Nowhere to Go
For the second night in a row Lee-Lack had barely been able to close an eye. Again he rose with the sun, although he still felt tired and his limbs moved as if they were made of lead. He would take a nap in the afternoon, when he was on the path overlooking the Plains. There were places enough where neither he nor his horse could be seen from below.
He wasn’t even the first to enter the dining room to order breakfast. He shuddered as he saw what the landlord served his guests for the first meal of the day. Greasy sausages in a brown onion sauce, with loaves of dark bread. Yet, when he started eating, he found the food satisfying and he enjoyed the taste. Maybe it was because he was tired. The cool, very light beer was refreshing and perfect for a day that was already growing warm and promised to be a scorcher.
At least he could relax on his way to the Plains. There was nothing valuable or incriminating in his saddlebags or on his person. He let his horse follow the road the animal knew so well by now.
Lee-Lack mulled over the conversations he had overheard the day before. Nobody had claimed to know anything definite, it was all more or less speculation based on rumors. They were all frighteningly similar, though, which led him to believe there was at least some truth in them. The prince didn’t just like playing at being a warlord. It seemed he also wanted to be a good governor. In the year and a few months he had been here he had taken more of a genuine interest in the province of Amiratha and its merchant cities, and the county of Mirkadesh, than the high kings of Ximerion had shown over several hundreds of years. And the population loved him. Keeping wild barbarians from their doorsteps would inspire that kind of reverence in people. Being young, handsome, and striking a fine figure on horseback helped a lot.
His hold over the Highlands wasn’t all that solid yet, but it was growing firmer with every passing day. Lee-Lack, on the other hand, had lost whatever control over Mirkadesh he had once had. Rebuilding would be next to impossible with the warlord’s soldiers crawling all over the Highlands and the Plains. Not to mention they were particularly interested in Mirkadesh and the treasure of the Renuvian Plains Robbers that they thought was hidden somewhere in the county. Well, it wasn’t — not exactly — but near enough, and as long as they kept believing the gold was somewhere in the neighborhood, they would keep searching and patrolling the area.
There was so much gold still in the secret cave, high up in the Teagriam Mountains, that, all by himself, it would take him a decade or more to move it. Robber chiefs had been hoarding it for so long that by now it represented an immense fortune. He couldn’t even begin to estimate the combined value of the golden bars and objects, the silver and the precious stones.
It was supposed to be the nest egg that should enable Mirkadesh to weather any and all storms. It could be used to buy armies or to buy off enemies.
It was ironic, Lee-Lack thought, but all the wealth that was extorted from rich merchants as protection money, was also meant to protect the county of Mirkadesh. Not that it had helped one bit, he reflected with some bitterness.
What vexed him the most was how he had let himself be fooled by Shigurtish, the Mukthar prince who had led the barbarian raid on the Highlands. Shigurtish himself had come to a parlay, not far from the Queneq Pass. Everything seemed to be fine. Shigurtish even knew that Sanduvar Blacktooth had been replaced, some years ago, by Lee-Lack Scarminckle. The Mukthar pretended he only needed some cooperation, some small services the robbers could render without disturbing their normal routine. Shigurtish just wanted to know if the warlord was sending troops into the Plains to strategically important positions. Were scouts operating in the Plains? Was he building fortifications? In the Plains? Along the border? Anywhere?
Lee-Lack had kept the Mukthars informed of everything he knew. He had spied on the warlord’s scouts. Shigurtish had assured him that for his loyal services Mirkadesh would be spared. Besides, the Mukthar prince had said his objectives were the rich merchant cities of Ghiasht and Dermolhea. That stood to reason, the robber chief had thought at the time. It was there that barbarians could pillage and plunder to their heart’s content. It was there that the money was. And the people.
He knew the Mukthars would rape and kill a lot of the citizens. It had bothered him, but then again, these were not his people. These were the little prince-warlord’s charges. Not his. His people lived in Mirkadesh, and he was doing everything he could to keep them safe. Or so he had thought.
For one fleeting moment he had considered joining forces with the young warlord. He had almost immediately abandoned what was merely the ghost of a plan. The High Kings of Ximerion had never bothered about Mirkadesh, and certainly not after Herruwold Long-Sword had ratified the charter, granted by Count Mandihar III of Mirkadesh, that gave the people of the county the right to govern themselves under a council.
Right after the Battle of the Zinchara, not two months ago, he had been so surprised the warlord had carried the day against all expectations, he had made it a point to read up on the Tanahkos dynasty. He had asked his gran to buy whatever recent history books she could lay her hand on. He had cursorily perused them in between trips… and he had laughed out loud when he had read a particular rumor that was reported among the more serious bits of information. Could it really be true the proud Royal House of Tanahkos descended from robber barons. Robbers like himself?
So, he might have been wrong after all. But probably not.
He had to admit he admired the youngster. What he had done to the captured Mukthars had made the former robber chief’s blood run cold in his veins. Fools called the warlord’s decision cruel, but Lee-Lack had immediately seen that it was just an efficient way to get rid of thousands of mouths that would have to be fed from sparse reserves and to the detriment of the people. The warlord’s people. No, all in all, Lee-Lack Scarminckle couldn’t fault the prince for his drastic measures. That was what stung the most, perhaps. If only they’d have had the chance and enough time to get to know each other, they might have gotten to appreciate each other. They could have defended the Highlands together.
It might have worked out. Then again, it was very improbable.
Besides, the little warlord had done fine on his own. Just fine.
He continued his journey, avoiding the villages of Mirkadesh and especially the head village. Although, without his heavy disguise, and with his pills to suppress the pain so he could walk with only a barely perceptible limp, it was unlikely anyone would recognize the former robber chief. Nevertheless, he didn’t want to take any risk.
That was also why he chose the more difficult but virtually unknown path running on the flanks of the mountains. Although he wasn’t carrying anything valuable or incriminating yet, he didn’t want to be stopped by a patrol of soldiers who would want to know where he was going.
That night he slept under the stars, between the rocks, counting on his horse to warn him of any danger. After two nights, almost without closing an eye, he now slept like a log.
The morning was already half gone when he woke. He couldn’t travel fast on the small path. There were stretches where he had to get off his horse and proceed on foot. Finally, in the late afternoon, he reached the place where an even smaller, almost undetectable path led up the flank of the mountain, and eventually to the eagle’s nest of the leader of the Renuvian Plains Robbers. He could eat and sleep there. Water as well was available. The secret hiding place of the robber’s treasure was nearby.
Immediately he sensed something was wrong. It was more than a vague feeling of something not exactly being as it should be. Then he saw it. There was a lot of gravel and small rocks at the lower end of the path.
“Someone has been here. Who? Who could have known about this place, let alone how to get in from this side of the mountains?”
As silently as he could he unrolled the blanket that hid his sword and very, very slowly drew it out of its sheath. A slight metallic scraping noise couldn’t be avoided. He stood motionless for a full minute, but he heard nothing that would indicate that anything or anyone was moving.
Cautiously, his sword still drawn, he climbed the path
He stopped, completely bewildered and not believing his eyes. He had been so meticulous in taking as many precautions as he could, but how could a mere human foresee acts of the Gods?
He cursed the deities and fate, and let out a loud, hysterical laugh. He sank to his knees before the entrance to the secret hideout.
The entrance that wasn’t there anymore because it had been buried under tons of rocks.