It was full daylight before they heard the first hoofbeats of a rider. Everyone was called to silence. A pair, then a second pair, of riders galloped into view, Thune in dress and riding their ponies hard. Jispin smiled. “I hope they can see the path,” he said to Centurion Vergilius Gaius.
“How do you know they are ours? I can’t see their faces at this distance.”
“Nor I. They don’t ride like Thune. No bows in their hands.”
Vergilius called the men into formation in the gap left in the heaps of entangling mounds of shelters and possessions that form a wall of sorts. Torches were thrown on piles of oil-soaked gear, which burst forth in roiling clouds of thick smoke to obscure vision.
Jispin prepared to drew his bow while the centurion passed final orders. Behind the four advanced riders emerged the mass of returning Thune. It was a greatly reduced number, but still far more than they had fifty-four able-bodied they had remaining. The shill ululations that rose at seeing their camp destroyed and burning was felt as much as heard.
There would be no quarter offered.
“Shoot at them, but miss,” said the Centurion.
“Make those following eager to help their brave, brave, brethren, charging in to close with we hated Argentain, not use bows from a distance. Appearances are important.”
Jipsin drew and loosed an arrow, a shot that drew redoubled yells when it buried it’s point in the earth not two paces from one of the closest riders.
“Excellent! But maybe not quite so close next time.”
Jispin fired again, the lone bowman along the line of shieldmen with swords and axes held high, the first haze of smoke starting to draw a gauzy veil across them. The Argentains stood in a line two deep, while a few more and the slaves that had revived sufficiently stayed hidden to the side.
It was going to be close.
The four “leaders” charged in, making a show of engaging vigorously with the Argentain soldiers, who parted and let them by without a scratch.
Arrows were launching toward the line even before they riders were in range; the rapidly increasing smoke from more oil being thrown on the fire made gauging distance difficult. Virgilius watched the Thune closing rapidly, with everyone crouching low behind their shields. Arrows started to thock into shields and the dirt around them, and occasionally the metalic clatter was heard of them rattling off a steel helm or pauldron that stuck out. The arrows flew thicker, but they were scattered over a very large area.
“FALL BACK!” ordered the Centurion. The pre-planned move had everyone file back between much more densely placed picket stakes and spears, swiftly covering their retreat a mere twenty feet behind now-thick smoke. They were like scorpions riding a small forest turned porcupine, spines raised and ready to attack.
Thune emerged from the smoke to see the army behind a wall of death, but there was once again too many behind charging forward to do anything but dodge, leap, or sacrifice themselves as best they could. The front score of horses and men fell almost as one, hitting the first line of pickets and falling into the second. The next score stumbled and leaped over the dead and dying, skewering horse and riders on the next ranks of mindless defenders of wood. The screaming, calls, falling horses, sight of shield wall now bristling with pikes and spears slowed the next ranks, who realized they were falling into another similar trap only shortly before they fell upon spears which had their butt ends planted firmly in the earth.
The first several ranks of charging Thune fell and died, impaled, trampled, crush, skewered, hacked, or arrowed, before the pressure from behind pushed live raiders to the fore over their fallen comrades and into the shield wall at saber range. The horses falling and dying in front made those behind grow cautious and frightened. They bucked and jumped as much as they could given the pack of flesh and confined spaces. The result was predictable – they fell into and through the heaps of tenting, spilled around the sides and into more sharpened stakes and ankle-breaker holes that threw riders and injured mounts, and caused utter chaos and confusion as the tide of charging equines rolled inexorably forward, breaking hard upon the iron points, sinews, and wooden pike hafts awaiting them. Thunes slashed where and when they could. Argentains hacked and thrust with blade and spear, blocked and bashed with their shields.
Jispin put his looted bow to deadly use sticking stolen arrows into Thune chests, but there were too many targets, far too many, and not enough time, distance, or arrows.
On one side the plunging ponies, driven hard by their angered riders, pushed through the barricade and were confronted with the freed slaves doing their best to take revenge, hoping to kill the savages who had destroyed their towns, their families, and their lives. Dying to take at least one Thune was a sacrifice most of them would have happily made at that moment.
Between the dust and smoke and wreckage and horses and shields, it was impossible for anyone to really know what was going on. Each man had to deal with what was in front of him. Jispin hacked with an axe at the raider taking a stab at a slave, cutting deep into hard muscle and shoulder blade; it stuck, so Jispin left it in and grabbed the haft of a spear that flashed past, just missing in front of him. He pulled, and ended up in a struggle with a large mounted Thune trying to recover the spear one-handed while he used the other hand to fend off a glaive poorly used by a villager.
Jispin threw his weight behind his heave, and a moment later he had it to himself. He buried the point in the Thune’s gut just as the man got the glaive away from his opponent and was starting to swing it. Jispin didn’t know what happened to the villager on the opposite side of the rider as he suddenly had his own worries dealing with a Thune horse and raider trying to simply ride him down while he was looking the other way. Jispin ducked and rolled underneath the plunging animal, barely missing the feet. Picking up a dropped shortsword, he pivoted and hacked to take out one of the animal’s legs at the knee, then crawled out from underneath and thrust at his attacker’s own leg before getting slammed aside by a different horse, and bouncing off a solidly held shield.
The Argentain soldier wielding it was a monster of a man, and was holding his ground well against the push of horses, and he traded blows using his short-sword with the Thune’s saber over Jispin’s head. The horse was injured and didn’t seem to want to go anywhere, and neither man was making any headway in the fight with the wall of a shield in between them. The Thune changed targets and tried to thrust downward at Jispin, who rammed his shortsword hard against the incoming blade, so they slid down close, hilt-to-hilt. The Argentain took the opening and committed to a long thrust, ending with half his blade buried in the rider’s chest.
The tense seconds flashed by, noise and stink and smoke and fear and hate and blood and indiscriminate death everywhere, everyone giving it his all. The pressure slackened ever so slightly, then a change in the noise and fear. Calls of “More horsemen!” reached Jispin’s ears.
He had plenty to deal with of his own, so he kept on doing what he’d been doing.
Suddenly the Thune he faced arched his back and a spear-point pushed through, and the rider who framed into Jispin’s fight-narrowed vision was different. He was an Argentain scout.
Relief had arrived.