The village in the burned-out valley was a total waste. Smoke still rose from smoldering heaps of damp wooden wreckage and sodden thatch. Jispin skulked from corner to heap, like a silent shadow in the dim light blown on a desultory wind. Bodies lay unburied but obviously looted, and often just as obviously raped and tortured to death… and sometimes apparently tortured to death, then raped. Some pillagers were not very particular.
Nothing of value was apparent. The raiders had been as thorough as they’d been bloody. The search didn’t take long – there were less than two dozen buildings in the village, and nothing moved among them but smoke, flames, and the occasional scavenger gorging on the dead. No iron tools, not even a hoe, remained. The few walls of stone still stood, if only because it would be too much work to tear them down; the wattle and beams were all reducing to ash.
Black wings circled overhead, eyeing the feast spread below.
Jispin completed his search, coming up empty-handed. There was naught but a handful of shattered arrows to indicate who the raiders were, which hinted that it was most likely Thune; they were nothing if not detailed in their destructiveness.
Only thirty eight dead. Young, old, sick, men who had fought back, worn out women.
The rest were probably taken as slaves; they’d likely wish they were dead too, soon enough. They weren’t his problem. Finding food was priority – he didn’t fancy resorting to cannibalism, even if the bodies were relatively fresh.
At least there was no sign of plague. That would have been bad.
He searched the ground for tracks that indicated which way the raiders had some from, and which way they’d gone. Between the normal tracks, rain, and failing light, it took longer than he expected: there were a lot of tracks. They’d come up the valley from the east, and left following the stream further up the valley westward.
Jispin knew that downstream there would be precious little of value – no food, no information, no work, no loot. Likely no survivors at all. But upstream four or five-score raiders might be waiting. Sir Andronikos, the knight he was currently working with on an ad hoc basis, wasn’t expecting him to return to Delva for another week or more. But knowing what the Thune were up to might be a valuable piece of information in and of itself. He considered what he knew of the river valley and the bilgewater “river” that flowed through it, swollen with late winter rains but still small. It wasn’t much. He sniffed the air – he was upwind of the smoke and carnage of the village, but he was downwind from…. Interesting. He paused, bent and examined the ground more closely. Yes. Very interesting.
Without standing up, Jispin took off at a run for the stream, plunging in and swimming across without looking back. Reaching the other side, he zigged and zagged as he emerged and sprinted up the bank and into the woods. He didn’t see any of the arrows that flew after him from the Thune archers left behind to watch the trail, but he heard the hoofbeats from the horses he’d smelled as the men mounted and took off after him.
Thune didn’t like to leave an easy trail.
Jispin’s lead wasn’t much, but it was what it was, and the Thune warrior needed to cross the entire field first to reach the stream. Jispin sprinted into the woods for thirty paces, then cut hard to the right around a large tree. He looked back and listened. He had time, if only barely. He flung his sodden pack ahead into dense brush and climbed up the tree like a squirrel before he drew a short sword from its scabbard.
He listened as the Thune rider plunged into the water and crossed, then forged through the branches of the bordering trees. As expected, the horseman stayed astride his mount – Thune never walked anywhere they could ride, and rarely went anywhere they couldn’t go astride an animal. Skilled riders and horse-archers, they were lousy infantry except with a bow.
Thune were somewhat like the Kurgen – few cities larger than tiny villages, savage, and tribal, but they were more nomadic, from the steppes to the west southwest of the mountains of Kurgen. Their raids were fast, and usually aimed at taking slaves and easily portable loot. They’d push their captured men and women hard – kill off the weak quickly on purpose. There would be a trail of dead bodies that would be easy to follow. Likely less than a quarter of the slaves taken from the village would survive to work or be sold on the plains of Thune, and none of the men would breed after castration.
Jispin saw the man, now with bow slung and carrying a short spear, following his very obvious trail. His enemy saw the broken brush from the hurled pack and fixed his eyes on it as he spurred his mount forward, scanning for the next sign of flight ahead of him. He didn’t see Jispin drop from the tree as horse and rider passed beneath. He felt the weight of the young man’s feet landing on the animal’s rump, and briefly felt the icy cold steel jabbing with calculated precision through his shoulder beside his neck and into his chest. The horse lurched, the dying Thune soldier went one way in a heap and Jispin went the other. He landed awkwardly, but leaped to his feet and drew a knife in case his assailant wasn’t quite done dying yet.
The soldier was dead.
Jispin softly calmed the stamping and blowing horse – a sturdy, shaggy, thickly built pony typical of the Thune tribesman – then listened for others. From across the stream he could hear the thump of another set of hooves on the sodden earth, then silence except for the soft patter of rain and the shushing of the muddy water flowing by. He tied the reins to a limb then retrieved the bow from the fallen body, along with the quiver of arrows. A voice, harsh and guttural to his ears, called out.