Heavy wood, the good stuff from up the Blacks’ lands loyal to Tawny. Yet the gate shuddered and strained at the bar.
It shuddered despite the muscled hoplites with their shoulders to it.
It bucked at its bars despite the skinny levies behind adding their weight to the press.
Splinters from the straining bar rained down on the scrum, despite the slingers and archers raining missiles in high arches over the gatehouse walls.
Fudyut wiped sweat from his eyes and squinted as he cast another stone over the dry stone walls. He tried to block out the screams of the women, the cries of the children and the smell of smoke.
The Cougar was impatient. If it had been an old hand with grey whiskers and griffon scars it would have waited till night. But it was young, foolish and hungry.
It’s fawn head kept peaking from scrub and cacti, salivating as it eyed the herd. The herd was well aware of him. Fudyut didn’t tend for foolish goats. He recommended them sold to fat merchant hobby farmers. Why have the extra work?
Fudyut casually put down his pan pipes and slipped a stone into his sling. He glanced at the Cougar. Yes, young – too young to be wary of a man with a sling. That would make it dangerous. Not as dangerous as a strong old timer too tired to chance mountain ibex, but dangerous. Best make this one count then.
It had gone to cover now. Not out of fear of Fudyut or his sling but in response to a bray from the rams of the herd. Fudyut applied too many years as a goatherd and bowled his arm over releasing the stone which bounced off the cougars head with a firm resounding thud.
The Cat lost its footing and skidded out over cover and down the bank it had hoped to use as a launching point to leap on prey. Comically it scrambled at the bank, at little too late, telling Fudyut he’d stunned it. The rock would have hurt. It fell in a crumpled bundle at the base of the bank in a dry gulch snapping and breaking angry clusters of cacti. The herd had trotted some distance away, used to this occasional pantomime.
The panther righted itself in a flurry of paws and with an almost canine shake of the head. Fudyut had already tossed a stone into the sling and with time on his side sent a higher arching shot that fell between the Cougar’s shoulder blades causing it to turn tail and limping sprint up the gulch back to the tree line.
It’d be scared of man now alright.
Or at least it would know to expect pain. Fudyut trotted to check the herd. Some of the kids had a combination of hoariness and curiosity that kept life interesting – they’d be sold when he could catch the foreman’s ear. As came down the gentle slope of the valley he saw a rider galloping towards him and the herd. Another stone found his sling soon enough and settled behind a decent crop of cacti. Nobody robbed his Master’s herd lightly.
Looking at the figures Fudyut soon recognised the gait of the horse and the stance of the rider. It was no bandit but Rendayat the outrider. It meant a message from the Ranch house, then. Fudyut strolled out from behind the Cacti? Could a mortgage payment mean a goat sale was due quick? Some Cowherd had broken his neck riding crazy and Fudyut needed to cover?
Rendayat had slowed to a canter and edged round the herd. Some kids gambled in panicked circles but the adults new the smell of the man and horse.
“Dry pickings those goats, Fudyut.”
“Bollocks, better eating than those flabby cows you tend – what gives?”
Rendayat took his wide bowl shaped hat off and wiped his head with his neck scarf.
“There’s a muster.”
“Why, drill day is not for weeks is it?
“God bothering Jelut cunts have only gone and declared war on us haven’t they?”
Rendayat spat some persistent dust out his throat.
“Muster days come early my friend Fudyut ! Round up those collections of toothpicks you call livestock and head back to the Ranch. Ultanti’s at war, means the old man’s at war – means we’re at war.”
The bar started to give.
“I mean seriously Jelut – give us a chance to war on some real men. Outlanders even. Not incense waving, bowing and scraping fanatics. We should just attack at prayer time, I hope someone’s writing this down, I should be a Captain really, this is strategic genius…”
Fudyut was used to the incessant bullshit that Tureck delivered like the rains in fall. Unceasing and persistent, it was normally about his conquests of women folk. However the outbreak of war had elevated his thoughts from his genitals with a newly found marital expertise.
“SHUT THE FUCK UP YOU COCKSUCKING LITTLE TURD!”
Turek started and shut up retiring and snuggling into his blankets. While Fudyut found the brassy tedious cattleman a pain, he’d been interrupted by Sulo who in Fudyut’s opinion was another shining pillar of Army life. A brash blacksmith’s son from the village whose father could not equip him as a hoplite he rankled at every order and was about much use with a sling as Fudyut was with anvil. Between the gales of chatter from one and the occasional squalls of bullying from the other Fudyut was quite, quite tired. Muster Day was bearable – a week of hurrying up and waiting while they marched up valley and down gulch was another.
Rendayat walked over to Fudyut crumpled form in his blankets. The Cowman had found a brigandine jerkin, a leather helm and a sabre hung from a baldric.
“Trying Optio Fudyut” grimaced the prone man peaking out of the blankets.
“Now is that anyway to speak to a good chum, nay equal, who’s landed you a promotion Optio Fudyut?”
“You fucking bastard.”
“Now then, less language in front of the men – some slingers are very young and impressionable.”
“Fuck off.” Fudyut crunched into his blankets.
“Afraid not my fellow Optio, us non-commissioned officers don’t get such luxuries as sleep – Captain wants us all in his tent. His masterful plan must be explained. I’m erect at the prospect. All this time I spent getting pissed and chasing women when the humble militiaman’s life..”
Fudyut sat erect , his blanket falling off his tunic clad torso “I’m coming – pray just can the bullshit.”
All Fudyut’s stones, were gone – he drew his sword and braced himself.
The Captain, was the Old Man, Rancher Gilenti, a silver heard barrel-chested man who’d ridden with the cowherds and hiked with the goat boys. He’d lost children with the villagers when the pox was in town, paid for a Priest at the Village Temple and lent his men to dig out the Village well when it dried up. Whoever the Village elected Mayor lent his ear to the old man and he lent his voice to village’s concerns when the Council was held in Ultanti
He was family.
He and his cowmen had driven off veteran chapter raiders a few summers ago and as a youngster he’d took up a spear in the last war but one with Jelut and half a dozen others including overthrowing the Tawnys.
He was a good man., a brave man and a handy man in a fight.
“So boys, I ain’t gonna waste much time talking. Y’all know talking ain’t any mainstay o’mine.” He gestured to a map pinned to the tent’s wall.
“This shows the River. Most of our Army from the City and other villages is here down by where it feeds into the Great Canal.”
A sausage fingered hand hovered over that part of the map hanging against the wall of the tent.
“Now that’s where we think these Jelut fellas are gonna come. Cross the old Tawny bridge. It’s the shortest distance between Jelut and Ultanti. It’s where most of our Army are attacking. However, just in case these frock wearing retards think they can be sneaky we’ve got a very important job.”
The podgy hand glided right away from the canal and up towards the highlands.
“We’re hear on guarding this ford. It’s the widest ford on the River and it’s close enough that Jelut riders could come through and burn up the ranches beyond or even wheel round to help attack our forces at the bridge.” The fingers casually gestured back towards the canal.
Hands on hip the Captain Gilenti continued.
“We’re gonna have my boy Ywaren leading the hoplites guarding the ford. All dressed in ranks real pretty in case some Jelut hired outrider fancies trying his luck. Fudyut’s slingers will be on the mound behind and to the right – for covering fire. I’ll be in reserve to deliver the knockout blow with the horsemen. Any questions?”
There were none. No one saw the point in asking how long they’d be standing like idiots in front of an uncontested ford. They’d been talk of them holding up in the village of Refener some thirty miles from here – at least there would have been some creature comforts there.
The gates flapped with surges of men from Jelut and Ultanti pushing fore and aft. Fudyut clutching his knife close strained to put all his weight to the mass trying to keep the gates shut. The stink of his comrades, the wheezing of men crushed in the press where all coated by the tangible desperation.
The hoplite sat by their shields, or at least those with shields did. Some played dice – others lay back enjoying the sunshine. The light glinted on the bronze and iron of the front rank’s breastplates and the mail and brigandine of the second while it played lightly on the leather and cloth of the third and fourth rows. The eight columns looked wider with the laid out men.
Behind the sprawled spearmen a score of riders tended to their mounts, checking bits and tackle or chattered in the saddle while the horses chewed at outcrops of scrub.
Fudyut had his two dozen slingers spaced out so if they had to fire in a hurry they would not be in each others way. Like the cautious herdsman he was he had men taking turns as lookouts in all directions. Other than that there was very little to do. He’d got men to pick their best stones for ready carry an age ago. Lead shot had meant to come from Ultanti but had got lost on the way. No matter – a stone could cause a horse to bolt or crack an unprotected skull. It was the armoured men they’d have trouble with – relegated to nuisance value.
Fudyut eyed the men – well mainly boys. Fudyut was an age old for a slinger and that was more a testament to his thorniness than anything else. Sulo was holding his tongue after Fudyut had words with him – the big man had the black eye to remind of what was said. Tureck was quietly talking to his friends but keeping his voice down – mere words had been enough for him. Fudyut was as happy as he could be with the state of his unit…
In ripple men mounted horses, hoplites grabbed spears and shields, the slingers stood and instinctively felt for their shot pouches. Ranks were closed.
The cry had come from Rendayat who’d be deployed with a couple of other horsemen on the opposite side of the ford. He stood in his saddle. hand shielding his eyes as he looked out to the north. One of his companions was crossing the ford at full pelt to report to the Old Man.
The young rider reported to the old devil and then cantered over to Fudyut. Fudyut knew him to be a spoilt son who’d been treated him to a horse and equipment to justify a glamorous Cavalry role in the militia.
“Fudyut – Old man says I’m to put you in the picture.”
“Pray do Eliahat.”
“Reckon there about two dozen riders men cantering up to meet us. Rendayat reckons they’re Veteran Chapters by the size of their horses and equipment. Cob ponies and carrying enough steel for bear hunting.”
“They got bows or crossbows?”
“Can’t tell at this distance – but been known from what Rendayat says.” Rendayat had said he’d knocked some edges off the young man – Fudyut hadn’t believed it till now.
Fudyut pondered some. His eyes narrowed.
“What’s the old man say?”
“Hold till we known more.” Fudyut’s eyes narrowed more.
“Okay… tell him I’d sure appreciate being able to take a dozen or more boys and put them behind those spear folk. If we could fire high from there we could stop any archers get close enough to sting their front ranks. We might even drop a few of them.” Fudyut ended the point on what he hoped was a persuasive grin.
“I’ll tell him Optio” Eliahat stood up in the saddle and gazed back at the Captain who was gesturing him to return, “but the old man seems to think your best use to is be here – clear shots at anyone crossing the ford and drop ‘em good while they’re in the River.”
“Oh I appreciate that Eliahat, but why don’t you just take my suggestion to the Boss and let him mull it over some?”
“I will, I just don’t figure he’ll take much heed.” With that the messenger turned and cantered back to the Captain and rest of the riders.
Fudyut spat – they’d been talk of some City boys with crossbows being sent up to meet them, Veteran Chapters too – but it’d turned out to be horseshit.. But it turned out that City folks and mercenaries liked to be around the City were all the comforts of civilisation were to be found.
Fudyut could see the dust now – easily two dozen horsemen – maybe more. Casually trotting about 300 yards away from Rendayat’s scouting party. Equally casually it looked that broad brimmed hats were removed and helms donned, dusters packed away and equipment readied.
“We should rush them!” piped up Tureck.
Sulo grimaced “and be worn like an age old hooker by the time we reached them? Dry and all out a juice? They give us one brief charge and it’d all be over.”
The unexpected intelligence of Sulo may Fudyut start.
“Sulo, come here a moment.”
The big man stepped over, looking a little anxious at another beating by the wiry old timer.
“Tell which half the boys have the steadiest heads”
Sulo wheeled out a dozen names. Fudyut was pleased he agreed.
“ Listen, if those Veterans start shooting up the hoplites I want you to get those boys and jog them down behind our boys – give those Veteran archers hell and take off the pressure from our spearmen – right?”
“This Gilenti’s plan boss?”
“Funny – his message boy didn’t seem to think so.” Spat the larger slinger,
“Well tell me this big man – is it? or isn’t it better than us sitting up here while our protection is shot up?”
“I just don’t see the need to split the boys – you’re gonna disobey the old man why be chicken shit about it? All or nothing – that’s there in Scripture”
“Yeah well lucky for you this is a military decision not one for a Preacher – in case you’ve forgotten we’re fighting for Ultanti not Jelut – now you gonna a do it or what?”
“Oh I’ll be only following orders – I’ll do it!”
As he pressed into the scrum of men trying to keep the gates shut Jelut saw the splinters coming from around the hinges…the Jelut had axe men at them chopping the gates loose.
They’d been in no rush. Sidled almost to just out of charge range of the scouting party and just out of the slingers range too and waited.
They waited in the saddle. Hard faced tanned men taking small sips from ample water gourds while the hoplites stood in armour in the hottest sun of the day and waited.
Glienti’s force tends to fill water bottles about dawn, mid day and sun down. It was almost like these riders had arrived to stop the water being replenished. It was almost like it was planned.
After an hour a hoplite fainted. But nobody went for water. At least half dozen of the VCs had crossbows resting on their saddle pommels and they sure looked like they knew how to use them.
Fudyut hadn’t given Sulo the word yet. The big man tugged at his elbow.
“You been noticing the bushes yonder?”
Fudyut had focused on the ford – there was no where else the enemy could cross. However once he looked at the scrub on the opposite river bank he could see movement. Looking closer he could see scrawny youngsters moving through the cacti, rocks and grasses.
“Ways I see it we’ve got a whole lot a choices.” whispered Sulo. “We open up against slingers in better cover and hope to startle them. Get dragged into a sling fight and they’ve got the aces. Or we pull behind the hill so they can’t make accurate shots at us – course us up and retreating with out words might startle our own horsemen and spearmen. So we could send word but that might warn the God-botherers and they open up the sooner.”
“None of them good choices “ Fudyut thought “ We could pull behind our spearmen but hell they could still open up and us and our Spearmen would be under fire same as us. Shit.”
“Shit is right Optio. This is why I don’t envy the burden of command.”
“Well you’re sharing it – get the men to go behind the hill in ones and twos to start with and get the boys with the best eyes to keep a watch on our Jelut pardners over the river.”
As Ultanti slingers started to trickle backwards more dust appeared and the remains of the scouting party reported to Captain Gilenti. By that time a third of Fudyut’s complement was over the hill.
All at once a hail of sling stones erupted from the far bank – not aimed at the Fudyut’s slingers but at Ywaren’s hoplites. There came a volley of shallow shots that bounced off the shields and armour of the heat exhausted front rank but told more heavily on the rear row cutting heads and bruising bodies. The VC’s had closed some distance and their few crossbows fired too, dropping no one but illustrating the impotence of the spearmen to such attacks – peppering shields.
“Horseshit – boys open up on those slingers – I go down Sulo’s in charge!”
Sweeping long straight arms fired stone after stone into the opposing bank – Cacti broke, rocks were chipped hell even the occasional bone was broken but the advantage was with the Jelut men who refused to get involved with shooting it out with Fudyut’s boys preferring to give Yarwen’s men hell.
Captain Gilenti could stand seeing his son’s force shot up no more – with a wave of his sword the horsemen sprinted up the bank, across the ford and then into the scrub.
“Hold your shots!” barked Fudyut as he saw the old man run through a Jelut boys who’d got snagged on some thorn bushes.
Other slingers were being cut down as they fled – but the bank wasn’t horse country. Fudyut could see Rendayat’s horse had come a cropper in the uneven ground though his friend was running down and hacking slingers on foot. At least two other horses had been hobbled by the rough terrain.
Calmly and quietly the VC cavalry trotted over to the hill that Rendayat scouting party had used. It placed them close to the ford with excellent visibility – it also meant the Old Man’s horsemen had to cross the ford right within crossbow and charge range of them if they wanted to rejoin the slingers and spears.
Not ones to waste the time those VCs with crossbows continued to pepper the weakened hoplites who started to pull back.
“Boys – with me!” shouted the dry Fudyut and led his slingers into a run across the retreating hoplites.
“Sulo – take the lads into the bank opposite those VCs and give them something to think about! I’m having a word with my colleague.”
The big man nodded and trotted with surprisingly small light steps encouraging the others.
“Yarwen – whatya doin’?”
Beneath a dusty bloody helm dark eyes tightened on Fudyut.
“Getting my boys out of shot range.”
“And your leaving your father out to hang boy – you’ve gotta watch that ford otherwise whats to stop those mercenary bastards catching him at the ford and then where’ll we be.”
“I ain’t taken no shit off a goatherd – your boys left us to get shot at.”
“That ain’t true – and even if it was my boys are taking the heat off you know while you ‘men’ are retreating.”
“I’ll have no of tha..”
“For pity’s sake your old man’s likely to die out there if you don’t get back to the Ford !”
A horn blasted.
Fudyut looked back. The VCs had got fed up with the exchange of fire and while the Ultanti cavalry was still in the rough ground started to cross. Sulo was having the slingers pull back by ranks while their colleagues fired – but it was a matter of time before the horses caught them.
“Yarwen please – back to the River – block their horse and your dad can catch them in the rear and we’ll have won!”
“WE CAN STILL WIN ANYWAYS – WHAT’S SOME GOATHERDS IN THE GRAND SCHEME OF THINGS!”
Fudyut looked like he was shot. Instinct took over and he ran back to his men…
Falling gates crushed and collapsed men. The first Jelut hoplites were half running half climbing up the fallen gates adding to the pulp of the Ultanti beneath them. Others were thrusting or throwing spears.
In the gaps at the hinges and the gap shield and sword worked in salt tang symphony.
BASH STAB HACK
BASH STAB HACK
BASH STAB HACK
Fudyut turned and ran. He was not alone.
The VC born down on Sulo with a leery smile and a curved foreign sword – the big man sidestepped, flipped his sling around the cavalryman’s sword arm and yanked him off his mount. He then gripped the helmet of the mercenary in his shovel like left hand and repeated smashed it into a rock.
Fudyut let loose a shot as he ran knocking a horsemen turning on Sulo off his horse. All around young boys were being run through in a more efficient version of Gilenti’s charge over the River. The ground was better for horses, the VC’s were professional soldiers or at least professional killers and Gilenti or Yarwen’s men were nowhere to be seen. He larger man had recovered a sword from his victim and was backing away from another horsemen advancing on him with a lance. Fudyut loaded another stone but saw a crossbow shot dispatch Sulo. His command was gone – the VCs were forming up on the flank of the Hoplites who he could now fell back nervously on top of the very hill his slingers had started on. No one was paying much attention to one exhausted old slinger.
Gilenti’s cavalry were forming up out of the scrub but a new obstacle was in their way – about thirty Jelut hoplites who must have marched up in the midst of the melees. They blocked Gilenti’s access to the ford. His men and horses were tired and their numbers depleted. Fudyut also realised if the Jelut slingers could reform they’d be no way to win this battle.
Grabbing himself a sword off the fallen Sulo, stepping over the decapitated Tureck and the whimpering wounded who weren’t long for the world.
Fudyut did detached arithmetic – they’d outnumbered their attackers and been in a prepared position. A handful of cross bows couldn’t have made that much difference. Where had they gone wrong?
He waited in cover for an opportunity to join his colleagues. By sun down it was clear the only place he could join them would be in the grave. The slingers had returned and done for first Gilenti and then the coward Yarwen. While the attackers divided the loot and made camp Fudyut headed for the nearest friendly forces he knew of in the village of Refener.
CRACKLE! CREAK! CRASH!
Fudyut choked on the smoke as he stumbled and slipped down the allies streaming with blood running in lazy gullies.
A Veteran Chapter mercenary crossed his path pulling a bloody faced woman by her hair enjoying her terror and torn robes. He smacked Fudyut absent mindely with the pommel of his sword sending him flat in the alley. As he continued on his way a Jelut Hoplite stumbles from a house laden with treasure and swigging from wine gourd – seeing Fudyut the Hoplite dropped his loot and pulled his sword.
A couple of kicks caused Fudyut to double over on the alley floor. The hoplite pressed the flat of his sword on the back of Fudyut’s neck and pressed the shepherd’s face into the dirt. Fudyut surrendered to the inevitable as the chorus of lamentations echoed through the flaming village….
“It was hard to believe that so much screaming could have come from one small village. Impressively fortified for one of the infidels efforts the defence had been made up of a selection of stragglers, local invalids and even some women folk. It does seem everything these Ultanti do has to be tainted by heresy – they even bring the same inattention they give to scripture to the conduct of war.
The upcountry denuded of militia seems to be providing ample sport for Outlander savages but we can deal with this presently.
However I digress – it now appears that we command the main approach by ford to Ultanti itself and I await reinforcement with the mainstay of the army presently so we may catch their principle forces in the flank and rear and take the City itself.
I will not tempt the almighty with hubris but it does appear that the scenario we have so carefully wargamed for the last three years contains some fundamental truths – surely a confirmation of the power to be gained through proper attention to the Scriptures and the Divine Will. As well as the excellent services rendered by our agents in Ultanti country.
Further to that happy note I have conveyed under escort a three score slaves which I am sure you can find a market for.
1. Asdnat, a scribe well versed in Tawny and Reichvolk script and tongue
2. Beltair, a silversmith
3. Tuynut, a blacksmith
4. Girot, a comely wench of good family, suitable as handmaid or similar
5. Rinside, a miller
6. Halifar, a Reich migrant, an herbalist
7. Erolut, a widow, suitable as a cook or housekeeper
8. Wiliamant, a young farmhand – handsome he might appeal to the Tawny market.
9. Fudyut, an experienced herdsman of somewhat limited shelf life. …”
An extract from the personal correspondence of Captain Thankor, Jelut Miltia, ‘Lion of the Refener Valley.’