No one knew when the new guy had joined the camp, or where he had come from. The bandits took on just about anyone who could keep up with them. And asking anyone—either a new member or seasoned veteran—too many questions about their past was likely to get you a cold steel blade in your gizzard as an answer.
What was more noticeable about him was his helpfulness around the camp. While there was a loose sort of order when the bandits camped anywhere for more than a couple of days, the men tended to be rather—lax about keeping a clean campsite. The new man, however, seemed to have a knack for helping out whoever needed it at the time. Whether it was pitching their rough canvas tents to making a quick corral for their horses to unloading the spoils from their latest raid—including a valuable barrel of fiery Sciprian brandy—he was always ready to lend a hand with a smile and a nod.
Once all the chores were completed, and night had fallen, the men settled in for an evening of well-deserved rest. Their sacking of a town a hard day’s ride away had paid off with loot of all kinds, and a large group gathered around the fire of their leader to eat, drink, gamble, and take whatever brief respite they could from their hard, brutal life.
One of the men had taken a carved wooden game board for Lords, Knights, and Peasants earlier that day, and he brought it out to play after dinner. A strategy game for two to four players, it had two ways to win: capture as much territory as you could by strategic placement of your knights, round wooden pegs placed in rows of holes on the board and then connected with string to cordon off conquered territory, or the more difficult method, to go after an enemy’s lord with your knights and peasants. The combination of territory holding and military assault made for an unpredictable game, and soon most of the men were crowded around the board, cheering winners, jeering losers, and placing bets on every game.
The drink and money flowed well into the night, until the new man asked if he might challenge the champion of the evening, a burly, black-bearded man who had won the last three matches, two of them by assassinating his opponent’s lord.
“Sure yer up for a game of Louts, Knobs, and Peons?” the man asked, the derisive nickname for the game drawing guffaws from the surrounding bandits. “I won’t go easy on ya.”
“Nor do I expect you to,” the black-haired man replied with an easy grin as he sat down across from the bandit leader. Unlike the leader’s long hair, his was shaved high and tight on the sides, with the hair on top plaited into several tiny braids. “You can even have the first move.”
“Now I know yer lookin’ to lose,” the leader said with a chuckle as he placed a knight in the middle of the board, seeking to control the centre, a sound if unimaginative tactic.
“There is more than one way to win, you know,” the new man said as he placed two of his peasant pegs, one on the left side and one on the right.
The bandit leader frowned at the unorthodox move, then shrugged and continued his expansion into the centre of the board. Over the next few turns, the newcomer alternated between building his peasant forces on both sides and forcing a delaying action in the middle, sending out lone knights to disrupt his opponent’s territory building.
Nine turns in, the bandit leader had carved out three small pieces of string-bordered land, and had a few peasants scattered here and there. The new man had two sizable forces of peasants, neither of which had moved from their founding spots, but his knight forces were seriously depleted, most having been removed from the board in battles over land. Neither player’s lord had moved at all yet.
The bandit leader tipped a bottle of Kuros burgundy back and drunk deep, then wiped his mouth with the back of a scarred hand. “Surely ya don’t think yer peon army’s gonna carry the day, do ya?”
“That’s the funny thing about peasants,” the other man replied as he placed one of his few remaining knights in the middle, forming a wedge with two others, all surrounded by his enemy’s forces. “Individually, they’re not much. But gather them together and give them a common goal, and they can be quite effective.”
“Pah! Just a bigger herd of mice!” the bandit leader scoffed, taking another drink of his wine, then consolidating his own unassigned knights into a force guaranteed to crush his opponent’s smaller unit. “Strike one or two down, and the rest’ll scatter like scared rodents!”
“If you don’t give them the proper motivation, you’re correct.” Instead of retreating or some other delaying tactic, the new man took the offensive, moving his smaller band to attack the larger. At the same time, he moved his left peasant army—which had reached a size where it could move faster than a lone peasant could—up as well, close enough to be a threat to the bandit leader’s engaged knights now. “But put them close enough to a beatable target, and I think you’ll be surprised and what they can do.”
The gruff man studied the board, his wine forgotten for the moment. Sensing that something was amiss, the others fell silent as they watched the game play out.
Normally the bandit leader’s aggressive style served him well, allowing him to control the battlefield by making his opponent play defensively. But this time, his opponent’s strategy of steady unit building now forced him into making an unpleasant choice; uproot his knights and reinforce his mobile knight unit at the cost of losing his already claimed land, or have them stand fast, and risk losing his attacking force to the other side’s two-pronged attack.
He committed to the offensive, and dismantled one of his holdings to bolster the knights already in combat. Having moved his pieces, he awaited the other man’s counter-offensive.
But that was when the newcomer moved his other peasant army a third of the way down the board—heading straight for the bandit leader’s lord.
In an instant, the leader saw what had happened. His opponent had lured his forces just far enough away to be unable to protect his lord, and the scattering of peasants in the back lines would be no match for the rampaging enemy army bearing down on them. The lord also couldn’t move fast enough to save himself, and the bandit leader couldn’t muster enough new forces to save him, either—not without leaving himself vulnerable to the peasant force on the other side of the board, which might be able to take out his knights in the centre, and guarantee that all would be lost. It might take four more moves or ten, but in the end, his defeat was all but assured.
The bandit leader made a game try, struggling to recover from the hopeless position he had extended himself into, but six turns later, he had to admit defeat, to the groans and muttering of the men around him.
“Ya played well,” he said, extending a callused hand to the other man. “Where’d you learn to play like that?”
The black-haired man shrugged a shoulder. “Everywhere I go.”
“Well, bring that keen mind a’ yers to our next planning meeting, alright?” the bandit leader said as he rose from his stool. “Ought to be able to use that to make our next raid go even better.”
With that, he turned and headed off to his own tent, missing the sly smile that played around the newcomer’s mouth as he watched the leader leave.
* * *
The bandit leader was awakened from his heavy sleep by a cacophony of noise outside—shouts of panicked men, whinnies and pounding hooves of horses, and…was something burning?
Throwing off his blankets, he shoved his feet into his boots, grabbed his warhammer and shield, then stepped toward the exit—just as his tent collapsed on him. Swearing and struggling, the leader fought his way to the opening and threw off the canvas, revealing a camp that had turned into complete chaos.
More than half the other tents had also fallen, with shouting, cursing men looking like clumsy spirits as they tried to get out from under the thick cloth. The bandit leader had barely noticed that before a trio of horses thundered straight toward him, making him leap out of the way. They were followed by four more, all coming from the corral…which had also collapsed. The entire side facing the camp was now just a scattered pile of logs on the ground.
A sharp crack and roar of flame made him half turn to see their precious liquor stores go up in a bright ball of flame, spraying flaming booze and barrel shards everywhere. His men were in complete disarray, most of them half-dressed as they struggled to catch the loose horses, fight the growing fire, or just try to escape their shelters.
The leader took a deep breath, intending to shout across the camp to restore order, when a blood-curdling cry sounded from the tree line. It was joined by another, and another, and still another, until an entire chorus of frenzied screams echoed from the woods around the camp.
Staring around with wide eyes, the bandit leader clashed his hammer against his shield. “To me, you dogs! Everyone grab a weapon and form up on me now!”
But even as he bellowed that command, dozens of people burst out of the woods and charged into the bandits’ camp. Men and women, even older children—all dressed in homespun shirts and patched pants or simple shift dresses—and all armed with some kind of weapon.
A ragged volley of fist-sized rocks soared from the tree line into the confused clusters of bandits milling around, dropping three of them. It was followed by another volley, and then the peasants were upon them.
Normally, the average bandit would have been more than a match for one, even two of the farm-tool wielding warriors. But already disorganized and scattered, the knots of criminals were easy prey for the furious villagers. Axes, pitchforks, scythes, threshing flails, hammers, and kitchen knives rose and fell as the rag-tag army cleaved through the bandits like a heated knife through butter.
In less than a minute, several of the remaining brigands were on the ground, and the first wave had turned about and was coming through for another pass, driving the rest of the terrified bandits before them. At the same time, a second wave of armed peasants charged in among the tents, beating anyone still inside down to the ground with vicious blows.
Some of the remaining bandits tried escaping to the forest, but volleys of rocks drove them back into the clearing. They tried running in the opposite direction, but were stopped by the liquor fire, which had spread in an unusually straight line, cutting off retreat in that direction. The only remaining way to go was to follow the stampeding horses, and any men still upright and breathing took to their heels in that direction.
Meanwhile, bandit leader stared as his hard-bitten force, built and cajoled and threatened into existence over several months, was dismantled in minutes. And as he looked around, trying to find some was to restore a semblance of order, his gaze fell on a familiar figure standing a few yards away. It was the newcomer, now clad in an odd combination of padded, leather, and plate armour. A greatsword tall enough to cleave a man in two rested casually on his shoulder as he stared at the bandit leader.
Behind him stood several of the villagers, all panting from their efforts, and all grinning as they stared at the bandit leader as well. One or two even clapped the new man, or traitor, on the shoulder.
In a flash, the bandit leader realized exactly what had happened:
—The newcomer’s eagerness to help pitch the tents…and also sabotage the ropes holding them up…
—His skill at building the corral…which enabled him to also collapse it to cause a stampede…
—His willingness to stack the liquor barrels near the cook tent…and leave a torch there to set off the flammable brandy…
—His strategy during the game last night…a preview of what had just happened right now…
The newcomer had set all this up to destroy his entire group—and he had accomplished it masterfully. In seconds, the last of the fleeing bandits had disappeared, leaving the leader all alone.
“Surprised you, right?” the man asked. “Like I said last night, when properly motivated, a mob of peasants—especially ones out for vengeance—can accomplish great things.”
His lips curling back from his teeth in a savage snarl, the bandit leader raised his hammer and charged at the man, thinking he would at least have the satisfaction of killing him before the peasants tore him to pieces.
But even that small pleasure was to be denied him. For as the leader brought his warhammer down to crush the black-haired man’s skull, the world around him burst into bright white stars for a moment.
Before he knew what had happened, the furious warrior found himself sprawled on the ground, the side of his head throbbing and wet. He lifted his fingers to his head and they came away bloody. Only then did he notice the rock that hadn’t been there a moment ago rolling to a stop. The swordsman had lured him right into the ambush—and nearly taken his head off as well.
With a roar, he scrambled to his feet and looked around for the man, who was still just standing a few steps away, calmly regarding him. The bandit approached more slowly this time, his hammer out to his side, ready to swing up and crush his ribs, or loop up and over to smash his shoulder blade or head in. “I’m gonna smash yer head right off yer shoulders!” he said as he feinted high, then brought the hammer down low to sweep the man’s feet out from under him.
But even as he attacked, the man was already moving again, avoiding his strike and moving in to counterstrike. The bandit leader felt the sting of steel on his right hamstring, and staggered, unable to move quickly any more. He tried to bring his hammer back around to keep the man off him, but was too late.
The bandit leader felt a crushing blow on his chest, and looked down to see the greatsword’s blade buried between his ribs. His remaining strength flowed out of him, and the warhammer fell from his suddenly numb hand.
Falling to his knees, the leader looked around at the rest of his camp, which was almost completely destroyed now, the bodies of his men littering the ground. He collapsed on his side, his graying vision growing dark, tunnelling to black, until the only thing he could focus on any more was the man who had just slain him.
That man bent over him. “Yesterday you asked me where I learned to play the game so well. I learned from years on the battlefield, against human scum just like you.”
The man straightened up and stared at the bandit leader as he breathed his last. “What I neglected to tell you is that I never lose.”
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This week’s Archive story was written by John Helfers, the lead editor of EMBERWIND: The Skies of Axia. John has published more than fifty original short stories in anthologies such as If I Were An Evil Overlord, Time Twisters, and Shattered Shields, and universes like Dragonlance™, Transformers™, Golem Arcana™, BattleTech™, and Shadowrun™.
Art by CRUSHVisual Studios.