“How accurate do you think he is?”
“Ah, that is the hundred gold crown question…. Jispin! Come here, boy!”
Jispin ran over.
“Close your eyes, my boy, and tell me how many men I command here.”
“Four hundred foot, 24 horse, a score of camp followers,” Jispin answered promptly.
Optio Sextilius’ eyebrows rose perceptibly.
“I’d say we can believe his estimate of the Thune,” said the centurion reluctantly. “380 shieldmen, forty archers, thirty support, and only twenty cavalry, not counting myself.”
“Bet you wished you’d hired Andonikos’ squadron now.”
“Say again? Who?”
“Sir Andronikos Math-Martin, of Kilpa. A knight seeking pay for his squadron. Heavy horses. I was scouting for him at the village.”
“King Theothelm is not on the best of terms with Kilpa at the moment, as useful as a squadron like that may be. So… Run and live, perhaps be decimated for cowardice, or attack and likely die, with survivors being run to death or enslaved? Outnumbered infantry against horse archers in the open is a bad bet.”
The three stood in silence, listening to the wind and birds.
“Do you have ten gold?” asked Jispin.
“Why do you… Oh. You have an idea?” asked the Centurion.
“I might. Are your shieldmen brave enough to stand to a charge of Thune cavalry?”
“Outnumbered as they will be? Possibly divided for a diversion?”
“What do you have in mind?”
“They are overconfident. They know your normal tactics. They do not know of your cavalry. If you do something peculiar, mayhap from a different direction, and mislead them… there may be way. Divide their forces. Make them rush you by attacking the camp when they are away.”
“We can’t hit-and-run against a faster force,” objected Optio Sextilius.
“No. Divide their forces. They can only attack you a part at a time.”
“Ah, I think I might see what you’re getting at,” said Primus Centurion Loukios Glaucia, a note of possible hope creeping into his voice. “Let us take another look at that map you sketched, and see what is possible.”
For the next hour, the centurion and his optio argued, debated, proposed, countered, and questioned. Jispin watched and listened, fascinated, as they discussed the strengths and weaknesses of troop types and formations, terrain considerations, relative speeds of movement, and all the sorts of tactical considerations experienced war leaders have to think about. Occasionally he did more than simply respond to questions directed at him for more information. A few key ideas were proposed by him. A plan slowly emerged, a plan that the four junior centurions viewed with more than a little skepticism when they heard it.
“So we’re going to divide our force, work separately, and attack a force about three times our size that can move a lot faster than we can. Is that about right?” Asked the third-ranking princeps posterior centurion Vergilius Gaius. “And all on the information this… Kurgen… says is true?”
“Yes.” said Optio Sextilius. “Because everything else we can think of is worse.”
“On the bright side,” said Junius Petronius, the lowest ranking centurion, “if it works and we slaughter them all, the booty and honors will be spectacular.”
“If we even manage to rout them and a few of us survive it’ll be glorious,” said Maximus Aelianus, a grizzled veteran and the second most senior centurion behind Primus Centurion Loukios Glaucia. “Many rolls of the dice that have to be perfect. Never really wanted to die in bed anyways, unless it was your wife’s, Junius.” The junior man took the ribbing in good humor – his wife was unusually good looking for such a low-born officer. “We’d be best at the hill, with Vergilius.”
Shortly thereafter the army was on the move again, now with one more member than they had an hour earlier, younger than anyone else but the third assistant cook’s son in the support and supply contubernium.
After another long run on a different return path, it was full night when Jispin lead two of the scouts, unarmored and dismounted, in a round-about approach of the spot he’d left the Thune picket rider dead. They approached silent as shadows. In the bare starlight Jipsin saw the horse still tied where he’d left it, and the body, too.
That made life easier, but it didn’t really change the plan.
One of the men with him, Sil Cassius, a short, very slender man with a black beard and long hair, covered his own clothes with the Thune’s garb and untied the pony.
“Ready to be a slave again?” asked Sil with dark humor.
“Only if you can catch me!” Jispin took off at a run. Eutychius “Eut” Agathonthe, the other Argentain scout, took off after him, running hard to keep up and follow his lead. Sil mounted and readied the whip he took from the Thune’s gear.
Eut was panting hard, but was managing to stay nearly abreast of Jispin. He wasn’t sure how much longer he could keep the pace the young man was setting. Behind them, Sil trotted and occasionally flicked the whip close to them. Neither Argentain soldier saw the Thune that Jispin was leading them to until nearly upon him.
“Hold, brother!” called out the guard, stepping out from the shadows of the tree he had secreted himself under, finding cover and a good view under a small tree on the lip of a low bluff. Sil’s whip snapped at the heels of the runners, who collapsed, chests heaving, nearly on the feet of the Thune.
“More slaves,” said Sil in perfect Thune. “May be scouts.”
“Caught sneaking around?” The guard aimed a kick at Eut.
“Yes,” replied Sil. Jispin kicked at the standing leg, aiming for the knee, while Eut grabbed the kicking foot. When the man fell over in surprise, Eut followed up with a swift knife-stroke. “We are.”
Minutes later there were two “Thune” horseman driving a single “slave” toward another watchman whose days were numbered.