The Zenith's Spy
ZACK Stand rode up the mountainside with the bandit band of nearly four hundred led by Gaston, waiting for the Guard to spring their trap. The road had a sheer, half-mile drop off on the west, and thick deep evergreen woods on the east. Chill winds buffeted the men. The lack of traffic left the ground rocky and in poor condition, with dead trees littering the way in several places.
He wondered when the Guard would make its move. My message must have gotten through . . . I hope! He prayed for a good outcome, it was too late to do much else. They rounded a bend in the road, and Zack saw a wide, barren field to the east.
"AMBUSH!" The scout galloped back toward the bandit horde, fear radiating from him. Sharp bugle blasts underscored the warning. Guardsmen galloped out from both ends, north and south of their position, closing in on their enemy. Polished boots over royal blue trousers, gleaming swords drawn from a black baldric over a red tunic made an impressive sight.
Startled men cursed. The drop off forced the bandits onto the open field. Some looked for avenues of escape. The thick forest would slow them to a crawl, leaving them an easy target for men following on foot. Others scrambled into hurried defensive formations.
A flash of steel drew Zack's attention to Gaston, the bandit chief. "You bastards, fight the Guard or fight me! Form a square, damn it!" he shouted, cutting down one of his men who tried to flee. With threats and curses, his lieutenants forced others toward the battleground. At last, Zack thought. Galloping to the far end of the field with the others, he turned to estimate the attacking Guard force. His heart sank. Damn, they're no more than two hundred; they're outnumbered two to one. Where are the reinforcements? We planned for this contingency. Will they remember? I don't want to slice up my own men!
Looking for a plausible foe, Zack rode into bloody chaos. Screams from horses and men filled the air. A guardsman met Zack's charge and attacked with a full-on sword stroke. The steel-on-steel clash radiated up his arm.
A Guard officer forced his way between them, and ordered the guardsman away. A nod of recognition eased Zack's turmoil. They sparred back and forth while edging their horses out of the melee's confusion. Spellbinder, a well-trained warhorse, did not recognize the potentially fatal game Zack was playing; he pushed forward in full attack. Selected guardsmen alternated their assault against Zack. These kinds of battles rarely lasted more than a quarter-hour, but the constant battle blows without follow through and pulling his sword strokes began to tire him more than a real encounter and his joints began to ache. Charge, clash, engage, break off and re-engage, for show not death, left his mind as stressed as his body.
The latest guardsman Zack sparred against faced away from the main fighting when a bandit charged at the other man's unprotected back. Zack signaled Spellbinder with a knee; the gelding pushed the guardsman's mount to the side. Zack's sword missed the guardsman by inches and pierced the bandit's throat. Blood splattered against Zack's face and shirt. The bandit dropped his reins and his horse pitched him from his saddle, galloping off. The bandit's foot, caught in its stirrup, dragging the body over rocky ground, battering it into a bloody mess. That little action could get me killed if anyone saw it happen. Will this ever end? Zack thought.
As if responding to Zack's question, the bugler blasted the signal to regroup. Guardsmen galloped toward the road to the south, killing several more men on the way. No one followed. Zack observed many bloodied bandits and several guardsmen on the blood-soaked ground. He saw several dozen more criminals herded together under guard. Gaston has lost many; his men are untrained for this kind of fight. Even outnumbered, the Guard did well.
Gaston signaled his remaining men, and they galloped north. A mile up the road, he ordered two men to lag back and insure the Guard did not follow them into the mountains; if guardsmen did follow, Gaston ordered them to ride forward to warn him. Zack hid his pleasure at the anger on the bandit leader's face.
Zack rode near the front of the column, close to Gaston's lieutenants, looking for harbingers of detection. He found none, but knew Gaston's men would report after they reached their base. If enough men had noticed his less-than-deadly actions, he might be accused of being a traitor.
Memories of Gaston's barbarism haunted him. Accusing two men of betraying him, the bandit leader had tortured them for three days, cutting off various body parts and forced pieces down their throats until they were barely conscious. Finally, he'd ordered their legs tied to different horses and had them pulled apart over agonizing minutes, a slow, gory death. If he discovers my treachery, my death will surpass anything I saw. Memories of his wife and daughter replaced those of ripped, mangled bodies. I can endure anything except not to see them again. Will I get out of here alive? Apprehension tingled through him as he searched for signs of discovery.
Gaston had never told him the exact location of the camp, and the mountains surrounding it included too many dells and small valleys to search effectively. Zack had had no recourse but to continue on with them, and once he'd found the location, escape.
Dark shadows covered the encampment's cleared area when they limped in. Those men that collected food from the cook's tent ate little. The survivors snapped at their companions as they spread out to their campsites in small groups. Little conversation flowed across smoky fires. Zack joined two men at the fire near his belongings. He ate silently and listened.
"Damn, I never saw anything like it. They cut us to pieces. I saw Brack's arm fly over my head. I can still hear his screams." "Gaston was a fool to attack them. We should've run and fought them on our ground."
"It wouldn't make any difference-those Guard bastards know how to fight. I think we lost close to two hundred. Gaston must be pissed. The damn caravan had best be worth it."
Zack pushed their words from his mind as he rubbed protective oil on his sword blade while staring into the fire. Reflections from the flames leapt along the glistening metal and calmed his nerves, but not his nervousness. His body still ached from the day's fighting. One recurring thought plagued him: Will I get out of here alive?
He realized the bandit's losses would curtail their activities along the trading routes and that brought a brief smile hidden by the cowl pulled low across his forehead. The larger goal of the band's complete capture remained elusive if the Guard couldn't find the encampment. Zack had spent months planting the information that five large caravans would combine for safety. Gaston's men rarely formed into one group; the five-caravans-into-one story had tempted him to bring his scattered forces together in the hope of carrying out a huge strike. The Guardsmen must capture them before they split apart again. If the reinforcements had arrived in time, I would be enjoying ale with Guard officers instead of worrying about accusations. This last mission before retiring from fieldwork has had one complication after another. Zack's thoughts drifted to his wife and daughter. He longed for their touch and embrace.
Romar, Gaston's second in command and favorite, swaggered up to the fire. His approach broke Zack's concentration and wiped away his smile. The man's flattened nose and scars across his left cheek and right eye to his forehead destroyed any vestige of handsomeness he might have had. Arrogance hung over everything he did. He took the last open spot across from Zack and sat there, motionless. His unflinching black eyes stared at the Guard spy through gray smoke. The cowl hid Zack's eyes as he glared back at his foe. Romar slammed his fist into the palm of his hand after a few moments, rose, and stomped away.
Zack watched the man's broad back disappear into darkness. He remembered their brief encounter after a robbery three years ago and Romar's getaway. He had been on the periphery at that time, but Romar might still have seen him. The thought knotted his stomach and he rose and left the fire a minute later. He hasn't recognized me yet; but if he makes the connection, all seven hells will break loose, and escape will be near impossible.
Broken clouds shielded the moon as Zack disappeared under the boughs of darkened trees and began working his way around the encampment's perimeter. Twigs and jagged rocks bit into him as he crawled the last few feet to Gaston's tent.
Lamps inside the tent projected shadows on the outer canvas in a strange, synchronized dance as two men talked. The ominous shadows matched Zack's apprehension; the heated conversation fed the fire in his gut.
"Gaston, the Guard captured or killed half your men."
"I fail to see any connection to Delan."
"I tell you, it's him. I don't remember his name, but it's not 'Delan.' The dirty bastard nearly caught me."
Impatience emphasized Gaston's words. "Romar, if I suspected everyone that used an alias, I wouldn't get any sleep. Most of the men here don't use their real names."
After a slight pause, Romar's tone became more determined. "I was watching him in the battle today. Did you see him wound or kill a guardsman? I didn't. Why are you always on his side?" Zack grimaced at his words.
Gaston's exasperated tone sounded a warning. "Because he's smart and deadly, and his ideas on raiding this caravan are damn good. I need men like him; he's skilled, quick and with his muscles, not many would challenge him even with weapons. He's a bit crazy to wear red, but he hasn't made me suspicious. You make a serious charge. What proof do you have? A detachment of guardsmen intercepted us on some kind of exercise. They would've sent larger numbers if they'd planned an attack. We won, and they retreated. Bad luck to lose so many, but that happens. Besides, how and when could Delan have let the Guard know our plans?"
Romar's anger exploded. "There's something wrong about him!"
"Romar, he knows nothing of my future plans. I'll keep him in the dark until we investigate. Will that satisfy you? If he is a part of the Guard, we'll make his death one my men will remember."
Romar's shadow jerked with his nod and diminished to nothing as its owner left the tent. Gaston's shadow grew large, then small as he paced inside. Zack rose and hid behind a large oak closer to the tent, pulling his cloak tightly around him while he waited.
Within moments, Gaston emerged and continued pacing near where Zack leaned against the tree. Infrequent moonlight through the towering trees accentuated the bandit leader's angular frame as he looked around. Cunning eyes held force over a hooked nose above slim lips prone to a cruel smile. The dim light deepened angry lines etched in his face as he looked around. He's too damn edgy, Zack thought.
Gaston stopped in mid-step, then rushed back inside his tent. Zack's anxiety increased when the bandit leader reappeared wearing a red shirt and slipped into the forest. Now what's he up to?
His training took hold; taking action eased Zack's nervousness as he followed the other man away from the encampment. Gaston traveled along a meager trail for two hundred yards before he stopped at a clearing's edge deep in the woods. A banked fire produced little light. A well-made lean-to was behind the fire and off to the right side a rickety, poorly-made one seemed to barely stay upright. Brun's horse must be back at the camp, Zack thought. He recognized Gaston's father, Brun, who had disappeared after the battle. The onerous little man with a scraggly beard fed small sticks into the flames. His squat stature contrasted with his son's tall frame. Too bad they didn't catch the whoreson, Zack thought. Brun stood, knife in hand, when one of Gaston's steps snapped a twig.
Frozen in place, Zack watched until clouds hid the moon; the darkness allowed him to creep within earshot. He pulled his cloak closer; his hand warmed his sword's hilt. He breathed slowly; his racing heart galloped on. Even in the chilly night, sweat beaded on his brow. He saw a leg in blue trousers and a polished boot partially covered in blood and mud sticking outside the unstable lean-to.
After a quick look at the captured guardsman's badly made lean-to, Brun hobbled over to his son. Gaston spoke without greeting. "Did any of my men find the bastard?"
"No. I gagged him. He roused once. His wound's infected and he has a fever. He won't last long. There are no orders on him, but I found a letter. His name is Kurt Shell."
Zack stiffened; Kurt was one of the officers he'd sparred against earlier in the day. A rescue was not in his plans, but he would not leave the man to die. Damn complications will get me killed; too much depends on what happens tonight. Obstacles on impediments, be damned. The old man frowned at his son. "Why are you dressed in red? You said it drew too much attention and you would wear it only at parties." "Delan says he wears red for the same reason I won't. Fighters focus their attack on the first thing that demands their attention. He said he wanted to fight the best and strongest. I thought him a fool that would soon die. Perhaps he wanted to spar instead of fight. Romar believes Delan is working for the Guard. I intend to find out."
Zack forgot his stomach pain; his anxiety sharpening his concentration, a trait he used to its fullest. He instantly decided to rescue Kurt and escape. I need to capture Gaston and his father if I can. Gaston has too much information the Guard needs, and the rest of the bandits would scatter. Purposefulness counteracted his fears and concerns: he became even more alert, his face set in determination. As his resolve firmed, his face relaxed and he began to plan.
A shower started; Zack welcomed its distractions. He watched Kurt lying in dense cover, partially hidden by the crumbling lean-to. Bending low, he prayed the rain and cloud cover held as he worked closer to the still body.
Gaston approached the guardsman within ten feet of where Zack hid. Gaston bent under the lean-to's protection, knelt beside Kurt, removed the gag, and shook his shoulder. He poured water over the wounded man's pale lips. "Kurt, can you hear me? It's me; I've come to get you away." Zack could barely hear his words over the rain.
Kurt squinted at the dark shape hovering above him. Faint flickers of dying firelight illuminated bright red cloth. He fought to speak. "Zack . . . is it really you? Thank . . . thank the Light's Source . . ."
Gaston nodded and dribbled more water into the officer's mouth.
"We got . . . we got your signal too late," Kurt continued. "We couldn't raise the reinforcements in . . . in time. Let me see . . . if I can stand." He reached a hand out to the nebulous shape for help.
Gaston pushed him back down. "Not now, I have to make arrangements." Kurt settled once again and closed his eyes as Gaston joined his father by the rain-decimated fire.
The bandit leader's angry words reached Zack. "All this trouble to keep him away from the men, and now he'll be lucky to make it through the night." A wry smile crossed the bandit's face for an instant. "He did give me information, though. The name of a traitor is worth much." Gaston chuckled, "The Guard'll pay almost as much for a dead man as they will a live one, and I'll have two bodies to bargain with. They'll need to put one together from small pieces, though." An evil smile Zack had not seen before played across Gaston's lips as he turned from his father and disappeared into the forest.
Barely breathing, Zack stood motionless, considering a stratagem. Gaston is sure to rouse Romar and others to find me. I must get horses and return here before they make their move. The trail circled to the east; if I can cut across it, I might reach camp ahead of him. First, I need to silence this old fool. If I can knock him out without him shouting, I won't have to kill him. It would be easier if they had left Brun's horse here. Drawing a throwing knife, he started creeping toward Brun. The warmed steel in Zack's hand felt comfortable, familiar. Brun turned, his eyes opening wide, raising cupped hands beside his mouth to call out. Zack's hand twitched; his thrown blade sliced through the old man's neck before he could call for help. Trotting to the twitching body, he removed the knife and cleaned it on the dying man's shirt as rainwater carried bright blood in small rivulets to soak into the ground. Damn all the seven hells! Gaston will come after me with a vengeance-his reputation and control over his men demands it. Sorry, old bastard; you should've let me knock you unconscious. Your reflexes were good, but not good enough.
Grabbing Kurt under his arms, Zack hauled him closer to the small fire pit, setting him under its better-constructed lean-to. The officer's young face was pale in the firelight, his light blue eyes and red hair dark against his pallor. His prowess in battle belied his image; he had amazed Zack during the fighting. Seven hells, how many more delays before I can get us away? It took several precious seconds for Kurt to recognize Zack and understand him. "I have to dress your wound."
The filthy bandage and the chest wound's appearance, showing the red, angry signs of early infection, made Zack grimace. Kurt gritted his teeth while he cleaned it, then pulled a packet of Feverfew from inside his cloak and cut a section of his shirt to hold it in place. Kurt moaned when he applied it. The rain had stopped by the time Zack finished. He built a new fire with dry wood from the lean-to's covered stack. He also found food and a waterskin under the shelter. "Kurt, you must eat and drink, you'll need the strength. Gaston roused you earlier. He knows I'm a spy. We're leaving as soon as I return with horses." Kurt nodded and took the food.
Zack cut straight across the wooded terrain to the main bandit encampment. Lights danced in Gaston's tent a hundred yards away. Men moved toward Zack's campsite. I have little time.
Dark skies helped him reach the picket line without incident. Ten feet from the horses, he crept up behind a snoring guard and snapped his neck. Zack approached Spellbinder and scratched him behind the ear. The large gelding woke and eyed his master with interest. Zack untied him and moved him out from the line. Choosing Gaston's prized black gelding for Kurt, he tied both horses' leads to a tree limb and saddled them in record time.
Zack saw Gaston and his men had reached his campsite and were searching for him. Zack grabbed the picket line's main rope and cut it with one swipe. He snapped the rope hard; startled horses pulled at their leads. His yells rushed them toward sleeping men. Zack led Spellbinder into the shadows, mounted him and set out at a trot; Gaston's big black did not fight his lead. He followed the picket line, freeing and shooing horses as he went. They panicked, galloping toward bewildered men and clusters of tents. Gaston and his men rushed to gather the scattered horses as Zack found the trail back to Kurt.
Kurt was propped up on his late captor's saddlepacks when Zack returned to the small clearing. He was chewing something, and took a last swallow of water. The food, water and herbs had helped; he looked stronger. It took two tries to get Kurt seated on Gaston's gelding and tied in place. Zack swore at the pain the exertion caused the officer. Remounting Spellbinder, he eased the horses into the forest. The sounds of men crashing through the forest and loud voices slowed him a dozen yards away from the clearing.
Romar's angry voice broke the forest's solitude. "I knew he was a traitor! I'll kill the bastard for you."
Gaston's bellow interrupted Romar. "Damn! He's killed my Da! You kill him and it's worth five golds. Make him die slow!"
Spellbinder, urged into a trot, slipped between trees while Zack prayed neither horse found a hole. He could see blood soaking Kurt's bandage, and prayed his wound would not worsen on the ride. Keeping a close watch on the officer and a closer lookout for Gaston, he urged Spellbinder onward.
A mile passed before he burst from the trees onto the north road, just a few miles south of the nearest Guard post. The trip took longer than Zack thought it should, and his concern for Kurt grew with each stride. Predawn light washed out the road's hues when he spotted the fort's gates.
Exhausted, Zack didn't relax until guardsmen carried Kurt to the healer's rooms. Zack saw Kurt's luck held: the healer held a graystone, channeling its power into his patient. Kurt's pain-twisted face relaxed as the magic's influence took hold and stopped his bleeding. Reassured that he was in good hands, Zack headed to the post commander's office; Commander Scott rushed out to greet him. His presence of command enhanced a square face that focused on Zack's every move.
"It is a pleasure to see you, Zack." Commander Scott grasped Zack's forearm with genuine warmth. He turned serious when Zack did not return his smile. "I knew it must be complications from Gaston's bunch when they told me you were here. If it's trouble, we're ready for them. Three detachments of troops arrived last night."
Zack spent the better part of two hours reporting the night's events, the bandit's plans, their actions over the past several weeks, and pinpointed the area where he thought Gaston would go next. Scott listened, and the questions he asked proved pointed and astute. At the end, he thanked Zack and offered him a bed in the officers' barracks.
Men poured from quarters to bugle calls as Zack trudged to the bathhouse. Four detachments of men rode out as he found the bed assigned him and fell into it. He was fast asleep as the last guardsman cleared the gates.
* * *
A familiar dream caused Zack's grin: His wife, smiling as she held out her arms in greeting. He rushed to her and swept her up in his embrace. Her face faded as a hand shook him awake.
When his eyes focused, he saw Commander Scott looking down on him. Zack regretted the dream's demise. The commander spoke quietly, "Good and bad news: Kurt will survive. The healers say you got him here just in time. The bandits left in a hurry and their trail led to the area you predicted. We captured them without much trouble. They laid down their weapons when they saw we had them surrounded. The bad news is that Gaston and Romar escaped. I've sent messages to the other outposts to watch for them."
Zack waved Scott away, who left in obvious good humor. He pulled the blanket over his head; happy that Kurt would live, but that did not counter his anger about Gaston and Romar's escape. Five golds will set a man up for life in a good-sized business. Romar won't give up searching for me. His last thoughts slowed as sleep pulled at him again. This is my last assignment in the field. We will capture them if they come near the Spires and once I'm there, I don't plan to leave. Someone else can track Gaston and Romar down. I've a wife and daughter back home.
He did not recapture the dream.
* * *
TWO weeks later, Zack stood beside his horse, watching his wife work in the garden. Her luxurious, long, black hair contrasted with his white-blond mane. Her gaze mirrored Zack's clear, deep blue eyes. Her features, soft and beautiful, flowered in full contrast with his strength and massive physique.
Jewel, his three-year-old daughter played nearby. She had inherited Zack's blond hair and her mother's looks. They didn't know who had given her mischievous black eyes. Zack's thoughts filled with pride and love: Both of them are so beautiful. How could I ever think I would miss fieldwork when I have them here?
Judith looked up as Zack walked toward her, a huge smile on his face. She dropped her implements and rushed into his arms. "Zack, oh my darling, you're back. I've missed you so much. Are you all right? Are you hurt?"
"No love, I'm fine." He felt her breath quicken; the glimmer of tears danced in the corners of her eyes. His often-occurring dream played in his memory again; he smiled as he swung her around, covering her face with kisses.
He felt a familiar wholesomeness. Thanks to Light's Source, they're fine. I love them more than life. His heart soared, warmth flooded him; he held her close, feeling her heart beat against his chest. He felt complete for the first time since he had left her. The depth of his love for her-for both of them-made him dizzy. He stopped his spin, set her down and kissed her passionately, which was readily returned. Jewel's high-pitched voice yelled, "Da! Da! Da is home!"
Judith snuggled against his cheek. "Are you actually home for good?"
Zack chuckled at his wife's exuberance. "Yes my love, I'm home and don't plan to leave anytime soon." Their ensuing kiss was long and ardent.
With Jewel in one arm and Judith at his side, they walked into the house. He had been away with Gaston's bandits for ten weeks, including the aftermath of reports and before that, several other trips to plant the false information. Their home looked the same on the surface, but he soon noticed little improvements as they settled in the parlor: a new cloth over a small table and her finished painting on the wall. The loving emotions that surged through him left him humble and a little giddy.
He sat in their comfortable main room as his two ladies regaled him with tales of what had happened in their neighborhood while he had been away. Jewel played at his feet; Judith sat on his lap. He was content and unabashed joy filled him. Judith's demeanor promised a blissful night filled with pleasure.
Judith's coy smile intrigued him. "Darling, we need to put Jewel down for her nap." Her hand caressed his inner thigh. I pray she sleeps long and deep. Zack's smile deepened before he kissed Judith on her neck; her response promised bliss.
"The Zenith's Spy is classic epic fantasy with lots of action and adventure." --Paul Genesse, Author of The Iron Dragon Series.