Ildric shot upright, hand gripping the crossbow that rested ready beside him. “Pit, Reed,” he spat, slumping back as he saw who it was who had burst into his tent. “One of these days you’re gonna accidentally get shot!”
Reed did not appear to care, a frown accentuating the wrinkles around his tired eyes as he tossed a shirt and tunic to his commander. “You’re needed outside.”
Wiping beads of sweat from his brow, Ildric caught the rough clothing and grunted in protest as he rose from the stiff bed covered in furs. “It’s not even sunrise. Why does it sound like half the camp’s awake?”
Brushing his nose with the back of his knuckles, Reed took up Ildric’s sword and moved back to the entrance to the tent. “Byron’s back,” he responded gravely, peering out through the space between the canvas flaps.
“One of these days I’ll be too old for this,” he grumbled.
“Don’t jinx yourself, sir.”
Ildric did not bother responding as he finished dressing. After a moment’s thought he pulled on his thick cloak. The chill of early morning was enough to justify it, and the shroud added to his presence. “I hate Tuesdays,” he muttered bitterly, roughly cinching his belt. “Can’t it be Monday again?”
Reed cast the man a sympathetic smirk. “You got a week to wait for that.”
“I need more lucky days.”
“Or just luck.”
Ildric chuffed a harsh breath.”Is everyone back with him this time?”
Reed held the tent flap open as Ildric strode out, expression grave as his brisk steps defied the early morning. “No,” the shorter man responded quietly. “He is missing three men this time.”
Ildric paced down the roughly cobbled lane towards the gate, the men he passed either offering muttered greetings or ducking their heads as he passed. No one ever dared wake Vrax early in the morning. “Did he bring them back?”
Reed remained silent as he followed close behind.
“Has news come in from Bree?” Ildric asked as he walked.
“Koss should have been released day before yesterday. Frank will ride down as soon as the Elf has something to report.”
Ildric sucked in through his teeth. “Frank should stay home with his wife.”
Reed pursed his lips into a thin line as sharp eyes surveyed the mass of shouting men by the gates to the camp. “Maybe. Let the lad do what he will. He wants to see Koss dead more than you.”
Grunting, Ildric did not slow his pace as he reached the angry gathering. It was an impressive mob for that time of the morning. Even as he approached the gates were pulled shut, the bound logs and ring of men keeping any of the newly arrived scouting party from escaping. “What is the meaning of this?” he asked, his firm voice carrying over the others as the mass of men parted before him.
Several voices answered at once, some in relief at Ildric’s appearance. Others tugged their peers out of the way as their commander made straight for a rough, dirty young man atop a steed that wasn’t the same one he’d left on.
“Byron’s killed Peake and Tom, sir!” exclaimed an angry man to Ildric’s right.
“And Harrick!” shouted another voice, summoning a chorus of others that rose in accusation.
“All of ya better shut your traps!” Byron barked back, stepping down from his horse as he turned his attention to Ildric. “I killed ’em Vrax, sure, but they were disrespecin’ you behind your back. Everything you’ve done for ’em, and all… well, I won’t abide that! ”
“You have no right to cast judgment in my place. They should have been brought back to me.”
“But sir! They were sayin’ –”
“Do I look like I give a shit about what you thought you heard?!”
The shouts of the men around them rose louder, but just as quickly were quieted, each one of them feeling the weight of Ildric’s furious glare. “You cur. Tom was harmless,” he responded, voice quiet and tone cold. “And Peake? He has been nothing but loyal to me for years.” And a better man than you will ever hope to be. Ildric felt his whole body tense with rage. Some of the best men in his entire outfit, gone. He had trusted them implicitly. Men like them could not be replaced. It could take but a few seconds and Byron’s head would be embedded in the road at his feet. A long moment of silence passed before Ildric looked to the nine men still mounted behind Byron. “Off of those horses… NOW!” he bellowed when the men hesitated. Fear showed in their eyes. All except for Byron who frowned at Ildric like a confused dog to it’s master.
Ildric cursed under his breath. “Where are the bodies?”
“We — We dumped the trai — them in a ravine, sir,” replied a younger lad no older than seventeen who gripped the reigns of his horse to keep himself steady.
Ildric’s expression changed to one of disappointment as he fixed a brief look on the boy. Averting his gaze, the lad shrunk back some in shame. “Were all of you a part of this?”
Before any of the men with him could spout excuses, Byron motioned to his other side, indicating a man in his thirties that looked like he’d recently taken a beating. “All ‘cept for Orric, sir. He was agin’ it from the start,” he answered honestly, showing no remorse for his actions aside from having disappointed Vrax.
Holding Orric’s gaze for several seconds, Ildric held his hand out to Reed as he stared down the (mostly) cowed company of men. Reed stepped forward to hand Ildric his sword before stepping back. “Mister Marrick?”
“Yessir?” came a reply from the back of the crowd of onlookers.
“See that the Hall is lit, and heat up the brand.”
“Right away, sir!” came the response before a short, thickly built man in a smithy apron turned to hurry up the road.
“Reed, escort Byron and his men to the Hall. Orric, you can step aside. You few go with them,” he commanded, motioning to a handful of men off to one side before fastening his sword to the belt at his waist.
“Even the lad, sir?” he asked under his breath, stepping in so as not to be heard.
Ildric’s harsh gaze flicked to the lad, then to Byron who watched expectantly and with out protest. “All of them.”
Reed nodded, and with the escort falling in, began leading the way up the long walk to the Hall.
Orric squared his shoulders, and nodded. “Yes, sir?”
“Choose yourself eleven from those here to serve as witnesses to the judgment. And the rest of you,” he added, turning to look over the gathering,” I suggest you go about your business before another day begins.”