were at work on the task when there was a tumult back in the castle. Yellings and the clash of steel. Hoddan shook his head.”Bad! Somebody’s pistol went empty and the local boys found it out. Now we’ll have to fight some more–no.”

He beckoned to a listening, tense, resentful inhabitant of the castle. He held up the key of the room in which he’d locked young Ghek.

“Now open the castle gate,” he commanded, “and fetch out my last three men, and we’ll leave without setting fire to anything. The Lord Ghek would like it that way. He’s locked up in a room that’s particularly inflammable.”

The last statement was a guess, only, but Ghek’s retainer looked horrified. He bellowed. There was a subtle change in the bitterly hostile atmosphere. Men came angrily to help load the spare horses. Hoddan’s last three men came out of a corridor, wiping blood from various scratches and complaining plaintively that their pistols had shot empty and they’d had to defend themselves with knives.

Three minutes later the cavalcade rode out of the castle gate and away into the darkness. Hoddan had arrived here when Ghek was inside with Fani as his prisoner, when there were only a dozen men without and at least a hundred inside to defend the walls. And the castle was considered impregnable.

In half an hour Hoddan’s followers had taken the castle, rescued Fani, looted it superficially, gotten fresh horses for themselves and spare ones for their plunder, and were headed away again. In only one respect were they worse off than when they arrived. Some stun-pistols were empty.

Hoddan searched the sky and pieced together the star-pattern he’d noted before.”Hold it!” he said sharply to Thal. “We don’t go back the same way we came! The gang that ambushed us will be stirring around again, and we haven’t got full stun-pistols now! We make a wide circle around those characters!”

“Why?” demanded Thal. “There are only so many passes. The only other one is three times as long. And it is disgraceful to avoid a fight–“

“Thal!” snapped an icy voice from beside Hoddan, “you have an order! Obey it!”

Even in the darkness, Hoddan could see Thal jump.

“Yes, my Lady Fani,” said Thal shakily. “But we go a long distance roundabout.”

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