The Pirates of Ersatz-Thirty-Two
Gloom descended on the whole party as it filled their leaders. Insensibly, the pace of the horses slackened still more. They had done well. But a horse that can cover fifty miles a day at its own gait, can be exhausted in ten or less, if pushed. By the time Hoddan and his men were within two miles of Ghek’s castle, their mounts were extremely reluctant to move faster than a walk. At a mile, they were kept in motion only by kicks.
The route they followed was specific. There was no choice of routes, here in the hills. They could only follow every twist and turn of the trail, among steep mountain-flanks and minor peaks. But suddenly they came to a clear wide valley, yellow cressets burned at its upper end, no more than half a mile distant. They showed a castle gate, open, with the last of a party of horsemen filing into it. Even as Hoddan swore, the gate closed. Faint shouts of triumph came from inside the castle walls to the completely frustrated pursuers without.
“I’d have bet on this,” said Hoddan miserably. “Stop here, Thal. Pick out a couple of your more hang-dog characters and fix them up with their hands apparently tied behind their backs. We take a breather for five minutes–no more.”
He would not let any man dismount. He shifted himself about on his own saddle, trying to find a comfortable way to sit. He failed. At the end of five minutes he gave orders. There were still shouts occasionally from within Ghek’s castle. They had that unrhythmic frequency which suggested that they were responses to a speech. Ghek was making a fine, dramatic spectacle of his capture of an unwilling bride. He was addressing his retainers and saying that through their fine loyalty, co-operation and willingness to risk all for their chieftain, they now had the Lady Fani to be their chatelaine. He thanked them from the bottom of his heart and they were invited to the official wedding, which would take place sometime tomorrow, most likely.Before the speech was quite finished, however, Hoddan and his weary following rode up into the patch of light cast by the cressets outside the walls. Thal bellowed to the battlements.
“Prisoners!” he roared, according to instructions from Hoddan. “We caught some prisoners in the ambush! They got fancy news! Tell Lord Ghek he’d better get their story right off! No time to waste! Urgent!”
Hoddan played the part of one prisoner, just in case anybody noticed from above that one man rode as if either entirely unskilled in riding or else injured in a fight.
He heard shoutings, over the walls. He glared at his men and they drooped in their saddles. The gate creaked open and the horsemen from Don Loris’ castle filed inside. They showed no elation, because Hoddan had promised to ram a spear-shaft its full length down the throat of any man who gave away his stratagem ahead of time. The gate closed behind them. Men appeared to take their horses. This could have revealed that the newcomers were strangers, but Ghek would have recruited new and extra retainers for the emergency of tonight. There would be many strange faces in his castle just now.
“Good fight, eh?” bellowed an ancient, long-retired retainer with a wine bottle in his hand.
“Good fight!” agreed Thal.
“Good plunder, eh?” bellowed the ancient above the heads of younger men. “Like the good old days?”
“Better!” boomed Thal.
At just this instant the young Lord Ghek appeared. There were scratches on his cheek, acquired during the ride with Fani across his saddlebow. He looked thrilled by his victory but uneasy about his prize.”What’s this about prisoners with fancy news?” he demanded. “What is it?”
“Don Loris!” whooped Thal. “Long Live the Lady Fani!”
Hoddan painstakingly opened fire; with the continuous-fire stud of this pistol–his third tonight–pressed down. The merrymakers in the courtyard wavered and went down in windrows. Thal opened fire with a stun-pistol. The others bellowed and began to fling bolts at every living thing they saw.
“To the Lady Fani!” rasped Hoddan, getting off his horse with as many creakings as the castle gate.
His followers now rushed, dismounting where they had to. They fired with reckless abandon. A stun-pistol, which does not kill, imposes few restraints upon its user. If you shoot somebody who doesn’t need to be shot, he may not like it but he isn’t permanently harmed. So the twelve who’d followed Hoddan poured in what would have been a murderous fire if they’d been shooting bullets, but was no worse than devastating as matters stood.