I claim no ownership rights to any of the works of Rumiko Takahashi, or anything I've borrowed and modified from the Banestorm setting published by Steve Jackson Games.
Armstan's jaw ached with the effort it took not to grind his teeth from pure hatred as he watched through the underbrush as a pair of Lord Brance's foresters in their brown leather and green homespun approached along the forest trail, bows unstrung and slung across their backs, right where the new rebels' impromptu spies had said they'd be. And alone, just as expected as well.
It had been a hard few months for Godhun's second son — first the shock of suddenly finding himself and his families, his, his brother's and his parents and younger brother, on the run from his lord's men-at-arms along with the rest of the halflings in their village; then his older brother's death when they ambushed those same men-at-arms just before they caught up with the fleeing families; then being found by the Archbishop's men and escorted to Photius and safety only to be offered the chance to return to Oakwood. And not just return, but assume leadership of the marauders — with his brother's death he became his father's heir, and where before that would have just meant inheritance of the family farm now it meant he was the one given first shot at leadership of their little band.
Not that they won't look to someone else if this doesn't work, so let's make this count. There was no way in hell he was going to let someone else take the lead in exacting their pound of flesh. Closest to the heart, he thought, remembering the play a traveling show had put on once.
For a moment the faces of his wife and son flashed across his mind's eye, before he forced them away to focus on the now. If he didn't return, his father would see to Hildgyth and their little Theodhere, just as he was seeing to Cenric's wife and daughters. Not that there was any chance of dying today — not for him or his, at least.
Then the two men crossed the invisible line he had designated, and all around halflings rose from where they'd been hiding and crossbows thrummed. For that close a shot the innate halfling talent for ranged weapons was unnecessary, and both foresters were knocked back a step by the multiple bolts hammering into their chests (and one to the forehead) before dropping limply, dead before they hit the ground.
I knew it. Armstan stepped over to yank out the crossbow bolt from where it stood up between one of the corpse's empty eyes and checked for the personal marking he'd insisted all the men put on their bolts. I knew it!
The rest of the halflings gathered around — some grinning, some pale, but all veterans of the ambush back when they'd first run so none of them were puking their guts out — and Armstan looked around for one particular halfling. As soon as he found him he stepped over and hammered a fist into his groin, then when Daniel collapsed onto his knees clutching at himself, kicked him in the stomach hard enough that he was puking his guts out.
When Daniel was through and had shakily sat back, Armstan snarled, "What did I tell you about head shots?"
"But it was an easy shot — less than thirty feet!" Daniel protested.
"I don't care — this isn't an archery contest, shooting for a side of venison or a few farthings, this is serious business," Armstan retorted. "When the men-at-arms start showing up with their armor and helmets, then you can start thinking about head shots. Until then, if you have an easier shot that'll do the job, take it, don't show off!"
He waited until Daniel shakily nodded, then turned to look down at the two corpses and grinned coldly. Here it started — within weeks his band would own this patch of woodland, and there was no way that arrogant bastard of a lord would accept that. He'd send in his men-at-arms to clear them out, they'd teach the scum fresh lesson in why it was a bad idea to mess with halflings in fields and woodlands when they didn't have homes to defend, and when the real fight started those soldiers would be nowhere near it.
He spit on the face of one of the corpses. Kill my brother and try to sell off my nieces as whores, will you? Turning away, he said, "They probably won't be found until tomorrow, but we might get unlucky. Let's get out of here."
Behind him, his men exchanged glances. Armstan was proving as competent as his father, they had no problem with accepting him as their leader — but they really hoped the laughing, playful halfling they'd known would return someday.
Nabiki was waiting for Myrddin's cavalcade in the castle courtyard, hands worrying at the full skirts of her gown even as she tried to maintain her usual mask of confidence (though these days she was trying to tone down the smirk). True, she didn't really need to be there, even with her 'public' reason for being in the castle — especially with her public reason, mistresses didn't typically greet their lovers right out in front of God and everyone. That was what wives did. On the other hand her cover as Myrddin's mistress was pretty much shot, though the rampant speculations (and betting) on what she was that the servants reported to her had been highly entertaining and had only grown moreso since Myrddin had left without her. Her current personal favorite was that she was a Sahudese princess smuggled south by the dwarves of Zarak to cement an alliance by marrying the king, and Myrddin was shuttling back and forth to arrange the passage of the Sahudese army through the dwarven realm that would help reunite Caithness.
She frowned thoughtfully as she reconsidered that particular rumor. Part of the reason it was her favorite was because she'd invented it — she knew how inventive a rumor mill could be, so someone was bound to come up with an army of some sort, and there were other armies that would be close enough to the truth to cause concern when the rumors reached the wrong ears. Such as one of the dwarven subkingdoms abandoning its neutrality. Hopefully, the rumor she'd had the servants start was so outlandish that it would prevent those more reasonable rumors from taking root, or taint the entire idea if they did anyway. The only real danger the rumor posed was that if Sahud had any martial arts masters to match Ranma — or even Akane — someone in Megalos might consider that moving a few men (they wouldn't think of women, of course) south through the mountains of Zarak (or under, if the dwarves cooperated) was much easier than moving an entire army.
Nabiki considered the permutations of her personal rumor yet again, before minutely shrugging. It's not like I could make things worse, she thought. There's no disguising where Myrddin's traveling to, and everyone that knows anything about Sahud takes one look at my eyes and assumes that's where I'm from. Besides, even if there are high-level martial artists in Sahud, I doubt anyone in Megalos believes the stories. From what everyone here says, Megalos suffers badly from top dog disease — if they don't come up with it, or don't have anything like it, it must not be worth knowing.
Then Myrddin's party came thundering across the drawbridge and through the barbican and gatehouse into the inner courtyard, and she found herself frantically searching the riders for familiar faces, only to slump when she found them, bitterly disappointed: Ukyo and Konatsu (still in men's clothing, of course, and didn't that still seem strange), the two on foot. Nabiki hadn't really expected any of her family to come — or those she had found herself considering family — but ... It seems I miss them more than I realized.
Still, she had an act to put on, however unbelievable it might be now, and she forced a cool smile as she walked down the stairs to greet her putative lover.
Nabiki leaned back in her seat at the table in the rooms she shared with Myrddin, placing her fork on her empty plate and glancing around at her two dinner guests. Myrddin and the stranger that had come with him to translate the books salvaged from Japan were eating with the king in the Great Hall, but she'd suggested that Ukyo and Konatsu have private meals to try and avoid attention. The fact that it also allowed her to catch up on the latest gossip from what was now home was happenstance, really. So she had been enjoying speaking in Japanese while her guests had been enjoying not moving. Not that they were in anywhere near as bad a condition as she'd been — they'd avoided riding by essentially jogging all the way to Carrick Town. Myrddin and the men-at-arms accompanying him had been impressed.
Nabiki sighed when Ukyo finished bringing her up to date on her family's latest lunacy. She didn't know what to think, really — her sister a berserker (okay, that part was believable, it explained Akane's tendency to respond to embarrassment or fear by getting angry), Akane a blooded warrior (if not a soldier), Akane and Ranma actually finally married (Nabiki's ribs still ached from her laughter after she'd heard of the brawl). The last was perhaps the hardest to believe. For over two years since that wet evening that a redheaded girl and a panda had shown up at the Tendo home the whole fiancée war had been so much a part of their lives that it had become a fact of life, as constant as the sun.
I guess all things come to an end, she thought whimsically, then almost gasped at a sudden wave of melancholy as for a moment her thoughts turned to the world that had died around them as they'd run for this one — something else that she'd found herself having to deal with since her arrival at Carrick Town, especially once Myrddin left her behind for his second trip to the Keldara, and the first real chance she'd had to just relax since arriving in their new home.
And to really remember. She'd plowed through what books were available that she was interested in, the king only had so much time to discuss things irrelevant to governing his realm, and there wasn't anyone else in his court learned and intelligent and interesting enough to hold her attention. It had been all she could do to keep from starting up the kind of games she'd played in high school, just to distract herself from her thoughts.
Shaking away her distraction, Nabiki refocused on her guests. There was a real possibility here, a way to help rig the game in their favor... "Ukyo, the king will be grilling you for the next week or so for what you and the rest can do, but probably not much more than that. Still, it won't be all that long before Ranma and the rest show up." She watched closely and caught the younger girl's slight wince. Thought so.
"Still, there's a way the two of you could really help us," Nabiki mused. "It would mean leaving before our little army arrives, though."
"Just what is it, Sugar? If it's really important we won't have much of a choice."
Nabiki shrugged, hiding a smile as Ukyo's attempt at nonchalance failed to hide her eagerness to be elsewhere. "I don't know that it's important, just that it could be. Let me show you."
She stood and quickly shifted the empty dishes and platters to the floor, then walked over to a cabinet to pull out a rolled up map on parchment. Unrolling it on the table, with Ukyo and Konatsu's help holding it open, she placed a finger on a tiny castle on a river, east of a large desert and just south of a huge mountain range running east and west. She said, "Where we are right now, Carrick Town, on the River Conn." She ran her finger along the river, first east, then southeast through a forest, then east across a dotted line to another tiny castle. "New Jerusalem, fifty miles across the border into Megalos, and the semi-autonomous capital of the Knights Hospitaller, also on the River Conn. The Hospitallers don't like us much, and the River Conn is a natural invasion route all the way to our capitol. The Megalans didn't use it the last few times they tried to take land from Caithness, though, because of how badly they got hammered by the Barony of Durham, here." She ran her finger back west along the river into Caithness to a tiny tower where the river bent toward the northwest. "The various barons of Durham have kicked their asses so badly that the legions won't try it again without a full-on invasion force powerful enough to roll over the barony. And they haven't tried that in generations, they're too busy focusing on crusading south against al-Wazif.
"However," she continued, looking up at the pair, "right now Durham's baron is actually a baroness, Baroness Bronwyn, and the Hospitallers take a dim view of women 'doing a man's job', they buy into that whole 'weaker sex' nonsense. And Sir Geoffrey, the Grand Master of the Order, doesn't much care for what our Archbishop's people have been preaching, he considers it heretical. He may just try to push through Durham and take Carrick Town if he gets the opportunity." Shifting her finger back to Carrick Town, she ran it south to another tiny tower. "And when we go after Sterling, we'll be giving him that opportunity — we'll even be taking some of Bronwyn's men-at-arms with us." Looking up at Ukyo, Nabiki said, "The king thinks that we'll be moving so late in the campaign season that the Hospitallers won't have time to react when they hear about it, but just in case I'd like you to be there as back-up."
Ukyo nodded thoughtfully, looking at the map. "Yeah, I can see that. Sure, I'm not one of the one's throwing balls of ki around, but once the king's done with me here we'll be happy to watch your back."
"Actually, it would be just you. I have another job for Konatsu, if he's willing — one for a kunoichi."
"What?" Konatsu looked up from the map to stare at Nabiki. "You want me to leave Ukyo-sama?"
"Only for awhile," Nabiki replied. She shifted her finger from where it still rested on Stirling southeast through a gap between two forests, east past a tiny building with a cross, to another tiny tower. Looking up at Konatsu, she said, "Oakwood, another of the rebels and ruled by a new lord that is busy alienating many of his subjects. There's already some hit-and-run attacks against his men," — or should be, by now — "and when word reaches them of our capture of Stirling the lording is going to blow up. I want you there when that happens."
"I see." Konatsu frowned. "You want me to assassinate this new lord when the rebellion starts?"
"Oh, no, not a chance. Use assassination to take down enemy nobility? Just not done here and now, King Conall would never be able to win over the rebels if we did that — he might have trouble holding on to the lords and barons he still has. Besides, Lord Brance is as delusional as a Kuno, we want him to stay in power until we take his lording away from him."
Nabiki paused, gazing down at the map, her stomach churning at the thought of what she was going to say next. This needs doing, really. So do it. Taking a deep breath, she looked back up at Konatsu. "But he has a family retainer, Sir Domitius, that been with them all his life, he's the captain of the men-at-arms. There's nothing wrong with that man, and Lord Brance listens to him. Once the king is finished interrogating you two, when you both leave for Durham, Konatsu, I want you to slip away, head south to Oakwood, find Sir Domitius and kill him once the rebellion starts in earnest. Preferably, it should look like some rebel got lucky. With him gone Lord Brance will take direct command of his men, and there's no way that can do anything but help us. Oh, and you can't contact the rebels, they need to be in the dark as much as everyone else — plausible deniability. Can you do that?"
Konatsu looked over at Ukyo. "Ukyo-sama?"
Ukyo shook her head. "This one's your call, Kon-chan, I can't make it for you."
He smiled for a moment at Ukyo's use of the diminutive form of his name, before his gaze dropped to the map where Nabiki's finger still rested on Oakwood — the easternmost of the southern rebel lords, and so with no other lordings between it and Megalos. "It's what I trained for," he mused. "Nabiki, you're sure this will help?"
He straightened. "All right, I'll do it."
Nabiki gave him a tight smile. "Thanks," she said, "Now if you'll excuse me —" She bolted for Myrddin's wonderful bathroom, with its magical equivalent of modern plumbing, and got her head over the bowl just before losing the dinner she'd just eaten.