It was such a simple patrol that it was barely even a patrol, more of a ride to get the eight novice's under Berit's tutelage used to riding in a line and following orders. He had Khalad and Talen to set an example to the others but even that was barely necessary – they were a steady bunch not prone to dramatic testosterone fueled displays. All new knights were given responsibility for some younger members of the order and Berit had become somewhat of a favourite: his approachable demeaner as admired as his skill with a sword.
There was barely any danger in these rocky hills, as close as it was to a Pandian chapter house so Berit took his time running through the various drills: sending a novice to scout, instructing one to drop back to watch their rear, changing pace or forming up into a defensive position.
"Have we charged enough rocks yet?" Talen muttered good naturedly. "I'm sure we would have spotted any that were going to attack us by now."
"Not yet" Berit spoke to the whole group, raising chuckles as he continued "You never know when one might turn rabid, it's the quiet ones you've got to watch."
"Seriously, though, is there a point to all this?"
"Of course there is novice. When your life is on the line do you want to know where everybody else is? Do you want to know that someone is watching your back? When you have enemies in front of you, you will want to be confident that someone is watching the flank. When you can do all this without thinking – know where each member of the squad is and what they are doing – you will be able to focus on staying alive."
Talen looked a little embarrassed at having questioned his friend, but Berit had managed to turn it into a teaching moment.
"And I like ordering you all about." He finished with a slight smile.
It came as some surprise then to hear screams and cries from across the hillside. Instantly alert, Berit slowed his horse and glanced behind him simultaneously checking for enemies and the state of his charges.
"Khalad take the rear, Talen take the column, all on watch. I'm heading to that rise." He spurred his horse on before his friends could object. He didn't wait to see if his orders were obeyed, instead showing confidence that the young men would do as they had been taught.
Cresting the rise yet just obscured in the tree line he considered the scene before him. The hill he was standing on formed one side of a valley, a narrow yet deep river flowing at the bottom, a ford a little to his right. Instead of woodland the other side rose to a scraggly and crumbling cliff face with a narrow track at the bottom. It was on this track that there was some sort of metal cage on an old looking wagon bed: the sort that was usually used to carry livestock. But it wasn't animals that were being forced into that enclosure but people: at least six of them. It was their screams that had attracted his attention.
This made his blood boil. A Church Knight was a respected position: for their physical skill, their use of magic, their political power. But it was for none of these reasons that Berit had joined the Order – he was here to protect people. He had always been angered when he saw people being treated poorly, and seeing this... abduction? ….. in progress right in front of him, when they should have been safe... it was almost a personal affront.
Just a few more moments of evaluation and he returned to the somewhat nervous looking line, though he was pleased to see that they had done as instructed. He gave a nod of well done and they steadied. This was no longer a pleasant ride through the country side – this was now a matter for the Church.
He gathered them in close and outlined the terrain, adding in the details of what he had seen.
"We have six people being loaded unwillingly into a wagon. There are eight men around them, and another couple keeping a look out from the cliff face. They haven't done too good a job so far which bodes well for us. So we have at least ten, but we should expect more. Khalad, I want you to take those two out with your crossbow first. Each of you others will also pick a target as soon as we are in range. There is no need to get into close combat with these scum, but if it looks likely you will all fall back; Sparhawk will have my guts if I let any of you get close enough to unsheath a blade. Then we will cross the ford to the other side. We are going to teach a lesson in what happens when the Church is angered."
It wasn't the best or most rousing speech, but it was a simple plan. Berit saw in the others' eyes a determination to protect the innocent that was fitting for a Church Knight. Though he didn't expect much close fighting he knew he could handle a few badly armed bandits and that Talen and Khalad would back him up if he needed it. The puzzle of why this group of men thought they could get away with such a crime in the heartland of the Pandion order would wait until they had ensured everyone's safety. And until Berit had calmed down.
He closed his eyes for just a moment – he had to make sure that the novices had confidence in him – in themselves – but there was a fine balance here between two sets of responsibilities: those by the river and those in front of him.
"Ready your bows" he ordered, and lead his small band to the hilltop, moving as quietly as nine mailed men on horseback could.
They crested the rise on Berit's signal: Khalad's crossbow finding it's mark in the necks of the two lookouts while they were still oblivious to the danger. Those below were alerted when the fallen men dislodged rocks from the unstable cliff face but were slow to take cover. Each novice made a straight, disciplined and skilled shot and then there were only two standing, now taking cover behind the horses.
"Good shots. Everyone nock another arrow and be ready in case there are any more. If you see a shot take it, but please try not to shoot me. Do not move forward until I give the order." He eyes his novices – his men – paying particular attention to Khalad and Talen. He wanted to make sure that they understood that right now he wasn't their friend, but their commander.
"Those rock falls worry me my Lord" Khalad said, deferential and proper. Though the whole order knew of the two brother's friendship with various Knights all were careful not to show favouritism in the extensive training it took to be deemed worthy of the order. "There are several outcrops that I can see crumbling."
"I see it. We do this quickly." A big enough rockfall would crush the wagon and those that were now locked into it. He saw each man with an arrow on the bow, and with a proud nod rode over the ford.
He didn't unsheath his sword until he was nearly on top of the two cowering men. They had been attempting to unhitch the horses which were rearing and stomping in panic – thinking to ride clear perhaps - and were unprepared to face a mailed and mounted Church Knight with the fury of justice powering his sword arm.
When they were down he yelled "Lets' get everyone out of here." And the novices swiftly guided their horses to join him. Eyeing the padlock on the cage door he beckoned Talen forward: "This looks like your specialty".
"Yes my Lord" the young thief grinned, reaching into a pocket for his ever-present set of lockpicks.
"We're getting you out, don't worry" Berit reassured the huddled – and now he could see - bruised people in the cage. "And someone see if you can calm those horses."
A few quick twists of his wrist were all it took for Talen to force the lock and swing the rusty iron door open.
"This way please ladies and gentleman." Talen urged: the captives wasting no time in jumping down from their temporary prison. All except one: a man that was crouching at the very back, hands around his head.
"Come on man" Berit said, stepping up through the hinged doorway into the cage, noting the extensive bruising to his face and the he hunched over his ribs. Berit tried not to let any of the anger he was feeling show in his tone. "We need to get you back to your family" he reassured, gently pulling him to his feet. He eased the shaking man to the doorway and was passing him to Talen when the call of "Rock fall" carried to him.
He gave the man a push out of the cage, shouting to Talen and the others to get clear. He managed a glimpse of others hurrying away as the thunder of the rocks hit drowning out the yells, the actual rocks following closely behind. A large portion of unstable cliff had given way and the boulders rocked the wagon, team and cage. The wagon swayed, the horses paniced, pulling away now that the novices had all run for cover. Berit, pelted with smaller rocks, held on to the cage bars hoping for the movement to end quickly.
It didn't. The horses reared, the wagon shifted on the narrow path and several large boulders collided with it's side. The combination caused it to roll, cage breaking free. Berit tried to hold on but found himself landing on his side, his head, his back as the cage rolled. He hit hard as he was thrown from side to side causing him to see stars and blood to block his vision.
Those stars were wiped away when Berit hit the water, the shock of the cold clearing out his head. It took a moment to orientate himself and realise that he was underwater.
Keep calm, he thought to himself, peering through the silt that had been kicked up by the rockfall he could see that he was still in the cage that standing on one end, upright in the river. Berit fought against the weight of his chainmail to reach the top of the cage. Luck was not with him: above him was only bars. The door had - of course – been on the side that was now nestling into the riverbed.
That was a problem, but a more pressing one was that the cage was completely submerged. With one hand he grasped a bar to keep him at the top and with the other he reached as far as he could, his hand just breaching the surface.
Damn it he thought.
The scene on the river bank was confused. The sounds of horses and people were screaming, the last of the boulders released from the cliff side clattering to the ground and the splash of the cage sinking into the water combined to a roar as Khalad raised his head from it's shelter in his arms. He had run as far as he could, rocks bouncing around him, and thought himself fortunate to have not been hit. The other novices had also scattered, and at first glance none of them looked injured.
"He was still in there" Talen called from where he was crouched against the rock face in scant safety, a battered rescuee at his side. "I saw... he didn't get out."
Khalad turned to the water and saw a hand break the surface. There, he thought, pleased to see the movement. He waited for the rest of Berit to emerge but he didn't. The squire turned novice felt dread in his gut as the hand waved some more, almost as in distress. He moved swiftly and strode into the river, swimming when he reached the deep centre of the channel.
The squire-turned novice peered through the water and sure enough he could see Berit still within that dammed cage, it resting on its open end and the other about a foot beneath the water. Berit was reaching through the bars, waving to get attention and didn't look obviously hurt. But he was trapped and that cage would be heavy. His thoughts spun, trying to come up with a plan before his friend drowned.
Khalad broke the surface just long enough to yell "Rope! I need rope!" before diving down again. This time he got closer to Berit and managed to get within his line of sight.
We're getting you out he tried to gesture conserve your air he hoped Berit would understand. He wasn't sure how much time had passed, or if Berit had taken a breath before he hit the water. Maybe he was very good at holding his breath. Maybe full knights went through some sort of secret breathing-under-water training. Maybe he could even magic his way out. But he wasn't going to take that risk. Khalad had always relied on his own ingenuity over magic and that wasn't going to change now.
Berit stopped so frantically reaching when he saw Khalad who was also waving his hands about. Berit hoped that Khalad had a plan: magic wouldn't work on iron and spells had to be said clearly anyway. He was well and truly stuck, his lungs already burning . He tried not to panic knowing that Khalad would have a plan but was staggeringly aware of how little time he had. Darkness had begun to creep in from the sides of the young knights vision, his chest almost bursting, his head pounding. He could see his friends trying to save him but he couldn't fight the urge to take a breath of air that just wasn't there any longer and water rushed into his lungs.
The novices had scrambled to fetch several long coils of rope from their saddles and Talen had waded out with them to where his brother was treading water. They worked in tandem to secure the ropes to the cage frame. Khalad's heart was beating fast due to the exercise, but sped up even further when he saw Berit's still form, the weight of his chainmail slowly pulling him down to the riverbed. The knots took longer than they should have to tie, their hands moving clumsily against the pressure of the water. Once Khalad thought they were tight enough though he gave a yell of "Pull!" to the young men who had formed up on the bank.
Working as one the novices pulled steadily on the cage. It wasn't enough to move it entirely, not at that distance, but that had not been the plan. Instead the cage began to tip, guided by Khalad and Talen until it rested on it's side, door now open. A few swift strokes and Khalad was reaching into the cage, hand on the back of Berit's neck.
It took more than a little effort to get them both to the surface and the currant had carried them both a little down stream until they were almost at the ford. Khalad heaved the lax form of the knight upwards, hoping that air on his face would be enough. It wasn't: there was no reaction from the man in his arms. Berit was still and quiet.
Talen appeared by his side, face drawn and worried as he took Berit by one arm, allowing Khalad to stand and take the other. Once again Khalad was thankful at how in tune he was with his brother – he knew just what was needed.
They splashed to the bank and lay Berit on his back, the brothers either side of him. Khalad noticed a cut across Berit's forehead washed clean. He noticed a bruise beginning to form on his jaw. He noticed a water louse trapped in the folds of Berit's shirt. He was noticing small details to try not to notice the big one, the most important one. Khalad leant down to feel for even the slightest movement of air that would mean that Berit was breathing. Nothing. He put his head to the knight's chest, ear pressed against him, eyes closed in concentration, listening for a heart beat.
Come on, man. You are stronger than this. You are better this.
His faith in his friend was rewarded with a faint th-thump. Berit's oxygen starved heart was still striving for survival and it was one of the best sounds Khalad had ever heard.
"His heart's still beating. We can still save him." The novices had formed up in a somber semicircle around them, former captives just behind them. Khalad didn't want to look at them right now knowing what this rescue might yet cost him, so gladly bent to the distraction of getting Berit breathing again.
One hand over Berit's nose he pressed his mouth over his fiends' forcing air into water-logged lungs. If they were too full this wouldn't work as there would not be anywhere for the air to go. He just had to breathe, and hope and pray that there was still a chance. The minutes stretched long and Khalad began to feel lightheaded himself from the effort.
However, it is a well known fact that the gods look favourably on those who persevere and Khalad was rewarded for his perseverance. Berit gave heaving gasp and began choking, his whole body shaking. Khalad gently manouvered Berit onto his side, the better to help him expel water from his lungs. Each breath in was pained and gasping, each breath out was more of a cough, coughing up the river. Berit retched and his hands scrabbled for purchase against the rocky river bank. His brow was furrowed in pain and eyes were squeezed tightly shut.
This went on for a long time, Khalad gently rubbing Berit's back against the spasms. The tension in the observing group had disappeared and muttered conversation drifted between the novices and the captives.
Berit at last tried to open his eyes: bright daylight initially burning as much as his attempts to breathe. His whole chest ached inside and out and his head was spinning. Blinking against the glare he was just about able to make up the shape of Talen in front of him. He couldn't see clearly enough to see his young friends face, but his voice carried enough concern that he didn't need it.
"Berit, are you all right? Well, of course you're not all right, but what I mean is... how do you feel."
Berit tried to speak, but all that came out was another splutter and more of the river.
"That's it, get it all out, that's what's important right now." That was Khalad and Berit allowed himself some comfort in knowing he was in good hands.
The daggers of pain lancing through his chest gradually disappeared and he was able to move from shallow panting breaths to deep chest filling ones without choking. He sat up and was dizzied for a moment as the world spun so instead squeezed his eyes shut.
"Easy there, my Lord, looks like you had a crack to the head as well." Khalad was being perfectly polite, but that was probably only because he had an audience. Berit could well imagine the insults that Khalad was wanting to hurl – he did it every time one of his friends got hurt. He had a funny way of showing he cared.
"Only a small one. Any other injuries reported?" Berit's voice was rough and strained, throat inflammed from the coughing.
"None, Sir Berit, just a few bruises."
"Good, at least I won't have to explain that to Sparhawk." Berit opened his eyes and was glad that the spinning had stopped. "Do these people live close enough for us to escort home?"
"Then lets get them home before we return to the Chapterhouse. Novice" Berit emphasised that he was in charge again. Khalad rolled his eyes but managed to bite back on any retort as Berit reached out a hand for Khalad to pull him to his feet. Berit muttered in his ear as he did so:
"Don't give me a lecture Khalad. I know I'm stubborn, I know you want to me to rest, but I don't have anything worse than a bloody scalp and aching ribs right now. I know you will be keeping a close eye out for a chest infection or any linger water on the lung and I for sure am not going to jump into any more fights today." His shoulders sagged slightly. "Let's all just go home shall we?"
"That sounds like a good idea my Lord." Khalad smiled.
"And thank you Khalad. I won't be going swimming for a while, at least without you to watch my back."