Through a window of the house a bow and arrow appeared. Lee-Lack heard the singing noise of a bowstring being released. Immediately, without thinking, he let himself slide halfway off his saddle, clinging with one arm and one leg to his horse, keeping the animal between the window and most of his body. The arrow lodged itself with a twang in a nearby tree. If he had stayed upright on his horse, it would have pierced his heart.
“Grandmother, have you gone mad?” he yelled in anger. He didn’t dare sit upright on his horse again.
“Just testing your reflexes, Lee-Lack. Can’t let you get complacent, and the same goes for me. I must practice my archery skills. I’m just an old, defenseless woman, after all.”
“You’re about as defenseless as a pack of wolves in a chicken yard, you old she-devil,” Lee-Lack roared.
“Oh, you flatterer,” Lee-Lonia shouted back. “Take care of your horse and come inside. I just made a fresh batch of almond cookies. They’re at their best when they’re still warm, right out of the oven. And I have cold milk to go with them.”
“So the trip was uneventful, I gather,” Lee-Lonia said. “Have some more cookies.”
“I don’t know about uneventful. I passed no less than five patrols. Four of them when I was safely on a road that was as good as invisible from the plains. One stopped me, but the soldiers weren’t very thorough.”
“Of course not. They’re looking for a fearsome robber. Not a young, handsome guy like you.”
“Hm. Perhaps. Nevertheless, I might not be so lucky next time. I’m going to have to be a whole lot more cautious in future.”
“Is there much more?”
“Gold? Oh yes. It could take years and years to haul it all here by myself. The problem is that the military governor is looking for the treasure of the Renuvian Plains Robbers as well. If ever one of his patrols finds gold in my saddlebags, they’re going to ask some hard questions. Maybe I should stop going for a while.”
Lee-Lonia shot him an angry look, which almost immediately died out again.
“You just have to be more careful. It will be all right. After a while the soldiers will grow tired of patrolling the same stretch of the Plains.”
“I doubt it. The soldiers aren’t the ones who decide when to give up. The military governor of Mirkadesh, or rather, the warlord does. And I heard he needs the gold. Which reminds me. Did you learn anything new?”
“I went to Dermolhea to get you more of those pills for the pain in your leg. The little prince is the hero of the day. They call him Anaxantis Muktharchtankhar.”
“Anaxantis the Mukthar Slayer? Really?” Lee-Lack smiled derisively.
“Yes, really. Most people seem to think he deserves it. And don’t you laugh. Not you, you who lost Mirkadesh, the Plains and your little army of robbers — well, most of them, anyway — while the prince now has a firm grip on the Highlands.”
“The worst you could do is underestimate the little warlord, Lee-Lack. When I say the prince is master of the Highlands, I mean just that. The duke of Landemere appointed him warlord of his duchy. The people and the nobility — the latter grudgingly, I’ll admit — voted him warlord of the Province of Amiratha. And you, Lee-Lack, threw the once proud and independent county of Mirkadesh into his lap. You made it possible for him to appoint himself its warlord.”
“That’s unfair, Gran. There was nothing I could do. I only had a small escort with me at the time and the prince had dozens of soldiers. Those fools of the council let themselves be taken prisoner.”
“You should have protected them.”
“How, Grandmother? How? What was I supposed—”
“Not only did the whole county live from the protection money the Renuvian Plains Robbers collected, and from the occasional loot, but your band of robbers was also Mirkadesh’s secret army. And you were its leader.”
“What could I—”
“You failed, my boy. First by letting the little prince-warlord subdue the county, then by mishandling the negotiations with the Mukthars, and lastly by letting those same barbarians sack Mirkadesh.”
Lee-Lack rose from his chair, leaning with two fists on the table.
“I— We did everything we could. Everything. As soon as we understood the Mukthars were attacking Mirkadesh we rode as fast as we could to come to its aid.” His face was red by now and he was shouting, blind with rage. “We fought, Grandmother. We fought like lions. I saw my friends fall, one after the other. There was blood everywhere. The barbarians… there were just too many of them.”
He sank back in his chair.
“Sorry, Lee-Lack,” Lee-Lonia said, her voice softer now, “but that is how people will remember the Sack of Mirkadesh. You failing to save them, and the prince-warlord taking revenge on their behalf. And then you lost most of your men. The people had no other choice but to submit to the warlord.”
The former robber leader stared over his grandmother’s shoulders through the open window.
“The bravest of my men had already fallen in Mirkadesh. The last of them perished when part of the corridor of our secret hideout in the mountains collapsed.”
He closed his eyes as he remembered how, with his own hands, he had turned the wheel of Sanduvar’s infernal mechanism that made the roof fall down on the remainder of his men, his younger brother, Norri-Nack, among them.
“It was a horrible mistake,” he thought, letting out a deep sigh.
Lee-Lonia reached over the table to take his hand in hers.
“Not all of them died, Lee-Lack. I met one of them in a tavern in Dermolhea. He said his name was Oldo.”
“Oldo? Oldo Raldiz? I saw him fall from his horse with my own eyes. Two Mukthars jumped upon him. I… If I hadn’t been fending off three barbarians myself I—”
“Well, he survived. The villagers vouched for him and said he was one of them, and so he was treated by the medics when the warlord arrived at the scene. Later he was taken in by a family who lived in a nearby hamlet.”
“Nobody betrayed him apparently. Not everything fell apart that accursed day.”
“No, but the soldiers of the prince are looking for you and your men. I told you the warlord needs the gold.“
Lee-Lack looked straight at his grandmother in utter surprise.
“Men? There are more of them?”
“According to Oldo about twenty. Some, like Oldo, were left for dead in the streets of Mirkadesh but recovered later. Others had been absent through sickness, and a few were on patrol missions.”
“Ah, yes, the patrols. One of my lieutenants, Javarroz, organized those. Probably why I forgot all about them. Did Oldo say if they kept in contact?”
“He said most of them fled to the coast region for fear of being betrayed to the military governor.”
“But I thought Oldo himself wasn’t ratted out, so why would they—”
“The others didn’t want to take any risks apparently. They’re right, what with the warlord’s popularity at an all-time high.”
“Twenty,” he thought. “Twenty or a few more. Is it enough to start over? Under the circumstances, can we recruit new blood? Some of the population fought for the prince at the River Zinchara. Can they still be trusted?”
“How is the mood in Mirkadesh?” he asked.
“I don’t have good news, I’m afraid. The people are adjusting to the new regime. A lot of them are just glad they’re still alive. The county may be under military control, but the occupation isn’t particularly oppressive. Were you thinking of reviving the Renuvian Plains Robbers?”
“I don’t know. I’d have to talk to the men who survived, and I don’t know how to find them.”
“But I do. Oldo told me I could find a certain person in Tarbalainn who knew where most of them hang out. In fact, they meet regularly in a tavern of ill repute a few miles outside the town.”
“Tarbalainn,” Lee-Lack mused silently. “Yes, that seems a logical place for robbers to flee to. A little harbor where pirates often drop anchor and come ashore to buy supplies and to repair their ships. Yes… Tarbalainn is outside the county of Mirkadesh, and the young warlord can’t spread his troops too thin. It’s doubtful he has a garrison in every little harbor forsaken by Gods and men alike. The local lords probably don’t care very much what happens in Tarbalainn. And even if some of my men are recognized and have to flee from one of their victims, or if they run out of money, they can always try to enlist with a pirate ship. Yes, it is the ideal hideout for ex-members of a robber gang.”
“Who’s that person Oldo told you about? Do I know him?” he asked.
“I think so, my boy. It’s your little brother. It’s Norri-Nack.”