Stepping around the tree, he saw the other soldier kneeling with an arrow knocked and ready but not drawn, his back straight and the bow at an angle to avoid the branches and small tarp they’d strung up overhead to protect them from the rain. The archer was a huge man who wore more armor than his now dead partner did, and his cloak obscured any clear openings. Jispin took the only attack he could. He inverted the long and still bloody knife in his hand and plunged it swiftly down into the exposed neck, angling between the high leather collar and flesh, just inside the collarbone. Jispin aimed for the heart, hoping to take major arteries and throat. He torqued the blade around after the hilt stopped its downward thrust against the gorget. To Jispin’s great surprise the mortally wounded soldier, veins flowing with adrenaline from the impending encounter with horsemen, managed to drop the bow, grab his arm with one hand while drawing a knife with the other, and fling the boy forward over his shoulder onto the soggy earth.
Jispin twisted as he flew, landing on his feet. He looked back at the should-be-dead man just in time to see and dodge the wild knife slice. The Argentain soldier’s face was swollen and inflamed with a tooth infection, and he was bug-eyed and snarling with pain and anger, Jispin’s blade still sticking out of his neck. He took another slash which Jispin warily dodged, then another more feeble poke. He staggered, sagged. The light of pain, hate, and life left his eyes, and he slowly collapsed forward onto his knees, his poniard falling from hands relaxing in death. As he pitched forward and his spirit fled his corpse, Jispin caught him and dragged the man’s massive dead weight back behind the tree and out of sight from the clearing they’d been watching.
Jispin dragged the soldier’s dead weight behind the big willow, his wiry but young body struggling mighty with the awkward form of the much heavier man as the armor and accouterments caught on roots, moss, underbrush, and seemingly everything. Doing it as quietly as he could made it even more difficult. He paused after each step and heave to listen over his own breathing. It seemed like forever, but it was really not much more than a minute before both bodies were hidden deep enough in the brush that someone would have to be following the hastily concealed drag marks, starting from the hiding place, to find them. He crept stealthily back to the covered observation post, listening intently, covering the drag marks as he went.
The hoof beats stopped, and the quiet nickering and blowing of horses could be heard. He estimate a hundred paces or so distant, maybe a little further. The sounds of creaking leather from saddle and harness, the jingle of metal on metal, the low mutter of whispered conversation reached his ears between passing blusters of wind and the steady patter of rain on leaves, puddles, and everything else. At least two, maybe three people, it sounded like, though he couldn’t quite make out the words. No telling how many horses now that they stood still.
Casting his eyes around the hideout, he seized the two small packs the soldiers had hung from a branch under the tarp to keep dry, then clambered silently as a squirrel up the tree to observe and await developments from its concealing branches above.
Thirty feet in the air he paused at a large crotch in the branches that offered both decent concealment and a patchy view through the drooping boughs. Keeping a wary eye toward the end of the clearing where he could see an opening in the brush , he hunkered down like a dim gray bump amid dim gray leaves under a dim gray sky, to investigate the packs.
Inside was a trove of wealth – days worth of biscuit, jerky, porridge grain, dried fish and apples, bandages and a small pottery jar of ointment with symbols and writing he couldn’t read, a small copper cooking pot, and more. He quickly transferred some of the oilcloth-wrapped packages of food to his own pockets, resisting the temptation to hungrily wolf some of the food down as he continued to inventory his new-found wealth. The chewing would interfere with his hearing. He did pop a few soft bits of smoked fish into his mouth, it being the softest thing in the pack, because it would be the quietest. He paused every other bite to listen intently and let the saliva moisten the dried meat.
He sat, nearly motionless, for five minutes. He was one with the tree. Faint sounds reached his ears from several different directions around the clearing that he couldn’t identify or locate, amid the patter of rainfall and gently waving branches. The horses and voices fell silent. Ten minutes. Fifteen. A piece of hard biscuit disappeared down Jispin’s gullet as he waited, then another piece of fish.
He’d not been able to eat this well for weeks.
The wind picked up in speed and gustiness, and another ten minutes passed. A gentle clicking of a rider’s tongue was followed by a single horse plodding slowly into the clearing. The warhorse was a massive beast, easily sixteen and a half hands, with tree-like legs bearing a generous feather, a long mane (both hanging sodden in the rain) and a distinctive high step. It wore leather barding – just a minimal criniere, peytral, and partial croupier – and a high-canteled war saddle, with a mostly unarmored knight upon it. Except for the long hunting spear point aloft, he was riding casually as if out for a summer pleasure jaunt. The man bearing, build, and clothing marked him indisputably as a fighting man, nobility, and the shield and sword slung from hip and saddlebow respectively gave further testimony. His cloak and clothing appeared thick and both functional and of a much higher quality than Jispin was used to seeing.
Interestingly, he didn’t wear the purple and silver of Argentain, nor the yellow and black of Crimea. The shield bore a silver chevron, with green above and red below. It wasn’t familiar to Jispin. Upon reaching the middle of the clearing the knight stopped. Horse and rider stood as nearly as statues, with not a twitch but for the horse’s ears and the man’s slow turn of his head as he scanned the tree-line with a hawk-like eyes. Unafraid but alert.
The wind died away. New sounds reached Jispin’s ears from the opposite end of the glade where another cave-dark opening led away into the woods. The plodding of many hooves on sodden earth, the creak of leather and the subtle clank of armor sliding plate on harness. No sounds of wagon wheels. The tramp of heavy feet… many, but not an army. A dozen or so, perhaps a score.