A mutter rose and swelled behind him as the peasants saw that pile of stone and rock and the armed men who were mere winks of sunlight on steel caps as they patrolled the sidewalks. Their feet began to drag and their murmurs of sullen dismay broke out into cries of fear.
Kothar turned, putting a hand on the cantle and sweeping them with his glare. “Fools! They’ve seen you now. It’s either go forward to fight—or have them sally out and capture you.”
“My wolves are in the bushes, Kothar. Once the fight begins, they’ll join us.”
“And if any man flinches—have them pull him down,” the barbarian snarled. He felt pity for these peasants, but he knew the robber barons. They respected only force and stronger sword-arms than their own.
They were thirty men and one woman marching into the stronghold of the fiercest robber-baron between the border and Alkarion. There must be a hundred men-at-arms inside Raven Garde, tough fighting-men, every last one. Kothar wished only for one thing: Frostfire. He would have felt more secure with its hilt between his fingers.
The men pacing guard duty on the sidewalks paid no attention to these dusty travelers. They saw the armor of the riders, the weary walking of the men-at-arms. They heard the keening of the women who were chained together. There was no reason to be suspicious. Only a madman would dare Raven Garde with so few swords at his back.
Through the wooden gate they passed without incident, on to an inner courtyard paved with worn, ancient cobblestones, Their horses’ hooves struck sparks on the stone, and then they were drawing rein.
The barbarian ran his gaze across stone walls and stairways leading up to solars. The fortress had been built around a square tower that was part of the keep on which was carved the image of a saurian face of black basalt, stamped with all the lusts and desires known to the race of men. The eyes glinted as though they knew a life of their own. Where the sunlight caught them, for a moment Kothar thought he saw an entity staring down at him; in a moment, that life spark was gone and he saw only the bulging eyes.
He swung a leg over his saddle cantle. In answer to that signal the disguised peasants gripped their lances, and ran at the soldiers lounging in the shadow of the armory, wearing only cotton shirts and breeks. They were unarmed. The lance-heads went into their middles and they died squirming on the cold steel, impaled against the wooden framework of the building.
Two men from the sidewalk shouted. The wolf-woman was slipping a round stone the size of an egg into her sling-cup. Around her head she whirled those leather thongs, releasing one at the apex of its circling. The stone flew true, thudding into the forehead of a soldier lifting his bow.
Again the sling twirled; a second man died. Kothar was flinging open the armory door. A dozen men inside the dirt-floored room, polishing armor and sharpening their swords and daggers, gaped at him with bulging eyes. He was across the space that separated them, his sword cleaving the air an instant before burying itself in warm flesh. He ravened like a madman, for of all those who had ridden into Raven Garde he alone was battle-wise enough to understand that not one of this small army of brigands must be left alive to carry on their grim trade.
His blade dipped and darted. He slew coldly, without regret or compassion; to the barbarian, this was a task that must be done. And when he eased the point of his borrowed sword to the ground, so that the drops of blood fell redly to the dirt floor and were absorbed, the muscles in his sword-arm ached.