Many dead littered the little valley, but the Thune still greatly outnumbered all the infantry in sight. Once out of the valley, in the slowly growing daylight, and with range to properly use their bows, it would be easy hunting. With primal screams of rage and anguish, now that they could see them retreating to a nearby hillock with the horses to make a last stand, they charged again, screaming curses and vows to make the survivors wish they hadn’t.
In the half-light they could see their fleeing prey. They couldn’t see as well the masses of pickets lining the route they took. They didn’t see the hawser-liike rope made of seven normal ropes twisted together being pulled up taught by the support auxiliary across their path, rising high enough to dismount a rider if the horse saw it and lowered it’s head. Collision and confusion reigned once more.
Into that, from the sides, emerged another century, Primus Centurion Loukios Glaucia’s. At close range, with pike and spear, sword and shield, they played merry hell. The mounds of fallen horses and Thune grew, and the pressure from the rear pressed them forward regardless. Eventually the great rope was hacked through, and the Thune riders pressed forward once more, unable to get to their foes to the side other than sniping as they rode past, but with large shields held high, trees, heavy steel helms, pickets, and a judiciously mixed caution and audacity, few Argentains died while the ponies rushed past. Opposite Centurion Glaucia his optio lead the other half of his century, and commanded the auxiliary that had raised and secured the massive rope.
On the hill, Sesquiplicarius Hadrian Tatius waited astride his horse with Centurion Maximus Aelianus. Facing the horde approaching with only a few cavalry and a single century seemed suicidal, but he wasn’t worried; he was still elated at the success of his early attack, and it has so far played out almost exactly as they’d planned.
Four of Hadrian’s reduced squadron were on a mission. If they succeeded, the next stage of the battle would be furious but brief. If they failed, it would be slightly less brief, and they’d all be dead. His faster horses would do him no good if surrounded. He could see the attrition the First Century was doing from his elevated position, but it didn’t look like it would be enough. There were still many more Thune than infantry on the hill with him.
“Change of plans, young Sesquiplicarius,” said the gray-bearded veteran. “We decided while you were gone. You don’t stand a chance here with them tryin’ ta’ make pincushions of us. Big targets with no armor. When the front gets just out of range. Pretend you broke, and run. Go west hard, then circle around back to the camp if nobody follows. Help there if needed, or lead those who chase you on a wild goose chase if they ride hard. They’ll turn back for booty in an hour or two.”
“If they don’t? Break off that is.”
“Take them if you can, or ride hard for Hilarium, report in for orders.”
“I… Good luck, old man.”
“Thank. You to, you little whelp,” said the man older than Hadrian’s father kindly. “If we don’t make it, make sure they know we had one hell of an escort into the afterlife! RIDE!”
The cavalry officer kicked his mount. “Follow me, squadron! Cyril! Evaris! Ride with me!”
The infantry parted to let the horses pass, then closed up. The leading edge of the Thun horde charged up the hill toward them.
In the Thune bivouac at the river’s bend the bloodiest part of the work was done. All who stayed to oppose the incursion were dead, put to the sword indiscriminately. No prisoners, no survivors, only those who fled to die another day. The freed slaves and injured Argentain soldiers were attended to by the three men who acted as the field doctor when needed, and the rest set about preparing to defend what they’d taken. Yurts were quickly torn down and heaped up between others with anything they could not easily transport back as loot. Corrals and yurts were pilfered for wood to make picket stakes. Ankle-breaker holes were dug and camouflaged. Thune bows and arrows were found in abundance, along with other weapons; they were collected and laid at the ready. They didn’t know if the rest of the cohort was being annihilated, or wiping out the raiders to the last man.
Perhaps both were happening, if nobody broke and ran and it was stalemated.
They had to prepare for the worst in whatever time they had.
They Jispin and the healthy soldiers toiled hard, first by torch-light, then in the dim pre-dawn, and finally in the full morning sun. They were joined by those villagers who could, and they directed the hauling down and stacking of more yurts, positioning more weapons, getting the hard-working soldiers food and wineskins and water to keep them going. Collecting and dividing the loot could wait for after they survived the morning. They debated briefly what to do with the huge number of Thune ponies they’d captured; if they could get them back to civilization they’d be worth a pretty penny, but if they fell back into the hands of a returning and angry horde they’d be an unpleasant thing to face:
Galloping masses of horse-archers on the plain are a terror.
Dismounted horse-archers out of arrows are rather less intimidating.
They detailed a squad to deal with putting down most of the ponies, anything in excess of what they were likely to be able to make use of if they survived. Jispin noted that the soldiers seemed more unsettled about killing the ponies than women and children. He didn’t try to understand it as he continued sharpening and planting stakes, digging small holes, and eating anything edible he came across looking for material to make a returning rider have a hard time.
When he found a bow that felt good to him, he spent a few minutes practicing with it, then laying in a large stock of arrows in a couple of likely spots with good protection. The Centurion directing the defenses, Vergilius Gaius, noted his actions and wondered where he might put a lone archer to do the most good. He wasn’t ‘mouse-shooting’ great, but at least he was ‘not hitting allies in the back’ good, and obviously cool in the heat of combat. An asset to be used wisely.