It had been a mistake coming to the Vale.
The information the Bandit King had managed to gather was not worth the fight he had gotten himself into. He had been prepared for a skirmish. After all, those who lived in the North were as hard headed as the stone they lived within. It was a point of pride for many of them and the Bandit King did not discourage them from it. After all, it made them better people than those soft, fat southron lords. But in instances like this, where it was his life or theirs … he wished they would back down and surrender every once in a while.
Maybe I should surrender, the Bandit King thought to himself, as he brandished his long sword, slashing at two enemies. But he was already in too deep. The Vale had not been kind to him from the start, with winter winds harsh even through his fur cloak. Snow had started to fall, bringing frost to the tips of his fingers and nose. His horse was suffering even worse and it had delayed his travel by several weeks. The Bandit King was meant to intercept a lord carrying the banner of a trout, but by the time he had arrived at the spot, they had already moved on.
And all that was waiting for him were the remnants of his travelling company. It would have been better to turn back. Of course it would have. But if the Bandit King had reneged on his deal, it would have been even worse for his reputation. Dying would be worse for my reputation, he sighed, as he saw another soldier coming from behind. The Bandit King was fast enough to duck and weave out of the spear’s way, but he found himself on the wrong end of another man’s sword. It cut through the boiled leather plate he wore, just enough that the Dornishman felt blood seep into the folds of his clothing.
If he did not think of something soon, he would find himself more than just wounded. He backed away, one hand on his long sword, the other clutching at his wounded side. There were three soldiers left. To his credit, he had managed to cut down four of them already. But that was with the element of surprise, which was very clearly gone. From the corner of his dark eyes, the Bandit King noticed their horses, tied to a nearby tree. An idea formed in his mind. There would be only one chance at this. But if death stared him in the face, he was willing to take that chance.
“And this, Northmen,” the Bandit King grunted, feeling the taste of blood in his mouth, “is where I depart.”
The Bandit King dashed to the side and cut the ropes tying the horses together. Then, with a strike against their hind quarters they let out a loud neigh and trampled toward the soldiers, as if beckoned to move. The ice was still heavy but the horses easily pushed through it. The soldiers, not quite so. They managed to jump clear at the last moment and the Bandit King managed to grab a horse’s saddle and force himself into it. The sudden movement opened his wound up further, causing the Dornishman to let out another grunt of pain. But it had worked: he was riding away through the snow, flanked by a handful of horses, making the trek closer to the Vale.
But his eyes were as lead and his muscles were tense and sore. The battle had claimed more of him than he realised. He placed his cloak hard against the wound, making sure that his blood was no longer dripping. It would leave an obvious trail in the snow. And being followed would only end in disaster for the Bandit King. Thankfully, the other horses meant that the tracks were quickly lost in the snow. He rode hard disappearing into a nest of rocky hills, where the snow was thinner and there was more dirt. Shifting his weight, the horse veered away from the others and he was able to find a small nook in the cave. But instead of gracefully stepping off the horse, as he normally would, the Bandit King fell off and landed in the mud.
Forcing himself to crawl into the small cave mouth was a task. But one that he achieved after a great deal of exertion. He tore his cloak and tried to bind his wound. His fingers were shaking too much. He had already lost so much blood. Perhaps that was why he was hallucinating now and was seeing a woman with hair like fire step toward him. The image of her face seemed familiar to him, but it could not have been her. She was a long, long way from here. So he lifted his sword again, as high as his injury would allow and asked:
“Who goes there?”