The Duke's uprising is lost.
Baldwin and Morgan continued running up the bank. The enemy warriors pursued them but had no chance of catching the two very fit men. Baldwin glanced back. "There's only four of them, they are struggling and I think they are about to give up. It's a good thing they don't have an archer with them or we could have been in trouble."
Morgan looked back. “They're not gaining on us but it doesn't look like the fools are going to give up; it's a big mistake they're making. If we're not going to lose them we might as well slow down a bit and let them catch us up. Do you think they have tired enough yet though?” Morgan asked.
“Yes, they don't seem very fit to me. We can take them.”
They slowed their pace until the four men were almost on them. “Let's do it then,” Morgan said. “Time to get these fools off our backs.” They both turned and hurried towards their startled pursuers.
One of the pursuers stopped, stepped back in panic, stumbled and fell. Morgan’s sword went through his throat and he turned his attention to another of the men. Baldwin was keeping two men at bay and laughing loudly which further unnerved them.
Morgan's sword connected a heavy blow across his adversary’s wrist and was able to easily to run his sword through the disabled man’s chest. “Having trouble, Baldwin?” he shouted.
Baldwin’s sword struck one of the men’s neck and he dropped. The other turned and ran but Morgan threw his dagger and struck the man heavily in his back. The man ran another few steps before he fell.
“That’s three one to me then, Baldwin.”
“You picked the weakest two. Best hurry and get your dagger. We need to tell the Duke what we’ve seen.”
The two men set off back towards the camp. They were just approaching the outskirts of the camp when Baldwin put his hand up to stop Morgan. "Look," he said. "The sentry guard is asleep against the tree."
Morgan crept over and wrestled the startled man to the ground before holding his dagger to the man's throat. “Not very good is it?” Morgan said. “If I were the enemy you would be dead now and the whole camp would be at risk because of your stupidity.”
The man recognised Morgan when he let him go. “I’m sorry, sir,” he said.
“You have a job to do,” Morgan said. “The enemy is only a couple of miles away and you need to be alert all the time. If I catch you asleep on guard again I’ll kill you myself.”
“It won’t happen again, sir.”
The two men walked off. “How come so many men call you sir, Morgan?”
“Authority, Baldwin, authority.”
“I have the same authority but they don’t call me sir do they?”
“No, sir,” Morgan said. And they both laughed.
They walked out of the woods and into the camp, a large area in a clearing dotted with tents. So many tents that some were erected amongst the trees. "I wouldn't like to sleep in a tent amongst those trees," Morgan said. "An ideal target for a hit and run terrorising raid. Especially if the sentry is asleep."
"Or dead," Baldwin said.
They got to the Duke of Lovat's tent in the centre of the camp. The Duke's bodyguard greeted them and took them inside.
“Ah, my two finest warriors,” the Duke said. “What news do you have of the enemy?”
Baldwin spoke first. “Down through these woods, there is an open meadow leading down to a brook. Past the brook, there is some denser woods before it opens out onto a large plain. The enemy is setting up on the plain."
"How far is it to their camp?"
"I should imagine it is about two miles away and they look to be about two hundred strong."
“Not far then. And if they are about two hundred men, then according to figures from our agents planted in towns around the land, it must be his whole army. We have two hundred men as well. We could launch a dawn attack on them from out of the woods and catch them by surprise But we need to be quick. I don't want them coming out of the woods here and surprising us first.”
“You could attack their camp,” Morgan said. “But it may be costly. You can bet they have scouts out the same as us and they probably know we are here. Half our men are archers and it would be best if we let the enemy attack us when we are at the edge of these woods. After they cross the brook and come up the open meadow our archers have the advantage of height and could devastate their numbers before we engage in close combat.”
“You might be right, Morgan, but I think a surprise attack on them would be our best option. Go back tonight and let me know if the situation is the same. If it is, we will launch our attack at dawn. In the meantime, I'll put some more lookouts in the woods, just in case.”
Baldwin and Morgan had some hot food from the cook’s tent and went to their tent to get some sleep. "What do you think of the Duke's plan?" Morgan asked.
"It has its good points, but the element of surprise would be lost pretty quickly and then they might come under a counter-attack from those young fit warriors. Even if he wins the battle he could lose a lot of men."
"There may not be an element of surprise at all if they have observers watching our movements like we are watching theirs. We'll have another look later but for now, let's catch up on some sleep," Morgan said. "It's been a long day."
One of the night guards woke them at one o’clock and they set off into the dark woodlands. They worked their way around the enemy camp to get into a copse overlooking the camp. They were surprised the enemy numbers seemed to have trebled. Many more were turning up as the night went on and the men remained looking down from the copse until the sun was about to rise.
“We have been misled,” Morgan said. “There must be almost a thousand warriors out there now. And over the back, there's about twenty horses. Those riders though are not soldiers. They belong to the sheriffs. I wonder why they are here.”
“With such a build-up of men, they must be expecting a victory,” Baldwin said. “So the horsemen are here to hunt down and kill any stragglers in flight after the battle. Our camp has lost any advantage we had with our archers and if we engage in close combat our two hundred men will surely be overwhelmed.”
“We'd best get back and tell the Duke that their numbers have swelled overnight. It's best if we withdraw and the Duke may have to re-think his plans. ”
“You go, Morgan. I’ll stay here and watch for any movement. If it looks like they are preparing to attack, I’ll need to try and alert our men.”
Morgan set off but had not been gone long when Baldwin heard a disturbance behind him and thinking it was his friend he called out. “What’s up, Morgan?” He turned and was shocked to see two men with swords drawn and an archer with an arrow aimed at him.
“Well, what have we here then? A rebel spy. And by the looks of it, a foreign fighter working for the enemies of our land.”
“I’m no fighter just a traveller,” Baldwin said. “I stopped for a rest while passing through.”
The stoutest of the men laughed. “You have a drawn sword lying at your side and it looks to me to be a warrior’s sword, and you look more like a warrior than a traveller.”
"I keep my sword by my side because I've heard of all the trouble here."
The man laughed again. “I’m sure you have some information for us, like who is this Morgan you spoke of? Another traveller, perhaps?"
"Just someone I met on the way. He's gone on his own way now."
"We are not fools. In our camp, we have people who will have the skills to make you tell us what you are doing here. Or if you chose, you can die slowly in excruciating pain. Stand up, and don’t touch your sword. My archer has the ability to cause you pain and suffering without killing you.”
As Baldwin stood up a dagger hit the archer in the back causing him to yell and fall to his knees, his arrow flying wildly off target before he fell forward onto the ground. Baldwin swiftly scooped up his sword. Morgan rushed forward and the two friends engaged the enemy swordsmen. The swordfight was soon over; the enemy being no match for these battle experienced mercenaries.
“Thanks, Morgan, I thought I was in trouble there, and I could have been if that arrow hit me."
“But it would have been the better of two evils had I not returned. I saw our friends heading for the copse and I thought I would follow them, just in case.”
The men were startled when the archer began giving out a large blast on a horn. “I thought he was dead,” Morgan said. He dashed over and kicked the horn out of the man’s hand before running his sword through his back. “Do you think they heard him, Baldwin?”
“Well, there's a dozen or so men rushing towards us. Best get away from here.”
They just started to make their escape when they heard the sound of multiple horns sounding off and they stopped running. “What’s going on?” Morgan said. “Surely they are not sending hundreds of warriors after us.”
Baldwin ran back and looked over at the camp. “Something’s going on, those men are heading back to the camp and all the others are running out of the tents.”
Morgan joined him. “Look the Duke's men running out of the woods. They are attacking. They're attacking without the use of the archers first. The idiots think they are attacking a few hundred men. Why the hell didn’t the Duke wait for us to get back.”
"I can't see the Duke. No doubt he is leading from the back as always."
"It's a slaughter," Morgan said. "They are swarming over our men in great numbers. They have no chance; most of our archers have no experience in close combat."
"We have some good friends out there and we can only watch," Baldwin said. "There's nothing we can do for them."
The Duke soon realised his error and sounded a retreat but the enemy was amongst them and would pursue them through the woods until they killed or dispersed them all.
“I feel so helpless, Baldwin. So what do we do now?”
“We can do nothing. It's time to leave this land and go home. The Duke’s war is lost and, to be sure, we will not be paid this month.”
"We won't get paid, but we are better off than the men down there," Morgan said.
Reluctantly, the two men set off towards the coast. They passed woodland and farmland and tried to avoid being noticed from the farmhouses. It was late afternoon when they came to their first village. “You know, Baldwin, despite the Duke’s uprising this is a much more civilised country than our own. Look at this place, It's pretty isolated but it has nothing to protect it.”
“Not much to protect anyway. A dozen ramshackle buildings with a blacksmith's forge that looks like it doubles as an inn."
"It’s a different culture, Baldwin. They have the horsemen to keep order but more importantly, every young man in this country is made to serve time in the army. I think the horsemen rounded up the retired soldiers to re-join the ranks again and fight. I did notice when there were only about two hundred most of them were young men. Later the ages were more diverse, some of them even seemed to be quite old.”
“So if there is trouble anywhere, the horsemen go to all the nearby towns and mobilise all the men to take up arms with the army. That would explain the surge in numbers because I am sure now that the two hundred figure was right, at the start of the uprising. Whereas the Duke was a paid man, paid by a cousin of the country's ruler. Very few of our men were from this country, so it would be difficult to add to our numbers.”
“Pity we didn’t work that out earlier,” Morgan said. “All our work and now we won’t get paid and a lot of good men have perished.”
Just as Morgan guessed, there was a small inn attached to the blacksmith's shop and the men went inside. A woman was behind the serving counter and two older women sat around a blazing log fire. Morgan hit his head on a low bean causing him to curse and Baldwin to laugh. But there was no response from the women. Morgan ordered the ale. "Do you have any food?" he asked.
"Bread and cheese," the woman asked.
"With some butter and onions?"
"Just bread and cheese."
"All right we'll have a plate of that, and it better not be stale."
"The thick straw on this floor can hide many things," Baldwin said. "It looks like a stable and smells of horse manure."
"The smell is more likely to be coming from those two old women toasting themselves by the fire," Morgan said. " But going by the size of the back door, it probably is used as a stable as well." He looked at the fire. "It's a wonder this place hasn't gone up in flames by now."
The woman started to fill two mugs of ale. “Strangers round here?” she asked.
“Yes, just passing through,” Baldwin said.
“Come from the battle have you?”
"The battle," Morgan said. "What battle?"
"North of here, some foreign invaders tried to take over our country. You must know about it."
“No, we don’t.”
“Our men folk were victorious and they will return soon. So, where are you headed?”
“Too many questions,” Morgan said. “Just serve us the ale.”
The two old women looked over on hearing the remark. They looked away again and began whispering to each other. The serving woman stared at the men and when they looked at her she looked away only to stare at them again a little later. The men sensed the unfriendly atmosphere and soon ate their food and left the inn.
“How does she get the information so quick?” Morgan said.
“Maybe the two old girls are witches,” Baldwin said and they both laughed.
"Evil ones," one of the old women said after they left the inn. "Up to no good. I think they are a couple of defeated enemies fleeing from their evil deeds."
"Don't worry," the bar woman said. "They won't get far. I need to let the sheriffs know." She went out to the back of the inn and to a line of pigeon coops. She tied two bits of red ribbon to the legs of a pigeon from one of the four coops and let the pigeon fly off.