Having snuck into the fortified stronghold under the cover of night to rescue a hostage, but the mercenary Valguard is captured after getting past several guards. Inside the main hall, the brutal bandits called The Cutters, led by their vicious chief Elmwood, gather to see who has attacked them...
Gradually coming to, under the darkness of a sackcloth bag on his head, the prisoner could feel his feet stumbling and tripping on the stone flags beneath his unsteady boots. His toes brushed up some of the loose straw he could feel scattered on the ground. His wrists were tied behind his back and both his upper arms were tightly gripped by a pair of escorts, one on each side.
The captured prisoner was marched purposely into the hall, stopped and thrown down hard onto his knees. His stunned head bobbed wearily in the bag.
'Well done, Brotton,' said a deep voice in front of him.
From inside the bag, the unseen voice sounded to be that of a big man, he guessed it would probably be their leader, Elmwood.
Most of the inhabitants of the farmstead were already in the room to see who had attacked them. But the last one to enter was pushing his way in and looked more pissed off than the rest. He headed straight for the prisoner and as his walk turned into a run, he kicked the already kneeling intruder full in the stomach. The force of the kick lifted him off the ground, he felt a couple of ribs crack and he landed on his side on the dirt of the stone floor.
'YOU FUCKING BASTARD!!' the kicking man shouted down at him.
'That's for killing Ladner!'
Head still in the sack, the recipient of that injury groaned through gritted teeth as he fought against the pain. Blood spat from his mouth and it seeped through the hessian fabric which was sucked in and blown away from his face with his quick breaths.
Which one was Ladner? Oh yes, he was the one who was having a piss in the courtyard.
'That's enough, Pendal!' shouted the large Chief to Ladner’s brother, before calmly adding, 'How many has he killed?'
'Three. Fiddly, Ladner and Manto. Lumpy's still on sentry -- he heard nothing,' said Brotton.
'Help him back up. I have questions for him first. And don't hide his face -- I want to see this bastard.'
The sackcloth was pulled backwards off his head. No longer lurking in the shadows, the bandits got their first proper look at their intruder in the light of the burning torches that were stuck like pins around the walls of the main hall.
He had long, wild, almost spikey dark hair with premature grey streaks at his temples. Messed up after being in the sack, he blew the hair away to reveal his beaten face which half an hour earlier might have been good looking. His face was weathered, unshaven and looked about thirty. Fresh blood ran down from a wound beneath his hairline and painted the left side of his face, over a swollen, half-closed eye. His right eye narrowed adjusting for the sudden light. They were normally a piercing blue but at the moment the single eye just looked bloody and tired. His face was flushed with the recent beating and bruised with its consequences. He looked a beaten man who was dreading what would happen next.
Relieved of his cloak and padded leatherjack, he simply wore a black vest with frayed arm holes on top of a dark grey one. His arms were muscular but not excessively so and his shirt wasn't bowed by a belly. A leather belt fastened around dark canvas pants and his feet wore chunky walking boots. His forearms were wrapped with leather protective sleeves of the kind used in hand-to-hand combat.
His one good eye looked up and focussed on the pair of very different men in front of him. The closest was the larger of the two and was a wide man with a solid muscular neck and arms. He had correctly guessed his identity by his voice and now confirmed him as Elmwood, the leader of The Cutters. He had a thick, bald head and a big droopy black moustache on an unshaven face that wore the grin of a powerful man who was in control and knew it.
It was Elmwood and his brutality that had given his Cutters their notoriety and lifted them above most other bands of thugs. He instilled fear in those he encountered and tended to push his way through life in the most direct route, regardless of the consequences. The prisoner in front of him knew this and swallowed some blood back down when he seen him in the flesh.
The second man, his lieutenant, was a thinner man called Callerton Black. His hair was blond and he had a taught, skull-like face and a lipless mouth that had an air of cruelty. He stepped forward to see the prisoner better but got a shock when he seen who it was that had attacked them. He recognised the captive, but tried not to show it.
Without the bag on his head, the captive got a first look at his predicament. He was in the mouth of the beast for sure now. Beaten, tied, on his knees and surrounded by all the remaining bandits and just about every part of him hurt.
He quickly counted fifteen of them surrounding him, all dressed differently but with the ubiquitous red sash of The Cutters which displayed their desperate need to belong to something. Two more near the door were staring back at him instead of going through his cloak, long coat and his backpack like they were supposed to.
'I've been waiting for a rescue attempt,' said the large leader of The Cutters looking down to the prisoner's eye level. 'Is this it?'
The bandits weren't always called The Cutters. When they first started one of their first noticeable raids was to steal a drayman's wagon full of barrels of beer from a local tavern in the small, peaceful village of Harse. They punched and slapped a few people in the process, nothing too bad, just enough to keep bystanders scared then left town with their spoils. By mistake, one of the women who got a slap happened to be the daughter of one of the local militia and reasonably so, he decided to make it his business to bring them in. Not knowing who he was dealing with, they were landed with the unfortunate label of The Harse Bandits. This didn't go down well. Word spread ahead of them of their new collective name and the leader, Elmwood, took it personally. Their next few robberies became increasingly vicious and the one after that they killed a few townsfolk and slashed the remaining witnesses faces with knives, telling them they had been marked by The Cutters.
They were wanted by pretty much every Lord, Duke and King they had stolen from and the price was for their bodies to be recovered dead, not alive. No dungeon would be wasted with these criminals, they had used up any mercy long ago.
That militia man with a grudge did finally catch up with his renamed quarry some time later after the price on their head had become considerable. He had underestimated just how confident they had become and on the day he arrived in the village they were hiding in, he only had a couple of his troops with him. They were overpowered, his bodyguards killed and he was bound and taken back to Harse. They found his daughter again and instead of a slap this time, they cut her face in front of him. He screamed and cried and spat and begged them to stop but he was held by several men and made to watch. The bandits just laughed and drank ale until one of them became sick of his noise, took his knife and slit his belly. The militia man watched his guts spill out onto the ground like a loop of sausages falling onto a butcher's floor.
Their new name stuck after that.
The captive lifted up his face. His white teeth were clenched together set against a blood red face and his eyes and nose were screwed up making his breathing noisy and fast after the kick. His interrogator saw something familiar in his face.
'You look familiar to me...' wondered the Chief, showing his not very good teeth.
'I know who he is,' said his lieutenant, stepping out from behind him. 'Valguard. The mercenary.'
'Oh, yes,' agreed his superior as he placed the face. 'I thought I recognised you. Yes. From the Warlord skirmish. I thought you gave up being stupid years ago?'
Valguard faintly smiled and gave the smallest nod back.
'So, the big question and the reason you are still alive -- who sent you?' he asked, turning more serious.
Valguard shook his head stubbornly.
'Talk!' Said Elmwood loudly and showing the crowd he liked to lead by example, smashed one of his big gauntletted hands down into his captive's face.
Valguard's head snapped to the side with the impact, before slowly returning to the front.
'Fuck...' he said weakly, spitting out some new blood as well as some slightly congealed stuff from before. He shook his head, swallowed some metallic tasting blood and got to the point.
'Come... for the... woman,' he spluttered. 'Your hostage.'
'No, no. Mr. Brotton must have punched you in the ears. I said WHO sent you?' repeated Elmwood.
'Does... it matter?' he spat some more blood out. 'He just wants the girl *cough* before you harm her.'
The big chief laughed at him.
'Bit late for that,' said an annoying voice behind him. 'We've given her a little harm already.'
Valguard peered over his shoulder with his bloody swollen eye to see who said that. A particularly twitchy, rat-faced runt was grinning whilst chewing the nails on his hand, his skinny, ricketed arm unnaturally twisted up to his mouth. He recognised him as a thug who came with a particularly high price tag called Lowther.
Valguard was disgusted and his cheek muscles tightened as he gritted his teeth.
The chorus of fawning bandits laughed along with their chief, who abruptly returned to his questioning.
'Yes, it matters who sent you, I want to know who I have to kill next.'
'Just here... for the girl... got money.'
'No! You are a mercenary so you will have an employer, and you will tell me who he is in good time. But first, I’ll take the ransom from you, so where is it?'
Valguard said nothing and was given another punch for his silence. His face hurt like hell and he kept his head down for a moment waiting for the room to stop moving. He relented, turned towards the men who should have already searched his big coat.
'Silver box. Inside pocket.'
One of the men turned the coat and brought his hand out of a pocket with a small metal case, he shook it and it chinked with the sound of metal coins.
'Bring it, Erl,' shouted the leader to his man then looked back at Valguard. 'You see, you are nothing but a delivery boy after all.'
His lackey obeyed and carried the box over to his boss and waited. Although a lowly thief in the band he was just as keen to see what was in the box as all the others in the room.
'Take the money. Give me the girl,' offered Valguard desperately.
'You're half right,' grinned Elmwood menacingly.
At this point, the Chief’s right hand man stepped up to behind his superior.
He wasn't talking to you, prick!' he whispered into his boss's ear and unexpectedly thrust his sword full into the Chief's back, which arched until the blade burst out of the front of his tunic with a red fountain of blood. At that signal, half of the remaining men in the room turned on the others and stabbed the bandits loyal to the Chief with daggers and swords, immediately halving the number of Valguard’s captors. Behind him, big Brotton even stabbed both the men beside him, one with his long sword the other killed with a dagger.
No honour amongst these thieves.
The betrayed leader's big flailing arms become weaker and slower and his grip slowly opened to drop the ransom but the treacherous lieutenant scooped in to catch the money box whilst letting go of his sword that was skewered through his former employer.
The dead bandit fell hard to his knees, mirroring Valguard's position but with vacant eyes, then toppled forward, just missing him. The resulting collapse against the stone pushed the sword backwards partially out of his back allowing the mutineer to reclaim his blade, wiping the warm insides of his former boss off his sword.
'He talks too much,' said the new leader of The Cutters.
Valguard turned his head round the room to count how many thieves were left standing after the coup. Next to him was Brotton, the big man who had captured him. Behind him were four including the rapist Lowther, one to the right and the two in front, Erl and the new man in charge. Much better.
'Callerton?' he name checked the new leader who nodded. 'I hoped you might side with me,' said Valguard cautiously, but his joy was short lived.
'I'm afraid this isn't the rebellion you're hoping for, he was always going to be killed, as soon as we got the ransom. And thanks to you, we have it.'
Valguard had heard a man called Callerton was rumoured to have joined The Cutters recently and hoped he might have a possible ally on the inside. Someone less morally desolate than the rest of those evil bastards: Murderers, thieves and rapists were well known past recruits to this brutal band of violent scum. What was new was kidnapping, certainly of such a high profile target. They must have had a 'what shit are we going to pull this week?' meeting and decided to step it up a notch.
Valguard had considered that if he could reveal himself to Callerton who, he hoped, being less indoctrinated would take his side and help him kill Elmwood together. Unfortunately, it turned out he is probably more insane than his employer was. Perhaps it was even Callerton's arrival that suggested the move to kidnapping.
By killing half the bandits, Callerton could now split the ransom with fewer people and get a bigger share. Although he had waited patiently and used Elmwood's fraction to help take the girl, now they were not needed. In addition he would take Valguard's offering and still get the actual money as well when the hostage is traded back to her family.
'Question is, what to do with you?'
Valguard was aware of Brotton standing closer to him now and his bloodied sword dangling perilously close to his head. Callerton looked from his prisoner to Brotton and to the case of ransom held in his hand.
'Let's see how much you are worth first.'
The catch on the lid of the silver box was stiff, but with a bit of forcing the lid popped open.
Callerton laughs as he reaches a hand inside and grabs some of the platinum coins holding them tightly in his fist. That was easy he thought, his perpetual grin slightly wider now. He looked down at the defeated mercenary kneeling on the floor, then up to his loyal servant Brotton.
FIND OUT WHAT HAPPENS NEXT IN
'VALGUARD: KNIGHT OF COINS'
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© 2015 David N. Humphrey, All Rights Reserved. Updated 2020.