“50 crowns for that?!” Ledram hissed, blade in hand. The sellsword lay sprawled across the loamy soil, hidden beneath a blanket of ferns. Dew collected on his rusted helm, rolling off and soaking into his padded hood.
Ahead a bonfire blazed, and around it sat a half dozen surly thugs armed to the teeth. Long knives and wicked axes hung from silver-studded belts, and crude coats of mail covered their chests.
Tors crawled alongside his brother-in-arms. He thrust a gloved hand forward, tapping Ledram on the shoulder. “50 crowns for him,” he growled, pointing at a slight man with tangled hair.
Ledram snorted. “The small one? Are you taking the piss?”
Tors shook his head, his mail coif rattling softly. “Every band has its leader. That much brawn backed by a brain is a dangerous thing.”
“It’s certainly a lucrative thing,” Ledram hummed, eyeing the rich belts and bejewelled rings studding the bandits. “Makes me thing we’re in the wrong business.”
“Pay would certainly be better,” Tors stated, scanning the camp, “but good luck dodging the gallows.”
Ledram nodded. “Ivan and Viktor in position?”
“I bloody hope so,” Tors said. The sellsword brought his hand to his mouth and whistled.
The thugs jumped, blades drawn in an instant. But before they could ready their shields, two were dropped by jagged crossbow bolts. Tors and Ledram were on their feet before the bodies hit the ground.
Tors charged the nearest bandit, a bearded brute wielding an arming sword. The mercenary swung his axe for the thug’s head, full weight behind the blow. But the bandit brought his shield up and caught the axe, the edge cracking and showering Tors in splinters.
Tors’ heart raced as his weapon stuck firm in the thug’s shield, ripped from his hands by the hulking beast. In the same motion the bandit swung his sword upwards, aimed at the mercenary’s head. Tors was still turning into his failed swing, and had no time to dodge the slash.
But the blow never struck home. Ledram, blade flashing, sliced the bandits arm off at the elbow. Arterial blood sprayed from the stump, drenching the recovering Tors in gore. The bandit began to scream, but was cut short as Ledram removed his head from his shoulders.
Tors found his footing, and pulled free a long dagger from his belt. He turned to thank Ledram, but already the sellsword was crossing blades with another thug. The scrap was short lived, however, as Viktor and Ivan appeared from the surrounding woods like spectres. The brothers dispatched the distracted bandit with brutal efficiency, knives flashing in the fading light.
Tors spotted the scrawny mastermind fleeing the camp, a bag clutched to his chest. The mercenary flipped his dagger and reeled back, his eye trained on the bandit. With a whistle the blade left his hand, straight as an arrow.
The dagger caught the mastermind in the spine, just below the neck. He crashed to the forest floor, disappearing under a sea of ferns. His target incapacitated, Tors drew a second dagger, ready to assist his comrades. His help was not needed, however; Ledram was doing his damndest to dislodge his sword from the torso of an unfortunate bandit, and the brothers were already picking over the fallen. The last living thug could be seen sprinting from the camp with reckless abandon.
“That’s right, bugger off!” Tors hollered after the bandit, a wicked grin on his face. He retrieved his axe from the ruined shield at his feet, and stowed it in his belt. Rearmed, he stepped towards Ledram, who had freed his sword and was now wiping the blade against the fallen bandit’s trousers.
“Bloody good work,” Tors said, a hand extended to Ledram, “bastard almost got me.”
“That he did,” Ledram replied, shaking Tors’ hand, “damn near took your head off. I was nearly rid of you.” He nodded to the side. “Did you get the mark?”
“Right between the shoulders,” Tors beamed, turning to where the bandit fell. “Shall we retrieve his head?”
“With pleasure,” Ledram smirked. “You boys pick over the camp,” he called to the brothers, “the grownups have some business to attend to.” Ignoring the snorts and curses behind him, Ledram started towards his fallen target.
The mastermind lay in a crumpled heap, his limbs stuck outward at harsh angles. Glassy eyes stared skyward from under a mess of auburn hair, tangled and matted. “He’s young,” Ledram commented, his blade in hand. “Younger than Ivan.” He lowered his head. “Should we say a prayer?”
“Won’t do him much good now, would it,” Tors replied.
Ledram nodded, gripping his sword with both hands. In one clean swipe he took the head from the lad’s shoulders, catching it underfoot as it rolled away. Quickly he deposited the grisly trophy in a burlap bag, and sealed it tightly.
Tors retrieved his dagger and rolled the headless body over, revealing the bag the bandit had tried to flee with. The sellsword prodded the sack, which rattled at his touch. “Crowns,” he exclaimed, his eyebrows raised.
“Two hundred, easily,” Ledram remarked, looking at the bag. “Did the contract include the return of stolen goods?”
“It did not,” Tors said, grabbing the sack of coins. He turned to Ledram, who was grinning ear to ear.
“Like I said,” he hummed, “banditry is a bloody lucrative business.”