Phoebe's Journey Part 2

Chapter 2: Disaster Strikes

The peasant from the village took care of the body of the foolish and unfortunate shugenja, and we moved on. Mehli was on edge, theorizing what might be really going on. Lady Miyara was worried, cold and distant and sharp.

As we moved through the hills and towards the mountains, the villages became scarce. The area reminded me a little of home. Oh, home is in wild woodlands, not in the mountains, but it's just as empty of people and desolate. Wild. I loved it. You could smell it in the air, hear it in the wind, see it in the edges of my vision.

One morning, Lady Miyara said, rather more grimly than I thought the occasion called for, that we were only about three days out. Three days only, and everything would be fine. The road was narrow here, and all I could do was what the horse wanted anyway; follow the last wagon. Mehli and Lady Miyara were at the back as well, and Tony up at the front.

Mehli and I were chatting, and Lady Miyara was riding silently, looking all around her as though she expected something to leap out at her any minute. In other words, all was as usual. The wagons creaked to a stop, which was not usual. We were past our lunch break, and it was too early to stop for the night. Mehli and I fell silent, and arrows fell all around us thickly.

I leapt off the horse and slid under Donku's wagon while Lady Miyara yelled for everyone to take cover. She disappeared behind the wagon, and Mehli found a small boulder to crouch behind. She pulled out her bow and started looking for a target. I couldn't tell what was happening up ahead.

I could tell we were in trouble. That was a lot of arrows, which meant a lot of archers. Volley after volley. Back home, archers were just the first wave. No, not us. We're peaceful and have no quarrel with anyone. Not enough of us of to form an army and go a-conquering even if we wanted to.

But deserters from one Kislevite army or another sometimes show up in the wild and we have to take care of them. When I was young, an army rolled over Vrbanja, a small kingdom to the south of us. I grew up hearing that story, and debates over how they fought and how all us villages together might repel a Kislevite army were common.

Under the wagon, I closed my eyes and whispered a request to Pardu. The protective shell formed around me, and I crept forward a little. I figured we were all dead, but we may as well go down fighting. Besides, the Kislevites were superstitious: often, a little show of the power of the spirits would spook them off. I didn't think that tactic would work here, but it was the best I could do.

I found Marlen, and made my bargain with her. I slithered out from cover, just a little, and watched carefully. Each archer bobs up, fires, and ducks back under cover. If I could just pick out one, and figure his pattern...

I gave Marlen my best guess, but it wasn't good enough. She returned to me, having missed, a little annoyed with me. I ignored her griping and watched again. I lost concentration a moment when Mehli leapt out from behind her rock and charged up the hill, rapier drawn, yelling insults to the Nipponese archers ahead of her. I whispered a plea to the spirits to watch after one of their own, and returned to watching the archers.

It wasn't much, but it was all I could do.

The next time I loosed Marlen, she returned to me strong and victorious. An archer was so severely weakened, he couldn't pull his bow.

Then all the archers broke cover and ran away. I didn't understand why just then: they could have, and should have, utterly crushed us. But I sent Marlen three more times after archers, three times successfully. About the time the last of the archers disappeared from my view, I heard Tony yelling, "The second wagon is on fire!"

That was where the scrolls were, of course. And a merchant, a guard, the shugenja, and Peter were in the wagon.

I ran to the wagon, and saw no flames, but a lot of smoke poured out of it.

Scattered behind and around were several guards and the Lady Miyara, all lying as if dead on the ground. I quickly ascertained they were not dead, but merely unconscious, some spell undoubtedly: someone had attacked the scrolls.

I took a deep breath and climbed inside the wagon, to see if I could find someone to drag out.

The wagon was filled with smoke and some low flames, but there was more air inside to breathe than I thought there would be. The fire started, and was most intense, in the middle of the wagon. I edged past it and found three people at the front of the wagon: the shugenja, Peter, and the merchant. The guard who was in here was on the ground outside. One at a time, I pulled and pushed, lifted and shoved, each one over the seat and out the front of the wagon. I was immediately covered with sweat, and panting by the time I pushed the last one out of the wagon to safety.

Now, the scrolls. In the middle, under the flames and where the smoke was thickest. The wagon lurched under me, beginning to tilt up from the front. I had no idea what was happening, but I dug quickly through the smoldering furs and leathers to find the chest.

By the time I reached the bottom, I knew the ambush had reached its goal.

The wagon tilted strongly to the back, and everything started sliding out. I realized I'd scorched the back of my right hand as I climbed out the back. Donku was holding the wagon up, dumping its contents purposely. I had no idea he was that strong.

The two of us put out flames and searched desperately for the box. It was gone.

Everyone gathered together. Grieg was missing and Iuchi the shgenja was dead, but everyone else was here and all right. Tony, the front guards, and Mehli had all charged up the hill. Mehli and Tony were both hurt, but not badly, and Arati healed them quickly.

The guards and Lady Miyara all woke up by then, and she was as as despairing as I'd ever seen her. In her own way, which meant she was cold and stiff and had hopeless eyes. She stared around her, not quite back yet, not quite taking it all in, while Tony quickly coordinated things.

I checked the shugenja, but he had no obvious wounds on him. Magic, of course.The samurai guards gathered the horses. Tony said we should move out of this area, and he suggested a place a mile or so onward. The merchants started to load up the stuff into the other two wagons.

I considered carefully. The wagon had a charred hole through the bottom of it. The stuff that was around and on top of the box was all there. Charred, but not completely vanished. I was pretty sure the box didn't burn, but was spirited away. Maybe the fire was to make us think the scrolls were destroyed, so we wouldn't try to find them.

Lady Miyara put herself back together, seeing a little, tiny ray of hope. She and Tony, two guards and an extra horse went back along our trail to try to find Grieg. In case he had spirited the chest out through the veil.

Mehli took charge of the caravan, and we moved forwards for a mile, to the spot she and Tony and agreed on.

We'd made camp, Donku was making dinner, and the sun had all but set before they returned. With Grieg, injured. Without the chest.

Arati restored Grieg, and I rested, with a cup of tea from Donku. Grieg had attacked the archers in his own way, but had been taken down by an arrow.

Tony and Lady Miyara discussed the problem. Tony said the archers' arms and armor weren't high quality, like Miyara's, but were acceptable. They had worn peasant clothing to disguise themselves. He mused that they were ronin trying to look like bandits.

Lady Miyara nodded her agreement. She saw that they very well organized. They could have overrun us and killed us all, but instead had done almost no damage to us. They took the chest and left.

Dinner was a silent affair. Lady Miyara stared into the fire, and I don't think her thoughts were pleasant ones.

Soon or late, she was going to question the two sole archers taken alive. I would have to be there, to interpret the spirits; estimation of truth. But I didn't look forward to it. I could see cold death ahead for them. I didn't need Marlen to tell me that they were two of the four I had let her feed from. And that was why they were here, to be questioned, and killed. By their own hands or Lady Miyara's, it didn't matter: ultimately, I killed them.

Of course, it was likely that the other two I'd sent Marlen after had also been killed, but that was different. They were killed in battle, and they were warriors. The deaths of these two, in cold blood, long after they ceased to be any danger to us; no, that was a different matter, and it was on my hands.