The trio stopped at the base of the first hill just before noon -- right on the border between Blackforest and the mountains' foothills. They stood on the banks of a small river, a congregation of tiny streams that had come down from the mountains and been pushed together by the hills.
They'd been on the road for about six hours, quite a bit faster than they'd expected. They'd also, so far, not run into any bandits or other mishaps.
"Alright, let's rest for a little while. The horses need feeding and a drink, and I think we could do with both as well. If we don't run into anything along the rest of the way, we should walk into the city a couple hours before sunset. That said, I expect the bandits are lying in wait somewhere in the hills. I don't think they'll have let us go if we'd passed them already."
Myjack was seated in the carriage's driver's seat. He scanned the hill up ahead with his monocular. Gum was leading the two horses to the river for a drink.
"I see nothing up ahead, Sir," Myjack reported after a couple more passes.
"If your eyes haven't found anything, then there isn't anything. Rest for now as well," Claude said, squatting by the water to wash his hands, "We'll check again before we get going."
"Jack, fetch me the bag from the carriage," Gum said.
"Roger," Myjack said out of habit.
He hopped off and drudged a big bag of feed up out of the carriage. The knot around the mouth came undone with a fair amount of effort, and he removed five small linen bags. The rest of the big bag was full of a mixture of crushed straw, wheat, and black beans. Myjack filled the five sacks, and tied them over the heads of the horses that had already had a drink.
Gum took down one horse's luggage and handed it to Claude before helping Myjack with the rest of the sacks.
Claude looked for a flat rock, opened the bag Gum had handed him, and got to work on their lunch.
The Doghunt Tavern, where they'd stayed the previous night, had a famous delicacy: roasted stuffed rabbits. They were stuffed with fresh mushrooms and various other vegetables. Claude had bought a couple for their travels. They'd been mouthwatering when they'd had them for dinner the previous evening, but, though they weren't bad, they didn't taste as good cold. Even two bites in, Claude had yet to taste anything. He decided to instead make sweet meat sandwiches with the bread they had left
Myjack decided to forego the sandwich, sating his hunger with just a single leg. Gum had the other three rabbits. They had beer but they decided against having any as they expected to run into the bandits at some point that afternoon. They thus settled on water instead.
The break lasted about an hour, then they were on the road again. Claude rode alongside the carriage while Myjack rode in front.
They crossed the foothills without any trouble, and eventually came up to the foot of the mountain. The road narrowed to just barely wide enough for the carriage and started climbing up the slope, winding back and forth in lazy curves which became progressively tighter as it got higher. About halfway up the mountain all animal sounds had died away. Only the crack of pebbles under the carriage's iron-covered wheels and the horse's hooves, and the occasional neigh or fart from one could be heard.
"Ahead, Sir," Myjack said about an hour in.
Gum stopped the carriage and Claude stopped his mount. He turned around and got the monocular from Myjack, following his finger with it as he brought the view piece to his eye.
The path up ahead dropped down into a ravine, then zig-zagged back up the other slope before beginning the long descent to the flatlands which led to Whitestag. The slope was too steep for the carriage to anywhere but the narrow path, and each turn would take minutes to make as the carriage could just barely make them.
On the far slope, about halfway up, next to one of the turns, stood a tree. It looks quite out of place, with its withering leaves. Claude focused on it for several long seconds, until his eyes could make out the ropes tied around it in surreptitious places.
He wandered the slope several more times with the monocular. He could understand why the bandits would give up hunting in the foothills on Whitestag's side of the mountain. This was the perfect place to ambush passers-by. Once the tree fell across the path, there was no way forward, and it would take only a couple people to block the path down which the poor victims had come, trapping them in the ravine. It could also just as easily stop any keepers.
"How many?" Claude asked in a whisper, his gaze still wandering the opposite slope.
"Four. The slope is too densely covered, so I can't make out too much, but there will be at least as many again on this side," Myjack answered in the same whisper.
Claude nodded. Few people in the entire tribe had eyes as good as Myjack, and equally few knew as much about ambushes, or had as much experience. The number that had both, was just about zero. Gum was a beast of a man, a match for his appetite, and Myjack, although quite tiny, was deadly in a fight. Claude would not change these two for anyone else against an ambush. Between the three of them, they had far more experience in ambushes than the bandits, and certainly far better techniques for dealing with them.
They could easily see through the flaws in the bandits' camouflage. They didn't even know about reflection and didn't bother to conceal their metal weapons from the sun. The way the tree was positioned on the far slope was also obviously unnatural. Any sharp-eyed person would see through it in an instant. No merchant convoy would allow there to still be trees on the path they travelled through to pose threats to their convoys. Surely, they had felled all of them long ago.
The only thing bothering Claude was how there were only a few people hiding ahead. But when he thought about the terrain and his position, it became obvious that the bandits either split into two or were planning to attack them from three sides to stop them from escaping. It was too bad splitting up wouldn't do much against Claude and the other two. They didn't know how much difference distance made.
"Let's go down and not let them wait too long. Also, deal with the enemies on the slope first before using our carriage to block the other bandits coming from our rear. Understood?"
"Gya!" Gum whipped the reins and the carriage sped along the mountain path. Claude followed behind the carriage on his mount. They travelled down 300 metres of the slope. The level part of the path was roughly a hundred metres long and many convoys would let their horses rest there before making the climb.
However, Gum was intent on having the two workhorses run past the level ground directly up the slope ahead, much to the surprise of the bandits. They didn't care about exposing themselves anymore and jumped out of their shrubs while calling out loudly for the tree to be lowered.
Eventually, the large tree at the turn up ahead was finally felled. It blocked the path some fifty metres ahead of the carriage. Seeing the carriage stop, the six bandits waved their weapons about excitedly as they charged down the slope as they cried, "Robbery! Surrender and you might be spared!"
But what they got in response was a gunshot. Claude had dismounted and raised his gun to shoot an arbalest-carrying fellow. He handed his gun to Myjack for him to reload and received another gun to aim at a bow-wielding bandit.
Four gunshots rang out and four bandits collapsed on the slope. The last two managed to close the distance between them and the carriage to around ten metres, armed with nothing but short blades and spears, but they also gradually slowed. Claude was calmly receiving a reloaded gun from Myjack. With their four comrades dead on the ground, the two remaining ones didn't know whether they should charge in for a melee.
Without giving them time to think, Gum launched two javelins from his hand and the two remaining bandits seemed to be struck by lightning. They touched the javelin that pierced through their chests as blood came out of their noses while they slumped to the ground.
At that moment, more than ten bandits appeared at the rear where Claude stopped the carriage. Another ten or so came out of the shrubs on the level part of the slope. However, the bandits on the other side of the slope were four hundred metres away from Claude and those at the level part had to run up 200 metres before being able to reach his position.
That was something the bandits hadn't expected would happen. Usually, it was all too easy for them to ambush passing merchants. The two slopes slanted towards each other and most people would just give up when the bandits popped up from both ends. Only by giving up their goods would they be spared.
Yet, a fiasco had occurred. None of them expected the carriage and other horses to charge towards the upwards slope without stopping. While the tree was there to block the way, not a single one of the six at the upward slope survived the onslaught of their three prey.
But that didn't matter much. The bandits still had more than ten times the number of their targets. A one-eyed, eyepatch-wearing bandit waved his obsolete musket about and pointed at Claude and the other two. "Charge! Kill them! Avenge Hemmu and the others!"
By then, all three muskets had been reloaded and leaned against the carriage. Myjack looked at the ten plus bandits charging their way and clicked his tongue. "Why aren't they mounted?"
It didn't take long for him to figure it out and answer his own question, though. "Oh, they can't hide their horses for the ambush. Then again, maybe they ate all the horses they managed to obtain."
It was rather plausible for the near forty men in the wilderness to eat the horses after running out of food. They might even eat the remains of their comrades.
Gum cried, "Jack, bring the two horses behind the carriage here. Let me try to move the tree out of the way."
By the time Myjack did so, the ten-odd bandits were only about 100 metres away.
"They run slow," Myjack said contemptuously, "Are they not properly fed?"
"It's always possible," Claude said, "Look at their footsteps. They seem rather unbalanced and uneven like they lack the energy to support their own weight. I believe they lack salt and weren't able to steal any. You should shoot too later. Get the ones on the left and leave those on the right to me. By the time they reach us, we'll have reloaded three times."
Claude's prediction turned out to be correct. It didn't take three volleys for them to drive the bandits away. After five shots were loosed, the surviving six turned tail and ran back down the slope, only to run into the other group of ten plus rushing up.
But by then, the bandits no longer dared to go up the slope. They had lost eleven of their own and only around twenty of them were left. But as they felt too bad about letting Claude and the rest go, the six that ran back became their scapegoats for them to vent their frustrations.
Gum managed to move the tree aside, but it still bothered him, so he cut the rope and kicked the log down the slope. When he made it back with the two horses, he saw that the enemy hadn't begun their charge anew. "Sir, why don't we leave now? Let's ignore those cowards."
The moment he spoke, Myjack pointed to the bandit down the slope. "Sir, look at that eyepatch-wearing bandit. Isn't he their leader? One-eyed Lambak or something. The second lieutenant back in Blackwood said his bounty was 80 crowns..."
Claude got on his horse and said, "Let's go and lure them over. Begin shooting when they're 100 metres away. If they press on, we'll retreat a little backwards."
The three of them rode down the slope and began firing on horseback when they were a hundred metres away. Three bandits were struck and collapsed and the rest, along with their leader, roared as they charged up the slope.
By the time Claude and the rest retreated to the carriage and reloaded, the enemies down the slope were still more than 100 metres away.
The three guns were all handed to Claude to shoot. After the first two shots struck two more bandits, the others began to run backwards. The one-eyed bandit and another fired their old muskets at Claude, but the bullets were all nowhere to be seen. It didn't take long before they turned to run as well.
"Gum, ride on and don't let the gun-wielding ones go." Claude got on his mount again and rode down the slope with Gum following behind with a few javelins.
When they were some sixty metres away, Claude stopped his mount, calmed down and aimed for the one-eyed bandit. Gum rode past him in a whoosh.
Bang! The bandit with the eyepatch collapsed with his hand clutching the hole in his chest. The other beside him cried.
"The leader was shot dead!"
Gum approached the escaping bandits closer and closer and sent his javelins flying. Some four to five of them were pierced through, including the other bandit armed with the musket.
"No, the second-in-command is dead too!"
The rest of the bandits gathered together, and one cried, "Don't run! They're almost on to us! We have to fight them or not one of us will survive!"
Claude already rode past and turned to face them. He pulled the trigger of his shotgun.
The four bandits were turned into swiss cheese and the world turned quiet.
"Put down your weapons! Those who kneel and surrender will be spared!" Claude yelled as he pointed the empty shotgun at the remaining bandits.